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Keeping the Promise: Essays on Leadership, Democracy and Education

reviewed by Sheron Andrea Fraser-Burgess - July 30, 2008

coverTitle: Keeping the Promise: Essays on Leadership, Democracy and Education
Author(s): Dennis Carlson and C. P. Gause (Ed.)
Publisher: Paradigm Publishers, Boulder
ISBN: 0820481998, Pages: 416, Year: 2007
Search for book at Amazon.com

Keeping the Promise: Essays on Leadership, Democracy and Education is an important book, worthy of merit for its thoughtful, in-depth and reformist examination of democratic education! Edited by Dennis Carlson and C.P. Gause, the volume originated from an ongoing, multiyear initiative (1999-2004) of the Department of Educational Leadership at Miami University and the Ohio Department of Education. These gatherings of diverse scholars engendered multi-perspectival dialogue about leadership, culture and schooling around key, shared conceptions of democracy. The volume presents a broad-based, critical analysis of economic, social and political factors bearing on school leadership and democracy as its governing ideal. In its totality the book’s deconstruction of established and entrenched discourses of democracy constitutes a significant contribution to scholarship in educational leadership.

While a valuable reference within its own field, this work has appeal for broader inquiry in education. The extent to which the volume draws upon critiques of feminist theory, social justice and critical theory is instructive, because it further moves those theories to the center of educational scholarship and practice, as meaningful constructs for the activist as well as for the mainstream theorist. The effectiveness of the volume’s engagement of these critiques is at least partly attributable to how well as methodology they foreground the interests of marginalized peoples. What more democratic tasks could there be?

This work also has general significance for inquiry in education because it offers a compelling thesis regarding education’s decision-makers and leaders. As a whole this work argues that powerful and partisan agendas have co-opted democratic ideals but have failed to be faithful to its inherent principles of pluralism, fair opportunity and deliberation for mutually beneficial outcomes. In reviewing this text below, I begin with the editors’ account of the book’s purpose and aims. After an overview of the volume’s organization, I then discuss the work in terms of achieving its stated intent.

In terms of purpose, Carlson and Gause offer a timely and laudable rationale for the work, as an effort to “take a fresh look at educational leadership in an age when the democratic promise of public education is ‘at risk’ of being abandoned, forgotten and emptied of meaning” (p. ix). The failings of the current system of education that warrant revisiting the democratic ideal include, the “mere ‘skilling’ of future workers for various rungs in an increasingly inequitable labor force and socioeconomic order,” the “‘normalizing’ disciplining and surveillance of young people,” reproducing “class, race and gender and other inequalities” and “educational leaders” that “have been influenced more by industrial than democratic models of organization and control” (p. x).

In addition to the present bleak state of affairs, the editors suggest that worsening social and economic conditions infuse a greater sense of urgency to reexamination of the relationship between democratic principles and education. Sources of further anxiety about the future of education include: the unabated transformation of “public schools” “into for-profit and religious network of schools;” the impact of high stakes tests that are “driving more and more poor white, black and Latino youth out of school,” and urban schools that are being  “transformed into panoptic institutions of surveillance and policing . . . as the effects of economic restructuring and social dislocation impact adversely on the lives of young people” (p. xi). The editors imply that these conditions obtain because of a breach of faith in our democratic social compact.

Three aims animate Keeping the Promise as a work of critique. They are:

1) The deconstruction of dominant discourses of educational leadership (e.g., administrator - as leader, the leader-follower binary, society as a self-contained organism),

2) Alternately, proposing candidate positive attributes of “democratic and liberatory” educational leadership that provide a basis for hope without illusions; and lastly

3) Calling into question the “theory-practice binary” within education that relegates philosophical inquiry and “praxis” about democracy to the academy while public schools persist in rigid modalities of accountability.

These aims around which my discussion of the work is centered inform various individual chapters, and authors infuse their papers with elements thereof to varying degrees.

Three subsections form the structure within which the work undertakes these goals. They are “The Cultural Context of Educational Leadership,” “Narratives of Educational Leadership,” and “Popular Culture, the Media, and Educational Leadership.” Although some subsections are stronger than others in freshness and depth of scholarship, particularly in the first part of the work, the chapters fulfill the stated aims with a high degree of success. The papers engage the reader with rigor and incisive analysis that may be somewhat unexpected given the seemingly broad scope of the work. Much of the conceptual and historical deconstruction of dominant discourses takes place in the first section, which I will now discuss according to their common themes.

