Race, Class, and Power in School Restructuring
reviewed by Alan Singer - 2001
Title: Race, Class, and Power in School Restructuring
Author(s): Pauline Lipman
Publisher: State University of New York Press, Albany
ISBN: 0791437701, Pages: 334, Year: 1998
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This book is thoughtful, provocative and makes significant contributions to the literature about school restructuring and the dialogue about race in the United States. I have worked as a teacher in inner-city high schools and as a consultant with school reorganization teams. I found that Pauline Lipman’s research resonated with my own experiences. Her study effectively demonstrates why, despite claims by its advocates, school restructuring is limited in its ability to end racial and class stratification in United States public schools.
The focus of the book is the restructuring experience of teachers in a small southern city that the author calls Riverton. Lipman examines the way that the process of restructuring, power relationships in the community, and teachers’ belief about African American students combine to undermine an explicit goal of the restructuring process, "reducing racial disparities in (student) achievement and discipline actions and addressing the needs of ‘at-risk’ students (p. 62)." Lipman concludes that the "top-down" nature of a supposedly "bottom-up" process, differing interpretations of student needs and school problems rooted in racial divisions, the absence of trust across racial lines, and unrealized possibilities for reflection on teaching and learning because of internal political conflicts, contribute to frustration and demoralization among the most effective teachers and the failure to produce significant change for students.
What makes the book so effective is the comparison of restructuring in two Riverton junior high schools. One school, Gates, is described as "the flagship junior high in Riverton, the traditional choice for those at the top of Riverton’s social ladder (p. 53)." It is a racially and class divided school. Although a majority of its students are black, its teaching staff, administrators and politically influential parents are overwhelmingly white and middle class, and its special programs cater to the primarily white students in the advanced academic track. In this school, before and during restructuring, the needs of the African American children were largely ignored.
Franklin Junior High School, on the other hand, is described as an "African American school" (p. 95), with an energetic, caring Black principal, a core of dedicated African American teachers identified in the text as the Othermothers, and an overwhelmingly black student body. Based on this, Lipman and the reader initially expect restructuring to be significantly different at Franklin than at Gates; but it is not. Lipman found that teachers at Franklin lacked a multifaceted analysis of students’ strengths. Hall and classroom decorations were traditional, curriculum reform never emerged as a significant issue, and tracking remained unchallenged.
The experience at Franklin allows Lipman to explore Jim Cummins’ (1986) proposition that "the social organization of the school and its bureaucratic constraints ‘reflect not only broad policy and societal factors but also the extent to which individual educators accept or challenge the social organization of the school in relation to minority students and their communities’" (p. 23). In this setting, teachers were not up to the task. But could any group of teachers meet this challenge? Lipman does not seem to be sure. She believes that her research "illustrates the possibility of transforming schools (p. 5)" and throughout the book, it seemed as if Lipman was rooting for the Othermothers and other culturally-relevant teachers at Franklin to make a difference.
But as a critical theorist who rejects the oppression of children of color in a society dominated by capitalist hegemony, Lipman questions whether any internally driven reforms will bring about systemic change. Lipman’s work challenges the basic assumptions of school restructuring, that decentralized decision-making strengthens the role of teachers in reform, that collaboration promotes critical inquiry and dialogue about change, and that smaller settings will build trust among the staff and between students and teachers. However, Lipman seems hesitant to accept her own findings.
Based on my experience as a white man working in African American communities, I think race is also a greater problem for Lipman than she acknowledges. She appears perplexed that the Othermothers do not reject aspects of a "deficit model"(p. 174) or academic tracking. However, their position is consistent with the author’s own comments on cultural hegemony. The Othermothers are not outside the social and educational system, and they share many of its values. Significantly, their caring approach to students coupled with acknowledgment of student weaknesses is similar to the position taken by Cornell West in his book Race Matters (1993). I think it should be seen as a strength of their pedagogy rather than a weakness.
While Lipman’s research is excellent, it could have been made into a better book. Part of the problem is that she is fighting too many battles at the same time. She is trying to establish the validity of critical pedagogy, the value of culturally-relevant teaching, and the importance of exploring the broadest social context for education, while critiquing a deficit-model, the attitudes of white teachers towards African American students, and public education in a capitalist and racist society. These distract from the main conclusion of the book that is powerful enough to stand on its own, the failure of public school leaders and school restructuring advocates in Riverton to address the needs of students because of their unwillingness to deal with conflicts and stereotypes about race.
Cummins, Jim. (1986). Empowering minority students: A franework for intervention. Harvard Educational Review, 56 (1), 18-36.
West, Cornell. (1993). Race Matters. New York: Beacon Press.