Preparing Adolescents Attending Progressive and No-Excuses Urban Charter Schools to Analyze, Navigate, and Challenge Race and Class Inequality
by Scott Seider, Daren Graves, Aaliyah El-Amin, Shelby Clark, Madora Soutter, Jalene Tamerat, Pauline Jennett, Kathryn Gramigna, Jennifer Yung, Megan Kenslea & Sherri Sklarwitz - 2016
Background/Context: Sociopolitical development (SPD) refers to the processes by which an individual acquires the knowledge, skills, emotional faculties, and commitment to recognize and resist oppressive social forces. A growing body of scholarship has found that such sociopolitical capabilities are predictive in marginalized adolescents of a number of key outcomes, including resilience, academic achievement, and civic engagement. Many scholars have long argued that schools and educators have a central role to play in fostering the sociopolitical development of marginalized adolescents around issues of race and class inequality. Other scholars have investigated school-based practices for highlighting race and class inequality that include youth participatory-action research, critical literacy, and critical service-learning.
Objective of Study: The present study sought to add to the existing scholarship on schools as opportunity structures for sociopolitical development. Specifically, this study considered the role of two different schooling models in fostering adolescents’ ability to analyze, navigate, and challenge the social forces and institutions contributing to race and class inequality.
Setting: The six high schools participating in the present study were all urban charter public high schools located in five northeastern cities. All six schools served primarily low-income youth of color and articulated explicit goals around fostering students’ sociopolitical development. Three of these high schools were guided by progressive pedagogy and principles, and three were guided by no-excuses pedagogy and principles.
Research Design: The present study compared the sociopolitical development of adolescents attending progressive and no-excuses charter high schools through a mixed methods research design involving pre-post surveys, qualitative interviews with participating adolescents and teachers, and ethnographic field notes collected during observations at participating schools.
Results: On average, adolescents attending progressive high schools demonstrated more significant shifts in their ability to analyze the causes of racial inequality, but adolescents attending no-excuses high schools demonstrated more significant shifts in their sense of efficacy around navigating settings in which race and class inequality are prominent. Neither set of adolescents demonstrated significant shifts in their commitment to challenging the social forces or institutions contributing to race and class inequality.
Conclusions: Both progressive and no-excuses schools sought to foster adolescents’ commitment to challenging race and class inequality, but focused on different building blocks to do so. Further research is necessary to understand the pedagogy and practices that show promise in catalyzing adolescents’ analytic and navigational abilities into a powerful commitment to collective social action—the ultimate goal of sociopolitical development.
Systemic race and class inequality in the United States is far from new (Bonilla-Silver, 2006; Pikkety & Saez, 2003); however, the emergence of several national protest movements in 2011 and 2012 brought the pernicious effects of such inequality more fully into the public eye (Kirshner, 2015). The Occupy Wall Street movement began in 2011 to protest income inequality between the wealthiest and poorest Americans as well as the corruption, greed, and disproportionate political power of American banks and multinational corporations (Occupy Wall Street, 2015). The Black Lives Matter movement emerged a year later in response to the deaths of Trayvon Martin and other Black Americans through extrajudicial violence as well as the systemic racism underlying such violence (Black Lives Matter, 2015).
In the wake of these movements, a torrent of news stories reported on the explicit steps that many parents marginalized by inequities in race and socioeconomic status take to prepare their children to encounter race and class inequality in the contemporary United States (e.g., Blow, 2015; Canedy, 2014; Coates, 2015; Graham, 2014; Memmot, 2012).1 Many scholars have long argued that schools and educators also have a central role to play in preparing marginalized adolescents to recognize and resist the forces and institutions contributing to race and class inequality (e.g., Delpit, 1988; Freire, 1973; Ladson-Billings, 1995; Lee, 1992; Perry, Steele, & Hilliard, 2003; Walker, 1993). For example, Perry et al. (2003) called for schools to foster African American students positive academic and social development by attending specifically to narratives that counter the problematic, yet widespread, notions of Black intellectual inferiority. Delpit (1988) called for educators to teach marginalized adolescents the codes needed to participate fully in the mainstream of American life. . . [and also] the arbitrariness of those codes and about the power relationships they represent (p. 296). Still other scholars have investigated school-based practices for highlighting race and class inequality that include youth participatory-action research (Cammarota & Fine, 2008; Kirshner, 2015), critical literacy (Duncan-Andrade & Morrell, 2008; Lee, 1992), and critical service-learning (Ginwright & James, 2002; Youniss & Yates, 1997).
The importance of these pedagogical (and parenting) practices is underscored by a growing body of research that reports that preparation for bias can buffer marginalized adolescents against the negative effects of oppression by replacing feelings of isolation and self-blame for ones challenges with a sense of engagement in a broader collective struggle for social justice (e.g., Diemer, Rapa, Park, & Perry, 2014; Ginwright, 2010; Perry, 2003; Ward, 1996). Specifically, scholars have found that high levels of consciousness in marginalized adolescents about the oppressive social forces shaping ones life are predictive of a number of key outcomes including resilience (Ginwright, 2010; Thomas et al., 2014), academic achievement (Cabrera et al., 2014; Cammarota, 2007), professional aspirations (Diemer & Blustein, 2006; Diemer & Hsieh, 2008), and civic and political engagement (Diemer & Li, 2011; Watts, Diemer, & Voight, 2011). As Tatum (1997) observed, We are better able to resist the negative impact of oppressive messages when we see them coming than when they are invisible to us (p. 47).
Recent scholarship on youth sociopolitical development (SPD) offers a useful conceptual framework for considering the role of schools in preparing marginalized adolescents to analyze, navigate, and challenge race and class inequality (Watts & Flanagan, 2007; Watts, Griffith, & Abdul-Adil, 1999). SPD refers to the processes by which an individual acquires the knowledge, skills, emotional faculties, and commitment to recognize and resist oppressive social forces (Watts, Williams, & Jagers, 2003). As described in greater detail below, Watts and Flanagan (2007) posited that adolescents sociopolitical development is mediated by their access to opportunity structures: meaningful opportunities to engage in both critical social analysis and collective social action (p. 784).
The present study sought to add to the existing scholarship on schools as opportunity structures for SPD. Specifically, this study considered the role of two different schooling models in fostering adolescents ability to analyze, navigate, and challenge the social forces and institutions contributing to race and class inequality. All six of the high schools participating in the present study were urban charter high schools located in five northeastern cities and serving primarily low-income youth of color. All six schools also articulated explicit goals in their mission or vision statements related to fostering students sociopolitical development; however, three of these high schools were guided by progressive pedagogy and principles, and three were guided by no-excuses pedagogy and principles. The research questions directing our investigation were the following:
What differences, if any, emerge in the SPD of adolescents attending progressive and no-excuses urban charter high schools in their ability to analyze, navigate, and challenge race and class inequality?
How do adolescents attending these progressive and no-excuses urban charter high schools describe and understand (a) their own SPD regarding issues of race and class inequality and (b) the schooling practices that contributed to this SPD?
Our analyses revealed that the adolescents attending this studys progressive schools demonstrated greater shifts over the 201314 school year in their ability to analyze the causes of racial inequality, and the adolescents attending no-excuses schools demonstrated greater shifts over the course of the school year in their sense of efficacy around navigating institutions and settings where race and class inequality are prominent. Neither set of adolescents demonstrated significant shifts in their commitment to challenging race or class inequality. We elaborate on these findings below as well as their implications for both scholars and practitioners.
Two related conceptual frameworks for youth sociopolitical development guide the present investigation. Watts et al. (1999) offered a five-stage theory of oppression and sociopolitical development in which the ability to analyze oppressive social forces (critical thinking) and navigate oppressive social forces (adaptive strategies) are positioned as necessary building blocks for developing the capacity and commitment to challenge oppressive social forces through collective social action (p. 259). Specifically, an individual in the first stage of SPD (acritical) does not recognize resource inequity among different groups, but an individual in the second stage (adaptive) recognizes and seeks out strategies for navigating this inequity. By navigating inequity, these scholars refer to the possession of adaptive strategies thatsimilar to Bourdieu and Passerons (1977) concept of cultural capitalallow for the achievement of both a positive sense of self and social and material rewards despite living in a society structured to maintain social inequality and unjust distribution of resources (p. 263).
In the third stage (precritical), individuals become increasingly concerned about the role of inequity within their society, and the fourth stage (critical) entails taking steps to actively learn more about the sources of this inequity and what can be done to address it. Finally, individuals in the fifth stage (liberation) actively challenge inequity and oppression through participation in collective social action. Watts et al. (1999) noted that positioning collective social action as the ultimate goal of sociopolitical development distinguishes their framework from more traditional risk and resilience models (e.g., Masten & Powell, 2003), which focus more narrowly on individual psychosocial development and, in so doing, neglect the skills for building collective consciousness and promoting social justice (p. 256). Kirshner (2015) likewise noted that an important distinguishing characteristic of Wattss SPD framework is the incorporation of adolescents need to talk about challenges in their everyday lives, examine root causes of inequality, and take action about issues that affect them (p. 25).
