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Left Behind: Urban High Schools and the Failure of Market Reform

reviewed by Wagma Mommandi - October 10, 2016

coverTitle: Left Behind: Urban High Schools and the Failure of Market Reform
Author(s): Edward P. St. John, Victoria J. Milazzo Bigelow, Kim Callahan Lijana and Johanna C. Massť
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore
ISBN: 1421417871, Pages: 208, Year: 2015
Search for book at Amazon.com

In Left Behind: Urban High Schools and the Failure of Market Reform, Edward P. St. John leads a team of higher education scholars to explore how competing policy rationales, developed over the last several decades, affect practices in urban high schools across the United States. The authors argue the reform agenda aimed at transforming urban high schools into college preparatory institutions has amounted to an on-the-ground failure, where many schools and children continue to be left behind. This failure is largely due to the convergence of market-based (e.g., competition for students between district and charter schools) and standards-based policy trajectories that have exacerbated, rather than alleviated, the challenges faced by urban high schools.

As a former high school teacher in a rapidly reforming urban district, I applaud the approach that St. John and his team undertake in this project. Their two-level method, informed by social justice and social critical perspectives, explores policy discourses and their influence on practice. At the policy level, the authors explore how alliances sift through empirical evidence when developing policy rationales that are advocated. At the practice level, the authors use case studies of four New York City district high schools and four urban charter high schools to scrutinize policy implementation and document how administrators and teachers adapt to changes precipitated by adaptations to changing policy directives.

The first four chapters are organized around the four themes that St. John and his team identified as critical challenges facing urban high schools throughout their research process. Each chapter opens with a historical examination of the development of the policy in question that emphasizes the role of policy alliances. This is followed by glimpses into case study schools that consider how daily practices are influenced by the policy under consideration.

In Chapter One, "Market Niches," the authors examine policies promoting school choice that have resulted in a system where schools (both district and charter) compete for students and external funding. High schools have been forced to adapt by embracing competitive niches to attract students through new school-choice schemes. The authors argue that in this system, district schools ultimately face competitive disadvantages because of constraints on their ability to become too specialized. Additionally, the authors explain such a system allows that the best schools continue to attract the best students and the resources needed to deliver a quality education.

In Chapter Two, "Math Problems," the authors review how research about STEM subjects, particularly math, was misinterpreted and misapplied by policy alliances between policy makers, foundation executives, and researchers. These developments rationalized raising math requirements in high school while overlooking the crucial role government funding plays in ensuring college access to under-represented students. Additionally, St. John and his team explain that the expectation that all students take advanced math courses became dominant among educational researchers because of reported correlations between college outcome and high school math preparation. However, this opinion failed to capture the importance of considering the best way to teach advanced math. A shortsighted focus resulted in the advanced math requirement becoming a barrier for high school graduation for many students, limiting their access to college.  

The third chapter, "Advanced Literacies," considers the challenges posed by the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the market niches for literacy education in urban high schools. The argument presented is that ultimately urban high schools, particularly district schools, cannot address challenges in literacy education because testing and standards inhibit the adaptability and flexibility schools require to address the different learning needs of their students.

The fourth chapter, "College Knowledge," explores the extent to which the movement toward universal college and career readiness has shaped content in high school curricula. Much like the earlier chapters "Math Problems" and "Advanced Literacies," St. John and his team problematize policy alliances. In this case, they used correlations between parents’ education and college success to argue that declines in student financial aid did not impair college access for low-income families. The authors argue that adding and enhancing college prep does little to address disparities in income distribution, which is the greatest factor in college success in our current system.

In the final chapter, "Toward Equitable Transformation," the authors revisit their critiques of simple and misleading applications of correlation in policy advocacy, emphasizing the growth in income inequality despite gains in college attainment and alleged increases in rigor in urban high schools. After concluding that, “the challenges facing urban high schools have not been solved by the issue-focused advocacy of education-reform alliances, but instead have been created or exacerbated by them,” (p. 153) they offer a brief theory of change that focuses on financial, social, and academic interventions.

From the perspective of an education researcher, one strength of this book is the attention it gives to how political alliances have shaped education policy formation, particularly the role of education researchers in creating and promoting deceptive claims. This critical take is a welcome departure from traditional policy studies that simply aim to link policy implementation to measurable outcomes. In their concluding chapter, the authors emphasize, “It is incumbent on education researchers and policymakers who work in the policy alliances to revise their rationales and recognize the unintended consequences of the policies they advocate” (p. 141).

From my perspective as a former teacher in an urban district high school surrounded by selective district and charter schools, I think one weakness of the book is the sample of case study schools. The schools studied all had systems in place to be selective about the students they served and had outside funding to help them develop competitive strategies and market niches. Any knowledge gained about school reform efforts in the case study schools is not easily transferrable to, or helpful in thinking about, comprehensive urban neighborhood high schools that must serve all students who walk through their doors.

Overall, the book provides a “ground level view of education . . . seldom even considered by policy or education researchers” (p. 10). Important insights into how political alliances have shaped education policy formation coupled with a rare look into how policy decisions influence the daily practices inside of urban high schools is a valuable project. Early career education policy scholars and students of education policy would benefit from this book, particularly those with no urban teaching experience. Left Behind forces the reader to consider whether political alliances are shaping education policy formation in a way that is largely irrelevant to, and at times at odds with, promoting equity.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 10, 2016
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21676, Date Accessed: 1/18/2022 6:33:03 PM

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About the Author
  • Wagma Mommandi
    University of Colorado Boulder
    E-mail Author
    WAGMA MOMMANDI is a doctoral student in Education Foundations Policy and Practice in the School of Education at the University of Colorado Boulder. Prior to her doctoral work, Wagma spent five years teaching high school in the District of Columbia Public Schools. Wagma holds a B.A. from Colorado College and an M.Ed. from The American University. Her research interests center on the praxis of K-12 education policy and practice in urban cities.
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