Disentangling the dominant discourse from democratic ideals shapes three chapters in the first section: Carlson’s, “Are We Making Progress? The Discursive Construction of Progress in the age of “No Child Left Behind,” Michael Apple’s “Schooling, Markets, Race and an Audit Culture” and, “Excavating Hope Among the Ruins: Confronting Creeping Fascism in Our Midst,” by Scatamburlo-D’Annibale, Suoranta and McLaren. All three articles target industrializations’ legacy of market-driven efficiency as a measure of success in education. Carlson deconstructs the “hegemonic discourse of progress” that oversimplifies the problems facing urban schools by suggesting that the “problem of underachievement can be adequately addressed through better management of machines borrowed from industry” (p. 32). Apple problematizes the coupling of neoliberal or neoconservative and market-driven agendas with institutions such as education. In a quasi-polemical piece, Scatamburlo-D’Annibale, Suoranta and McLaren characterize President George Bush’s two-term regime as neo-fascism rooted in the effort to galvanize and maintain support for the war in Iraq and the attendant neo-conservative public policies.

In the vein of systematic deconstruction, but focusing on specific aspects of school leadership, are Lugg’s historical piece, “Sissies, Faggots, Lezzies and Dykes: Gender Sexual Orientation, and a New Politics of Education?” Quantz’s “Leadership, Culture, and Democracy: Rethinking Systems and Conflicts in Schools” and Dantley’s “Re-Radicalizing the Consciousness in Educational Leadership: The Critical Spiritual Imperative toward Keeping the Promise.” Lugg aims to “chart a course through the contested areas of gender and sexual orientation in hopes of establishing a theoretical framework and an agenda for much needed research” (p. 118). Quantz nicely foregrounds the significance of conflict versus system theory as differing operating assumptions in educational leadership and argues that the latter is most in keeping with democracy. Dantley’s critique of “right wing conservative Christianity” juxtaposes this constituency against a “critical spirituality” and then proposes “how the aligning of critical spirituality with democracy and social justice can help to radically reform schools” (p. 160).

The final chapter in this subsection may not immediately appear to fit in with the previous ones because it concerns a very specific aspect of education rather than the sweeping theoretical analyses that precede it; however, this chapter is as much a deconstruction as the rest because of its clear advocacy for previously marginalized students that challenges long-standing discourses of the relationship between student engagement and achievement. It suggests that the strategies for increasing student performance on standardized tests would do well to address student alienation as salient in testing outcomes.

In summary, the first part of the volume sets the ideological tone for the volume and as such is unapologetically at the further left end of the political spectrum. Each chapter hammers away at ways of thinking and entrenched courses of actions in education that, in its view, has been merely passing as democratic. It is worth noting that these chapters notably do not entertain alternate interpretations of the litany of political and social policies that they conceive as illicit and hegemonic moves by those on the “Right.” While this bias somewhat constrains the probative value of pieces as efforts to “speak truth to power,” each chapter is well-based in the literature and offers decided evidence in its favor.

The second subsection, “The Cultural Context of Educational Leadership,” presents conceptual and empirical studies in the possibilities for the alternate constructions of democratic education, discussed in the first part of the volume. Cooper and Gause’s “‘Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?’ Facing Identity Politics and Resistance When Teaching for Social Justice” and Garnier’s “Unpacking on a Long Journey Home: A Lesson on Race Identity and Culture” present compelling self-studies. In deeply personal accounts, both chapters relate the motivations for and challenges presented by appropriately conceived democratic education in practice. In the latter chapter, the author reflects on the transformative personal impact of an immersive research project on African women’s leadership. The former piece adds to the extensive body of literature on the experiences of minorities in teaching in majority classrooms (hook, 1994; Maher & Tetreault, 1994) by relating obstacles to realizing social justice pedagogy in a department of educational leadership. Gause’s accounts of student resistance further underscore the urgency of substantive explorations of the meaning of democracy for the field.

The Gause, Reitzug and Villaverde piece transcribes a recursive philosophical dialogue about the nature of the relationship between democracy and education in “Beyond Generic Democracy: Holding Our Students Accountable for Democratic Leadership and Practice.” The dialogue is unique in the volume in approaching a substantive and extensive positive account of democratic education and indeed the conversation revises important considerations for clarifying the concept. Their purpose is,

to share where we started, where and how we decided to evaluate/critique how democracy is currently defined given the current sociocultural and political climate within the United States and how to better ‘make sense’ of these constructs to effect change in educational leaders’ preparation programs locally and globally (although we are not there yet). (p. 217)

In my view, the key to continuing this conversation meaningfully is drawing extensively on the political philosophical literature in deliberative democracy and education not only of Gutmann and Thompson (1996) but also of others doing recent work (e.g., Callan, 2004; Estlund, 2007). Related analyses in morality, caring and education also can fruitfully inform this discussion (Blum,1999; Katz, Noddings & Strike, 1999).

