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Unfit Subjects: Educational Policy and the Teen Mother

reviewed by Elizabeth M. Zachry - 2006

coverTitle: Unfit Subjects: Educational Policy and the Teen Mother
Author(s): Wanda S. Pillow
Publisher: Routledge/Falmer, New York
ISBN: 0415944937 , Pages: 228, Year: 2004
Search for book at Amazon.com

Although a picture may say a thousand words, Wanda Pillows (2004) new book, Unfit Subjects, shows just how powerful words themselves can be.  In her work, Pillow analyzes how wordsthe words of policy makers, politicians, and the American publiccan change not only the perception of who teen mothers are but also the opportunities made available to them.  By investigating the discourses surrounding teenage motherhood, Pillow seeks to highlight the racialized discursive structures that construct teen pregnancy in order to resituate teen mothers education as an equal opportunity educational policy issue (p. 11).  Throughout her work, Pillow clearly shows how teen mothers and the educational decisions made about them are deeply intertwined with race and gender polemics, an issue which has served to limit the amount and type of education they receive.  By reviewing how educators and policy makers treat teen mothers prior to, during, and after their pregnancy, Pillow shows just how profoundly discourse can influence political and educational action.    

Pillow begins her analysis by placing teen motherhood and education in historical perspective.  By examining how teenage pregnancy has been viewed over the last century, Pillow contends that both the perspective of teen motherhood and policy makers decisions concerning them are informed by a shifting view of adolescent mothers.  She argues that this shift moves between two racial dichotomies, one which typifies the teen mother as the good, white girl next door (p. 32) who is need of help to an altogether different picture of the teen mother as a bad, over-sexualized, black girl who cannot be redeemed.  She argues that policy makers decisions have been biased by whichever perspective of teen mothers is the most prevalent perspective, with the teen mother gaining more educational opportunities when being portrayed as a sympathetic, white girl (as in the 1900s1970s) versus more regulations and restrictions when viewed as a welfare-dependent black girl (as in the 1980s and 1990s).  

Pillow continues this argument in chapter 2 with a more in-depth examination of Title IX, an amendment prohibiting sexual discrimination in education.  She argues that though Title IX guarantees equal education in theory, its enactment is differentiated by race, with white mothers securing greater access to education while minority mothers are responsible to society for their mistakes (p. 13).  Through a review of the history of Title IX, Pillow posits that two perspectives have subverted teen mothers equal education guaranteed by Title IX.  First, based on educators fear that teen mothers sexual immorality will spread, schools have used a discourse of contamination (p. 63) to justify the redirection of teen mothers from traditional schools into alternative education programs.  Second, she contends that a discourse of education as responsibility (p. 71) has served to regulate the type of education minority mothers on welfare receive, with schooling seen as a necessary (and mandatory) means for retraining these women to become responsible, hard-working citizens.

While furthering other analyses (Luker, 1996; Kaplan, 1997; Williams, 1991) which have shown how race has deeply informed the perspective and regulation of teen mothers, these chapters provide an interesting case for how teen mothers of all backgrounds are discriminated against in their pursuit of an equal education.  Pillow provides several cases of both white and black women who challenged their removal from school and honor societies based on their pregnancy.  For instance, Pillow recounts the story of a low-income, white student who brought a case against her local school district for requiring a pregnant student to report her condition to the girls counselor and withdraw from school when the fact is known and before it becomes obvious (p. 65).  She also recalls the case of another white female who fought and lost a suit against the National Honor Society for removing her because she was pregnant.  Although the author later seeks to use these cases to illuminate educators discriminatory treatment of black mothers, these stories reveal that teen mothers of all backgrounds are struggling to the gain equal treatment they were guaranteed under Title IX.   

In chapters 3 and 4, Pillow takes a closer look at teen mothers in their schooling environment and how educators decisions have structured their education.  She begins in chapter 3 by discussing how a dearth of information about teen mothers actual educational experiences has limited policy makers ability to adequately develop policy which addresses the needs of these women, a practice which has resulted in frontline service providers making the crucial decisions about teen mothers education.  She maintains that this process has led to an educational approach which views teen pregnancy as either a temporary problem that requires little intervention or as a continuing disease that requires special, isolated treatment.  She expands upon this argument in chapter 4 by examining the difficulties teen mothers have met as students, revealing through their stories how schools routinely exclude these women and/or do not inform them about their right to an equal education.  She shows that though all parenting/pregnant teens face obstacles to their education, it is the most unrealistic and unreasonable girls (p. 113) who are the most discriminated against, a practice which leads to different educational standards for white and minority teen mothers.  