Although Watts et al. (1999) presented this model of oppression and sociopolitical development as a stage theory, they also acknowledged that it may prove more useful to think about these so-called states as statuses, to reflect the possibility that there is no common starting or end point in the process (p. 263). In keeping with this more iterative perspective, Watts and Flanagan (2007) offer an updated framework for youth sociopolitical development in which engagement in collective social action remains the principal outcome, but this engagement is positioned in a bidirectional relationship with an individuals ability to critically analyze political, economic, cultural and other systemic forces that shape society and ones status in it (p. 784). In other words, engagement in critical social analysis strengthens ones commitment to participating in collective social action, and vice versa.
Additionally, Watts and Flanagan (2007) posited that the relationship between critical analysis and social action is moderated by adolescents sense of efficacy around engaging in social action (agency) and the availability of meaningful opportunities to engage in such analysis and action (opportunity structure). Drawing on Watts and Flanagans framework, then, one might characterize schools as potential opportunity structures for offering adolescents opportunities to engage in both critical analysis and collective social action (p. 784). We draw upon both of these conceptual frameworks in considering the results of the present study.
SCHOOLS AS OPPORTUNITY STRUCTURES FOR SOCIOPOLITICAL DEVELOPMENT
The present study considers the role of urban secondary schools as sites for fostering adolescents ability to analyze, navigate, and challenge race and class inequality (Watts & Flanagan, 2007). We identified six urban charter high schools serving primarily low-income youth of color that explicitly cite fostering students sociopolitical development as a part of their educational mission. Yet these six secondary schools take most different approaches to this work that can be characterized as guided by either progressive or no-excuses principles (Ragin, 1989). Descriptions of these pedagogical approaches, and of the participating schools themselves, are offered below. By including these distinctive schooling models within our study, we sought to learn more about the role of different pedagogical approaches in fostering adolescents sociopolitical development in relation to race and class inequality.
We invoke the term progressive schooling to refer to approaches to education that emphasize a caring and collaborative community in which students and teachers work together as partners, as well as a curricular focus upon social justice, inquiry-based learning, and deep understanding (Kohn, 2008; Little & Ellison, 2015). Influenced by the writings of philosopher John Dewey (1915), progressive educators conceptualize schools as key agents of an effective democracy and, thus, seek to engage students as active and critical citizens within their school community and broader communities. The present study includes three progressive urban charter high schools that all explicitly cite fostering students commitment to social action as a core tenet of their respective missions, but that are associated with three different progressive-schooling organizations: the Paulo Freire Institute, Expeditionary Learning (EL), and Coalition of Essential Schools (CES). Each of these schools is described in greater detail in the Methods section below.
The present study also includes three no-excuses urban charter high schools that, likewise, explicitly cite fostering students sociopolitical development as a key goal in their mission or vision statements. We invoke the term no-excuses schooling to describe an approach to education that is marked by a strict disciplinary environment, extended time in school, college-preparatory mission, intensive focus on traditional mathematics and literacy skills, and explicit instruction in the social skills of school (S. Carter, 2000; Thernstrom & Thernstrom, 2003). In large part because low-income youth attending no-excuses charter networks such as YES Prep and KIPP report college graduation rates four times that of their low-income peers nationally (Pondiscio, 2013), the no-excuses model has grown increasingly prevalent among urban schools and districts (Fryer, 2011). More detailed descriptions of the three no-excuses schools participating in the present study are also offered in the Methods section below.
MOST DIFFERENT SCHOOLING MODELS
As is evident in the descriptions above, progressive and no-excuses approaches can be reasonably characterized as most different from one another (Ragin, 1989). Progressive schooling approaches emphasize inquiry-based and experiential learning, and no-excuses schools emphasize more traditional teacher-led instruction. Progressive schooling favors a collaborative, egalitarian relationship between teachers and students, and no-excuses schools favor a more traditional hierarchical teacher-student relationship.
Our goal in investigating the sociopolitical development of adolescents attending these most different schooling models was not to declare one of these models to be superior to the other. Nor do we seek to claim that any of these schools represent perfect manifestations of the schooling models upon which they were founded and continue to be guided. Rather, we regard these two sets of schoolsall of which cite explicit commitments to fostering students sociopolitical developmentas useful sites for investigating different ways in which schools can serve as opportunity structures for adolescents ability to analyze, navigate, and challenge race and class inequality. Moreover, we believe that uncovering similarities and differences in the development of these abilities across these two sets of schools will offer useful takeaways for both scholars and educators about the programming and practices through which schools can engage in such work.
Finally, it is important to note that our decision to situate this investigation of sociopolitical development in charter schools is not to suggest the absence of such development in adolescents attending traditional public schools as well. In fact, the extant research literature on youth sociopolitical development is situated primarily in traditional public schools in cities such as Oakland, California (Morrell & Duncan-Andrade, 2008); Tucson, Arizona (Cammarota & Fine, 2010); and Denver, Colorado (Kirshner, 2015). However, two of the criteria for participating schools in the current study were (a) explicit language in the mission or vision statement around cultivating SPD, and (b) a clear declaration on the schools website or founding documents of affiliation with either progressive or no-excuses schooling models. Because charter schools were originally conceptualized as alternatives to the traditional public schools in a given community, they have greater autonomy to affiliate with a particular schooling model or declare a focus upon a particular theme, such as social action (Wohlstetter, Wenning, & Briggs, 1995). It was for these reasons that the participating charter schools represented ideal sites for the present study.
TWO KEY MEASURES OF SOCIOPOLITICAL DEVELOPMENT
Recall that the theory of oppression and sociopolitical development guiding this investigation conceptualizes critical analytic and navigational skills as necessary building blocks toward a commitment to challenging oppression through collective social action (Watts et al., 1999). The various measures used to consider these dimensions of SPD are presented in the Methods section below; however, we briefly describe here the extant research literature related to two of these measures that proved significant in our analyses: (a) structural thinking about racial inequality, which served as one of our measures of adolescents ability to analyze race and class inequality, and (b) social intelligence, which served as one of our measures of adolescents feelings of efficacy around navigating settings where race and class inequality are prominent.
Structural thinking about racial inequality refers to an individuals recognition and understanding of the role of systemic and societal factors in contributing to race-based inequality (Gurin, Nagda, & Zuniga, 2011; Nagda, Gurin, & Lopez, 2003). For example, individuals who demonstrate high levels of structural thinking about racial inequality might demonstrate an understanding of how particular policies, laws, or cultural practices can privilege or obstruct the success of particular racial/ethnic groups over others (Gordon, 2013). For some individuals, this recognition comes about as a result of their own experiences being denied access to rights or resources (Croteau, Talbot, Lance, & Evans, 2002; Curtin, 2011; Essed, 1991; Sturmer & Simon, 2004). Other individuals worldviews are impacted by explicit learning and reflection about how power, privilege, and oppression operate on social and structural levels (Tatum, 1994), such as university coursework on multiculturalism (Lopez, Gurin, & Nagda, 1998). Importantly, scholars have found that an individuals commitment to engaging in social action to address an injustice such as racism depends, in large part, on that individuals perceiving the injustice to be both unjust and systemic (Curtin, 2011; Gurin & Townsend, 1986; Hyers, 2007; Iyer & Ryan, 2009). In this way, structural thinking about racial inequality represents a form of critical social analysis that can foster an individuals commitment to challenging race-based inequality.
A second measure that proved significant in our analyses was social intelligence. Thorndike (1920) originally coined the term to describe an individuals ability to act wisely in human relations (p. 228). Subsequent scholars have defined social intelligence as an individuals awareness of other peoples motives and feelings as well as using this understanding to navigate social situations appropriately (Duckworth & Levin, 2014). K. Jones and Day (1997) distinguished between fluid and crystallized social intelligence. Fluid social intelligence refers to an individuals ability to infer the unspoken expectations in particular social situations and adapt his or her behaviors accordingly, while crystallized social intelligence refers to an individuals knowledge of more formalized expectations for social interactions (e.g., etiquette). Importantly, scholars have found social intelligence to be a key predictor of both academic (D. Jones, Greenberg, & Crowley, 2015; Tenopyr, 1967) and professional success (Hedlund et al., 2003; Sternberg & Hedlund, 2002; Sternberg, 2011). Because such social and material rewards represent key outcomes in Watts et al.s (1999) SPD model of the development of adaptive skills and strategies, we included social intelligence within our pre-post survey as one measure of participating adolescents ability to navigate through settings and institutions in which race and class inequality are prominent.
