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Teaching Outside the Box: Beyond the Deficit Driven School Reforms

reviewed by Douglas Kaufman - November 05, 2019

coverTitle: Teaching Outside the Box: Beyond the Deficit Driven School Reforms
Author(s): Mai Abdul Rahman
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1641133791, Pages: 236, Year: 2018
Search for book at Amazon.com

Teaching Outside the Box reads like a literature review, policy analysis, and passionate call for public school reform that resists capitulation to standardized testing pressures, and willful blindness to the social and racial diversity of its students. The book ties together historical and empirical research to highlight conditions that hinder the educational opportunities of students of color and students who are homeless.

The book is divided into ten chapters and splits its focus between national and local issues. Chapter 1 introduces us to the failure of current school reform initiatives, which were implemented without evaluating their impact on student growth. Author Mai Abdul Rahman writes that while the objective of school reform is to end the “spread of economic inequality, classism, racism, and the ‘bigotry of low expectations’” (p. 2), the accountability measures actually “exclude and marginalize Black students” (p. 6). High-stakes standardized testing, narrow definitions of student success, and the lack of teacher input into school reform development have led to failure. She argues that school reform will only succeed when we recognize students’ “non-cognitive” (p. 13) social and emotional skills within caring school cultures that defy deficit thinking.

Two chapters then provide historical context.  Chapter 2 discusses the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education as “America’s greatest legal achievement” (p. 48), while also noting its failure to fully integrate schools and increase educational equity for students of color. Chapter 3 takes a more fine-grained look at inequity, examining failed reform efforts in Washington, D.C.  Rahman details how public response to Martin Luther King’s assassination enabled politicians to enact white supremacist policies that undermined reform. Walking us through the decades, she presents Nixon’s war on drugs as a form of institutionalized racism designed to “shatter the Black community” (p. 57). With subsequent administrations adopting similar policies, higher poverty and disproportionate incarceration rates among citizens of color have remained tragically consistent. Further, D.C. public schools have only replicated traditional reform efforts that rely on standardized test scores and reinforce academic failure. The cycle of poverty has also led to an epidemic of homelessness among Black youth, which D.C. schools have not successfully addressed.

Chapter 4 focuses on the cognitive dissonance among white, middle-class school leaders and teachers who profess values of acceptance, equity, and elimination of racial biases while adhering to policies that buttress diametric conditions. Rahman writes, “Through a selective mental process Americans choose to disregard positive thoughts and highlight negative thoughts” (p. 83) which leads to “dislike, resentment, fear, and anxiety” (p. 88) and allows teachers to justify their prejudices. This, in turn, supports cycles of white privilege and the stereotyping and devaluing of Black and homeless youth. Rahman calls for conscious efforts to identify “the norms, beliefs, and assumptions that create the conditions to exclude students” and recognize “the positive values and beliefs that are generally ignored” (p. 98). Racist beliefs and attitudes, she asserts, can be unlearned.

Chapter 5 tackles the problem of “impartiality” as a protector of inequitable educational systems. For all students to succeed, schools must focus on equity and inclusion that is teacher driven, deliberately crafted, and built on trust and caring as it addresses implicit bias and reduces socio-economic inequalities. Extolling the promise still inherent in public education, she warns of charter movements that avoid transparency and engage in fraud and mismanagement to boost bottom-line profits. She then calls for a rigorous examination of policy to “help identify the entire history of school reform accountability measures from inception, dissemination, replication, and evolution” (p. 141).

