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Tools for Critique: Chapter 1
The United States Schooling Dilemma: Diversity, Inequality, and Democratic Values


Chapter 1, “The United States Schooling Dilemma: Diversity, Inequality, and Democratic Values,” looks at who contemporary United States students are and what basic conditions they encounter in their lives, both inside and outside school. The chapter pays particular attention to the structural inequalities and opportunity gaps students experience in the educational system. 

Chapter Headings

  • Who Are American Students?
    • Where Do U.S. Students Live and Go to School?
    • How Diverse Are Students in the U.S.?
    • Recognizing the Complexity of Identity
  • Inequalities Outside of School
    • Economic InequalityInequality in the Basics of Life
    • Geographic and Economic Isolation
  • Schooling Inequalities
    • Segregated Schools
    • Unequal Spending
    • Unequal Opportunities to Learn
    • Unequal Community and Peer Resources at School
    • Gaps in Achievement, School Completion, and College Attendance
  • The Struggle for Socially Just Teaching

Generative Questions and Activities

    The United States Dilemma: Diversity, Inequality, and Democratic Values

  1. High school social studies teacher Judy Smith argues that schooling should help students develop “critical consciousness of their potential, of their freedom, of ongoing injustice, and of the obligation to ensure our democracy.”  Throughout the book, the authors develop some specialized meanings of the term “critical” (you might use the book’s Index to skim the several discussions).  Briefly, a “critical consciousness” implies that we can better understand our social world when we ask some key critical questions:  How did our social practices come to be?  Who benefits most or least from these practices?  Who resists changing these practices? And so forth. 

    Think back to your own experience in high school, or even when you were younger.  Was there a teacher who encouraged you to ask these kinds of critical questions?  What were the particular social or local issues that you or your class examined?  What impact did this have on you?

  2. Some people argue that students should not spend any time engaged in social critique, that it’s better to spend school time teaching the required facts and skills that appear in most curricula, in textbooks, and on tests.  What do you think? Why? Consider the arguments on both sides.

    Who Are American Students?

  3. The authors note that the racial and ethnic composition of U.S. public schools has changed dramatically over the past two generations.  Students of color, children of immigrants, and English Learners make up an increasingly large percentage of the nation’s student population, representing a majority of the schoolchildren in many urban school districts.  In your opinion, how, if at all, should curriculum and instruction change in response to this demographic transformation?  Describe this increase in student diversity at a school with which you are familiar.  (More than likely, but not necessarily, this would be a shift from a student population with a higher representation of white and middle class students to one serving students of color, poorer students, or students who are learning English.)  What different curricular and instructional approaches have been adopted? Which approaches would you recommend? On the other hand, some schools remain predominantly white and middle-class due to residential segregation. How should the changing demographic landscape alter curriculum and instruction in these schools, or should it?

  4. Elementary school teacher Michelle Calva states that, “becoming bicultural requires more than just readying the individual for the dominant society.  It also requires preparing society for the minority members.”  To what extent do you agree with this statement?  Think about it in relation to the school context with which you are most familiar:  If you teach at a school that serves mostly students of color, in what ways are you preparing them for what Calva calls “the dominant society”?  If you teach at a school that serves mostly middle-class, white students, in what ways are you preparing them to interact with students of color?  If you teach at a school that serves a diverse student body, in what ways are you preparing them to live together in a multicultural society?   How can teachers prepare all students to live in a world that is increasingly diverse? 
  5. In describing the demographic transformation of U.S. public schools, the authors assert the reality of multiculturalism in the United States. They claim,  “Whether diverse voices, perspectives, and languages are heard or ignored in classrooms, they are there; they will not be silenced or assimilated out of existence.”  Why might some teachers disagree with this assertion?  What might they say about the importance of assimilation?  How would you respond to such teachers?  What might you say to get them to acknowledge the multicultural reality of America’s schools?  In your opinion, why do some teachers demonstrate such resistance to recognizing multiculturalism as a demographic fact?

