Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

They Retard What They Cannot Repel: Examining the Role Teachers Sometimes Play in Subverting Equity-Minded Reforms

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

They Retard What They Cannot Repel: Examining the Role Teachers Sometimes Play in Subverting Equity-Minded Reforms

Article excerpt

This article examines the role of teachers who resisted a mid-Atlantic school district's detracking reform. Through resistance, teachers and parents can, and often do, hamper the initiation and implementation of equity-minded reforms. Understanding the potentially oppositional role played by some teachers and parents helps those interested in promoting equity-minded change to overcome this impediment.

If the changes that we fear be thus irresistible, what remains but to acquiesce with silence, as in the other insurmountable distresses of humanity? It remains that we retard what we cannot repel, that we palliate what we cannot cure. (Johnson, 1755, preface)

If we lived in a magical land where the process of school reform matched the ideal presented in the educational change literature, then every worthwhile reform effort would enjoy the broad and strong support of teachers and parents. These crucial participants would believe in each reform's goals and wholeheartedly commit themselves to making the necessary changes to their own practices. Occasionally, an auspicious reform garners support approximating this ideal. Such support, however, is not likely to materialize when a reform challenges dominant political and normative beliefs (Wells & Oakes, 1998). This is particularly true of reforms designed to benefit low-income students of color attending diverse school districts (Oakes, Welner, Yonezawa, & Allen, 1998; Weiner, in press). Moreover, when these reforms are initiated by top-down mandates, they are even less apt to garner substantial buy-in from local parents and teachers (Tyack & Cuban, 1995).

This article uses a case study of Willow Glen,' a school district engaged in a reform designed to reduce the use of ability-grouped classes, to explore the role that teachers can play in undermining equity-minded change. This "detracking" was prompted by an order from a federal court as part of a larger desegregation case. I have argued elsewhere that such top-down mandated reform is sometimes useful and appropriate (Weiner, in press). This article addresses a subsidiary concern: understanding the local resistance that often arises in response to a mandated equity-minded reform.' In particular, the focus is on the meager support-in fact, the potent resistance-offered by Willow Glen's teachers.


Analyses of attempts to change schooling can, as a rule, safely begin with the truism that some teachers will provide valuable assistance to the reform effort and others will present obstacles to successful change (Firestone & Corbett, 1989; Fullan, 1991; Louis & Miles, 1990). However, each type of reform engenders characteristically different patterns of support and resistance (see Wehner, in press), largely driven by the unique assortment of technical, normative, and political forces surrounding any given change effort (Oakes, 1992).

Willow Glen undertook detracking reform specifically to remedy the unequal provision of educational opportunities to African American children. Although a few of the district's teachers, parents, and administrators also touted the universal educational benefits of heterogeneous grouping, the reform was driven by the court-identified need to address racial disparities in track placement. The central role of race in the initiation of this reform strongly influenced the technical, normative, and political forces surrounding the district's detracking effort. Accordingly, the experiences of Willow Glen powerfully illustrate the dynamics of resistance to equity-minded change.'

The opposition exerted by Willow Glen's teachers evidenced a level of intensity and resourcefulness beyond that generally contemplated by the school change literature. Those concerned with the question of how to make equity-minded reform efforts most successful must face an unpleasant reality: Teachers may resist reform efforts designed to expand educational opportunity, and that resistance can be potent (see also Anyon, 1997; Lipman, 1998). …

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