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Race-Making in Schools of Choice: Teacher Narrative Construction of the Black Interloper

by Carla O'Connor, Shantá R. Robinson, Alaina Neal-Jackson, Elan C. Hope, Adam Hengen & Samantha Drotar - 2019

Background: Blacks are commonly targeted as a population that will benefit from school choice. Drawing upon market theory, school choice advocates argue that educational opportunity will increase for Blacks and other underserved populations when schools are required to compete for students. With choice, the historically underserved can presumably opt into schools that will provide their children higher quality education that confers better educational outcomes. To date, the promise of choice remains unfulfilled.

Purpose/Objective: We examine one underexplored factor that may contribute to the unfulfilled promise of school choice: how professionals make meaning of the very students who are expected to most benefit (in this case Black students) and how this meaning-making may compromise the prospect of greater educational opportunity via choice. In particular, we explore the stories teachers tell about Black students in the course of making meaning of Black underperformance as a professional “problem” and their own role in resolving this problem. Of special concern is how teachers racialize Black students via their narration of the status and experience of these youth and the consequent implications for all Black students in one choice context.

Research Design: The data for this study was collected as part of a multi-year, multi-method study of Black students in three demographically distinct school districts participating in an inter-district school choice system in the Midwest. Relying primarily on focus group interviews with teachers, we evaluated teachers’ narratives within and across districts to determine the discourse patterns that were germane to and differed across districts.

Findings: In the same way that Blacks are not often readily imagined as both Black and American, the Black students in the districts under study were constructed by teachers as interlopers—not readily imagined as both Black and full members of the school communities in which they were enrolled. In blurring these boundaries, teachers 1) rationalized their own sense of professional inefficacy in facilitating the academic success of Black students; and 2) normalized perspectives and practices that situate Black students and their families as deficient.

Conclusion/Recommendations: School choice was not articulated in these districts via professional perspectives and practices that increased Black educational opportunity, but was reconfigured as a trope that rationalized Black exclusion and underperformance. Unless teachers are supported in constructing radically different narratives than those reported herein, they are unlikely to cultivate personal practical knowledge that facilitates Black educational access and opportunity in schools of choice or elsewhere.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 121 Number 8, 2019, p. 1-62
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22700, Date Accessed: 9/23/2021 7:25:20 PM

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About the Author
  • Carla O'Connor
    University of Michigan
    E-mail Author
    CARLA O'CONNOR is Professor of Education and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. A sociologist of education, her research interests include educational resilience, the articulation and construction of Black identity and achievement in schools, and race and parental involvement. She is the co-author of: O’Connor, C., Mueller, J., & Neal, A. (2014). Student resilience in urban America. In H. R. Milner & K. Lomotey (Eds.) Handbook of Urban Education. (pp. 75-96). New York: Routledge; and O’Connor, C., Mueller, J., Rivas-Drake, D., Lewis, R. L., Rosenberg, S. (December, 2011). “Being” Black and Strategizing for Excellence in a Racially Stratified Academic Hierarchy. American Educational Research Journal, 48(6), 1232-1257.
  • Shantá Robinson
    University of Chicago
    E-mail Author
    SHANTÁ R. ROBINSON is an assistant professor in the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. Her research interests include the role of social identity in marginalized students’ educational experiences, aspirations, and outcomes; qualitative investigations of marginalized student achievement and underachievement; inequities in the distribution of educational resources; and the history, culture, and social organization of K-12 educational institutions: Robinson, S. (2018). A crusader and an advocate: The Black press, the Scopes trial, and educational progress. The Journal of Negro Education, 87(1), 3-21.
  • Alaina Neal-Jackson
    University of Michigan
    E-mail Author
    ALAINA NEAL-JACKSON is a recent graduate of the Educational Studies Foundation and Policy doctoral program at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her disciplinary emphasis is the sociology of education and her research interests include critical race and gender studies as it relates to the schooling of Black girls and women as reflected in this article: Neal-Jackson, A. (2018). A meta-ethnographic review of the experiences of African American girls and young women in K-12 education in The Review of Educational Research.
  • Elan Hope
    North Carolina State University
    E-mail Author
    ELAN C. HOPE is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at North Carolina State University. She takes an assets-based approach to investigate individual, familial, and contextual factors that promote well-being for marginalized adolescents and emerging adults who face racism and racial discrimination. Dr. Hope examines well-being as psychological and physical health, academic success, and civic engagement. Examples of her recent work include: Gray, D.L., Hope, E.C., Matthews, J.S. (2018). What opportunities do Black adolescents have to belong at school? A case for cultural distinctiveness and citizenship as instructional and institutional opportunity structures. Educational Psychologist; and Hope, E.C., & Bañales, J. (2018). Black early adolescent critical reflection of inequitable sociopolitical conditions: A qualitative analysis. Journal of Adolescent Research.
  • Adam Hengen
    University of Michigan
    E-mail Author
    ADAM HENGEN received his doctorate from the University of Michigan’s School of Education administration and leadership program. His dissertation, "Examining the Educational Experiences of High-Achieving Lakota Youth" (2015), explored youth resilience and the role of schools in shaping the educational experiences and aspirations of their students. His research interests include post-secondary educational access for marginalized students and issues of equity and representation in the STEM fields. Adam is currently a high school chemistry and engineering teacher in Aurora, CO. He is also a member of his school's equity team, which works to promote the development of culturally relevant teaching practices among the school's staff.
  • Samantha Drotar
    University of Michigan
    E-mail Author
    SAMANTHA DROTAR is a Research Associate at the Center for the Study of Black Youth in Context (CSBYC) at the University of Michigan. She received her B.A. with High Honors in Psychology and Sociology and a minor in Moral and Political Philosophy from the University of Michigan in 2009. Her research interests span a variety of topics, but are always taking into account the significant role that context plays, as in the following recent article: Chavous, T., Drotar, S., Fonseca-Bolorin, G., Leath, S., Lyons, D., & Mustafaa, F. (2017). Identity, motivation, and resilience: The example of Black college students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. In J. DeCuir-Gunby and P. Schutz (Eds.) Race and Ethnicity in the Study of Motivation in Education, (pp. 117-132). New York: Routledge.
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