The Uncertain Value of School Knowledge: Biology at Westridge High

by Reba Page - 1999

This article describes and analyzes the surprisingly uncertain value of school science in an academically prestigious high school at a time when reform in science education is again a national priority. In a cultural analysis focused on school lessons, it traces how school participants produce a veritable absence of science in science classes and how the production is sensible, or understandable, given their particular institutional and social circumstances. What emerges, too, is the extraordinary reach, or complexity, of ordinary school lessons. However unevenly or intricately, lessons move from teacher plans to student responses, beyond events in classrooms to the culture of a school, across contemporary hybrids of divergent curricular rationales to long-past historical debates, while traveling between subject matter knowledge and status politics. Seeing their reach allows us to understand the long-standing muddlement of knowledge in U.S. schools, as well as what we can do about it.

This article describes and analyzes the surprisingly uncertain value of school science in an academically prestigious high school at a time when reform in science education is again a national priority. In a cultural analysis focused on school lessons, it traces how school participants produce a veritable absence of science in science classes and how the production is sensible, or understandable, given their particular institutional and social circumstances. What emerges, too, is the extraordinary reach, or complexity, of ordinary school lessons. However unevenly or intricately, lessons move from teacher plans to student responses, beyond events in classrooms to the culture of a school, across contemporary hybrids of divergent curricular rationales to long-past historical debates, while traveling between subject matter knowledge and status politics. Seeing their reach allows us to understand the long-standing muddlement of knowledge in U.S. schools, as well as what we can do about it.

The effort really to see and really to represent is no idle business in face of the constant force that makes for muddlement. The great thing is indeed that the muddled state too is one of the very sharpest of the realities, that it also has color and form and character. . . .

—Henry James, What Maisie Knew

In August 1993 I began a year-long, ethnographic study focused in part on what happens in high school science classes.1 Being a student of curriculum, I was particularly interested in the knowledge that schools teach about science. Bringing a cultural perspective as well, I was also curious about how curricular choices are shaped by the particular situations in which participants find themselves and, as a result, are understandable rather than simply praiseworthy or blameable.

On both counts, I was oriented to the politics and aesthetics of representing knowledge (Clifford, 1988, 1997; Clifford & Marcus, 1986; Geertz, 1983; Latour & Woolgar, 1979/1986; Rabinow, 1996). Therefore, when I started the fieldwork in two comprehensive high schools in southern California, I expected to see diverse constituents struggling over competing versions of the science schools should teach and distribute. I wondered what definitions of science various groups would deploy and which ones, however temporarily, would be deemed representative, or legitimate, as school science. I particularly anticipated clashes because California’s State Department of Education had only recently, in 1990, released its latest curriculum framework and the document forecast a sharp redirection in school science—and another salvo in the ongoing culture wars over the authority of science.

What I encountered in the schools, however, took me quite unawares. After a few weeks in classrooms, I found myself thinking, there isn’t any science here. At first the thought was no more than a hunch and, because it seemed so outlandish, I dismissed it. When it recurred, I reasoned that because I am not a science educator I must be missing the knowledge that any science teacher would see as obvious.2 Finally, however, as the speculation about absent knowledge continued to crop up, I began to puzzle over it, wondering about what in the science classes might be cuing my response and, more importantly, whether classroom participants also apprehended an absence, even if only tacitly.

What follows is an explanation of how I have come to understand that initial, disconcerting intuition. It has grown to be a series of questions and interpretations, admittedly lengthy, about the extraordinary reach of ordinary school lessons and, hence, about the profound complexity anyone will be up against, should they decide to teach, administer, or study in schools.


I began studying high school science in the fall semester of 1993–94 by participating and observing daily in nine science classes in two large (2,000+ students), public, comprehensive high schools in the urban school district of Orangetowne,3 a medium-sized city in a fast-growing county in southern California. During the spring semester, I reduced my time in the science classes to have more time for interviewing school participants, including teachers, students, administrators, and a few parents. I also followed science teachers and some students from each science class through their daily schedules, observed in classes other than science and in sites other than classrooms (e.g., extracurricular events, faculty meetings, district in-services) and, in general, tried to comprehend the wider institutional and community contexts in which the science classes were embedded.

In both phases of the fieldwork my interest was two-fold: first, in the diverse representations of school science offered by various constituents, such as teachers, students, science educators, or state policy makers; and second, in the processes and contexts in which particular representations of school science became representative for others, as, for example, when students accept a teacher’s rendition of science or teachers follow a curriculum guide.