The studys participants are 552 adolescents (ages 1316) who entered the ninth grade in September of 2013 at six urban charter high schools located in five northeastern cities in the United States. All of these students had been admitted to their respective schools via randomized registration lotteries.2 Within this sample, 244 students identify as male (44%) and 308 as female (56%). Of the students, 299 (54%) identify as Black or African American; 120 (22%) identify as Latino; 98 (18%) identify as multiracial; 20 (4%) identify as Caribbean; and the remaining 15 students (2%) identify as Asian American (1), White (8), Native American (3), or other (3). Nearly 80% of participating students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a proxy for low socioeconomic status. These demographic characteristics are reported by school in Table 1 below. As noted above, all six schools admit students via randomized registration lotteries; however, three of the schools can be characterized as guided by progressive schooling models and the other three schools by a no-excuses model. Below, we offer brief descriptions of each of these participating schools.3
Make the Road Academy (MtRA) is located in a midsized northeastern city and takes its name from Horton and Freires (1990) We Make the Road by Walking. Associated with the Paulo Freire Institute, the school was founded by two veteran educators with the explicit goal of utilizing Freires problem-posing pedagogy to foster students sociopolitical development. Every unit in every course at MtRA begins with a Freire Culture Circle in which students are presented with a symbolic representation (or, in Freirean terms, a code) of a social issue and then engage in dialogue with one another and their teacher about what they see, what the problem is, what experiences they have with the problem, why the problem exists, and what can be done about the problem (Shor, 1987).
Community Academy is located in a large northeastern city and is one of approximately 200 expeditionary learning schools in the United States. The expeditionary learning model emphasizes close and collaborative teacher-student relationships and conceptualizes powerful learning as involving inquiry and service in the real world (Expeditionary Learning Core Practices, 2011). At Community Academy, students refer to faculty and administrators by their first names, and the curriculum exposes students to differing concepts of justice, domestic and international resistance movements, critiques of traditional versions of history, and scientific issues that intersect with social justice (Community Academy website, 2015).
Espiritu High School is located in a midsized northeastern city and is one of approximately 600 schools in the United States that belong to the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES). The Coalition of Essential Schools rejects a banking model of education, in which the teacher represents the deliverer of instructional services, in favor of a more inquiry-based approach involving the student-as-worker and teacher-as-coach (Coalition of Essential Schools, 2015). Likewise, the Coalitions core principles call for curriculum and programming that focus on deliberately and explicitly challenging all forms of inequity (Coalition of Essential Schools, 2015). Faculty at Espiritu Academy also go by their first names and strive to integrate community problem solving into students coursework (Espiritu High School website, 2015). Additionally, students and faculty participate together two afternoons each week on community improvement projects that focus on social issues such as environmental justice and inequitable education funding across the state.
Leadership Academy is located in a large northeastern city and is guided by the best practices of high performing, no excuses charter networks (Leadership Academy website, 2015). Additionally, Leadership Academy cites an explicit commitment to supplementing the no-excuses model with efforts to foster a commitment to social action in all graduates. Students engage in a Sociology of Activism course during their junior year of high school and then carry out year-long Be the Change capstone projects during their senior year.
Freedom Preparatory Academy is located in a midsized northeastern city and cites a school culture guided by a no excuses philosophy among its core values (Freedom Academy website, 2015). Additionally, the Freedom Prep mission statement calls for preparing students to serve as the next generation of leaders of their communities. In service of this goal, the Freedom Prep school building is decorated with enormous 20-foot-tall murals and quotations from African American and Latino activists that highlight both historical and contemporary inequityand activism challenging this inequityin the United States.
One Vision High School is located in the same midsized northeastern city as MtRA and has been cited as an exemplar of no-excuses schooling in publications such as The New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, and Huffington Post. Additionally, One Vision cites social justicestriving to improve our community and worldamong its core values. Essential questions guiding One Visions English/Language Arts courses include To what extent do internal or external forces shape your life? (ninth grade), How do we realize our identity in the face of strife? (10th grade), and In an unjust society, what should be the role of a just individual? (11th grade).
Table 1. Descriptions of Participating Schools (N= 6)
Three types of data were collected as part of this research study. First, entering ninth-grade students at the six participating schools completed surveys in September of 2013 that included previously validated measures (see Table 2 below) corresponding with three key dimensions of sociopolitical development: ability to analyze the causes and consequences of race and class inequality, efficacy for navigating settings and institutions in which race and class inequality are prominent, and a commitment to challenging race and class inequality through collective social action.4 Participants then completed this same survey at the conclusion of their ninth-grade year (May, 2014).
During the spring of 2014, we also conducted 3060-minute qualitative interviews with five faculty members and 1012 randomly-selected ninth-grade students from each of the participating schools (100 total interviews). The protocol for these interviews was adapted from earlier studies on youth sociopolitical development and racial socialization (e.g., D. Carter, 2008) and designed to elicit participants perspectives on our three key dimensions of sociopolitical development and the schooling practices that contributed to such development. The protocol for these interviews is included as Appendix A.
Finally, our research team conducted 101 day-long observations across the six participating schools (approximately 16 visits per school). Field notes collected during each of these observations focused on how faculty and students communicated formally and informally with each other about the social forces impacting students lives as well as strategies for navigating or challenging these forces.
Table 2. Measures Included on Pre-Post Survey Tool
Nine different measures were included in the pre-post survey tool to consider participating students sociopolitical development along three key dimensions: ability to analyze the causes and consequences of race and class inequality, efficacy for navigating settings and institutions in which race and class inequality are prominent, and a commitment to challenging race and class inequality through collective social action.4 In identifying previously validated scales to assess these three different dimensions of sociopolitical development, we deliberately sought out measures that corresponded to Watts et al.s (2003) description of sociopolitical development as consisting of knowledge (e.g., Awareness of Racism measure), skills (e.g., Structural Thinking about Racial Inequality measure), emotional faculties (e.g., Youth Sociopolitical Control measure), and commitment to action (e.g., Youth Activism measure). Students responded to all of the items comprising these measures along a 5-point Likert scale in which a 1 represented No way! or Not true at all for me and a 5 represented Definitely! or Very true for me. As described in greater detail below, we analyzed participating students shifts on each of these individual measures rather than merging them together into a single composite measure of sociopolitical development.
Analyzing Race and Class Inequality
The Awareness of Racism measure is a four-item submeasure from Oyserman, Gant, and Agers (1995) Racial-Ethnic Identity Scale that assesses an individuals recognition of the presence of racism in the various communities of which he or she is a part. Exploratory factor analysis (EFA) (promax rotation) with these items resulted in a single factor with an eigenvalue greater than one (eigenvalue = 1.95) resulting in 65% of the variance and showing acceptable internal consistency reliability (Cronbachs α = .73). The Attributions for Poverty measure consisted of five items adapted from the NPR-Kaiser-Harvard survey (2001) that assesses the extent to which an individual conceptualizes poverty as caused by individual or structural factors. EFA (promax rotation) with these items resulted in a single factor with an eigenvalue greater than one (eigenvalue = 2.09), resulting in 42% of the variance and showing acceptable internal consistency reliability (Cronbach’s α = .70). Finally, the Structural Thinking About Racial Inequality measure consisted of four items adapted from Gurin, Nagda, and Zunigas (2011) scale of the same name and assesses the extent to which an individual recognizes the systemic factors underlying racial inequality. EFA (promax rotation) with these items resulted in a single factor with an eigenvalue greater than one (eigenvalue = 2.11), resulting in 53% of the variance and showing acceptable internal consistency reliability (Cronbach’s α = .70).
Efficacy for Navigating Settings Where Race and Class Inequality Are Prominent
The Youth Sociopolitical Control measure is a six-item measure adapted from Peterson et al.’s (2011) scale of the same name that assesses adolescents’ feelings of efficacy within social and political systems. EFA (promax rotation) with these items resulted in a single factor with an eigenvalue greater than one (eigenvalue = 2.50), resulting in 42% of the variance and showing acceptable internal consistency reliability (Cronbach’s α = .72). The Social Intelligence measure is a seven-item submeasure included in Park and Peterson’s (2005) Values in Action for Youth Inventory that assesses adolescents’ feelings of efficacy for navigating unfamiliar settings and situations. EFA with these items (promax rotation) resulted in a single factor with an eigenvalue greater than one (eigenvalue = 2.09), resulting in 42% of the variance and showing questionable internal consistency reliability (Cronbach’s α = .65). Finally, the Purpose in Life measure is a seven-item measure adapted from Ryffs (1989) Psychological Wellbeing scale that assesses an individuals belief that he or she is successfully pursuing the attainment of personal goals. EFA (promax rotation) with these items resulted in a single factor with an eigenvalue greater than one (eigenvalue = 2.61), resulting in 37% of the variance and showing acceptable internal consistency reliability (Cronbach’s α = .72).
