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Education, Justice, and Democracy

reviewed by Beatrice S. Fennimore - July 22, 2014

coverTitle: Education, Justice, and Democracy
Author(s): Danielle S. Allen & Rob Reich (Eds)
Publisher: University of Chicago Press, Chicago
ISBN: 022601276X, Pages: 368, Year: 2013
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In Education Justice and Democracy, edited by Danielle Allen and Rob Reich, distinguished authors from a wide range of disciplines seek to focus the reader on the purpose of schooling in democratic society. The essays in this book emerged during three workshops during which the authors had “a great many—and many great—conversations” (p. vii). The volume seeks to “…bring some clarity and content to …muddled, shallow rhetoric…” (p. 2) about school reform. This book is organized into three clear and useful sections: Ideals, Constraints, and Strategies. The outcome is a deeply inspirational revisitation of the egalitarian view that the rightful power of government to shape educational policy should be tied to the purpose of “sustaining justice and democracy across generations” (p. viii).

Chapters One through Four unfold with detailed analysis of the ideals of justice and democracy in education. In Chapter One, by Helen Ladd and Susanna Loeb, the challenge of measuring the quality of schools is explored. The authors stress that the reasons for measuring school quality are important; the normative standards of interest tend to decide which outcomes of schooling are most useful. Of particular interest in this chapter, is the clarifying examination of what equality really means and how it relates to school outcomes, effective compensation for disadvantage, and educational adequacy.

Chapter Two, by Rob Reich, flows logically into an examination of distributive justice and the ideals of equality and adequacy. Reich explains the ways in which the courts have moved from Brown and the focus on equality to standards of adequacy, particularly in the school finance cases in the state courts. His thought is that a focus on adequacy might ask how much while a focus on equality might ask how much is enough? Both ideals play an important role in the issue of distributive educational justice. In Chapter Three, Anthony Simon Laden suggests that part of citizenship education for children should be learning how to be equal in school. Following an analysis of distributive and relational justice, Simon argues that it is through relationships characterized by reciprocal accountability that equal behaviors are learned. Thus school relationships should be explained rather than arbitrary, with teachers, parents, and students equally able to make reasonable demands for justification of subject matter, policies, and procedures.

Chapter Four by Sigal Ben-Porath addresses a different aspect of citizenship education; education for shared fate. She suggests that the function of the school is to celebrate but minimize diversity in order to develop civic capacity in children. This function might be met through what she calls education for shared fate as a common ground; an approach that avoids “groupism” while recognizing complex group identities of individuals. The author also addresses shared fate across divides, citing poverty as a particularly difficult area of citizenship and suggesting that the enhanced civic skills of children who are poor should include education about their own exclusion.

The second section of the book on constraints is composed of four chapters focusing in detail on specific areas of educational inequity. Chapter Five begins with an important question posed by author Angel L. Harris: Can members of marginalized groups remain invested in schooling? In the first part of this chapter, Harris counters the former research of John Ogbu (among others) suggesting that black parents transmit a lack of confidence in the belief that education can lead to socioeconomic mobility to their children. Through analysis of data from the Maryland Adolescence Development in Context Study (MADICS), he concludes that black parents are actually more likely than white parents to help their children with coping mechanisms and to hold high the value of educational achievement. In the second part of the chapter, Harris turns to the question of whether youths from marginalized groups disinvest from schooling. He again counters research indicating that black youths do not work hard in school. Through further data analysis, Harris indicates that they do engage in hard work and further that they ask for help when they need it. Ultimately the author suggests that the real problem—the cause of the much discussed achievement gap—is racialized tracking that causes unequal exposure to content and instruction.

Chapter Six by Carola Suarez-Orozco and Marcelo M. Suarez-Orozco follows seamlessly with a discussion of indications that the academic eagerness of immigrant students and their families is undermined by noxious and misaligned educational policies in the United States. Students who are immigrants, often experiencing parental separation and family disorientation, enter schools with a current high-stakes testing regime, rigid expectations of family involvement, and a focus on the importance of homework. It is not only differences in language that pose problems; immigrant parents who face multiple challenges to their sense of agency and who do not comprehend the teachers’ conceptualizations of parent involvement may be unable to develop a positive home-school relationship. Ultimately the author argues that schools confer disadvantage on students who might thrive if policies honored language and cultural differences through assessment and curriculum.

In Chapter Seven, Gregory M. Walton provides a refreshed revisitation of the myth of intelligence as stable and located in the individual. Through the lens of the social-psychological approach, the author critiques assumptions of fixed IQ as giving undue weight to the person compared with the situation and explains that diverse perceptions of self are constructions shaped in part by the context and manner of assessment. Considering the importance of the conceptualization of intelligence in the distribution of educational resources, Walton argues that we must take psychological dynamics and contextual situations into account when assessing intellectual merit.

