Monthly Archives: July 2008

What school(s) of thought, philosophical camp(s), and/or explanatory framework(s) best describe(s) your theoretical positionality within the field of Education?

Position Paper 2


From a sociological (vs. psychological) point of view, there are two main explanatory frameworks within the field of Education. First from a logical as well as chronological standpoint is the Social Transmission and Social Reproduction camp, whose significant theories include Consensus Theory, Conflict Theory, Social Reproduction, Economic Reproduction, Cultural Reproduction; what these theories have in common is a focus on knowledge as objective reality, empirically measurable.

Representative of the Social Transmission/Reproduction camp is Functionalism, the earliest and most prevalent of the theories in this group, which, according to DeMarrais and LeCompte, “argues that society operates as does the human body: Like living organisms, all societies possess basic functions which they must carry out to survive. Like living organisms, they evolve structures to carry out the functions” (1999). The actual educational function described by this metaphor is the transmission of knowledge – between generations through various institutions such as school, church, family (the institutions serving as “organs” within the metaphorical organism) – as well as the evolution over time of the relationships amongst these institutions, comparable to the evolution of the relationships amongst organs within a species.

The second sociological explanatory framework within the field of Education is the collection of theories known as Interpretive or Social Transformation Theories. Within this collection are Phenomenology, Symbolic Interactionism, Critical Theory, Postmodernism, and Feminist Theories. These are united by a focus on the knowledge bearer and an assumption that reality is socially constructed, with knowledge being subjective rather than objective. DeMarrais & LeComte explain that “neither quantitative nor experimental research is adequate for examining complex, uncontrollable, and multi-faceted phenomena such as behavior in schools,” and so “interpretive researchers believe that the best way to understand human behavior is to examine real-world situations using qualitative or descriptive rather than experimental methods of inquiry.”

After surveying the wide-range of sociological viewpoints espoused over the last hundred years, I find myself drawn most to Critical Theory. I can explain this by describing what I think are the true attributes of Conflict Theory – that is, how it realistically describes what I’ve seen on high-school campuses – and then by moving on to how Critical Theory proposes to resolve the the “conflicts” cataloged in Conflict Theory.

Conflict Theory affirms the social systems of Functionalism – the dynamic functional relationships among the systems in society which are charged with transmitting knowledge – while acknowledging and addressing the tension inherent in those systems. Marxism is the best-known of the Conflict theories which developed in the years before World War I. According to DeMarrais & LeComte, “Inequality of property or of resource distribution, then, is the major source of conflict in societies. Insofar as schools are intimately linked to future economic opportunities, they too are institutions in which social conflict is played out.” Conflict theorists looked at inequality in society, and the obvious incentive that the elite have in retaining power, and decided that schools were part of the problem rather than part of the solution. As described by DeMarrais & LeComte, “Schools tend to magnify class differences by sorting individuals into occupational niches, not so much by their ability as by their social class origins. Thus children from middle- or upper-class families are thought to be more able and so are pushed toward professional or other desirable careers.”

Having identified the problem – the educational system as a tool used by the dominant class to retain power – how do the Conflict theorists propose to fix it? “Their view is a pessimistic one, giving no consideration to how individuals could interact to ameliorate or alter the constraints of the system” (DeMarrais & LeComte). A third category of social theorists addressed this during the 20th century. “Critical theory” analyzes sources of oppression, with special focus on the successes and failures of previous social theories to understand society. Critical theorists see themselves as unobjective advocates who hope to actually solve some of society’s inequities, an activist rather than deterministic viewpoint (in special contrast to Marxism).

From my experience in the classroom, class differences are magnified throughout the school day. English learners, students from unstable homes, students from families with low socioeconomic status, students of color, and female students all have disadvantages when compared with the students who come from the group which traditionally has wielded a disproportionate share of the power: white middle-class male students. Conflict theory perfectly describes what can occur in a classroom and in a school in general if teachers and administrators are ignorant, thoughtless, or lazy: “the dominant socioeconomic groups exploit and oppress subordinate groups.”

Depending on the individual student, I often find myself identifying with the people in my classroom whose families share a deep tradition of English language, especially the English language of newspapers, TV, radio, and book and magazine publishing. In the course of my Master’s program, I have recognized the biases inherent in all levels of the educational system, and I’ve made an effort to fix the broken parts that I personally encounter. I find myself speaking more often to the Anglo or African-American kids (the people whom I assume, correctly or not, have family traditions of word play), and then re-direct my conversation to others in the room. I find myself speaking too fast, using sentences that are too long or words that are too big, or facing the whiteboard, or not using the whiteboard to illustrate my words, and then I make an effort to bring the conversation back to a level which is helpful to the English learners. I have discovered that a white teacher singling out a white student (for poor choices such as tardiness, chattering, or not being prepared to work) has completely different implications to that student than does singling out a student from a different ethnic group for those same reasons. The student who receives the whole class’s attention, for a dressing down from the teacher, may resent the attention or may even feel the attention is justified; however, the action often serves to reinforce the alienation that student feels in the classroom. I am working to find a better balance.


DeMarrais, K.B., & LeCompte, M.D. (1999). The way schools work: A sociological analysis of education (3rd ed.). New York: Longman.


