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Urban Youth and School Pushout: Gateways, Getaways, and the GED

reviewed by Jerusha Osberg Conner - July 26, 2013

coverTitle: Urban Youth and School Pushout: Gateways, Getaways, and the GED
Author(s): Eve Tuck
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 0415886090, Pages: 200, Year: 2013
Search for book at Amazon.com

Eve Tuck began her inquiry into the General Education Development (GED) credential by wondering how she or anyone else working in an advisory capacity to youth “might support them in making sound decisions about the GED” (p. 3). She wondered how the costs of earning a credential widely viewed as second rate might compare to the benefits. These questions motivated her to partner with youth co-researchers to collect rich and extensive data, which she presents in this book to illustrate what the GED means to the youth who seek it and how its lived value compares to its market value and academic value. Tuck situates her examination of the credential within a strong critique of neoliberalism, and she applies the lenses of critical theory and indigenous scholarship to analyze the links between neoliberal accountability policies, school pushout, and the GED.

Tuck’s book unfolds as a series of arguments, which she summarizes in both the introduction and conclusion. Chapter Two explicates the logic of neoliberalism and argues that neoliberal policies such as No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and exit exams effectively serve to push students out of school through “the downward pressure of test-based accountability policies” (p. 47). She observes that in this policy context, it is in schools’ interest to counsel low-performing students towards a GED, so that they will neither pull down average test scores nor count as dropouts when Adequate Yearly Progress is calculated.  

In Chapters Three through Five, Tuck shares findings from the Gateways and Get-aways Project, a mixed-methods youth participatory action study that included seven youth co-researchers, who were themselves school pushouts and subsequent GED earners. Data sources included individual interviews and focus groups with 124 GED seekers and earners, an opinion poll conducted with 476 New York City youth, cold calls with 80 human resource officers and college admission counselors, and freshly innovative methods, such as “slam books,” “problem trees” and “satisfaction group maps” (p. 7).  In Chapter Three, Tuck conceptualizes school pushout as a dialectic of “humiliating ironies and dangerous dignities” (p. 60). Drawing on interview and focus group data, she shows how youth assume positions of dangerous dignity when they resist the humiliating practices of schooling, and turn to the GED as an “escape hatch” (p. 116) from overcrowded classrooms, characterized by narrowly focused test-based curricula and indifferent, inflexible and sometimes overtly racist teachers and administrators. She builds on this argument in Chapter Four, when she argues that despite statistical and cold call data confirming the dubious market value of the GED, pushed-out youth pursue the GED as a means of “survivance”, self-preservation, and defiance, “repatriating” not only their own education, but also the credential in the process (p. 91). In Chapter Five she explores the humiliating irony of “school as disrespectful lifeline” (p. 119) explaining how as other public institutions become privatized, schools bear greater responsibility for meeting young people’s needs, but in the process of responding to such accountability pressures, schools end up pushing out the very youth who need them the most. She also observes that youth who reject schooling in large part because of its dissatisfying myopic focus on assessment continue to value their education tremendously and yearn for “educational sovereignty” (p. 88). The concluding chapter reviews these arguments, offers alternative frameworks to the market-government dichotomy of neoliberalism, and issues a call for policy that supports “multiple, meaningful routes to graduation.”           

Tuck’s work is decidedly ambitious. She examines a range of issues, from neoliberalism and the rise of privatization across multiple sectors to meritocracy and the myth of the American Dream, from the philosophical purposes of public schooling to the phenomenon of school pushout. She weaves all these topics together in a complex analysis, framed by an examination of the value of the GED to those who earn it. Using the relatively new methodological tools of youth participatory action research and theoretical threads drawn from indigenous scholarship, Lefebvre’s notions of “political economy,” and Deleuze’s ideas about complex personhood and desire, she crafts paradoxes, dialectics, ironies, and knots. Tuck does so much in this text that there were moments when I found myself wishing for a deeper treatment of fewer issues and more unpacking of key findings.

The broad scope of this work, however, allows Tuck to make important connections as well as key empirical, methodological, and theoretical contributions. Because she conducts research that is at once participatory and “desire-based” - that is, research that honors the complexity of people, their desires, and their lived experiences - she counters the tendency of researchers who study the GED to perpetuate the stigmatization of both the credential and those who earn it. Instead, she effectively shows that the central feature of the GED is in fact “hope. Desire. Pained, yes. Self-protective, yes. But also reflective, … and ultimately, pretty well informed” (p. 109). In the end, Tuck has flipped the premise of her initial question from what support adults can give to potential GED seekers to what counsel GED seekers and earners can give those of us who seek to support youth and reform schools.  

Many who read this book will see it as advancing the project begun by Tuck’s mentor, Michelle Fine, in 1991 with her landmark study Framing Dropouts. Just as Fine argued that dropping out of school was an act of political resistance and critique, so too Tuck demonstrates how youth who have been pushed out of school seek to preserve their dignity and protect their futures by using the GED as a get-away from profoundly unwelcoming, educationally dissatisfying, and structurally unjust schooling. Furthermore, she shows that most of the GED earners or seekers involved in the Gateways and Get-aways Project focus groups believe that they are on track to leading a highly satisfying life by age 45, a life that will be marked by respect, supportive families, good literature and inspiring music, affordable housing, a job that pays well, and good friends. Tuck predicts that if schools continue to embrace testing as their main purpose and function, more youth will be pushed towards the GED, but as these GED earners enter and succeed in college and the workplace, the material value of the credential will shift to reflect its lived value. This is at once a hopeful and a tragic conclusion, because even as it envisions successful and satisfying trajectories for GED earners, it despairs of a course correction in current trajectories of neoliberal school reform. By humanizing GED seekers, depicting them as school pushouts, and contextualizing them within a “territorialized” educational system (p. 161), Tuck offers a profound reframing of the discourse surrounding this familiar, but misunderstood credential as well as a potent sociopolitical critique.    

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 26, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17190, Date Accessed: 12/4/2021 5:41:17 PM

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About the Author
  • Jerusha Conner
    Villanova University
    E-mail Author
    JERUSHA CONNER is an assistant professor of Education at Villanova University. Her community-engaged scholarship examines student voice in school reform, student engagement, and youth organizing. She is currently editing a book, Speak Up and Speak Out: Student Voice in American Educational Policy, that will be published as a National Society for the Study of Education Yearbook in 2015. Her publications have appeared in Teachers College Record, Education Policy, Journal of Research on Adolescence, and American Journal of Education.
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