The next four chapters examine a focus of Rahman’s own research: students and homelessness. Chapter 6 describes both the “perils” of homelessness and the “potential” (p. 159) of homeless students, who bring unique attributes to schools. While recognizing the acute stressors resulting from homelessness, Rahman argues that the critical thinking, decision-making, problem-solving, communication, and motivational skills that homeless youth develop to survive and thrive directly transfer to their academic lives when educators recognize and leverage them. Chapter 7 articulates the role that schools play as sanctuaries. Schools, she insists, must provide caring, responsive environments that introduce models of students who have overcome adversity. Chapter 8 describes the need for accurate statistics on homeless youth in order to serve them effectively. Systems that regularly undercount them have fewer opportunities to receive Title I funds and other support materials. Chapter 9 describes the academic and affective benefits of caring, empathy, and compassion; caring teachers are healthier, and they live professional lives filled with joy and intellectual growth. Cared-for students can mitigate negative experiences and strengthen skills developed through adversity. They also perform better on standardized tests, have more motivation, and become caring, themselves. For caring to take root, teachers must abandon preconceptions of homeless students and acknowledge their rich competencies.

Finally, Chapter 10 provides a brief coda in which Rahman introduces the opening lines of the Constitution to argue that public schools were founded to promote “general welfare” and “domestic tranquility” (p. 236). However, “for a large swath of young Black and homeless students, the promise of justice, equality and prosperity…has proven to be hollow” (p. 236). In response, she urges us to learn from our mistakes, engage student-centered teaching, and fight for equitable opportunities for all students.

Rahman challenges educators to defy deficit thinking as they work with students who are homeless or have been deprived of opportunities. She pushes back against research that claims residential instability prevents students from self-actualizing and fulfilling their innate potential. Well-meaning, sympathetic educators actually teach more poorly when their obsession with what students don’t have or can’t do overwhelms their ability to recognize and build upon students’ unique attributes. Consciously developing relationships with homeless students by recognizing their talents and adaptive skills help teachers to build off attributes rather than waste time trying to “fix” deficits. These chapters challenged me to learn more, and think more carefully, about the hidden aspects of my own students’ lives. This will help me to revise and target my instructional approaches to students’ individual needs and attributes. Throughout the book, Rahman asks us to learn from prior mistakes, and one mistake that many of us make is our prejudgment of students based on subconscious stereotyping.

The book does contain some flaws. First, although the title alludes to teaching practice, the book doesn’t describe any practice or provide examples of how recommended solutions might be implemented in-real world situations. For instance, in Chapter 7 Rahman exhorts schools to develop “concrete responsive” (p. 204) and “multilayered” (p. 205) support systems to meet the needs of historically marginalized students. However, she does not provide any practical models of these systems or flesh out what features would make them more successful than the failed reform efforts have preceded them. As a treatise focused exclusively on research literature to illuminate problems and call for solutions, it may frustrate readers who seek guidance in enacting those solutions.

Second, the focus of the book often feels widened to make it marketable to a larger audience.  Rahman’s work on homelessness is the most compelling part of the book, and is based largely on her personal work. The earlier sections that examine deficit-driven models rely heavily on demographic statistics and a review of the literature. The result is a drier exposition of evidence that doesn’t connect seamlessly with Rahman’s own research. A book focused more exclusively on schooling and homeless students would allow a deeper dive into these issues and provide greater internal coherence.

Third, many sections repeat themselves, and the book contains more typographical and punctuation errors than the typical publication, forcing readers to check back to confirm the writer’s intentions. This is not a debilitating problem, but a stronger copyeditor could eliminate redundancies and mechanical hiccups to smooth the reading flow.

Ultimately, Teaching Outside the Box gives rise to crucial and too-often ignored issues in education, serving as both a trove of research material and a manifesto calling us to take extraordinary, immediate action to support students who have been ignored, marginalized, and miseducated throughout our nation’s history.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 05, 2019
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23129, Date Accessed: 11/11/2019 7:44:50 PM

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About the Author
  • Douglas Kaufman
    University of Connecticut
    E-mail Author
    DOUGLAS KAUFMAN is an Associate Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education and a University of Connecticut Teaching Fellow. His current work examines connections between writing education and issues of equity and social justice, classroom teachers who assume identities as writers, and the role of the teacher as listener.
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