  6. The authors go beyond discussing “diversity” as only related to race and ethnicity and instead discuss multiple aspects of diversity, including religion, gender expression, sexual orientation, and family composition. What opportunities have you had to develop close relationships with people who differ from you in any of these ways? How have conversations with these individuals influenced you? How might you think about fostering community in your classroom with students from diverse families and backgrounds?

  7. High school mathematics teacher Mark Hill comments, “I remember as a child wanting others to ‘see’ me the same way I saw myself.  Because of this, I make a tremendous effort to ‘see’ students as individuals and accept them on their own terms, regardless of preconceived notions of race, gender, or age.” Consider the hybridity and dynamism of your own identity. What are the many aspects that make up who you are? What discrepancies exist between how you identify and how others perceive you? What are the implications of hybrid and dynamic notions of identity for students and teachers? How can teachers honor and learn about the multifaceted nature of each of their students?

    Inequalities Outside of School

  8. The authors note that economic inequality, inequality in the basics of life, and racial, geographic, and economic isolation characterize the lives of many of America’s schoolchildren.  In your opinion, how do these inequalities impact students’ experiences with schooling?  What connections do you see between these inequalities and the inequalities that exist within schools?  Is it enough for teachers to simply recognize that such inequalities exist?  If not, what can teachers do to mitigate the negative impact of these broader economic and social inequalities?  Recall your own experiences with schooling.  How, if at all, did out-of-school inequalities impact your performance in school?
  9. Consider the fact that low-income families are working increasingly longer hours for increasingly lower wages.  Think about specific students who you have known or with whom you have worked.  Describe the specific impact you have seen on a child’s performance in school. What could schools do to encourage teachers to help compensate for the time that many parents are prevented from spending with their children due to increasing work demands? Alternatively, how could schools and teachers do a better job of valuing the experiences students from low-income backgrounds have outside of school?

  10. Some people believe that teachers should not depart from what might be seen as a “traditional” teacher’s role.  Do you think that paying more attention to students’ lives outside school is a change in tradition?  If so, would that be a good or bad change?  If it’s not a change, explain why.

  11. The authors also state that many schoolchildren in the U.S. lack adequate food, health care, and housing.  Again, reflect on the school context with which you’re most familiar.  With specific students in mind, consider how this lack of basic social supports impacts these students’ experiences with schooling. How might the lack of adequate food inhibit a student’s ability to pay attention and learn in school?  In what ways might some students’ diagnosed learning disabilities be related to lead exposure or other environmental toxins?  How might a lack of adequate health care affect a student’s ability to learn and contribute to more frequent absences?  In what ways might a lack of adequate housing prevent a student from reading, studying, and finishing homework in a timely manner?

    Alternatively, consider how the taken-for-granted provision of these basic supports for other students impacts their school experiences. What can teachers do to find out more about their students’ lived experiences?  Once teachers learn more about their students’ experiences with economic and social inequality, how can this knowledge inform their pedagogy? 

    Schooling Inequalities

  12. The proposed congressional Student Bill of Rights states that all public school students in the United States should have access to the following basic educational opportunities:
    * High-quality classroom teachers and school administrators
    * Rigorous academic standards, curricula, and methods of instruction
    * Small class sizes
    * Quality facilities, textbooks, and instructional materials and supplies
    * Up-to-date library resources
    * Up-to-date computer technology
    * Quality guidance counseling
    Consider these opportunities with respect to your own school.  To which of these fundamental opportunities do your students have access?  To which do they not have access?  Why?  How does this lack of opportunity relate to the broader economic and social inequalities mentioned earlier in this chapter?  What can the state, the federal government, or local schools do to address this lack of opportunity?  What can teachers do (both individually and collectively) to increase opportunities and improve access for their students?

  13. The authors explain that, in spite of the fact that 200 members of the House and Senate support the Student Bill of Rights, it has yet to be passed.  Ask some critical questions to explore why this bill has not been passed.  What political and economic interests might oppose it?  Who would benefit, and who would perceive they’re being harmed if this bill were passed?  Take sides in a role-play, a debate, or an email exchange in which you argue for or against this bill’s passage.