Commitment to Challenging Race and Class Inequality
The Youth Social Responsibility measure (short version) is an eight-item measure developed by Pancer, Pratt, Hunsberger, and Alisat (2007) that assesses adolescents’ commitment to striving for the benefit of society. EFA (promax rotation) resulted in a single factor with an eigenvalue greater than one (eigenvalue = 3.49), resulting in 44% of the variance and showing good internal consistency reliability (Cronbach’s α = .78). The Youth Activism measure is a nine-item measure adapted from Corning and Myerss (2002) Activism Orientation Scale that assesses adolescents commitment to engaging in collective social action to challenge injustice. EFA (promax rotation) resulted in a single factor with an eigenvalue greater than one (eigenvalue = 3.66), resulting in 41% of the variance and showing good internal consistency reliability (Cronbach’s α = .80). Finally, the Achievement as Resistance measure is a four-item submeasure of Oyserman et al.’s (1995) Racial-Ethnic Identity Scale (Embedded Achievement) that assesses the extent to which people of color are motivated to attain personal success as a mechanism for countering hegemonic notions that achievement is a White property. EFA (promax rotation) resulted in a single factor with an eigenvalue greater than one (eigenvalue = 2.36), resulting in 59% of the variance and showing acceptable internal consistency reliability (Cronbach’s α = .77).
At the conclusion of the 2013–14 academic year, we utilized confirmatory factor analysis (EFA) to determine whether the hypothesized construct for each of the submeasures of sociopolitical development was, in fact, the predominant factor. Next, we fit a single-level multiple regression method to test for differences in these SPD measures between the two school types (progressive and no-excuses).5 To account for students being nested within five northeastern cities in which different social and political forces are salient, four dummy variables representing the five cities represented in the study were entered in the regression model. We then fit baseline control models for each of the SPD submeasures, with students Time 2 (Spring 2014) scores on these measures as the dependent variable and the following predictor variables: gender, race/ethnicity (with African American/Black students as the reference group), grade point average, and Time 1 (Fall 2013) scores on the tested measure. Finally, we added to the model the question predictor of interest: the type of school (progressive or no-excuses) attended by participating students.
Accounting in our analyses for students Time 1 scores on these various measures was particularly important because all three of the no-excuses high schools participating in our studybut none of the progressive schoolshad feeder middle schools within their respective charter networks that virtually their entire ninth-grade student bodies had previously attended. In contrast, all three of the progressive schools were independent charter schools that drew students from a variety of different middle schools in their respective cities. Because the no-excuses schools, then, had a three-year head start in sharing their SPD mission with their students, it was crucial in these analyses to focus on students shifts in sociopolitical development over the course of their ninth-grade year, rather than simply their starting and ending points. The final fitted model for analyzing these data was the following:
SPDMeasureTime2i = B0 + B1SPDMeasureTime1i + B2Genderi + B3GPAi + B4Latinoi + B5MultiRaciali + B6CityAi + B7CityBi + B8CityCi + B9CityDi + B10SchoolTypei + εi
B0 is the intercept parameter
B1–B9 represent the effects of demographic control predictors on the outcome
B10 represents the effects of school type on the outcome
εi represents the random effects for each adolescent (also known as the residual error).
Qualitative Interviews & Field Notes
All interviews with faculty and students were audio-recorded and transcribed verbatim. Our analysis of these interviews was a multistep process consistent with qualitative research methods that seek to balance etic/outsider and emic/insider perspectives (Erickson & Murphy, 2008; Geertz, 1973; A. Strauss, 1987). Beginning with an etic structure, during the spring of 2014 our research team utilized our research questions, interview protocols, and SPD conceptual frameworks to construct four categories that represented key dimensions of our inquiry (Adair & Pastori, 2011; MacQueen, McClellan, Kay, & Milstein, 1998): Analysis of Oppressive Social Forces, Navigation of Oppressive Social Forces, Challenging Oppressive Social Forces, and SPD Pedagogy and Practices.
Next, we worked collaboratively to populate these superordinate categories with code names drawn from both etic concepts from the extant research literature on sociopolitical development and emic descriptions by study participants emerging from our ethnographic field notes and qualitative interviews that added depth or texture to one or more of these superordinate categories (Ryan & Bernard, 2003; C. Strauss, 1992; A. Strauss & Corbin, 1998). As is evident in the codebook included as Appendix B, our selection of etic codes drew closely from the extant scholarship on critical pedagogy (e.g., Cammarota, 2008; Duncan-Andrade & Morrell, 2008; Moll, 2000), emancipatory schooling (e.g., El-Amin, 2015; Perry, 2003; Potts, 2003), and civic development (Campbell, 2012; Hess, 2002; Watts et al., 2003).
Each qualitative interview was then coded independently by two members of the research team using NVivo Research 10 software. Our coding process involved three separate readings of the transcribed interviews (Dawes & Larson, 2011). The first reading focused on descriptions by participants of the social forces that impact their lives. The second reading focused on descriptions by participants of skills and strategies they possessed for navigating or challenging the social forces that impact their lives. Finally, the third reading focused on students and teachers descriptions of the pedagogy and practices through which their respective schools sought to foster students sociopolitical development.
After coding each interview independently, two members of the research team then compared their analyses of each interview transcript, recoded, and then compared again until all coding discrepancies were resolved. Our team then utilized NVivos cutting and sorting capabilities (Lincoln & Guba, 1985) to compile summary tables for each individual code, organized by the nine superordinate categories (Eatough & Smith, 2006), so as to identify emergent patterns and themes in the coded data (Maxwell, 1996; Miles & Huberman, 1994).
Below, we report first on our quantitative analyses of our pre-post survey data and then on the qualitative analyses of our student and faculty interviews.
The descriptive statistics for participating students pre-post scores on the nine tested measures are presented in Table 3 below, and the regression models fitted for each of these measures are presented in Table 4. As is evident in Table 4, controlling for Time 1 scores, there were no significant differences (p < .05) in the Time 2 scores of adolescents attending progressive and no-excuses schools on seven of the nine SPD measures. However, there were significant differences between the adolescents participating in these two different schooling models on two measures: Structural Thinking about Racial Inequality and Social Intelligence.
Table 3. Summary Statistics (Mean & Standard Deviation) for SPD Submeasures (N = 458 Students)
Table 4. OLS Regression Models for the Relationship Between Schooling Model and SPD Sub-Measures (N = 458 Students)
As described above, the Structural Thinking about Racial Inequality Scale (Gurin, Nagda, & Zuniga, 2011) served as one measure of participating adolescents ability to analyze race and class inequality. This five-item measure solicits students level of agreement with statements such as, Racism in the educational system limits the success of Blacks, Latinos and other racial minorities, and Many businesses intentionally keep many Blacks, Latinos, and other racial minorities from gaining positions of power. Along a 5-point Likert scale, students at the three progressive schools began the 201314 academic year with a mean score of 3.32 (SD = .60) on the Structural Thinking about Racial Inequality measure and concluded the academic year with a mean score of 3.59 (SD = .73). In contrast, their peers at the three participating no-excuses schools began the academic year with a mean score of 3.66 (SD = .66) on this scale and concluded the year with a mean score of 3.74 (SD = .69).
Recall from the Data Analysis section that a likely explanation for the higher baseline scores of the adolescents attending the no-excuses schools across all nine measures was that nearly all of the ninth-graders at the no-excuses high schools had attended feeder middle schools that were part of the same charter networks as their respective high schools and, therefore, emphasized similar SPD messages. In contrast, all three of the progressive schools in the study were independent charters that drew their ninth-graders from a more heterogeneous group of public, private, and charter middle schools. It is not surprising, then, that the baselines scores of the ninth-graders attending participating no-excuses schools are reflective of this three-year head start. For this reason, our regression analyses controlled for participating students baseline scores in comparing their sociopolitical development over the course of their first year of high school.
After controlling for Time1 scores, at the conclusion of the 201314 academic year the students attending progressive schools were significantly (p < .04) more likely than their no-excuses counterparts to attribute racial inequality in the United States to structural or systemic causes. The effect size of attending a progressive school (using adjusted mean scores for both sets of schools) upon participating adolescents structural thinking about racial inequality can be characterized as a small one (Cohens d = .15).