Midterm exam

1) Describe and Discuss the EMERGENT PARADOX (educational access vs educational outcomes). Begin by describing the demographic makeup of CHS (students, administrators, teachers), and how a H.S. diploma substantially yields different consequences by class, race/ethnicity, & gender.


During Fine’s study, Comprehensive High School (CHS) had on register 3200 students and according to one estimate operated at 144% capacity.  The mean reading level of entering 9th graders was 7, and math 6.8, lower than any other HS in Manhattan.  In Fine’s words, “At CHS, the school administrators were almost exclusively white.  The teaching faculty was largely white, with some Latinos. Six or seven of the more than 120 teachers were African-American…. CHS reported a relatively high drop-out rate: 20.5%, compared with 11.4% citywide [annually].  483 CHS students were expected to enter their senior year; by the next June, however, fewer than 70% remained.  Eventually, only 60.7% of the senior class earned their way to June graduation.”


The paradox is that we as educators describe access equity – “Everybody can go to college…” – but the results of many people’s high-school experience refutes this.  In other words, for the roughly 40% of the population who drop out or are otherwise “discharged,” college is no longer a possibility.  Even within the population of graduates, the outcomes are unfairly distributed.  The high-school diploma yields for white, men, and upper-middle class students consistently more per additional year than it does for African-American and Latinos, women, and working class or low-income students, respectively.  In terms of  hiring power, having a high-school diploma, according to Fine, “yields substantially different consequences by class, race/ethnicity, and gender. … Having a diploma yields much difference within groups, but it doesn’t turn an African-American woman into a white man.”



2) Describe and Discuss the policies, practices & ideologies of SILENCING and NOT NAMING. Who does Silencing protect? What are the practices by which they are institutionalized? How does this undermine a project of educational empowerment?


According to Fine, silencing protects the teachers and administrators at CHS: “Silencing is about who can speak, what can and cannot be spoken, and whose discourse must be controlled.  To not name systematically alienates, cuts from home, from heritage and from lived experience, and ultimately severs these students from their process.”  Fine says that this silencing effect “shapes low-income public schools more intimately than relatively privileged.”  In other words, inside public schools, particularly low-income schools, there exists a systematic commitment to not name those aspects of social life or of schooling that activate social anxieties.


Fine describes a consensus among the students, implicitly confirmed in conversations with teachers, administrators, and parents, that there exists on the campus an unwritten policy that precludes official conversation about controversy, inequity and critique.  This occurs in classrooms, in meetings with administrators, and in student publications.  (In 1998, the Supreme Court upheld schools’ right to censor student publications: schools may censor student speech that is inconsistent with the mission of the school, even though governments may not censor similar speech outside the educational system. ) “Silence,” says Fine, “signifies a terror of words and fear of talk.”



3) Describe and Discuss the policies, practices & ideologies of DISCHARGE and CHOICE. Whom do they protect? What are the practices by which Discharge is institutionalized? How does this undermine a project of educational empowerment?


At CHS, there is a policy of exit interviews (supported by state law) for all students being discharged (exited without a diploma), but the practice of discharge includes coercion and “push-outs.” Policy states students are required to be given alternatives during exit interview, but these don’t always happen, setting up false choices.  Fine describes a conspiracy of administrators, counselors, GED “bounty hunters,” and teachers who pressure students to drop out.  In some cases, this is caused by a common perception (false, according to Fine’s evidence) that GED was an easy way out.  Many parents  participated, actively or passively, in the conspiracy to move credit-deficient or distracted students from high school to GED, although some expressed confusion about effects on Welfare eligibility and other consequences.  Students are misinformed by the adults in their life and hence lose power over their own educations.


In Fine’s assessment, this pressure to be discharged has several causes.  Possibly the most powerful cause is the extreme overcrowding at CHS.  Evidence for this is provided by several interviews with administrators, as well as the significant timing of discharges: students are allowed to remain on the roster until the Nov. 1 census, at which point the school has earned their state funds and “the purge begins.”

5) Describe and Discuss the three IDEOLOGICAL FETISHES that surround the problem of high dropout rates, with respect to how they order the experiences, beliefs, rituals, and behaviors in schools.


Fine describes three ideological “fetishes” (which might also be called belief systems or dogmas), ingrained in the CHS culture.  The first is the myth of universal access to higher education and universal usefulness of that education to those who do have access: “We find dreadful discrepancies that fall along the contours of social class, race and ethnicity, and gender.  Those who begin school already privileged end up that way – only more so.”  The second ideological fetish is that of “good intentions”: Fine describes a massive educational system that is rigged against lower-class adolescents, and she claims that the implementation and maintenance of all the unfairness in the system is “by well-meaning, underpaid, often quite caring women and men.”  The third fetish is the belief that the school exists in a public sphere, the public-private split being a false construct “that preserves the influence of private and corporate interests [e.g., military recruiters] inside schools and excludes private and family interests inside those same institutions.”


According to Fine, these three fetishes “are born of privilege.  Only persons who have access to opportunities that do pay off and who live in a world in which their private interests are represented in their public sector” – not the constituents of CHS, that is – “could argue uncritically that access to public education is universal, that good intentions are enough, and that the split in spheres is natural.”  She says these fetishes “eclipse alternative formulations of problems.”