By showing how schools fail to fully implement Title IX dictates in their practice, Pillow highlights a problem common not only to the education of teen mothers, but to K12 education in general:  a lack of clear directives to guide the implementation of educational initiatives.  Pillow argues that limited local and state supervision has allowed school administrators to restrictively interpret Title IX, a practice which has severely constrained teen mothers educational opportunities.  Although her revelations are important, the difficulties of implementing Title IX statutes differ little from the numerous challenges educators have faced in affecting actual change in schools when little systematic support is given for doing so (Tyack and Tobin, 1993; Graham, 1984).  In this case, the inconsistent practices which have evolved from the implementation of Title IX differ little from the irregular implementation of other major policy reforms such as the Brown vs. the Board of Education decision (Eaton and Orfield, 2003) and Title I of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (Wong, 2003).  Until clear systems are developed which help educators learn how to apply new policy reforms and practices within their classrooms (e.g., Elmore, 19992000; Fink & Resnick, 2001), such inequities in policy implementation will continue for teen mothers as well as for many other students.   

In chapter 5, Pillow takes a further look at how schools regulate teen mothers learning.  Through an analysis of the curriculum in teen parents programs such as GRADS (Graduation, Reality, and Dual-Role Skills), she argues that education for teen mothers has increasingly focused on transforming them into responsible workers rather than focusing solely on helping them succeed academically.  She maintains that this agenda presupposes a lack of personal responsibility, practical reasoning skills (p. 153) and desire to work, all measures of educators lack of faith in teen mothers attitudes and abilities.  Through a critique of programs attempts to reform teen mothers views on childcare, Pillow clearly reveals programs bias towards making teen mothers aware of their responsibility in contributing to, rather than taking away from, the U.S. economy.   

Moving away from an extended examination of teen mothers education, Pillow shifts her analysis in chapter 6 towards a critique of the abstinence-only curricula being implemented in many U.S. schools today.  Her stark recollection of the tactics these programs use to steer youth away from early sexual activity reveals just how far some activists will go in pushing an abstinence-only agenda.  By using graphic images of infected genitalia and warning girls of the emotional woes that come from early sexual activity, abstinence-only supporters are seen to relentlessly focus on the very act which they seek to inhibit.  Pillow contends that such views seek to actively control female sexuality through three primary discourses, namely a discourse of alarm in which sex is depicted as dirty or dangerous, a discourse of heteronormativity which reifies traditional gender norms and expectations, and a discourse of control which seeks to limit welfare mothers sexual reproductivity.

After providing numerous critiques of current policies and practices, Pillow closes her analysis by considering how teen mothers and their education could be reconceptualized.  She argues for viewing pregnancy and mothering as a time in which women may reevaluate their educational lives and urges researchers to begin exploring teen mothers personal educational experiences.  She also highlights new ways in which teen mothers could be empowered in their education, either through greater support in their former schools or by pushing teen parenting programs to become critically empowering spaces (p. 224).  Programs such as these, which are open to teen mothers or specifically designed around their needs, have already been successful in helping more teen mothers continue in their education, experience high levels of success, and graduate at rates close to their nonpregnant peers (Luker, 1996; Gathron, 1990).  One can only hope that policy makers and educators will listen to Pillows treatise on the teen mothers ill treatment and demand more programs such as these that push them towards academic, rather than moral, success.     


Eaton, S.E. & Orfield, G.  (2003).  Rededication not celebration:  Brown at fifty. College Board Review, 200, 28-33.

Elmore, R.  (1999-2000).  Building a new structure for school leadership.  American Educator, 23(4), 6-13.

Fink, E. & Resnick, G.(?)  (2001).  Developing principals as instructional leaders.  Phi Delta Kappan, 82(8), 598-606.

Gathron, M. (1990).  Pregnant African American adolescents:  Overcoming negative outcomes associated with early childbearing.  Urban League Review, 14(1), 91-97.

Graham, P.A.  (1984).  Schools:  Cacophony about practice, silence about purpose. Daedalus, 113(4), 29-54.

Kaplan, Elaine B.  (1997).  Not our kind of girl.  Berkeley, CA:  University of California Press.

Luker, Kristin.  (1996).  Dubious conceptions.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press.

Tyack, D. & Tobin, W.  (1994).  The grammar of schooling:  Why has it been so hard to change?  American Educational Research Journal, 31(3), 453-479.

Williams, Constance W.  (1991).  Black teenage mothers:  Pregnancy and child rearing from their perspective.  Lexington, MA:  Lexington Books.

Wong, K.  (2003).  Title I as a reform strategy in urban schools (chapter 3).  In L.F. Miron and E. P. St. John (Eds.), Reinterpreting urban school reform:  Have urban schools failed, or has the reform movements failed urban schools?  Albany, NY:  State University of New York.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 5, 2006, p. 885-889
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12133, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 8:25:29 PM

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About the Author
  • Elizabeth Zachry
    Harvard University
    E-mail Author
    ELIZABETH ZACHRY is an advanced doctoral student at Harvard University Graduate School of Education in the Human Development and Psychology Program. She has been a Doctoral Fellow at the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy for the past three years and concentrates her research in adult literacy and the issues surrounding students’ dropout and re-engagement in school. Her most recent publication, entitled “Getting My Education": Teen Mothers’ Experiences in School Before and After Motherhood, will be published in the Teachers College Record in April 2006.
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