These Kids: Identity, Agency, and Social Justice at a Last Chance High School
reviewed by Antonia Randolph - December 19, 2013
Title: These Kids: Identity, Agency, and Social Justice at a Last Chance High School
Author(s): Kysa Nygreen
Publisher: University of Chicago Press, Chicago
ISBN: 022603156X, Pages: 208, Year: 2013
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In These Kids: Identity, Agency, and Social Justice at a Last Chance High School, author Kysa Nygreen describes what she terms the consequence gap for students at a California school that gives students a last chance at getting a high school diploma. The consequence gap is the stigma and blocked mobility that the lowest achieving students face due to their underachievement. A main contribution of the book is that it shows how hard it was for Nygreen and her Participatory Action Research (PAR) team to escape the attitudes and behaviors that construct the lowest achieving students as these kids. This was true despite the fact that the PAR team was mostly made of former students from the school and that they designed a study aimed at challenging the disempowerment of the students at the school. In effect, the book shows the consequence gap being reproduced in microcosm over the course of a research project that was aimed at fighting against social inequality.
The first chapter of the book reviews the literature on continuation, or last chance, high schools, and tracks the changes in the type of students they were meant to serve. The United States developed continuation schools to accommodate students who did not fit into traditional schools for some reason and were at risk of not graduating from high school. The type of students the school served has changed, from working and parenting students in the beginning to the low achieving students of the schools of today. Yet, no matter what type of student they served, the school system saw these schools and their students from a deficit lens and did not provide a real alternative from mainstream teaching practices. Instead, the schools kept modes of teaching that had not helped the students before and taught students just enough to allow them to graduate from high school.
This focus on continuation schools and the review of their history is a contribution in itself. Nygreen reports that about 10 percent of students in California attend continuation schools, yet they are under-researched (p. 26). The review also underlines a key insight that there have always been low achieving students and other students who are not well-served by traditional schools. Yet, rather than developing schools targeted to help marginalized students become successful in the economy, the school system continues to judge and train all students as though they are headed for college and the professional work world.
The remaining chapters of the book show how the PAR team struggled with academic achievement, professionalism, and the College for All standard as their default mode for dealing with students even as they tried to put another conception of education into practice. The book follows the PAR team as they design a research project that told them more about themselves than the students they studied and as they teach a social justice course that both reproduced and resisted dominant culture. They studied Jackson High School, a continuation school that several of the team members had attended and where the author had taught. Nygreen is to be commended for her honesty about how the research project did not meet her expectations, such as when the team collected survey data from students at Jackson High that they had little enthusiasm about analyzing. She shows how the research process itself is a useful subject for analysis.
Rather than reporting on the data the team collected, the balance of the book analyzes meetings, teaching and interviews with the team members themselves. The PAR research design, where the research team is made from the community that it studies, lends itself to this type of reflexivity about the research process. Moreover, the social change agenda that fuels PAR research only made it more urgent for Nygreen to outline how justice minded research could reproduce social inequality. Still, the book is unusually candid about the team members sometimes conflicting perspectives, the authors own unrecognized biases and disproportionate influence on the team, and revolving members of the teams. She salvages a study that went awry in important ways. Yet, through explaining exactly how it went awry, that is, did not fulfill her aims, she arguably teaches us more about the challenges for students at a continuation school than a study that went as planned.
A concept that emerged was how the figured world of schooling constrains the PAR team from making intervention at the school that reflected their social justice aims. Figured worlds are the constraints on scripts for thinking and acting that come with being in a particular setting such that only certain meanings, roles, and behaviors make sense. Nygreen uses this concept in a chapter describing the PAR teams process for hiring two new team members. The PAR team drew on the figured world of professional work and used middle-class standards for behavior for judging the candidates that disadvantaged students who embodied characteristics associated with low-income students. Thus, they rated candidates low for having an attitude, glossing over the content of their answers, and hired a former Jackson student who distanced herself from the students at the school. In this way, they replicated the stigma attached to low-income, low achieving students.
The figured world of schooling came up in a chapter about the social justice class the PAR team taught at Jackson. Here, the team was torn between acting as typical teachers who enforced rules and gave grades or acting like peers of the students who validated the students ways of being. Specifically, a black male member validated the students resistance to doing journal entries in response to the class lesson, while the two white female team members (including the author) thought the students should do the journal entries. Meanwhile, the fourth team member, who was also of color, swung between enforcing the rules and supporting the students resistance to writing in the journals. The author noted that the two members of color were torn between enacting the cool kid role they played when they went to the school and inhabiting the role of authority that came with the figured world of teaching.
Overall, this book provides an important corrective to the focus on the achievement gap and even on the opportunity gap. The hierarchization of schooling means that some students will always be at the bottom. The implication of this fact is that reducing the achievement gap will not get rid of the problems of low achieving kids. Thus, scholars should focus on relieving the consequences of low achievement, not just reducing the achievement gap. Nygreen offers several ideas for addressing the consequence gap at the end of the book. I was particularly intrigued by the multiple pathways framework, a curricular reform that combines academic, career and technical training, as a way to better meet the needs of non-college bound students. Hopefully, the book is the first of many to draw attention to problems and solutions specific to the lowest achieving students.