The Social Intelligence measure (Park & Peterson, 2005) served as one measure of participating adolescents feelings of efficacy around navigating settings and institutions in which race and class inequality are prominent. This seven-item measure solicits students level of agreement with statements such as I am good at getting along with all sorts of people and In most social situations I talk and behave the right way. Along a 5-point Likert scale, students at the three no-excuses schools began the academic year with a mean score of 3.71 (SD = .71) and concluded the academic year with a mean score of 3.72 (SD = .73). In contrast, their peers at the three progressive schools began the 201314 academic year with a mean score of 3.63 (SD = .72) on the Social Intelligence measure and concluded the academic year with a mean score of 3.68 (SD = .76). After controlling for Time 1 scores, students attending no-excuses schools were significantly (p < .02) more likely at the conclusion of the academic year than their peers at the progressive schools to express confidence in their ability to successfully navigate a diverse set of social settings and types of people. In other words, students at the no-excuses schools demonstrated greater confidence in their social intelligence than their peers at participating progressive schools. The effect size of attending a no-excuses school (using adjusted mean scores for both sets of schools) upon participating adolescents social intelligence scores can also be characterized as a small one (Cohens d = .17). Both of these key findings are considered in greater detail in the Discussion section.
As noted above, analyses of our quantitative survey data revealed significant differences between students attending progressive and no-excuses schools on one measure related to analysis of race and class inequality (Structural Thinking about Racial Inequality) and one measure related to navigating settings in which such inequality is prominent (Social Intelligence). Here, we draw upon qualitative interviews with faculty and students attending these two sets of schools to consider participants understandings of the programming and practices by which their respective schools sought to impact students sociopolitical development along these particular dimensions.
Structural Thinking About Racial Inequality at Progressive Schools
Our qualitative interviews with students and faculty at the three progressive schools participating in our studyMake the Road Academy, Community Academy, and Espiritu Academyrevealed both similarities and differences in their teaching and learning about racial inequality. In terms of similarities, both Community Academy and Espiritu Academy chose to engage students in learning and reflection about racial inequality through historical study. For example, Community Academy featured a ninth-grade humanities curriculum that included historical investigation of the Haitian Revolution in 1791, apartheid in 20th-century South Africa, and the colonizing of Puerto Rico by Spain and the United States. In describing the goals underlying such historical study, Community Academy humanities teacher Jamie echoed the sentiment expressed by a number of teachers at both schools in explaining: I think most of my students are extremely aware that there are intense inequalities in society around them. They experience it every day . . . but they dont necessarily have vocabulary for or the frameworks to name and talk about [these inequalities]. In this explanation, Jamie described the investigation in humanities class of historical racial inequality as a means of highlighting the societal and institutional forces underlying these historical episodes but also of strengthening students analytic tools for recognizing the structural forces underlying present-day racial inequality as well.
Interviews with 12 Community Academy ninth-graders revealed that the majority of these students (nine of 12) could identify ways in which racial inequality was embedded in the institutions, systems, and culture of the historical periods they were studying. For example, Community Academy ninth-grader Leondra explained of apartheid South Africa: In humanities we learned about apartheid and how Blacks didnt get as many rights as the Whites, and basically we were treated like animals while the Whites had all the luxuries and all that. Likewise, her classmate Jeffrey noted: The apartheid and injustice the [Black] South Africans faced. . . was a major part of inequality, and Monica added that the most valuable aspect of humanities class was the opportunity to learn about the things that happened in South Africa. . . . I dont think it was fair for Black people to be treated, like, unfairly and Whites to get treated like theyre the kings or something. Through explanations such as these, Community Academy students revealed their understanding that racial inequality in societies such as apartheid South Africa did not only manifest itself in interpersonal prejudice or discrimination but also in that societys systems, laws, and culture.
In terms of applying this structural understanding of racial inequality to the present day, six of the 12 interviewed adolescents from Community Academy explicitly referenced their historical study as highlighting the presence of structural racial inequality in contemporary society. For example, Tatyana explained:
In my humanities class, we are talking about apartheid, and apartheid is racial separation, and it affected a lot of people and so, you know, I kinda reflect off of that and think this is probably why [Black] people nowadays dont think they can do stuff because of all the bad stuff thats happened to Blacks in the past.
Another Community Academy ninth-grader, Angelina, noted:
Back in the day some White people, I mean, Caucasians, they had more opportunities than Blacks, and that probably still goes on now. . . . Like, usually you know Caucasians, theyre like more able to get into college because they are financially stable and as a Black child I probably might not have those kinds of benefits.
A third ninth-grader, Ronald, explained that he had recently written a rap song in which he drew parallels between apartheid South Africa and the racial dynamics in city schools he had attended:
I had this bar (stanza) about oppression in apartheid, and it was saying how like some people who work in schools, cause they had a lot of Caucasian people, and it was something like, You doing wrong and like the Whites gonna have you locked down like apartheid. Oh yeah, cause to be honest like I feel like a lot of Caucasian teachers are like on me, you know.
Finally, Leondrawho was cited in the preceding paragraph describing the systemic racism in apartheid South Africadrew the following connection between that historical period and contemporary racial inequality:
And now its over, but theres still part of it thats left. My mom says its not all over. She says that its not illegal, but it still happens. . . . Like on TV for shows with Black people, they make it look like they live in apartments, brick buildings, they talk a certain way, they look a certain way, they dress a certain way, and theres the total opposite for the TV shows with White people. And like on the Grammys and stuff, they mostly show like everything that the White people like, like all the music and stuff like that. Not to say that none of them like what we like, but, yeah, like its mostly the Beatles and stuff like that.
In these comments, one can see adolescents attending Community Academy grappling with the idea that the systemic forms of racial injustice about which they have learned in humanities class are embedded in contemporary institutions, systems, and cultural beliefs as well.
The third progressive school participating in our study, Make the Road Academy, took a somewhat different approach to teaching students about racial inequality. Specifically, all MtRA ninth-graders participated in a course, Social Engagement, that focused on a variety of topics related to contemporary racial inequality. Social Engagement teacher Marcus explained that the opening unit of the school year focused on defining and identifying forms of institutional, interpersonal, and internalized racial oppression. During this unit, for example, students read a sociological study of a nearby city that had found there were eight times more likely to be liquor stores in urban neighborhoods than in other neighborhoods through the city. Marcus added that I [also] showed them how some workplaces are still institutionally oppressed because Hispanics and African Americans, even with their college degrees, still only make 75 cents on every dollar that a White man makes. Another unit within the course engaged ninth-graders in examining the stereotypical depictions of African Americans in popular media such as television commercials.
Eleven out of 12 interviewed MtRA students offered explicit descriptions of how Social Engagement had impacted their understanding of contemporary racial inequality. In reference to the Social Engagement unit on popular media, ninth-grader Octavia explained of MtRA: Before I came here, I knew life wasnt always fair, I knew racism doesnt end, but I never knew its more hurtful now than back in like the 60s. Because now they hide it in magazines, ads, and things like that. Its just like changed my whole point of view. Her classmate, Janine, similarly referenced her learning from Social Engagement class in describing her beliefs about the workings of contemporary racial inequality:
The fact that they put liquor stores in our neighborhood, and they put all these things, different stuff, that they know that were gonna eat and drink and stuff. And it makes our community worse because they get drunk off of these things, they die off of these things, and I think thats an issue.
A third student, Naomi, described another Social Engagement lesson that focused on connotations underlying the words black and white. According to Naomi, There were words that people associate with white that are like the total exact opposite with black. Like blackmail and then white lie. Like blackmail is seen as a big thing, but white lie is seen as something small. In reference to this lesson about language, Naomi added, Its just things that you do every day, you dont really take note of until its brought to your attention like in the classroom and youre like, Wow, this is real. In each of these examples, MtRA students articulated ways in which their learning in Social Engagement class had introduced them to ways in which racial inequality is deeply embedded in in the systems, institutions, and culture of the contemporary United States.
Social Intelligence at No-Excuses Schools
Recall that social intelligence is defined as an individuals awareness of other peoples motives and feelings as well as using this understanding to navigate social situations appropriately (Duckworth & Levin, 2014, p. 1). In keeping with their status as no-excuses schools, which are defined in part by their efforts to offer low-income youth access to middle-class knowledge and behaviors, all three no-excuses schools in the present study worked to strengthen students social intelligence for navigating (predominantly White) professional and academic settings. However, interviews with faculty and students at these three schools also revealed different approaches and emphases in their work to foster students social intelligence.
At Leadership Academy, one teacher, Victoria, explained that the schools emphasis on global education represents an important lever for fostering students social intelligence. Specifically, all of the Leadership students take four years of Mandarin Chinese, and Victoria noted: The ninth-grade Mandarin teachers spend a lot of time trying to drill in the skill of meeting someone who is not of your own culture and what that looks like and how you approach people. She also added:
I think that one of the things we do, which I think is one of the most valuable for teaching students about being with another community, is the international travel. . . . So we take the ninth-graders to Europe, which is currently London. We take the 10th-graders to Ecuador. And they do service-based learning with an orphanage in Ecuador. We do the junior trip to China, which fits in really well because thats the year theyre taking the Mandarin state exam. Then the senior trip is to Africa. . . . They do home stays where they live with families, which gives them total immersion into a foreign culture. And I think that experience just really helps them, really prepares them to meet new people and kind of how to act when you meet people youre not used to.