My schedule of nine classes included five at Endeavor High and four at Westridge.4 Most of the nine were part of what Aldridge (1989) calls the “layer-cake curriculum,” including classes in Advanced Placement and regular biology, and in honors and regular chemistry. In addition, my schedule included the innovative course, Integrated Science 1, which the Orangetowne high schools were just piloting in accordance with the district’s response to state policy recommendations. In The Science Framework for California Public Schools, K–12 (California, 1990), California’s Department of Education had proposed its own ambitious version of school science—integrated science—in which schools were to integrate the natural sciences and they were to integrate students (Crockett, Page, & Samson, 1997). High schools are advised to discontinue the traditional, tracked, separate years of biology, physics, chemistry, and general science and to replace the sequence, at least for the two-year graduation requirement in science, with heterogeneously grouped classes of mostly ninth- and tenth-graders; teachers were to provide “hands-on” lessons in which all of the natural sciences would be brought to bear on what The Framework called “practical,” overarching “themes” such as energy, evolution, scale and structure, and so forth. With its emphasis on practical knowledge, active learning, and facilitative teaching, and the alignment of classrooms with state tests, textbooks, teacher education, and university entrance requirements, the California reform is congruent with the systemic model of constructivist science represented in the national standards (National Research Council, 1994) and by various professional foundations (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1989; National Science Teachers Association, 1988).5


It was in this context of reform and after about six weeks of observing in the nine high school science classes that I began thinking that science was absent. I started to review the events that might be cuing my reaction by looking back at my field notes, but I no sooner began than I encountered the long-standing analytic problem of what science is. For example, thinking that science was absent might seem to imply that science is Science—a stable entity whose presence or absence in classrooms can be readily agreed upon. However, I knew that competing definitions of science abound,6 as do competing definitions of school science, and that, moreover, any definition will prove unstable (Bernstein, 1983; Kuhn, 1970).

For example, educators have long disagreed about whether school science should emphasize content, or a way of thinking, or problem-solving (Dewey, 1916/1944); whether it is best dispensed through direct instruction or “discovery” (Bruner, 1960; Gagné & Driscoll, 1988); whether credit should be given to students’ “naive” knowledge or only to that which the science community has publicly sanctioned (Driver, Asoko, Leach, Mortimer & Scott, 1994; Gilbert, Watts & Osbourne, 1985); and, particularly recently, whether science courses should be common or differentiated, with “practical” courses to motivate average students and promote “positive attitudes” while “academic” courses are reserved for students who plan advanced study and careers in science (see the histories of several efforts to redefine school science in Goodson, 1993).7 Equally thorny for educators has been the choice between individualistic and social versions of science. The former focuses on mastery of a rational, verifiable knowledge of natural phenomena, the latter, on a knowledge whose content and methods are no less social than any other knowledge and, therefore, are always partial and particularistic (Anderson, 1994; Brickhouse, 1994; Eisenhart, Finkel, & Marion, 1996; Nespor, 1994; Shymansky & Kyle, 1992). As Eisenhart et al. point out, even constructivist innovations contribute to the reproduction of a conventionally individualistic science that appeals disproportionately to White, male, Western students if, as is typical, they limit their attention to dyadic and classroom interactions and ignore the wider social structures that sustain science as a detached form of knowing.

One common response to the analytic problem posed by multiple definitions of science is to stipulate a definition. This is the strategy in California’s Framework and the national standards, where one version of school science, derived authoritatively from “research,” is promoted so that schools everywhere will be “on the same page” in regard to what good science is (Schmidt, McKnight, & Raizen, 1997). While I could have designated one definition as school science—say, that proposed in The Science Framework—and then asked if events in the California classrooms matched state recommendations, I did not want to proceed in that way either. Stipulative definitions, as much as those developed by logic, risk obscuring curricular and cultural politics: They can suggest that there is, or should be, consensus around one standard if we are to be serious about improving school science, that the definitional problem is merely technical as schools fail (yet again) to implement policy or research-based innovations, or that curriculum practices can, or should be, promulgated by policy makers or scholars.8

These difficulties led me to decide against an a priori definition as I sought to explore my speculations about the absence of scientific knowledge and, even more, whether participants in the nine classes, however tacitly, also acknowledged an absence. I determined instead to attend with some specificity to what was going on in science lessons, to trace what participants in lessons paid attention to, and to observe what they used school knowledge to do. In this decision, I was influenced by Lynch (1993, pp. xi–xii), who, in writing generally about social studies of science, argues that rather than trying to “solve the problem of defining ‘science’ . . . we might develop more differentiated conceptions . . . [by] respecify[ing]” it. Thus, rather than attempting another abstract definition of Science, Lynch suggests we assume that there are scienceS and that we begin conducting empirical studies of what people, in particular contexts, do when they say they are doing science. With such an agenda, high school classrooms become crucial research sites for developing an understanding of the place of science and knowledge in American schools and society.

