Academic journal article Teacher Education Quarterly

An American Dilemma: Using Action Research to Frame Social Class as an Issue of Social Justice in Teacher Education Courses

Academic journal article Teacher Education Quarterly

An American Dilemma: Using Action Research to Frame Social Class as an Issue of Social Justice in Teacher Education Courses

Article excerpt

Conceptual Framework

In the middle of the 20th century the noted Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal called attention to an American dilemma. Myrdal wrote that America has continuously struggled for its soul by waging a battle to effectuate the ideals upon which American society was founded (Myrdal 1944, 4). He asserted that the political and judicial frameworks governing American institutions were at war with the personal desires and individual actions of many Americans. Myrdal observed that although the United States has a rich history of established legal rights for historically marginalized groups, conflicts arise when individuals are called upon to enforce and support the rights of such groups.

Scrutiny of the dilemma to which Myrdal called attention indicates that as we enter the 21st century, America is continuing to struggle with the disjuncture between the ideals it espouses relative to issues of social justice and the institutional practices it allows. Perhaps nowhere is the evidence of this struggle more apparent than in America's public schools. American ideals purporting that citizens are entitled to a free and equal education have fallen woefully short of the intended goals, particularly as they relate to social class and educational outcomes. It is incumbent upon those who educate America's teachers to enable them to align ideals and practices with the democratic ideals that we have generated and the educational systems that we perpetuate.

The Relationship of Education to Social Class

McLaren (1989) defined social class as "the economic, social, and political relationships that govern life in a given social order" (p. 171). In the United States a person's ability to achieve the American Dream has typically been characterized by how much wealth, income, and power over economic resources one has been able to accrue. Those who do not inherit wealth or power rely on an adequate education that will enable them to attain a job in order to secure social status.

The social class of America's students is a salient factor in their ability to achieve desirable academic outcomes in schools. Scholarly research has unearthed numerous links between teachers' expectations of students from various social classes and students' academic outcomes. Anyon's 1980 study called attention to the social and cultural contexts of schools and to the ensuing expectations teachers have for their students relative to their social class status. She found that

   Differing curricular, pedagogical and pupil evaluation practices
   emphasize different cognitive and behavioral skills in each social
   setting and thus contribute to the development in the children of
   certain potential relationships to physical and symbolic capital,
   to authority, and to the process of work. School experience ...
   differed qualitatively by social class. These differences may not
   only contribute to the development in the children in each social
   class of certain types of economically significant relationships
   and not others, but would thereby help to reproduce this system
   of relations in society. In the contribution to the reproduction of
   unequal social relations lies a theoretical meaning and social
   consequence of classroom practice. (p. 225)

Later Banks and Banks (1993) wrote that

   ... social class backgrounds affect where students go to school and
   what happens to them once they are there. As a result, lower-class
   students are less likely to be exposed to less valued curricula,
   are taught less of whatever curricula they do study and are expected
   to do less work in the classroom and outside of it. Hence, they
   learn less and are less well prepared for the next level of
   education. (p. 82)

Jonathan Kozol's (1991) late 20th century expose of wealth and poverty in America's schools dramatically underscored the dismal socio-economic policy issues that plague schools. …

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