Both Abowitz and Rousmaniere’s chapter, “Margaret Haley as Diva: A Case Study of a Feminist Citizen-Leader,” and Johnson’s “Making Her Community a Better Place to Live: Lessons from History for Culturally Responsive Urban School Leadership” provide insightful, historical models of educational leadership for democracy. Abowitz and Rousmaniere delineate novel and intriguing criteria for the “diva citizen leader” that integrate both Anglo-centric feminism and the Black feminist concept of “womanism.” Their research implies a standard of democratic leadership for women not only in education but also across multiple sectors of society. Similarly, Johnson’s case study of Gertrude Ayer juxtaposes the culturally responsive framework that is well-established in pedagogy with the work of Ayer in the early to mid-twentieth century in Harlem. The result is freshly articulated directions for applying this framework to urban school leadership.

Two qualitative studies complete this section. They are Chajet’s “The Power and Limits of Small School Reform: Institutional Agency and Democratic Leadership in Public Education” and Fine’s “Resisting the Passive Revolution: Democratic, Participatory Research by Youth.” Although the notion of “institutional agency” is a philosophically difficult concept, unpacking the sense in which a school can act collectively to promote democracy and have culpability is not an unfruitful endeavor. Chajet’s case study of Bridges High School examines the implications of institutional agency defined as schools working “from a clear understanding and critique of reproductive functions of education within the United States” (p. 287). The study’s findings suggest significant benefits for students who “might otherwise have been academically marginalized” in engagement, “learning, and persisting through high school” (p. 294).

Fine’s piece details the process and outcomes of enacting participatory action research (PAR) methodology in the study of youth empowerment for democratic education. This multi-year study positioned a “coalition of educators and youth, with youth researchers as the primary sources of knowledge” and “youth analyses positioned as fundamental to educational policy, practice, organizing and leadership” (pp. 304-305). Not only is this methodology a radical approach to democratizing education but also it blurs the theory-practice divide by “legitimating democratic inquiry within institutions as well as outside” (p. 305).


Together these “narratives of educational leadership” in the second section of the volume offer an enfleshment of the principles and ideas articulated in the prior section. Though not unproblematic, the claims of each chapter have a strong basis in literature and offer radical paradigms and new and novel directions for the democratization of educational leadership. Most importantly, these chapters entertain hopeful possibilities for realizing more equitable education.

“Popular Culture, the Media, and Educational Leadership” is the final section, which offers pedagogical directions for integrating media and notions of representation and identity. I will speak generally about the chapters in this part of the volume because each article draws upon a very similar body of literature and reaches contiguous conclusions. Appealing heavily to the potential for representation to enable democracy, the authors offer critiques of media representations of minority principals, teachers and students. A new idea presented in this section is using forms of media as an aesthetic to circumvent well-documented pre-service teacher resistance to social justice pedagogy. Though not as fresh and original as the previous sections, this portion of the volume makes prominent the growing role that media is continuing to play in education’s scholarship and pedagogy and is worth reading in my view also for the survey of research in this area.

In conclusion, in exploring the salience of critiques such as feminist theory, social justice and critical theory to this field, Keeping the Promise: Essays on Leadership, Democracy and Education does ground-breaking work of unpacking the deeply structural hindrances to equitable, fair and just educational leadership in America without pessimism. Indeed, the book implies through its ample historical and research-based case studies that the great challenge of fulfilling the hope of truly democratically conceived education for 21st century America is both difficult and possible. Thus this text would be an excellent supplement for any upper level undergraduate or graduate course exploring the meaning of democracy for education at different levels of responsibility (e.g., classroom, school, and district).


Blum, L. (1999). Ethnicity, Identity, and Community. In M. Katz, N. Noddings,  K. Strike (Eds.), Justice and caring: The search for common ground in education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Callan, E. (2004). Citizenship and education. Annual Review of Political Science. 7(1), 71-90.

Estlund, D. (2007). Democratic authority: A philosophical framework. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Gutmann, A., & Thompson, D. (1996). Democracy and disagreement. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York: Routledge.

Katz, M., Noddings, N., & Strike, K. (Eds.). (1999). Justice and caring: The search for common ground in education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Mahaer, F. A., & Tetreault, M.K. (1994). The feminist classroom: An inside look at how professors and students are transforming higher education for a diverse society. New York: Basic Books.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 30, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15326, Date Accessed: 10/17/2021 3:14:31 PM

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