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Divide and School: Gender and Class Dynamics in Comprehensive Education


by Carmen Montecinos & Deborah K. Deemer - 1999

Greenfield Comprehensive is the fictitious name John Abraham gives to the British school where he did fieldwork in 1986 to examine interactions among the organization of school knowledge, curricular texts, students' subcultures, and teachers' ideologies that further social divisions. In the first of nine chap­ters, Abraham outlines the political context that propelled the emergence of comprehensive schools in Great Britain. Most noteworthy is his analysis of how influential politicians and educators have used "meritocracy" and "naturalized" notions of ability to derail the principles of integration and egalitarianism associated with the creation of these schools. Next, he pro­vides a critical review of research that examines social class gaps in achieve­ment, and notes that this research fails to adequately address gender issues. After describing his methodology and research findings, he concludes with a list of recommendations for educational practice designed to promote egali­tarianism, along with a somber analysis of the British political context. By examining the lived experience of students and teachers at Greenfield, Abraham argues that gender and social class... (preview truncated at 150 words.)

Greenfield Comprehensive is the fictitious name John Abraham gives to the British school where he did fieldwork in 1986 to examine interactions among the organization of school knowledge, curricular texts, students' subcultures, and teachers' ideologies that further social divisions. In the first of nine chap­ters, Abraham outlines the political context that propelled the emergence of comprehensive schools in Great Britain. Most noteworthy is his analysis of how influential politicians and educators have used "meritocracy" and "naturalized" notions of ability to derail the principles of integration and egalitarianism associated with the creation of these schools. Next, he pro­vides a critical review of research that examines social class gaps in achieve­ment, and notes that this research fails to adequately address gender issues. After describing his methodology and research findings, he concludes with a list of recommendations for educational practice designed to promote egali­tarianism, along with a somber analysis of the British political context.

By examining the lived experience of students and teachers at Greenfield, Abraham argues that gender and social class refuse the essentialized readings he believes underpin both resistance and correspondence theories of school­ing. He is critical of resistance theory's argument that schools are bent on changing working-class culture—in the case of gender scripts, schools are not vigorous enough in changing the sexist elements of working-class culture. He argues against the deterministic view of correspondence theory as work­ing-class students do not exhibit the passivity and subordination schools sup­posedly inculcate in them.

Abraham often uses a tedious nomenclature to quantify the results of his fieldwork. However, the reader can also find rich descriptions of life at Greenfield. Expanding on Lacey's (1970) model the author shows the opera­tions of differentiation and polarization. Numerous examples are provided of the circular process by which students are segregated into "ability" groups, offered work believed fitting their ability, and then reestablished as more or less able. Given that ability groups largely divide students according to their social class origins, streaming, he concludes, supports social class reproduction.

What we found most appealing about this book is its comprehensive inves­tigation of how stereotypic renderings of gender work into the curricular choices and social relations at this school. By investing their energies in failed attempts to control the unruly "lads," and promote feelings of academic efficacy and achievement in middle-class boys, teachers neglect girls. While girls generally notice and complain about these gendered inequalities, girls who demonstrate noticeable resistance are labeled as having an anti-school attitude. Interestingly their violation of gendered expectations, in not being "quiet and conscientious," leads teachers to characterize them as "atypical" females despite the fact that these girls conform to hegemonic gender expec­tations in almost all other realms. Teachers bent on control target the disrup­tive behavior of "anti-school" girls while failing to disrupt the reproduction of gendered and class-based academic and career expectations.

Teachers separate students by ability (social class). Students also separate themselves through the formation of subcultures (polarization). The anti-school students (resistors) do not exhibit the all-encompassing emancipatory commitments predicted by resistance theory. By probing, for example, how "lads" and "gothic punk" males enact different forms of masculinity, we see how the lads collude with sexist teachers and become invested in the oppres­sion of those who dare cross the gender divide ("gothic punks"). Some teach­ers capitalize on this collusion as they select sexist materials in an attempt to attract the lads' interest in schoolwork. Teachers who explicitly provide antisexist education curricula reserve such enrichment activities for "higher ability" students.

The major weakness of the analysis provided in this book is the lack of scrutiny the author gives to his penchant for wedding egalitarianism and inte­gration. The extent to which social integration truly benefits those who are members of socially subordinated groups is an issue he fails to explore thoroughly. Whereas in the 1960s through the 1980s we saw a push for inte­gration along gender and racial lines, this educational arrangement is currently questioned by many educators who believe socially subordinated groups pay too high a cost for integration. Although Abraham's own analysis demonstrates the failure of liberal, progressive hopes for equality through integrationist strategies the reader is left with the impression that he has no desire to abandon this dream. By providing a list of changes within the school that could positively impact the fulfillment of integrative and egalitarian principles, Abraham fuels hopes of schooling people from all walks of life together. After taking us for a tour of the broader political landscape in Britain, however, his final conclusion "is a pessimistic one as regards the pros­pects of comprehensive education" (p. 145). The larger political climate is inclined toward schooling that increases individual students' competitiveness in the marketplace and not toward practices that increase solidarity across various social groups.

Reference

Lacey, C. (1970). Hightown Grammar. Manchester, Great Britain: Manchester University Press.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 101 Number 1, 1999, p. 137-138
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10690, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 9:11:35 PM

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About the Author
  • Carmen Montecinos
    University of Northern Iowa

  • Deborah Deemer
    University of Northern Iowa

 
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