Localizing, Equalizing, Collaborating, Liberating: A School Change Philosophy

13 Aug

In the United States, our government promises educational equity.  Indeed, the U.S. Department of Education has a division entitled the “Office for Civil Rights,” with a stated mission to “…ensure equal access to education and to promote educational excellence throughout the nation through vigorous enforcement of civil rights” (Office for Civil Rights, 2011).  Yet one has only to visit schools in neighborhoods along the income spectrum from poor to wealthy and compare physical environments and teacher quality to observe that educational equity is a myth.  Schools located in high-poverty areas, which often serve a student population largely comprised of cultural and linguistic minorities (Noguera, 2003), often provide an inferior education that only equips their students for low-wage, low skilled jobs (Lipman, 2004).   With the morphing to a primarily information economy and outsourcing of non-degree requiring jobs to countries with cheaper labor costs, the pool of working-class jobs is rapidly disappearing, leaving students who are products of inferior schooling without options.

The most recent wide-reaching educational reform movement, No Child Left Behind, certainly has not managed to close gaps in educational equity.  By requiring all students to take standardized tests for which many schools are not able to prepare them, labeling low-performing schools as “failing,” and forcing sanctions on failing schools, No Child Left Behind maintains and expands educational and social inequities (Darling-Hammond, 2007; Lipman, 2004).  Our current system of reform through accountability, whose very name promises equality, punishes rather than supports, fosters competition rather than collaboration, and standardizes rather than responds to unique needs.    As an alternative, I suggest a change philosophy that involves localizing change, equalizing relations, intra- and inter-institutional collaboration, and culture and pedagogy that emphasize education for the purpose of liberation and democratic citizenry.

Localizing change

 Schools differ greatly in terms of context and school population, and as a result vary greatly in terms of issues to be addressed (Elmore, 2009).   For this reason, one-size-fits-all reform strategies will not meet the needs of all schools, and most certainly will not meet the needs of poor and urban communities, since standardized solutions generally are normalized, reflecting the view of the dominant power group, which in the U.S. is the white middle class.  Instead, increasing local control afforded to parents, communities, teachers, and school leaders (Darling-Hammond, 2009; Noguera, 2003) can allow for tailoring reform strategies to meet the unique needs of the particular community and school population as well as local ownership of the reforms, which could be key in seeing the reforms actually implemented.

In addition, through localizing control, common vision can develop, and reform decisions may be more expedient.   While “the system is primarily designed to serve the interests of the actors and agencies that make it up” (Elmore, 2009, p. 232), communities are connected by common interests.  If the school, parents, teachers, students, and community can harness these common interests, they can adopt a common vision with a moral imperative (Hargreaves, 2009)—the improvement of the learning of their students.  At the system level, reforms can become bogged down in bureaucratic and structural impediments: “…gradually the discussion recedes into a morass of technicalities…into the chaos of institutional politics” (Elmore, 2009).  However, with a common vision underlined by the urgency of educational improvement, local actors can come to agreement and enact changes in the best interest of their students.

Equalizing Relations

To truly combat the deeply ingrained social and economic inequities throughout the nation will require addressing the fundamental capitalistic ideologies upon which America was founded (Giroux, 2005).  However, addressing inequities within schools by dissolving structures such as tracking can perhaps limit the social reproductive functions of schools (Bourdieu, 1973).  Tracking functions as a sorting system, where students are placed in classes according to perceived cognitive ability.  Because students who are from low-income households or cultural/linguistic minorities often do not possess the cultural capital, or cultural resources, that are valued in the school setting–such as academic language–these students are more likely to be labeled as cognitively deficient and placed in lower-track classes (Schleppegrell, 2004).  In these lower-track classes, students are more likely to receive low-quality education, which will in turn only prepare them for low-wage jobs (Lipman, 2004).  In this way, the current inequalities that exist in larger society are maintained.

However, there are several successful models of de-tracked schools.  The Preuss School at the University of California, San Diego, is one such school.  All students, who come from low-income families and the majority of whom are students of color, take the same rigorous, quality, college preparatory coursework, which is aligned with the university of California’s A-G requirements, and are all strongly encouraged to take Advanced Placement courses (Mehan & Alvarez, 2006).  The Preuss School provides a spectrum of academic supports to ensure that all students are successful, including college tutors in core academic classes, after-school and weekend tutoring, and a small-group advisory period (Preuss School, 2011).   After more than a decade, Preuss has been named one of the top ten US public schools by Newsweek and boasts nearly 100% college acceptance rates (Preuss School, 2011).


Whole-school change efforts like de-tracking cannot happen without both inter- and intra-institutional collaboration.   Schools must seek active partnerships with universities, businesses, philanthropists, community members, and other schools to capitalize on outside resources and expertise.  University-school partnerships can provide useful content and theoretical knowledge, and inviting community members and parents to the table can be invaluable in terms of infusing community knowledge into classroom curriculum (Cochran-Smith, 2004).  Additionally, with the massive defunding of public education (Zeichner, 2010), partnerships with businesses and local philanthropists are essential for securing resources, especially technology.

However, internal expertise and resources are just as important, and teachers within the school must actively collaborate on developing curriculum, lesson study, and evaluating student work, in order to “become more thoughtful and reflective in their practice and hence more able to connect evidence of students learning to their planning and teaching” (Darling-Hammond, p. 51).  Gompers Preparatory Academy, sister school to Preuss UCSD, practices a professional learning model that encourages collaboration to deepen practice: each week, whole-faculty professional development is held during a shortened school day to address long-term professional development projects that include collective evaluation and reflection of commonly implemented practices such as efforts to build academic language scaffolds into lessons.  In addition, departments have common prep periods, and once a week each department meets to discuss department professional readings, collaborate on instructional design, or reflect on student work.  As a result of Gompers’s prioritization of collegial professional development, collaboration became the norm among teachers; professional development became part of the expected school week structure; and teachers learned from each other and from their students.

