Race and Reform: Educational "Niche Picking" in a Hostile Environment

Article excerpt

Historically, racist attitudes and policies among officials and citizens in the United States have influenced the effectiveness of educational reform efforts. Given that reality, this article describes an implementation of the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program within a broad sociopolitical context that includes a community's beliefs about intelligence, race, and academic achievement. AVID, designed to help low-income and minority high school students attend college; challenged this community's fundamental beliefs about academic success and subsequently met resistance from educators and community members who believed that intelligence is fixed and racially based. A case study approach was taken to explore how racism shapes educational reform in the local context and to identify ways to reverse its negative effects.

In recent years, school reform efforts have focused increasingly on the strategies that educators in districts or schools have deployed to renew and improve their schools. Notable among these reform efforts are the Accelerated Schools program (Levin, 1987), the Comer School Development Program (Comer, 1980, 1988, 1997), and the Coalition of Essential Schools (Sizer 1992), which have been adopted and implemented throughout the country. These organizational development models emerged as antidotes to top-down models of school reform that were criticized for being insensitive to the obstacles and constraints facing teachers attempting to implement educational reforms. These models are heuristic because they show how educational innovations are negotiated in the practical, nitty-gritty details of daily life in schools. However, because their focus is on schoollevel strategies for self-renewal and improvement, they downplay the actions that initiated reform and the governmental, community, and district actions that occurred away from and before the school attempted rejuvenation and renewal (Datnow, Hubbard, & Mehan, 1999).

Experts have called for locally adapted change that is sensitive to local education practice and context (Elmore, 1996; Elmore & McLaughlin, 1988; Fullan & Hargreaves, 1996; McLaughlin, 1990). As Goodman (1995) stated:

What is most important [if we are to be truly transformative in schooling] ... is the recognition that school restructuring efforts be built upon an open discourse regarding the type of culture we wish to build and the relationship between schooling and this future society. (p. 7)

Reform agents point out that efforts fail when they do not fully address the context in which the school is located or when they ignore the culture of the school (Sarason, 1996). Schools are political domains; therefore attention must be paid to the power that is embedded in all relationships that unfold therein (Datnow, 1998; Fullan, 1991; Giroux & McLaren, 1986; Hargreaves, 1994).

The implementation of reform efforts is a conditional process in which the consequences of actions taken in one context may become the conditions for actions in another (Datnow et al., 1999; Hall & McGinty, 1997). On the one hand, in their exuberance to present the rich details of educational change in local contexts, educational researchers must not lose sight of the importance of actions taken in sociopolitical contexts that exist at a distance to the school. On the other hand, they cannot be content to treat sociopolitical factors as disembodied forces. The enactment of these factors in social interaction must be revealed and explained.

In this article, we describe the implementation of a reform model aimed at improving the academic opportunity of African American youth in a community in a southern state. The purpose of this research is threefold: (a) to describe more fully the process by which this school implemented, incorporated, and enacted a reform design that was developed externally; (b) to explore more fully the dynamic relationship among structural constraints, cultural arrangements, and people's actions in the context of this school reform effort; and (c) to illustrate how cultural beliefs about race and intelligence become structural constraints impinging on educational reform. …