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Elusive Justice: Wrestling with Difference and Educational Equity in Everyday Practice

reviewed by Peter Sipe - May 24, 2007

coverTitle: Elusive Justice: Wrestling with Difference and Educational Equity in Everyday Practice
Author(s): Thea Renda Abu El-Haj
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 0415953650 , Pages: 256, Year: 2006
Search for book at Amazon.com

The last three words pledged daily by American boys and girls are cruelly ironic, given the state of education in their country. In May, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy decried a “national epidemic” in which “the dropout rate for African-American, Hispanic, and Native American students approaches 50%” (Spellings, 2007). Actually, flipping a coin offers better odds than those faced by pupils in many cities expecting – or, for those with a working grasp of probability, not expecting – to graduate from high school (Toppo, 2006). America does many things very well, but competently educating all of its children is not among them.

This injustice drives Thea Renda Abu El-Haj, a professor at Rutgers Graduate School of Education and a self-described “anthropologist of education” (p. 3), to explore how schools try to achieve justice. The result, a pair of “ethnographic portraits” (p. 67) of two dissimilar urban schools, “addresses how we… think about and act upon the differences that make a difference in education” (p. 1). Indeed, the concept of difference is central to Abu El-Haj’s inquiry. Her goal is “to open up to scrutiny and dialogue the range of ways we conceptualize difference and justice” (p. 3).  

Abu El-Haj spent eight years interviewing staff and students at two pseudonymous schools, the Parks Middle School and City Friends, in a “large northern U.S. [city]” (p. 2). While geographically close, the schools are educationally distant: the former is a poor, majority African-American public school; the latter is a wealthy private school attended by mostly white students.  Both schools were committed, however, to providing a more just education. Achieving this goal, Abu El-Haj explains, required confronting dilemmas related to each of three “contending claims about educational justice” (p. 2): integration, the need for equal standards, and the recognition of difference.  

Integration posed a challenge for Parks and City Friends, but not for the same reasons. Parks, which had already been desegregated by court order, now strove to bring special education students into mainstream classrooms, driven by funding cutbacks that eliminated the staff and services that previously kept such students apart. Initially educators at Parks were willing to adapt to this change, but their support diminished as they lacked commensurate resources to make full inclusion successful. Moreover, many were influenced by the “medical discourse of disability” (p. 95), which saw disability in the individual student, not the relationship between the student and “the contexts that make differences stand out” (p. 95).  City Friends, however, focused its integration efforts on achieving racial diversity. This process, begun a half century before, and born out of the school’s Quaker commitment to social justice, “supported a vision of increasing access to ‘excellent education’ as a morally necessary and viable goal” (p. 78). As staff and students began to consider integration beyond simply mixing whites and non-whites, both wrestled with a “growing realization that to work for racial equity required attention to collective experiences” (p. 53).

Abu El-Haj offers Parks Middle School’s efforts to hold its students to equal learning standards as illustrative of “the messiness of working for educational equity in contexts saturated by educational inequality.” Indeed, her accounts of teachers grappling with this “everyday dilemma” (p. 10) will resonate with anyone who has ever worked in a similar situation: the ideal (and, more recently, legal obligation) of maintaining high standards collides with grim reality. Staff “faced an irresolvable struggle. Holding all students to equal standards… perpetuated unequal outcomes; …[j]udging students individually, however, threatened to send them out into the world unprepared…” (p. 120). Abu El-Haj observes that, “this dilemma is connected to tenacious and contradictory beliefs about difference” (p. 10): achievement is determined either by the child’s will, or the child’s capacity, to learn (p. 121).  She concludes that what really matters is the “context of vast social inequality within which schools operate” (p. 130). She urges us to redress the disparate funding of America’s schools (tellingly, the equal standards dilemma did not seem to surface at City Friends), and “to interrogate… implicit beliefs about learning and learners, as well as the norms, values, and assumptions inherent in all educational standards” (p. 139).

Abu El-Haj returns her focus to City Friends as she examines endeavors by students to gain recognition of group differences in order to obtain a more satisfactory education. She recounts “the evolution of arguments” (p. 23) for curricular change to address “the knowledge, histories, and experiences of communities of color” (p. 23), as well the debates that arose as female students lobbied for more gender-sensitive math instruction. These bids for recognition were of particular value, she argued, because they helped expose “the hidden norms and assumptions guiding existing… pedagogy” (p. 188), a process, she asserts, that is essential to confronting educational injustice.

Abu El-Haj concludes her portraits with a brief list of broad and ambitious proposals. She urges work to ensure “[s]ubstantive inclusion in the school community” (p. 191), as well as to recognize “that we must simultaneously focus on the equality of all members in the community and recognize their differences” (pp. 190-191).  She also recommends thinking about difference as a relationship: instead of focusing on how individuals or groups are different, we should look at the ways they are arranged. Adopting this stance “demands reorganizing institutional practices and redistributing power in ways that involve the entire community in the process of change” (p. 197). When one considers the marble entrenchment of interests – and uninterest – that run urban education today, it is difficult to foresee, or even envision, the sort of revolution she sketches, although Abu El-Haj does acknowledge “the contentious nature of the process of change” (p. 198).

As an attempt to reveal the complexities of working for educational justice in a school, and as portraiture, Elusive Justice is an engaging work. Abu El-Haj’s interviews with teachers and students vividly illustrate the dilemmas she has invested so much time and effort exploring. Their lucidity, however, plays dissonantly with the book’s jargon-laden language: “The dominant framework through which City Friends defined its ethical commitment to creating a more racially and socioeconomically diverse community was one that equated equity with access to an educational environment that would teach all students the explicit and implicit rules for success in the dominant society” (p. 83). Sentences like that appear far too frequently to make for the sort of read that should be, as proposed by the foreword’s author, passed around by teachers, students, and colleagues (p. xiv).  Still, Abu El-Haj’s research illuminates the challenges encountered when, as well as the necessity that, educators examine how they try to make schools more just.


Spellings, M., & Kennedy, E. (2007, May 14). National epidemic, economic necessity. The Politico. Retrieved May 14, 2007 from http://www.politico.com

Toppo, G. (2006, June 20). Big-city schools struggle with graduation rates. USA Today. Retrieved May 14, 2007 from www.usatoday.com

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 24, 2007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14498, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 8:52:14 PM

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About the Author
  • Peter Sipe
    Williamsburg Collegiate Charter School
    E-mail Author
    PETER SIPE teaches reading and writing at Williamsburg Collegiate Charter School in Brooklyn. Previously, he taught in elementary and middle schools in Albany, Brooklyn, and Seattle. Before becoming a teacher, Peter worked on public health projects in West Africa and Haiti, and also served with the United Nations in Rwanda. A graduate of the New York City Teaching Fellows program, he also has a BA and MA in International Studies from the Johns Hopkins University, and is author of Newjack: Teaching in a Failing Middle School and Why Do Fellows Stick Around? An Inquiry into the Retention of New York City Teaching Fellows.
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