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La Educación in Room 320: Toward a Theory of Care-based Resistance in the Context of Neoliberal School Reform


by Kathleen Nolan — 2015

Background/Context: Research has illustrated that current neoliberal educational policy trends, such as data-driven accountability, the use of Common Core-aligned scripted curricula, and punitive classroom management approaches, have undermined teacher autonomy and compromised teachers’ ability to build meaningful relationships with their students. Nowhere is the impact of these policy trends felt more than in low-performing urban schools in the midst of intense reform. Research on the resistance practices of teachers in the context of reform frequently presents a negative conception of teacher resistance as a psychological reaction to change. Other more positive conceptions of resistance provide insight into the political and professional motivations for resistance. Little research to date, however, illuminates the subtle forms of resistance some teachers practice as they “push back” against the deleterious impact of neoliberal education policy on student–teacher relations.

Purpose: The study examined the ways in which urban teachers negotiate and “push back” against neoliberal reform. This article reports on what the author calls care-based resistance, a form of teacher resistance that is rooted in an ethic of authentic care and culturally responsive pedagogy.

Research Design: This study draws on a larger critical ethnographic study of policy enactments in two urban schools experiencing intense reform. In the current study, the author draws on critical policy studies and empirical studies of neoliberal school reform to explicate the transformation of teachers’ work and the ways in which current policy compromises authentically caring teacher–student relationships. The author then draws on care theory, theories of resistance, and culturally responsive pedagogy to develop the concept of care-based resistance. Finally, the author uses the method of portraiture to present an illustrative example of care-based resistance based on the practices of one bilingual science teacher.

Conclusions: The analysis and illustrative portrait of care-based resistance help to challenge the mainstream constructs of teacher resistance found in the organizational change and school leadership literatures that describe resistance in negative terms as an obstruction to school improvement. The author also distinguishes care-based resistance from other forms of teacher resistance that stem from teachers’ political or professional stances. Alternatively, a theory of care-based resistance provides a framework for gaining insight into the ways some teachers push back against the dominant ethos of reform in order to be culturally responsive and create a protected space for their students in which authentically caring relationships can flourish. The analysis draws attention to micro-level cultural practices and nuanced acts of teacher resistance that are often overlooked and sometimes even perceived as accommodation but that are indeed important modes of resistance in our current policy context.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 117 Number 5, 2015, p. 1-30
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17918, Date Accessed: 10/22/2017 9:53:52 AM

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About the Author
  • Kathleen Nolan
    Princeton University
    E-mail Author
    KATHLEEN NOLAN is a lecturer in the Program for Teacher Preparation and the Programs in American Studies and Freshman Seminars at Princeton University. Her research interests include the social context of urban schooling and urban school reform, school discipline, critical and culturally responsive pedagogies, and critical ethnographic methods. She is the author of Police in the Hallways: Discipline in an Urban High School (University of Minnesota Press, 2011) and “Neo-liberal Common Sense and Race-Neutral Discourses: A critique of ‘Evidence-based’ Policy-making in School Policing” (2014) in Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education.
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