Great Expectations: What Kids Want for Our Urban Schools
reviewed by Amy L. Masko - November 01, 2016
Title: Great Expectations: What Kids Want for Our Urban Schools
Author(s): Boyce Caruthers & Jennifer Friend
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1681234408, Pages: 260, Year: 2016
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When reading a book that asks students what they like or hate about school, one would expect to hear about their educational expectations. Great Expectations: What Kids Want for Our Urban Schools delivers this and, unsurprisingly, informs us that students attending urban schools have high expectations for their schooling. Yet Loyce Caruthers and Jennifer Friend go further by bringing us a book that addresses school curriculum, educational policy, the social construction of inequities, and a harsh critique of our fields overreliance on statistics to inform us about school quality, all from the perspective of students. The text uses Critical Race Theory (CRT) as the theoretical framework, specifically focusing on the aspect of storytelling and counter-storytelling to bring the reader student commentary on their school experiences, from elementary grades through to high school. This book is as much a dissemination of research findings of K12 students expectations for their education as a primer on CRTs use of storytelling and counter-storytelling as both a framework and a research methodology.
Great Expectations was born from an arts-based critical race theory project (p. 14) that collected student stories from 144 elementary students and 28 high school students and presented them in two documentary films. The purpose of the film project was to present the stories of elementary and secondary students experiences within urban schools. Arts-based inquiry, such as film, provides opportunities for viewers to engage in their own meaning-making, in addition to accessibility by a wider audience than nonvisual research methods (p. xxiv). However, the authors' purpose in writing this book is larger. It is to advance a framework for listening to students voices in the context of urban school renewal (p. xxi).
WHAT DO KIDS WANT?
Chapters Seven through Ten each begin with Kids Want and the authors explicate the four themes from their research, each in its own chapter. Not surprisingly, kids hold high expectations for their education and recognize that other (non-urban) schools provide a better education for their students. From these four chapters, kids want:
1. Caring teachers with high academic expectations,
2. To feel safe at school,
3. Active and engaging learning opportunities, and
4. To know more about their own cultures and the cultures of all people.
These four themes are not remarkable in that they have all been discussed in the literature on urban schools for some time. The difference with this text is that these themes are discussed with student voice. The authors artfully portray student voice and deconstruct their message within the context of urban schooling. For example, one student is quoted as saying
Thank you! Thats all I have to say. Truly thank you. Because teachers, they get paid less to work here than to work somewhere else. I mean, Im lucky to have teachers who come here, and who actually want to teach me. Because they can go somewhere else, make a lot more money, and probably have an easier time doing it than they would here. (pp. 1011)
The authors deconstruct this narrative to discuss the salary gaps and gaps in teacher preparedness between urban and suburban teachers. Issues that affect urban schools are discussed with narratives put forward by students. It might be surprising to some that students realize there are pay gaps between teachers in urban and suburban schools. However, as this research demonstrates, students also know the inequities they face. I have found this with my own research in urban schools, as well. Even at young ages, students are well aware of the educational injustice that they experience.
CRITICAL RACE THEORY AND STORYTELLING
Caruthers and Friend spend significant time critiquing the dominant narratives of urban schools and school children. They argue that:
culture is a story that we tell ourselves over and over again; to change the culture is to change the stories we tell. Within the context of our work are the stories we carry in our minds about urban schools. Stories of student deficits, poor family structures, genetic explanations about achievement, and cultural mismatch theories often persist within the culture of urban schools. (p. 16)
Their book effectively argues that there is more to the story of urban schools, and the key to unlocking these stories is within the students who attend them (p. 8). This is precisely the critical race theory premise of using counter-narratives to interrogate the status quo. The questions that guided the research were simple: (a) what do you like about school? (b) what do you hate about school? (c) what would you change about school? and (d) what would you tell teachers? However, despite their simplicity, the answers to these questions show the complexity of the story of urban schools and the children who attend them.
Critical race theorists contend that counter-storytelling is a necessary component in understanding the everyday experiences of people of color and the way that racial inequity functions in their lives. These stories are necessary to push back against the master narratives or majoritarian stories that marginalize people of color and those growing up in poverty. The authors of this text effectively demonstrate this CRT tenet. In fact, they go further than modeling it; they provide a framework for teachers, administrators, and researchers to include student voice in urban school renewal. In the final section of the book, the authors provide descriptions of how to use surveys, interview protocols, visual methods, and technology to elicit student perspective on their schooling.
I teach at a predominately white university in the Midwest, and reflective of the field of education, my students are mainly white middle-class women. Their life stories do not match the stories of many of the children they will be teaching, which sometimes results in student resistance to ideas of racial and economic injustice. They have been exposed only to stories of the majority, stories that are colored by power and privilege, which [cast] poor people as individuals with differences in innate ability and morality (p. 43). I intend to incorporate this book into my courses this year with the hope that my learners will be more open examining educational inequity when they hear about it from elementary and high school students own voices. I further hope that by being exposed to this book in their undergraduate education, my students will develop habits of mind to listen carefully and intently to their students in their own careers as educators.