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Ideology, Discourse, and School Reform

reviewed by Mary Louise Gomez - 2004

coverTitle: Ideology, Discourse, and School Reform
Author(s): Zeus Leonardo
Publisher: Praeger Publications, Westport
ISBN: 0897899016, Pages: 265, Year: 2003
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This is a study worthy of attention. In it, Zeus Leonardo describes and analyzes two years of talk by an Annenberg Foundation-funded inquiry group of nine teachers, two administrators, two district officers, and three researchers at a large public middle school located in the

United States . He provides a carefully documented account of how ideology is inscribed in all that the group’s participants speak and do (in sometimes contradictory ways) as they try to unpack what school reform means and how to engage in it. Relying on audiotaped transcriptions of the group’s interactions, participant interviews, and observations of classroom interactions, Leonardo painstakingly portrays the group’s wide-ranging conversations about students, families, their responsibilities as teachers, their myriad frustrations, and their classroom problems as well as the ideologies which ground individual’s viewpoints, conflicts, and alliances.

At its best the book shows readers how a collaborative group simultaneously works to maintain and interrupt the structures that teachers identify as preventing them from acting for social justice and equity. The author offers a complex and rich picture of these teachers as they struggle to uncover why so many of their students don’t wish to participate in school work, why their parents either do students’ homework or fail to require its completion, why pre-teens litter the schoolyard with lunchtime trash—tacitly acknowledging the custodian as a paid cleaner for them, why some youth zestfully succeed and others fail with apparent unconcern. His picture of teachers is even-handed: they often are stubbornly attached to instructional practices that fail and they sometimes indict families as the root cause of their children’s deficits as well as cleverly develop solutions for one another’s difficulties, honoring youth as fragile and afraid of failure, rather than as lazy kids who don’t wish to work. Group members provide support when another teacher puts forward an argument and requires words he cannot muster at the moment. He shows “Patrick,” the university professor who is the group leader and “critical friend,” as equally worthy of our admiration and disdain. This is a rare portrait in the education literature where all participants—the university theorists and the school practitioners are viewed as all too frail humans.

While Leonardo entered the study as a researcher in its second year, and acknowledges his entry at that point as somewhat problematic since he cannot account for changes occurring between the genesis of the project and the time he exited the study site, he offers a rich, nuanced, and appealing portrait of individuals struggling with very difficult work. I wondered: How much less overwhelming would it have been if group participants were working on a specific reform of curriculum or pedagogy rather than an overarching concept such as how can school be reformed? As one participant opined, “That’s a frustration that maybe a lot of people feel in the Inquiry. It’s sort of like: Talk, talk, talk, When do we get off the dime and do something?” (p. 231). It seemed the task at hand was large, and at points too vast to grasp for all involved: what were they attempting to do together and how would that affect youth, families, and themselves? But, that is more a critique of the project itself and not Leonardo’s work.

My favorite chapter in the text is a well-crafted argument called “Ideology Critique as Method: The Problem of Interpreting Relations of Domination.” All too often a “methods” chapter or section mostly attends to how the author approached the technical part of the data generation, collection, and analyses and a briefer treatment about why he did so. This chapter goes further. It lays out the general problem of how one’s methodological assumptions—which are inherently and unabashedly ideological—impact one’s choices for collecting and analyzing data. It is a lovely philosophical statement about meaning—how people make it, how their meanings might be understood, and the choices one makes of interpretation. I aim to share this part of the text with all of the graduate students studying with me.

That said, in least appealing moments earlier in the text, Leonardo seems to lecture readers on concepts such as what constitutes ideology, discourse, subjectivity, and knowledge. These parts of the text provide a less accessible read for those not schooled in or embracing of the works and authors cited, and are somewhat off-putting for readers who may not share Leonardo’s political agenda

However, I remain an admiring reader as I have conducted and studied such conversation groups aimed at targeted elementary school literacy reform myself (with colleague Gloria Ladson-Billings) in multiple sites and have found the work and its interpretation to be among the most challenging and rewarding research I have done to date. It is a daunting task to understand myriad audiotapes of what at first glance appear to be circular discussions about a student or a piece of curriculum, or someone’s comment that appears unrelated to the stated agenda of the meeting. This, the unpacking of why individuals said what they said to one another, and how each person’s comments affected what was next stated, Leonardo does believably, masterfully, and respectfully.

In the final chapter, Leonardo posits he has shown us an “ideological study of language at work.” Indeed he has, and we are richer for it.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 12, 2004, p. 2330-2332
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11329, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 3:14:06 AM

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About the Author
  • Mary Gomez
    University of Wisconsin-Madison
    E-mail Author
    MARY LOUISE GOMEZ is Professor and Chair of Literacy Studies in the Department of Curriculum & Instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she conducts research about how pre-service and practicing teachers learn to teach diverse learners. Topics of current projects include what it means for secondary pre-service teachers to care for all students and how practicing teachers collaborate in a conversation study group about literacy for young children. Recent publications include work in the journals English Education and Teaching and Teacher Education.
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