Through a combination of global coursework and travel, Leadership Academy faculty consciously sought to offer their students opportunities to practice navigating a variety of different cultural contexts. In this way, the school chose to emphasize the dimension of social intelligence related to adapting ones behavior to different social settings and situations.
However, one Leadership teacher, Katrina, lamented, In terms of cultural awareness, [Leadership] kids do get to travel, they do get to take Mandarin, and so they learn about Chinese culture, but they dont learn about, you know, downtown, which is kind of funny. You know, they go to Ecuador, but most of them have never even been to [the downtown business district]. From Katrinas perspective, Leadership Academy students could benefit from equal attention being paid to their learning about navigating professional settings within their own city.
Another of the no-excuses schools, One Vision (OV) High School, utilized theater arts programming to focus on the element of social intelligence related to communicating effectively with a diverse set of people. OV students participated in a theater class during each year of high school; OV theater teacher Cristina used the term applied theater to explain her belief that theater education offers useful tools for all students regardless of their future professional pathways. Specifically, Cristina described improvisational exercises in which students jump into the action, and they are improvising right now the dialogue, and they try to see, does that work? Its like practice for real life. . . . The bottom line is that you need to have tools to talk to people. She describes exercises such as these as helping students to develop the skills necessary for stepping up for yourself and advocating for yourself.
Additionally, Cristina described introducing OV students to a particular type of applied theater known as Theater of the Oppressed. In this form of theater, students identify an oppressive moment they want to really explore through creating story. . . . And then we go through this series of workshop exercises to eventually create story, create character, build on the oppressive moment. Within the tradition of Theater of the Oppressed, different members of the class or audience then have the opportunity to take on different roles within that story and to improvise different resolutions. According to Cristina:
There is no end because there is never a right or wrong way or ultimate resolution to how you deal with an oppression. Now the point is to have that personand ultimately anyone else who jumps inbe able to feel what they really felt like.
Through these exercises as well, Cristina sought for One Visions theater program to deepen students ability to both consider the perspective of others and navigate a world in which such oppression exists.
Recall from the previous section that Community Academy faculty cited historical study in humanities class as a mechanism for fostering students understanding of the structural nature of present-day racial inequality; however, only half of the interviewed students cited their historical inquiry as highlighting contemporary forms of systemic racism. Similarly, only two of the 34 students from this studys three no-excuses schools who participated in interviews referenced their Mandarin or theater classes in describing ways in which they perceived their respective schools to be preparing them to interact effectively with new people or unfamiliar settings. In contrast, 10 of these interviewed students described the role of their respective College Readiness courses in introducing them to effective ways of navigating predominantly White college and professional settings. For example, Leadership ninth-grader Bernice explained: They have us open to being professionals. Like they teach us a lot about being professional college students, even though we are in ninth grade. They teach us a lot about how to have proper posture, proper attire, proper shoes, proper everything. Likewise, her classmate, Giovanni, added Lets say youre a lawyer, you have to be professional all the time. You have to sit down professional. If youre gonna sit down and have your hand like this [gestures casually] and be all up in there, nobodys gonna really take you seriously and this is what Leadership shows you. Similarly, Freedom Prep student Hector explained:
In College Readiness, see, we learned about how certain things like financial aid and ethnicity and being a first-timer of your family to go to college. These things can really affect your experience there, because its caused lots of people to leave college because they cant find a way to fit in, so like Im trying to find a place where I actually socialize with other people and like get used to the life living there, so I can be successful in my four years of college.
Here, Hector describes explicit lessons in his College Readiness class about ways in which students of color, students from low-SES backgrounds, and first-generation college students can be made to feel out of place in some university settings. Through such lessons, Hector and his classmates were already preparing for race and class obstacles embedded within the college application and admissions process.
At One Vision High School, four ninth-graders similarly made reference to the schools efforts to prepare them for life as a person of color in university and professional settings. One ninth-grader, Melissa, offered the following description of the schools weekly freshman forum:
[Its a place] where you talk about like real world issues and how to get to college. And they were talking about a girl who was going to a mainly White college and her roommate was racist, so she tried to get everyone on the floor to push her out. . . . The girl was like just a very strong person, so she handled it well and she didnt try to get back at her or anything. So they put that into our minds that thats how you should handle situations.
Another ninth-grader, Marlene, described another freshman forum that involved a panel of recent OV alumni and included one young man who talked about his experience participating in a summer program on a college campus. According to Marlene:
White students in the program had said to him, Why are you here? You shouldnt be here, youre not welcome, or something like that. So then the guest speaker said that you should probably deal with it, probably just ignore them, just walk away, and then once you like achieve what youre trying to do, you could come back and say told you so.
In making sense of these and other experiences intended to prepare them for predominantly White university and professional settings, one OV student, Tynequa, explained of her teachers: Theyre trying to shape us so that were not, like, the little sore thumb in a crowd of people, and were comfortable with it. When we go in there, like [booming voice], Yeah, Im Black African American! and its not like [nervous voice], Oh yeah, Im African American, Im Hispanic. Another OV student, Jasmine, explained:
One Vision gave me a way to, like, realize that theres more than just [our city]. Like, its a big world. And like, there are many different people in the world that have different views. So you have to learn to, like, accept their views and kind of counteract their views, or like, just move on with it.
In all of these students comments, one can see evidence of the no-excuses schools in our study actively preparing students to encounter professional and academic settings in which race and class inequality are prominent.
The present study compared the sociopolitical development of adolescents attending urban charter high schools featuring no-excuses and progressive pedagogies in terms of their ability to analyze, navigate, and challenge race and class inequality. Our analyses revealed that, on average and controlling for participating students Time 1 scores, adolescents attending progressive schools concluded their freshman year of high school with a heightened ability to analyze race and class inequality, and adolescents attending no-excuses schools concluded the year with a heightened sense of efficacy regarding their ability to navigate settings and institutions in which such inequality is prominent. Finally, there were no significant differences across the two sets of students in the development of their commitment to challenging race and class inequality. Below, we consider each of these key findings in turn.
ANALYZING AND NAVIGATING RACE AND CLASS INEQUALITY
The significant differences that emerged in participating adolescents analytic and navigational skills seem to align with the different curricular and programmatic emphases of the respective schools they were attending. Specifically, students attending this studys progressive schools demonstrated a heightened recognition of the systemic and social forces that contribute to race-based inequality (Gurin, Nagda, & Sorensen, 2011). In considering the programming and practices that contributed to this heightened recognition, our qualitative interviews and school observations revealed that one of the progressive schools had built its entire ninth-grade humanities curriculum around explorations of historical racial injustice (e.g., apartheid in South Africa) and different approaches to challenging such injustice (civil disobedience, peaceful resistance, etc.). Another progressive school engaged ninth-grade students in a year-long Social Engagement course that introduced concepts such as the institutionalinterpersonalinternalized dimensions of oppression and ways in which racial inequality is built into everyday idioms and expressions. Both of these approaches align with scholarship that has found coursework focused on power, privilege, and oppression to deepen individuals structural understandings of racial inequality (Lopez et al., 1998; Tatum, 1994).
Likewise, the heightened efficacy of adolescents attending this studys no-excuses schools regarding their ability to navigate different social settings aligns with these schools efforts to expose their students to and prepare them for contexts in which marginalized individuals often lack cultural capital (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1977). Specifically, these schools college readiness courses and alumni days sought to deepen participating adolescents crystallized knowledge of key elements of the college admissions and matriculation process, such as writing a personal statement, applying for financial aid, and attending a professors office hours (K. Jones & Day, 1997). Likewise, learning experiences ranging from improvisational theater exercises to international travel to mock college interviews sought to hone students fluid social intelligence by offering them opportunities to act upon the crystallized content and skills they had learned in their respective theater, Mandarin, and college readiness courses (K. Jones & Day, 1997). In these ways, the programming and practices at the no-excuses schools sought to strengthen participating students ability to navigate a variety of settings with which they may have had less familiarity due to their membership in identity groups marginalized by inequities in race and socioeconomic status.
A number of useful insights emerge in considering these findings through the lens of Watts et al.s (1999) theory of oppression and sociopolitical development. In this model, the abilities to analyze and navigate oppressive social forces are positioned as necessary building blocks to developing the commitment to challenging oppressive social forces that represents the ultimate goal of sociopolitical development (Watts et al., 1999, p. 259). In this way, then, both the progressive and no-excuses schools participating in our study sought to foster their adolescents commitment to challenging race and class inequality, but focused on different building blocks to do so.