Lynch’s advice is not itself without problems because, as philosophers point out (Fay, 1996), seeing science or its absence requires having some definition “already and always” in mind. I used several strategies to manage this dilemma. First, I kept theory foremost, reminding myself to expect contested and contradictory definitions of scienceS. Second, I worked to acknowledge both the idiosyncratic and more stable elements in definitions of science by connecting those I encountered in the schools (and in my own assessments) with formalistic renditions I knew about in the research literature. And, third, I strove to maintain a “self-consciously distanced” rather than “directly involved” position in regard to what school science is and should be (Edelman, 1985, p. 201). In regard to this last, not being a member of the community of science educators may have been useful. More generally, however, as Edelman notes (pp. 209–209), the distinction between distanced and direct involvement is analytic, not empirical. It is not a contrast between concerned and detached, or objective, persons—everyone, he says, is “involved in both, to different degrees, all the time.” Rather, it is a way of classifying situations. Self-conscious distance signals a phenomenologically distinctive form of involvement in which the aim is to analyze patterns in the roles of those who are directly involved (see also the discussion of reflexivity in interpretive research in Hammersley & Atkinson, 1995, chap. 1).


I focused on what the people in these nine classrooms were doing, and what they knew, often tacitly, that made what they were doing sensible (Spindler, 1982). Situated thus, I began trying to locate the sources of my hunch about the absence of science. I looked first at my field notes. I noticed that during the first week or so of the school year, school science seemed to be classroom management. For example, teachers specified a stream of procedural details —the margins of lab reports must be 1" wide, only pencils may be used to record lab data, broken lab equipment has to be paid for before students can continue with subsequent lab exercises, and so forth. They read aloud from printed copies of the rules that would pertain in their classes and they sent the copies home as “contracts”9 that required signatures from parents as well as students. They elaborated intricate point systems for grading, handed out score sheets, noted rewards, and promised punishments. No teacher I observed spent the first day of the school year giving attention to the questions or methods of science.10

As classes settled into a routine, my notes suggested that from rules and regulations, the science curriculum shifted to mathematics. Across classes, teachers expounded on significant figures, scientific notation, “statistics,” how to use the exponent function on a calculator, converting to the metric system, how to find the mean or mode or range, or how to represent measurements in a variety of graphs and data tables. They explained math as the handmaiden of science.

After math, school science settled down to vocabulary and the basics. Lessons were devoted to naming lab equipment, the parts of the microscope, or the elements. Students memorized taxonomies of plants and animals, arranged ratio problems and balanced equations, listed the parts of the cell, or learned to read the periodic table. These representations seemed to approximate science more than a curriculum of management or mathematics. However, they lacked a frame, or defining questions, that might distinguish science as a significant form of inquiry and as different from other forms such as art, history, or religion.

Later in the semester, I saw holidays impinge so that attention to science was displaced both by local festivities, such as homecoming and prom, and by national celebrations, such as Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Christmas. Then, during the last month of the semester (and particularly prominently during the spring semester), school science became little more than tests. In addition to the usual weekly test on Fridays and the occasional unit test, days were now devoted to reviewing for, rehearsing, and taking semester tests and final exams. Added to local testing were Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests, the Scholastic and Pre-Scholastic Assessment Tests, the Golden State exams, state-mandated minimum competency tests, and the new statewide, standards- or performance-based achievement test, CLAS (California Learning Assessment System).11

I was struck by this broad pattern across the nine classes in which I observed, where teachers and students seemed to be holding science at bay rather than engaging in the construction of scholastic and social relationships centered around subject matter. It was not what I expected to see from the research I had read about science classrooms. That literature suggested two possibilities. One forecast science as a lively subject that can motivate students with real phenomena, active lab experiments, and certifiable knowledge, not to mention significant status and a promise of future rewards (e.g., American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1989). The other predicted a discipline that, no less than any other taught in school, is reduced to a tiresome routine of teacher-tell from textbooks to glazed-eyed students (e.g., Stake & Easley, 1978; Tobin & Gallagher, 1987). But, whether sacred or profane, both of these versions of school science entail subject matter knowledge. That, however, was precisely what I did not seem to be seeing in the two California high schools.

