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Resisting Compliance: Learning to Teach for Social Justice in a Neoliberal Context


by Bree Picower — 2011

Background/Context: This study examines education in the context of neoliberalism and how current educational policies such as high-stakes testing and mandated curriculum create schooling environments hostile to social justice education. Relying on education for liberation literature, teacher education for social justice scholarship, and work on critical pedagogy, this study explores how new teachers who teach from a social justice perspective navigate the challenges of their first year in teaching.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: This study asks, What strategies do new teachers use to stay true to their vision of teaching for social justice despite the challenges they face in their school environments?

Population/Participants/Subjects: During the course of the study, 4 of the 6 participants were full-time classroom teachers. The 2 other participants were still taking education classes while student- and assistant teaching. All worked in a variety of urban elementary schools.

Intervention/Program/Practice: The participants were all members of a social justice critical inquiry project (CIP) group that met at the university from which they graduated.

Research Design: This was a qualitative study that used design-based research.

Data Collection and Analysis: Data were collected from three sources: transcripts from audio and videotaped CIP sessions, ethnographic interviews with participants, and participants’ written reflections. Data were analyzed using grounded theory method.

Findings/Results: The teachers developed four strategies for teaching for social justice. First, by participating in a critical inquiry project, the teachers supported each other by building a safe haven that protected their vision. Second, the participants camouflaged their critical pedagogy by integrating it with the mandated curriculum, which allowed them to teach from a social justice perspective without rousing the concerns of their administration. The third strategy was to develop their students as agents of change. Finally, in a few instances, the teachers went public with their work by rejecting or speaking against policies that they felt were not in the best interests of their students.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Although these four strategies allowed participants to successfully create critical classrooms, they did not impact the larger neoliberal forces that maintain unjust schooling experiences. This has implications for teacher education, and the author suggests recommendations for schools of education.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 113 Number 5, 2011, p. 1105-1134
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16090, Date Accessed: 8/21/2014 4:13:46 AM

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About the Author
  • Bree Picower
    Montclair State University
    BREE PICOWER is an assistant professor in the Department of Early Childhood, Elementary and Literacy Education at Montclair State University. Her dissertation, "The Unexamined Whiteness of Teaching," explored the role that race plays in how student teachers conceptualize urban education and was awarded the NYU Steinhardt Outstanding Dissertation Award of 2007. Her current research focuses on the role of critical inquiry groups as a strategy to support urban educators to teach for equity and social justice. She is a core member of the New York Collective of Radical Educators (NYCoRE) and the coeditor of Planning To Change the World: A Planbook for Social Justice Teachers, which provides support to educators addressing topics of social justice in the classroom. Additionally she has worked to forge a national network of Teacher Activist Groups (TAGs) across the country.
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