Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

The Experience of Isolation in Alternative Education: A Heuristic Research Study

Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

The Experience of Isolation in Alternative Education: A Heuristic Research Study

Article excerpt

Black education in the U.S. is in an abysmal state (King, 2005). The fundamental root of this problem is an epistemological crisis--how we think about knowledge and literacy (Lee, 2005). The "normal science paradigm" (King, 2005, p. 7) perpetuates a cultural deficit orientation of learning in public discourse that conceptualizes Black students as at risk, disadvantaged, and illiterate. The normal science paradigm also supports how our schools and society operate to socially and academically divide and isolate Black and White students from each other. Thus, most White students are deemed literate, in mainstream schools, and visible to the public eye while too many Black students are deemed illiterate, in alternative schools, and invisible to the public eye.

Students in U.S. schools are sorted (i.e., tracked) according to their social and academic (usually reading) achievement (Oakes, 1985). Those in the successful track make good grades, graduate from high school, attend college, and land better jobs (Fine, 1991). Students in the failing track are not regularly promoted to the next grade, do not graduate from high school, and if deemed antisocial are further penalized by being excluded from their regular schools into alternative education settings and the juvenile justice educational system (OJJDP, 2004). These divisive hegemonic social structures contribute to the achievement gap (Carpenter, Ramirez, & Severn, 2006), discipline gap (Monroe, 2005) and school-to-prison pipeline (Wald & Losen, 2003) in our society.

African American students have been historically and disproportionately racialized (classified by race), silenced, marginalized, segregated, isolated, and deemed invisible in schools and society. They are disproportionately (a) (three times) more likely to live in poverty (Cash, 2004); (b) diagnosed with behavioral, learning, and reading disabilities (Blanchett, 2006); and (c) suspended or expelled from school (Foley & Pang, 2006). They are more likely to drop out of school and have higher rates of arrest, incarceration, and recidivism. Thirteen percent of Black youth drop out permanently versus 3.8% Whites (Snyder & Sickmund, 2006). National youth recidivism rates hover between 60% and 84%, and 57% of our country's inmates 16 and over are high school dropouts with only basic levels of literacy (Greenberg, Dunleavy, & Kutner, 2007).


African American students, especially those in alternative education and juvenile justice settings, are continuously failed and penalized by the use of traditional pedagogies that highlight their weaknesses or presumed deficits, namely low literacy rates. Traditional pedagogies include teaching reading from a conventional view of learning that focuses on decoding and encoding text and remediation of poor reading skills (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006). Prior to 1970 in the United States, teaching someone to read was typically defined as a formal, autonomous activity separate from political, economic, social, or cultural practices and unrelated to power and ideology. Literacy programs were typically confined to nonformal educational settings for adults whose illiteracy was thought to be directly related to social conditions such as unemployment, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, or incarceration (Greenberg et al., 2007). The term functional literacy was first used in formal educational contexts in the 1970s to publicly announce a widespread literacy crisis among adults who were unprepared for the emerging postindustrial labor market in the United States. Since illiteracy was initiated as something negative about individuals that needed fixing, it is difficult for most teachers to envision new ways of teaching reading that focus on culture as an asset for learning with students who do not meet traditionally expected literacy standards (Lee, 2005).

As a result of the deficit and functional logic that blames disproportionate numbers of African American students for their failures, teachers are trained to practice banking education, or use traditional pedagogies that focus on changing students to meet the required standards (Carpenter, Ramirez, & Severn, 2006). …

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