Education for Liberation and Democratic Citizenry

To sustain change, we must re-imagine and restructure both teacher education and K-12 education for the purposes of liberation of oppressed groups and building of the skills to help students become informed and active participants in our democracy.  Teachers must become conscientized about schools’ reproductive functions and become “transformative intellectuals” (Giroux, 2005, p.439) in order to structure experiences that will self-empower our students and help them gain critical agency (Giroux, 1988).  To do this, teachers must become critical scholars with deep understandings of the linkages between knowledge, power, culture, ideology, and socio-economic inequalities (Giroux, 2005).  The schools themselves must support this learning going forward into the teaching career by providing professional development with a critical and liberatory focus, supporting their teachers as they become “active community participants whose function is to establish public spaces where students can debate, appropriate, and learn the knowledge and skills necessary to live in a critical democracy” (Giroux, 2005, p.456).  Equally important, teachers must serve as models of civic action, embodying the spirit of democratic activism and social justice both inside and outside the classroom, providing a living example for their students of critical democracy in action.  As critical scholars and models of activism, teachers can begin utilizing their classrooms as transformative sites where their students can learn to problematize the injustices and inequalities of the world through a lens of their own experiences.  By becoming critical investigators of the world while simultaneously having their voices and experiences validated, students will gain critical agency and begin to prepare for action for responsible democracy.  Students will, in essence, become transformative intellectuals themselves, and carry forward the agenda of change toward a more equal society.

The change philosophy articulated here is but a starting point.  No single plan of reform is comprehensive enough to reverse the deeply ingrained inequalities that the American people seem to recognize as normal, and so have accepted.  To tackle the socioeconomic and political ideologies and structures that continue to maintain and expand stratified life opportunities in the United States, a revolution must occur.   Teachers, teacher educators, parents, community members, students, and others must mobilize under a common vision.  However, for this kind of movement to occur, we must first recognize ourselves as active agents who as a critical mass have the power to change oppressive societal structures and ideologies, instead of isolated and powerless individuals who see socially constructed inequalities as intractable and permanent. As the latter, we become complicit in the maintenance and expansion of oppression of marginalized groups in our society.  However, as the former, we can transform both our educational system and our entire society.


Bourdieu, P. (1973). Cultural reproduction and social reproduction.  In Knowledge, Education, and Cultural Change. (pp. 71-112).  London, UK: Harper & Row Publishers.

Cochran-Smith, M (2004). Walking the road: Race, diversity, and social justice in teacher education. New York: Teacher’s College Press.

Darling-Hammond, L. (2007). Race, inequality, and educational accountability: The irony of ‘No Child Left Behind.’ Race, Ethnicity, & Education, 10(3), 245-260.

Darling-Hammond, L. (2009).  Teaching and the change wars: The professionalism hypothesis. In A. Hargreaves & M. Fullan (Eds.), Change wars (pp. 45-70). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Elmore, R. (2009). Institutions, improvement, and practice. In A. Hargreaves & M. Fullan (Eds.), Change wars (pp. 221-236). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Giroux, H.  (1988).  Teachers as transformative intellectuals.  In Teachers as Intellectuals (pp. 121-128).  Boston, MA:  Bergin & Garvey Publishers.

Giroux, H. (2005). Teacher education and democratic schooling. In A. Darder, M. Torres, & R. Baltodano, (eds.), The Critical Pedagogy Reader (2nd ed) (pp. 439-459). New York: Routledge.

Hargreaves, A. (2009). The fourth way of change: Toward an age of inspiration and sustainability. In A. Hargreaves & M. Fullan (Eds.), Change wars (pp. 11-44). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Lipman, P. (2004). Beyond accountability. In A. Darder, M. Torres, & R. Baltodano, (eds.), The Critical Pedagogy Reader (2nd ed) (pp. 364-383). New York: Routledge.

Mehan, B. & Alvarez, D. (2006). Whole school detracking: A strategy for equity and excellence. Theory into Practice, 45(1), 82-89.

Noguera, P. (2009). The trouble with Black boys: And other reflections on race, equity,and the future of public education. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Preuss school UCSD (2011). http://preuss.ucsd.edu/about/accomplishments.php. Retrieved June 23, 2011.

Schleppegrell, M. J. (2004). The language of schooling: A functional linguistics perspective. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights (2011).  http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/index.html.  Retrieved June 23, 2011.

Zeichner, K. (2010). Competition, economic rationalization, increased surveillance, and attacks on diversity: Neo-liberalism and the transformation of teacher education in the U.S.  Teaching and Teacher Education. 26(4), 1544-1552.


One Response to “Localizing, Equalizing, Collaborating, Liberating: A School Change Philosophy”

  1. iteach4change August 21, 2011 at 3:09 pm #

    excellent post….this is the type of real reform that isn’t fitting into the simplistic, easily-framed message of the Gates-Rhee-Duncan-add other names here “reform” movement….this takes educating the public, large investments, and changing school cultures – and therefore shortsighted politicians won’t take it up because it’s hard to “quantify” easily and quickly, and will take sustained progressive effort…but to be positive, there is some push-back and slight pendulum swinging going on…again, great post

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