With their focus on strengthening adolescents ability to analyze race and class inequality, this studys progressive schools directed their curricular and pedagogical efforts toward the sociopolitical building block that Watts et al. (1999) describe as critical thinking. The successful development of this analytic skill allows an individual to identify the influence of ineffective or oppressive social institutions on social conditions (Watts & Flanagan, 2007, p. 785). Make the Road Academy, Community Academy, and Espiritu High School sought to foster such sociopolitical development through their humanities, social studies, and social-engagement curricula, respectively.
With their focus on strengthening adolescents efficacy to navigate institutions and settings in which race and class inequality are prominent, this studys no-excuses schools focused their curricular and pedagogical efforts on the sociopolitical building block that Watts et al. (1999) describe as adaptive strategies. Recall that these scholars characterize such strategies as enabling individuals to strive for both a positive sense of self and social and material rewards despite living in a society structured to maintain race and class inequality (p. 263). Leadership High School, One Vision High School, and Freedom Preparatory Academy sought to foster such sociopolitical development in their students through coursework in foreign languages and culture, applied theater, and college readiness.
CHALLENGING RACE AND CLASS INEQUALITY
While differences emerged in the SPD of adolescents attending no-excuses and progressive schools in their social intelligence and understanding of racial inequality, there were no significant differences between the two groups of adolescents on any of the three submeasures related to challenging race and class inequality. Regarding this key dimension of sociopolitical development, we did not find significant differences between our studys two sets of adolescents, nor did either group of adolescents exhibit significant growth in their commitment to challenging race and class inequality over the academic year.
In considering these findings, recall that engagement in collective social action represents the ultimate goal of sociopolitical development, and, thus, both of the conceptual models guiding this study position such engagement as the dimension of SPD that requires the most time, modeling, instruction, and support to develop (Watts et al., 1999; Watts & Flanagan, 2007). One explanation for these null findings, then, is that the majority of adolescents in our studyall of whom were ninth-graderswere still building toward the stage in their sociopolitical development where their burgeoning analytic and navigational skills culminated in a commitment to challenging race and class inequality.
A second, related explanation lies in a key mediating factor in Watts and Flanagans (2007) SPD model: sense of agency. Namely, it seems reasonable to hypothesize that, in learning about how race and class inequality play out in settings ranging from university campuses to city planning, many of this studys adolescents had difficulty imagining a role for themselves in challenging or combating these social forces. Perhaps, then, the weak development among study participants in their commitment to social action was due, in part, to a low sense of agency.
A third explanation for participating adolescents weak commitment to challenging inequality lies in the other mediating factor in Watts and Flanagans (2007) SPD model: opportunity structure. These scholars theorize that an individuals development of a commitment to social action is mediated by the availability of meaningful opportunities to engage in such social action. Perhaps, then, the schools participating in the present study had structured their curriculum and programming such that opportunities for SPD around analyzing and navigating race and class inequality were front-loaded to the opening years of students high school careers, and opportunities for challenging inequality were back-loaded to the latter years of high school. For example, Leadership High School engaged 11th-grade students in a Sociology of Activism course, which then led directly into year-long advocacy projects that students completed during their 12th-grade year of high school. Likewise, during the 201314 school year, 11th- and 12th-grade students at Community Academy organized and carried out a highly effective protest when a foreign consulate issued a travel warning to tourists about the urban neighborhood in which Community Academy was located. Perhaps, then, the weak growth in ninth-graders commitment to challenging race and class inequality was due to these adolescents having not yet encountered the opportunity structures at their respective schools designed to foster this dimension of their sociopolitical development.
A promising approach to addressing both of these mediating factorsagency and opportunity structurecan be found in recent work by Kirshner, Hipolito-Delgado, and Zion (2014) on a form of participatory-action research they have termed critical civic inquiry. Within this school-based approach, students engage in learning about oppressive and systemic social forces but then turn their attention to the impact of these forces within their own school community. Students next develop and carry out an action research project that is designed to address the impact of one of these social forces within their own school community. Although success in addressing such social forces is by no means guaranteed, the relatively smaller canvas upon which students are working has been found to have a positive effect upon their sense of agency (Kirshner et al., 2014). Such an approach to leveraging school-based opportunity structures for adolescents to engage in collective social action may be a worthwhile one for schools such as those in the present study to consider.
HURDLES TO SOCIOPOLITICAL DEVELOPMENT IN SCHOOLS
There is also much to be learned from the hurdles encountered by participating schools in their work to foster adolescents sociopolitical development around race and class inequality. Perhaps the most prominent hurdle that emerged in our data was that educators across both sets of schools described key practices for fostering students SPD around race and class inequality that went unremarked upon in interviews with the students themselves. In other words, few of the interviewed students across all six schools referenced practices such as learning Mandarin Chinese, engaging in improvisational theater, or studying historical racial inequality to describe their respective schools efforts to foster their SPD.
Across both schooling contexts, the programming and practices that the adolescents most frequently cited in their interviews were the most explicit and concrete learning experiences aimed at fostering their SPD around race and class inequality. For example, all three of the progressive schools sought to strengthen their students ability to engage in effective analysis of contemporary racial inequality, but Make the Road Academy approached this topic head-on through a required Social Engagement course while Community Academy and Espiritu High School approached the topic more indirectly via historical investigation in students humanities and social studies courses. Faculty at all three schools could articulate the ways in which these courses aimed to strengthen students ability to analyze contemporary racial inequality, but a much higher proportion of interviewed students from Make the Road Academy actually credited their social engagement course with having this intended impact. Likewise, for the adolescents attending no-excuses schools, their college-readiness courses were by far the most salient example to them of efforts to foster their confidence in navigating diverse settings. The work taking place in Mandarin class at Leadership High School and theater class at One Vision High School, which educators at these schools had identified as key sites for fostering students social intelligence, appeared to be less evident to the adolescents participating in these learning experiences.
One explanation for why some of these learning experiences appeared to be more salient to students than others is that early adolescents are just beginning to develop the formal-operational thinking skills necessary to consider abstract concepts such as oppression or structural racism (Inhelder & Piaget, 1958; Steinberg, 2014). As a result, the most impactful learning practices for fostering the sociopolitical development of this studys ninth-graders may have been those that provided the most scaffolding for students consideration of sociopolitical content. For example, MtRAs social engagement course directly introduced students to a framework for making sense of oppression (i.e., institutionalinterpersonalinternalized) and then engaged students in applying this framework to current events, television commercials, common idioms, and real estate trends within their own community. In the humanities course at Community Academy, on the other hand, educators also introduced students to frameworks for analyzing racial inequality (in various historical contexts), but they worked less directly and dialogically with students to apply these frameworks to their own lives, institutions, and cultural context. In fact, Community Academy humanities teacher Jamie noted: One thing that I wish I had more time for is to make more modern-day connections, to do more talking about race and how these issues come into play today. And I think thats often a sacrifice I have to make when Im trying to hit all the [Common Core] English Language Arts standards. The relatively weaker scaffolding in Community Academys humanities courses for making sense of racial inequality may have rendered these learning experiences less salient to participating students.
Another explanation is that the learning experiences most salient to participating adolescents in terms of their sociopolitical development were those that focused more directly and concretely upon issues of race and class inequality. For example, one might characterize the college-readiness classes in which ninth-graders at all three schools participated as focused on fostering their crystallized social intelligence (e.g., What is financial aid? What is a major?), while the Mandarin classes at Leadership High School and theater classes at One Vision High School focused more on fostering students fluid social intelligence (e.g., How do you pick up on different interactional styles in an unfamiliar culture? How do you engage in discussion with a stranger?) (K. Jones & Day, 1997). If fluid social intelligence can be characterized as a more abstract and crystallized social intelligence as a more concrete form of knowledge, then it is not surprising that this studys early adolescents demonstrated a clearer understanding of the role of their college-readiness classes in fostering their social intelligence. This is not to suggest that developing such fluid skills is beyond the capabilities of early adolescents but, rather, that such adolescents may benefit from highly explicit instruction or discussion about how these skills are strengthening their capacity to navigate new and unfamiliar social settings.
This research study sought to compare the sociopolitical development regarding race and class inequality of adolescents attending progressive and no-excuses urban charter high schools. One limitation to the present investigation is the relatively small sample size in terms of participating schools. Although, for example, we selected three progressive schools associated with three different progressive associations, there are, of course, many other forms of progressive schooling (e.g., Montessori and Just Community) that are not represented among our sample. A second limitation is that none of the participating schools in this study represent perfect manifestations of either progressive or no-excuses schooling. By virtue of being real schools serving real students, all of these schools have made adaptations and adjustments to the pedagogical models upon which they were founded in the interests of better serving their respective student bodies and communities. Finally, a third limitation is the lack of random assignment to the two school types and the difficulty of fully controlling for exogenous factors influencing students sociopolitical development. This limitation precludes us from making causal claims about the effect of the two schooling models upon participating adolescents SPD.
