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Educational Policies and Youth in the 21st Century

reviewed by Ross Roholt & Tracy Leitl - June 22, 2017

coverTitle: Educational Policies and Youth in the 21st Century
Author(s): Sharon L. Nichols
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1681235293, Pages: 222, Year: 2016
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From the perspective of youth work and youth studies, this book courageously documents the failings of current educational policies and the damage done to many students across the U.S. From the perspective of a former elementary teacher in New York City, this book ignited passion for teaching with urgency. Approaching our work with young people and adults as work centered around individuals from very different spaces, we found ourselves equally energized about the possibilities this text may create in our respective fields. Educational Policies and Youth in the 21st Century aims to “sensitize readers to the vast diversity of American youth who attend our schools and their wide-ranging interests, experiences, cultures and values,” so that “readers become better consumers of and advocates for (or against) policies that impact youth” (2016, p. x-xi).  Additionally, the edited volume strives to “foreground a few of the more prominent and ongoing educational policies and practices and to examine how they serve these youth” (2016, p. x-xi). We not only think that this book accomplishes these goals, but we believe it does so exceptionally well. We imagined incorporating content from these chapters into our courses designed for pre-service educators, undergraduate, and graduate youth workers. This compilation of well-written prose articulates policy and the multiple lived experiences of young people in a widely accessible manner, without sacrificing the deeply complex and nuanced layers of such policies and individuals’ lived experiences in a policy context. We feel this is a must-read for adults responsible for meeting the needs and supporting the healthy development of youth in the 21st century.


A text on educational policy does not always excite people’s imagination, but this is exactly what Nichols’ edited volume does for the reader. Nichols’ has written extensively on the impact of standardized testing on students, teachers, and schools. This volume brings together an exceptional group of scholars and provides a primer on educational policy that is both a delight to read and a substantive contribution to understanding and beginning to respond to the many dehumanizing educational policies currently shaping the U.S. educational context. The text illuminates how the US educational system continues to be a vehicle for colonization.  Nichols’ and colleagues provide a rich assessment of the current conditions and realistic recommendations for engaging current policy and lessening its impact on students, families, and teachers.


Nichols has crafted an exceptional volume that documents the increasingly diverse student experience, the impact of current educational policy for this diverse group, and provides realistic recommendations that prompt us to take action today. A distinguishing feature of the volume is the multiple voices and experiences that the text weaves together into a coherent and vibrant story of what it means to be a student in the current US educational system. The authors join these stories and experiences to current educational policy and document their dehumanizing impacts. Nichols provides the reader with a gateway to both understanding complex educational policies as well as possible actions we all can take to lessen their dehumanizing impacts and work to craft more humane and whole-student focused policies.


This volume challenges readers and stakeholders to examine the frames for which we understand problems, to find new ways of seeing and therefore different ways of addressing the most pressing issues impacting (mis)education. The authors present sophisticated legal policies in a concrete manner for the everyday reader and then illuminate how such policies impact the everyday experiences of an increasingly diverse population of young people moving through our educational system. The authors collectively address educational policies such as high-stakes testing promoted by No Child Left Behind and more recently Race to the Top, language policies such as Lau vs. Nichols (1974), immigration policy such as Proposition 187 in California, the DREAM Act, social and economic policies related to housing, gentrification, school funding, and employment, as well as discriminatory and harassment policies designed to protect students that identify as LGBT. The authors brilliantly reveal the connections among macro social, political, and economic contexts and micro implications of policies as lived by young people and communities.


The text builds a strong case for greater involvement of parents, community, and teachers in both crafting and responding to inhumane educational policies. It includes numerous recommendations for improving teacher development opportunities and creating innovative pathways for parental involvement.  It largely ignores building greater opportunities and pathways for young people to be directly involved in challenging, resisting, and advocating for more human educational policies. Involving young people in educational policy critique and development is a growing practice, but it also speaks to historical movements against inhumane educational policies initiated by groups of young people. While several chapters offer recommendations for involving young people in policy advocacy, the volume fell short of capturing the many ways young people currently engage in such practice, as well as the rich history young people have played in challenging discriminatory educational policies. This surprising omission continues a practice of not recognizing young people when they are actively engaged and skillful in claiming their citizenship rights and responsibilities.


When vibrant and strong pathways and opportunities appear for young people to be involved in policy debate and critique, they respond in powerful and important ways. Over the last 20 years or more, a body of scholarship discussing the involvement of young people in policy advocacy and the positive impact of their involvement on their own development and the larger policy context continues to expand. Of course, their inclusion often demands understanding and defining young people as more than students in an educational system. We know how adult definitions for young people limit their actions and often further exacerbate negative outcomes around health and wellbeing. Lesko (2012) challenges us to stop requiring that young people “act their age,” as this often limits who they are and at times may even cause them harm. We also know how expanding our definition and understanding of young people by providing them with real and relevant opportunities to participate in policy advocacy can enhance their well-being and strengthen their ties to community. Not casting young people (students) as valuable collaborators and policy advocates in the struggle toward more human policies breaks from the overall spirit of the text, which encourages greater participation from adults.


Although this omission is significant, it does not lessen the insightful prose, the strong policy analysis, or the significant and practical recommendations for taking action. It provides a succinct introduction to current educational policy and reminds us that future educational policy has to take into account all students. We highly recommend this beautifully crafted volume.



Lesko, N. (2012). Act your age!  A cultural construction of adolescence (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 22, 2017
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22061, Date Accessed: 12/7/2021 9:29:45 AM

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About the Author
  • Ross Roholt
    University of Minnesota
    E-mail Author
    ROSS VeLURE ROHOLT, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the School of Social Work, University of Minnesota. Dr. VeLure Roholt is a public engaged scholar with current research projects on youth engagement and youth involvement in community, social, and political development. His forthcoming edited volume on Evaluating Civic Youth Work will be released by Oxford Press in 2017.
  • Tracy Leitl
    University of Minnesota
    E-mail Author
    TRACY LEITL is a former New York City elementary school teacher and current doctoral candidate at the University of Minnesota. She teaches undergraduate and graduate pre-service educators, and is Curriculum Director at a Community Based Organization for Middle and High School students in Minneapolis. Tracy is deeply committed to community engagement and her dissertation project utilizes a youth participatory action research approach. She will complete her dissertation research project by May 2018.
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