In Chapter Eight, the final chapter in the section on constraints, Richard Rothstein argues that the residential isolation of black families with lower incomes must be reduced if educational equity is to be advanced. He presents compelling evidence that current segregated housing patterns are the “unconstitutional products of state action.” (p. 174). The roots of ghettos, for example, are in ordinances and racial zoning that restricted blacks to designated areas in communities. Rothstein further discusses issues such as the location of federal housing projects in segregated communities, restrictive covenants prohibiting future sales of property to blacks, the refusal of the FHA to insure mortgage loans to black applicants for home purchases in white neighborhoods, and blockbusting on the part of real estate agents. Ultimately Rothstein argues that Americans must confront the role of public policy in the continued housing (and thus educational) segregation of American society.

In the third and last section of the book, the authors turn to the topic of strategies. Harry Brighouse and Adam Swift, in Chapter Nine, put forth the fascinating philosophical argument that parents do not have the right to demand access to public schools that correspond to their personal values (such as religion). Using examples from Britain and the United States, the authors explore the difference between the relationship rights of parents (which include transmission of values) and the responsibility of schools to reflect values with democratic legitimacy. At stake is the right of children to become competent citizens and to make independent and reason-responsive decisions on how to live. Also questioned by the authors is the right of more affluent parents to utilize personal resources to confer advantage on their children through the choice of schools. While the authors indicate that there is nothing in their argument to suggest that states abolish elite schools, they do offer two policy proposals; one is (reflective of the Rothstein chapter) that new housing be required to have inclusionary mixed-income and mixed-race zoning, and the other is that governments supplement educational spending on children who are less advantaged.

Author Patrick McGuinn, in Chapter Ten, traces the shift in federal education policy over the last half century leading to the current No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. The persistent political narrative, he indicates, has consistently had poverty at its center. The fundamental debate centers on whether the schools can be reformed enough to be effective with children of the poor or whether larger socioeconomic problems must be addressed before the schools can be effective. McGuinn cites a disconnect between policy and practice, but ends the chapter with the hopeful view that current political debates and policy developments fueled by active involvement of the federal government are creating long overdue change in discourse and policy leading to equal educational opportunity.

Author Anna Marie Smith offers, in Chapter Eleven, a fascinating opportunity to examine the work of Thurgood Marshall in the context of liberal democratic theory. She argues that Thurgood Marshall’s fundamental conceptualization of justice is centered in the political theory of education rights. Such rights are described as the entitlement to education as a public good through which publicly funded education provides a pathway (for some the only pathway) to equal citizenship for the least advantaged children in our society. Through a detailed analysis of Marshall’s positions in key equity cases, Smith links his work to the need to continue to hold the elite accountable for effective social change through democratic education for active citizenship.

In the final chapter, Seth Morgan addresses the critical role of the university in generating democratic knowledge and the need of the academy to develop meaningful relationships with those in the surrounding community. He argues that most Americans have little experience with active democratic participation and suggests that the urgent task of the academy is to share knowledge about the practices and procedures of democracy with the public. Through the interesting history of the relationship of Lehigh University to its community in Bethlehem Pennsylvania and a description of the current South Side Initiative (SSI), Morgan elaborates on the challenges and possibilities in forms of university-community encounters that break down the barriers of intellectual segregation to become greater engines of democracy.

This outstanding book is beautifully arranged, with logical threads tying each section and each essay to the next. The essays are of perfect length; allowing the reader to consider complex issues and ideas in depth without being overwhelmed by the content. In keeping with the message of participatory democracy, the book ties theory to practice, acknowledges that there is often a gap between policy and practice, and opens avenues for the relationship of ideals, constraints, and strategies for “on the ground” democratic change. The content of the book is provocative and creative, breathing new life into debates that might otherwise become discouraging or tiresome. My only concern is that this important collection of advanced and articulate essays might be unlikely to find its way to practitioners outside of the academy or readers new to educational philosophy and policy analysis. It is up to those fortunate enough to read this book, and I hope there are many, to act on its content and extend it to as many others as possible. That this is a matter of urgency clearly resonates in the reminder from author Anna Marie Smith that, for our poorest and most deeply disenfranchised children in the United States, schools “represent the only key to equal citizenship that lies within their grasp” (p. 244). The powerful messages of education, justice, and democracy in this book hold out a light of hope to inform and encourage all who remain engaged and committed to the essential struggle for equal educational opportunity.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 22, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17615, Date Accessed: 5/21/2022 8:08:48 AM

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About the Author
  • Beatrice Fennimore
    Indiana University of Pennsylvania
    E-mail Author
    BEATRICE S. FENNIMORE is a professor of education at Indiana University of Pennsylvania in the State System of Higher Education. She also served as adjunct professor at Teachers College, Columbia for over 25 years. Dr. Fennimore’s recent publications include Standing Up for Something Every Day: Ethics and Justice in Early Childhood Classrooms (Teachers College Press) and Promoting Social Justice for Young Children (co-edited with A. Lin Goodwin; Springer). Her articles include Brown and the Failure of Civic Responsibility (Teachers College Record), Equity is not an Option in Public Education (Educational Leadership) and Know Where You Stand and Stand There (Childhood Education). Dr. Fennimore’s work is currently focused on conceptual analysis of the relationship of social justice to professional ethics in education.
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