The present study sought to contribute to a longstanding body of scholarship on the role of secondary schools in preparing marginalized adolescents to recognize and resist race and class inequality. In comparing such development in adolescents attending progressive and no-excuses schools, our goal was not to position one of these schooling models as superior to the other. Rather, we carried out this investigation with the belief that highlighting similarities and differences in the sociopolitical development of these two sets of adolescents would offer usefulif preliminaryinsights into the role of different pedagogical approaches to doing this work. Our research design does not allow for causal claims; however, we believe that the significant differences reported here in the sociopolitical development of adolescents attending progressive and no-excuses schools, in concert with our qualitative accounts of these schools curriculum and pedagogy, illuminate the programming most relevant to fostering adolescents analytic, navigational, and activist skills.
Perhaps our most important finding for future research efforts was that the adolescents attending neither group of schools demonstrated significant shifts in their commitment to challenging race and class inequality. As noted in the Discussion section, the theory of oppression and sociopolitical development guiding this study suggests that our 13- and 14-year-old participants are still in the early stages of their sociopolitical development, and that their burgeoning analytic and navigational skills represent building blocks toward a deeper commitment to social action. Therefore, we are eager to continue to investigate the sociopolitical development of these adolescents as they proceed through high school, with the goal of better understanding the pedagogy and practices that show promise in catalyzing adolescents analytic and navigational abilities into a powerful commitment to collective social action. Such a commitment remains the ultimate goal of sociopolitical development and a key lever for catalyzing structural changes to racist and classist social and cultural systems. The presence of so many adolescents and young adults at the forefront of national protest movements such as Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter points to the role that many young people are already taking up to challenge the systems and institutions contributing to race and class inequality in the United States. We are hopeful that the insights emerging from the present study will strengthen the capacity of schools and educators to support these and other young people in developing the knowledge, skills, and commitments necessary to carry out such work.
1. Though we invoke the phrases marginalized parents and marginalized adolescents for expediency in the remainder of the article, we acknowledge Pariss (2012) important point that the term still places the burden of difference and inequality on students, communities and their practices rather than long-standing and continuing systems of social inequality (p. 96).
2. Although students in this study are not randomly assigned to the progressive or no-excuses condition, recent scholarship on charter schools, parents from low-income communities, and school choice has found that the top criteria impacting parents decisions about which charter schools to send their children to are distance from home, academic performance of the school, and availability of extracurricular activities (Harris & Larsen, 2015), and that surveys of parents tend to overstate the role of academic factors in school choices (p. 3). In short, these findings suggest that, in regard to our own study, a schools status as progressive or no-excuses had relatively little effect upon the decision by participating adolescents parents to enroll their children in the school.
3. Pseudonyms have been assigned to participating schools, faculty, and students. Additionally, the precise wording of each schools mission or vision statementand a few identifying characteristics cited in the Results sectionhave been altered to protect the schools identities.
4. Also included on the pre-post survey tool were measures of curiosity, utility value of schooling, and hope and optimism. These measures (none of which demonstrated statistically significant results) are not reported on in this paper because they do not fit into the SPD conceptual framework.
5. A multilevel regression approach would be the most appropriate theoretically due to the structure of the data, but power analyses conducted during the planning stages of this study revealed that fitting a multilevel regression model in which participating students are clustered by either school or city would be insufficient to ensure adequate power and variability within each tested measure. However, assuming statistical power of .8 and an alpha level of .05, our sample offers sufficient power to detect a small-to-medium effect size through a single-level design.
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STUDENT INTERVIEW PROTOCOL
Could you tell me your age and grade level?
Tell me about your goals for after you finish high school.
Who has influenced those goals for what you want to do with your life?
Who is helping you to achieve your goals?
What obstacles or challenges might you have to deal with as you work to achieve your goals?
Are there obstacles or challenges you might have to deal with that another teenager might not?
Describe for me something in your community or in the world that strikes you as unfair or not right.
Why do you think that issue exists?
What do you think could be done to solve that issue?
How did you come to figure that out? (Where do you think your opinion on this issue comes from?)
Have you had opportunities to address that issue?
Do you think youll have opportunities in the future to address that issue?
How important is addressing that issue to you?
Do you think people of all races and backgrounds have an equal chance to succeed?
Why or why not?
How did you come to figure that out? (Where do you think your opinion on this issue comes from?)
Do you identify with any particular racial or ethnic group? If so, which one?
When in your life are you most aware of being X?
Tell me about messages about your race or ethnicity you get from family and friends? Adults and peers at school?
Tell me about messages about taking pride in your race/ethnicity you get from your family and friends? Adults and peers at school?
Tell me about messages about how to handle racism or discrimination you get from family and friends? Adults and peers at school?
Social class generally refers to how much money a persons family has.
Do you think everyone has an equal chance to succeed no matter how much money their family has?
Why or why not?
How did you come to figure that out? (Where do you think your opinion on this issue comes from?)
Tell me about messages about your social class you get from family and friends? Adults and peers at school?
Do you ever talk with your family or friends about how social class affects peoples success? With adults and peers at school?
Start with questions 15. Ask questions 610 if time allows.
How curious are you to learn about challenges like racism and social class inequality in your classes?
Does learning about these social issues influence your desire to work hard to be successful? How?
Has being a part of your school changed the way you think about the world? If so, how?
Has being a part of your school changed the way you think about yourself? If so, how?
Has being a part of your school changed the way you think about your ability to impact your community? If so, how?
Tell me one thing you like about your school. Tell me one thing youd change about your school if you could.
How, if at all, does your school give you opportunities to learn about issues affecting your community?
In a particular class?
How, if at all, does your school give you opportunities to do something about an issue affecting your community (or another community)?
In a particular class?
How, if at all, does your school give you opportunities to talk about how race and racism impacts peoples lives?
In a particular class?
How, if at all, does your school give you opportunities to talk about how social classhow much money someones family hasimpacts peoples lives?
In a particular class?
Do you have any questions for me?
TEACHER INTERVIEW PROTOCOL
Please share with me a little background information about yourself:
What grade do you teach?
How long have you been teaching in this school?
CRITICAL REFLECTION & ANALYSIS
Are there opportunities for students at __________ to look at particular social issues affecting their community (e.g., asthma, malnutrition, etc.)?
These social issues also have a history, and theyre happening in other communities at the same time. . . . Are there ways you help students see the broader context of these social issues?
Are there opportunities for students to engage in forms of civic engagement or service intended to combat injustice or oppression?
Tell me about an opportunity within your curriculum for students to learn about real-world issues? What about your extracurriculum?
Tell me about a way in which you or your colleagues are able to use the community as a resource (fund of knowledge) in educating your students.
Tell me about one way in which students have an opportunity to learn more about the larger social forces that influence them and their communities.
To what extent do you feel like your students are curious about society, power, inequality and change? Are there ways you, your colleagues or leaders try to strengthen this type of critical curiosity?
Are there ways in which dominant societal messages about America as a color-blind, classless meritocracy are challenged for/with students?
Does it ever feel like there is a tension between teaching students about these structural inequalities and promoting a growth mindset (e.g., effort determines success)?
Can you think of opportunities for students at your school to discuss or reflect upon what it means to achieve as a person of color OR as a student from a low-income community?
Tell me about ways in which you seek to strengthen the racial identity of students.
Tell me about an opportunity for students to be exposed formally or informally to heroes (past, present, local, national, international) who share their racial or cultural background.
Tell me about the types of text that your students read (canonical? multicultural? a balance?).
Tell me about one way in which you see your school working to strengthen students pride in their particular racial or ethnic group.
Are there opportunities for students to learn how to contend with racism or bigotry (or classism) they may encounter and determine their best course of action?
Are there formal or informal opportunities for students to learn about and discuss historical racial oppression in the United States?
Are there opportunities for students to learn about contemporary differences in power between White people and people of color in America?
Some scholars believe that many youth, when they learn about racism and social inequality, take on a prove them wrong attitude about schooling (e.g., a desire to counter societal stereotypes). Tell me about whether or not you see that type of motivation develop in your students.
How do you balance being honest with students about issues of racism and inequality while maintaining their sense of hope?
Is this hard for students to grapple with?
How do you handle struggles/tensions?
Are there specific strategies students are taught for how to navigate the different types of communities they inhabit (or will inhabit)?
Are there opportunities to discuss these different ideas about racial identity and critical consciousness as a faculty or to decide which strategies to use or how to use them?
Is there anything else I should have asked you about how students critical consciousness is strengthened here?
APPENDIX B: QUALITATIVE CODEBOOK
ANALYSIS OF OPPRESSIVE SOCIAL FORCES
NAVIGATION OF OPPRESSIVE SOCIAL FORCES
CHALLENGING OPPRESSIVE SOCIAL FORCES
PEDAGOGY AND PRACTICES FOR SOCIOPOLITICAL DEVELOPMENT