Intrigued by the general pattern illustrated in my field notes, I decided to probe absence further by looking more closely at some specific instances of school science.12 For example, I chose lab exercises as one focus. There, too, I saw almost all students do everything they could not to act like scientists. They did not observe or measure carefully, they did not hypothesize, they did not recheck disconfirming data. Moreover, students called attention to what they were not doing by teasing the few students who did take lab work seriously.

Similarly, I wondered where science was during a unit about evolution, when biology teachers insisted on the “scientific” basis of the theory but, at the same time, they apologized for it. Thus, one teacher began her lecture with, “Now, just take this on faith. . . .” Conjoining scientific theory with faith in a science class struck me as odd. It also seemed odd to me that students let pass in silence the teachers’ lectures because evolution, according to the state of California, is a “socially sensitive issue.”13 In follow-up interviews, students said that they did indeed disagree with many of their teachers’ propositions about life’s origins but sensed that they did not want public discussion; some went so far as to characterize the unit not as science but as “brainwashing.” In interviews, teachers too acknowledged that interactions over knowledge were circumscribed during the unit. They explained that state and district “guidelines” stipulate that they must teach about evolution but they also dictate cautions about what teachers may say and ask students to do.14

Finding arresting both these particular instances in which science seemed to be absent and their correspondence with the broad pattern documented in my field notes, I determined to pursue the question of absence further by undertaking an extended description and analysis of the “curriculum in action” (Schwab, 1969, p. 2) in the nine science classes. In the account of that process, which follows, so that I can document some of what I learned about the “specificities” (Lynch, 1993) of school science, I draw from the larger research project one case, that of a regular-track biology class at Westridge High where mostly ninth-graders were taught by a well-trained veteran, Mr. Babcock. I choose the biology class because it operated smoothly, with few untoward events or exceptional characters. Although I focus here on the single classroom, the precepts that defined it operated in other science classes I observed in at Westridge.

In examining the biology class, I portray curriculum by surveying several of its incarnations, including (1) the teacher’s enactment of curriculum in the classroom, (2) his characterization of curriculum, and (3) the student response to his version of school science. Throughout, I also signal (4) the school and social contexts within which classroom and curricular events take on meaning. I examine these four manifestations of curriculum because queries about one led me to the others. Thus, when I sought to understand what school science looks like up close, I was led to wonder if it was present; encountering what seemed to be its absence, I wondered how people produced the absence; understanding somewhat the production, I became puzzled about how a good, experienced teacher like Mr. Babcock could tolerate an absence of knowledge and then, subsequently, what his students made of the situation; and seeing some common patterns between the biology class and other science classes, I wondered what species of “prep” high school Westridge was, such that an absence of science was sensible. In short, my aim is to account for what seemed to be an absence of science by showing that school participants themselves were oriented to absence, how they produced it, and how their production, if surprising and ironic in an educative institution, is nevertheless understandable, given the particular conditions in which they acted.15

The analysis of curriculum I offer is cultural and, therefore, relational. I treat curriculum as a set of multilayered transparencies, each piled one on top of the other (Rosenberg, 1997). Selecting some instances from the set, I describe them “thickly” (Geertz, 1973), attending especially to the words and other signs that people at Westridge used to carve up inchoate experience into meaningful categories so that some facets of science, schooling, and society were rendered visible and important while others were made invisible and unimportant. As well, I work to infer the implicit principles, or “webs of significance” (Geertz, 1973, p. 5, paraphrasing Weber) that people used to connect facets of curriculum and of culture in a meaningful whole that they pointed to when they talked about “school science.” My hope is that the account will allow readers to experience vicariously something of what I experienced in Westridge classrooms, to scrutinize how I went about interpreting participants’ interpretations of school science, and to consider how they interpret the Westridge case and might use it to understand other instances of school science that they know or have read about.


If one were to try to predict a school in which science would be excellent, Westridge High would seem a sure bet. That was also part of what was startling about the possibility that science might be absent from science classes.


Westridge is one of six high schools in the large, prosperous city of Orangetowne. The school has a long and respected history and is regarded as the district’s premier academic institution. In 1992–93, 41 percent of its seniors completed the University of California entrance requirements, almost one hundred students earned the Golden State Exam Award, and twenty-six students were Advanced Placement Exam Scholars. The school regularly captures the local Mock Trial trophy and the Academic Decathlon, as well as top rankings in state and national competitions.

The Westridge teaching staff is well-trained and experienced, as would befit the school’s academic reputation. In 1993–94, 42 percent of the faculty members held master’s degrees and the average tenure stood at fifteen years. In the science department, four of the nine faculty members held graduate degrees. Among the six men (all White) and three women (one African American), only one teacher had been at Westridge less than a decade. Mr. Babcock was one of the veterans; in addition to his undergraduate major in the natural sciences, he held a master’s degree and had completed most of the coursework required for the Ph.D. in sociology.