  14. Many people believe that schools with proportionately more poor students get lots of money from the federal government and therefore actually spend more per pupil, but this is rarely the case. Consider the following: “In 2010, a comprehensive analysis of school funding found that most states failed to ensure equal educational opportunity by providing a sufficient level of funding distributed to districts within the state to account for additional needs generated by student poverty.”  Should teachers learn about the funding distribution in their schools, districts, and states?  Or is this information so far beyond teachers’ job descriptions or their power to effect changes that there’s no point dealing with “things you can’t change”?

  15. Fifth-grade teacher Steven Branch describes how his class was relocated into a portable classroom without cabinets, windows, or adequate teaching supplies.  Have you ever seen or experienced comparable school conditions?  In your opinion, are the facilities at your school adequate? How important are school facilities to teaching and learning? With your classmates, discuss what you consider to be the minimum conditions necessary for students to learn. 

  16. Think about the unequal opportunities to learn that prompted the Williams case in California.  In that case, experts for the governor and the secretary of education (who were the ones being sued) argued that trained teachers, quality educational supplies and materials, and adequate classrooms and facilities did notmatter for student learning. They argued, for example, that since some good teachers were not fully certified to teach, teaching credentials were not important; that students could still learn about science even if they didn’t have an equipped science lab; and that children could overcome the discomfort of classrooms that were too hot or too cold; and so forth.   The state finally settled, giving up on these arguments, but why do you think arguments like these appeal to so many people?

    Based on your own experiences (as a teacher and student) in schools, brainstorm several ways in which these basic opportunities do matter for learning.  Give examples of actual cases in which these opportunities (or the lack thereof) made a significant difference in students’ schooling experiences.

  17. The authors assert, “It is unthinkable that the nation would tolerate a lack of textbooks in an entire urban school district . . . if its children were white and not poor.” Do you agree?  Visit a “resource-rich” school in an affluent neighborhood.  Describe the conditions there, paying particular attention to facilities, books, teacher qualifications, class size, how demanding the curriculum is, and so on.  Focus on those elements that you think an “ordinary” or poor school might lack.  Similarly, seek out a school that serves poor children, but has a reputation for being well-equipped with resources and having well-qualified teachers.  Compare this school with a school in an affluent neighborhood.  Are there similarities?  Are there subtle differences?   Do an Internet search to see how much of this information is on-line for your state.

  18. Jonathon Kozol writes of “savage inequalities” between the education offered to poor minority students and that offered to middle-class white students.  What makes these particular inequalities so starkly horrifying is that they often exist within the same community—perhaps just across a street from one another.  You may notice a contrast of opportunities within your own community, or one with which you are familiar.  Describe this contrast.  What “deficit” explanations might a person use to argue that these conditions are essentially the fault of students and their parents, rather than reflective of structural inequities and/or manifestations of prejudicial attitudes?

  19. The authors describe the differences in educational outcomes between middle-class white students and working-class students of color.  In your view, how are outcomes such as academic achievement, high school graduation rates, and college attendance directly related to the schooling inequalities (and inequalities outside of school) described in this chapter?  Again, thinking about actual students with whom you’ve worked, discuss the ways in which educational opportunities affect educational outcomes.

    The Struggle for Socially Just Teaching

  20. Middle school coordinator Mauro Bautista defines social justice educator as “someone who identifies inequities in education, builds coalitions with others affected by the inequities, and then takes action to disrupt the reproduction of these inequities.”  According to his definition, do you see yourself as a social justice educator?  What inequities have you identified at your school or in education more broadly?  Can you identify formal or informal “coalitions”?  What actions have you seen that have tried to disrupt inequities? Have you participated in such a coalition (partnership, relationship, etc.)?  Does Mauro’s definition suit you? If not, how would you modify it?

  21. Mauro Bautista, Kimberly Min, Mark Hill, and Judy Smith are hopeful and optimistic about the possibility of changing the world through teaching.  To what extent do you share their optimism?  Do you feel that teaching for social justice can really contribute to changing the world?  If so, in what ways?  What are the limits of teaching?  What are the possibilities?  In what ways are you engaged in the same “hopeful struggle” to which these educators are committed?  How might you become engaged in this struggle?
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