Westridge is also known locally as Orangetowne’s “prep” high school. The allusion encompasses not only the school’s college-preparatory curriculum but, at least equally, a student body that is 59 percent White, with a preponderance of students who live in neighborhoods of middle- and upper-middle-class homes. The student parking lot is full of expensive cars; at athletic events students wave credit cards during a chant that begins, “We’ve got money, yes we do. . . .”16 Booster clubs of parents and alumni raise thousands of dollars every year to supplement the school’s public resources, far more than at other local high schools.

These advantages notwithstanding, Westridge is like many public high schools in California and the nation in the growing insecurity of a “prep” reputation. For instance, the proportion of minority students and socially disadvantaged students is rising: At Westridge, 27 percent of the students were eligible for free or reduced lunch in 1992–93, compared to 22 percent in 1991–92 (still, Westridge numbers fell well below the district average of 46 percent). In addition, the school has lost socially and scholastically advantaged students to the International Baccalaureate program at Endeavor High, its long-time, cross-town rival. More of the advantaged clientele who have been key to Westridge’s reputation may be drawn away by a new high school planned for a development of expensive homes that adjoins the Westridge catchment area.

Details such as these prompted uncertainty about Westridge and, for some members of the school-community, anxiety. During the years we studied in Orangetowne, perceptions of the school’s long tradition of excellence jostled against perceived threats to the school’s—and people’s—places in the community. There was disagreement about what the changes in enrollment signified and how the school should respond. The local debate was part and parcel of California’s, and the nation’s, continuing ambivalence about integration, whether of subjects or students. That ambivalence seeped into classrooms where, as I document in the next section, it was manifested in a hodgepodge curriculum whose principal import was the uncertain value of school science—and, in effect, its absence.


The curriculum in Mr. Babcock’s biology course was muddled and, in the muddlement, it was possible to lose sight of science altogether. Even though the course was a model of tight organization, both in its procedures and in the systematicity with which units unfolded, muddlement arose, in part, because the course cobbled together divergent curricular rationales and practices. On the one hand, Mr. Babcock hearkened to the innovative, “constructivist” model of science recommended in The Science Framework as well as in various national reforms; he talked about accommodating “active learning” and “facilitative teaching” by designing lessons that would be “relevant,” or “practical,” and, therefore, “accessible” to the diverse students who elected to take biology. Yet, on the other hand, Mr. Babcock also retained many features of conventional biology, including practices associated with so-called “rigorous,” post-Sputnik science—discipline-based, preprofessional training modeled on the work of scientists and directed to the nation’s most talented students.

The lessons that resulted were not simply an amalgamation of the two rationales, with the innovative practices added on to standard procedures, as some analyses have described the effect of policy recommendations on practice. Rather, as my examination of two curriculum units in Mr. Babcock’s biology will document, the result was a hybrid (Kliebard, 1995)—a third species of curriculum which, although it exhibited some of the qualities of its dissimilar progenitors, was a new product altogether and different from the sum of its parts. Furthermore, hybridization in curriculum, as in agriculture, art, or ethnography (Clifford, 1997), is not automatically enriching. Teachers may creatively commingle what is valuable from divergent rationales focused, say, on the contemporary interests of youth and the disciplinary knowledge that humans have accumulated over the centuries if they develop integrative metaphors, such as experience (Dewey, 1916/1944). But when disparate traits are simply mixed together willy-nilly, the resulting hybrids may be incomprehensible mutants, even Frankensteins.

The First Curriculum Unit: “Lab and Science Skills”

A confused and confusing mix of rigorous and relevant school science permeated the first unit in Mr. Babcock’s biology course: five weeks devoted to “Lab and Scientific Skills.” The teacher introduced the unit with statements about “the scientific method,” one time-honored feature of high school science. He said he wanted students to “develop [their] powers of observation” so that “[they could] observe the facts,” and “so that anyone else coming along will agree that they see what [the students] saw.” To such pieties of method, however, Mr. Babcock conjoined less conventional, and contradictory, notions about science. He said much of science is “common sense” and that, therefore, students should be “active learners [who] figure things out for themselves.” Moreover, Mr. Babcock reassured students about the perils of studying a subject that is reputedly “hard”: He promised he would “walk [them] through this first time” and, as he told me in an interview, students learn “step-by-step-by-step.”17 Thus, from the first, the biology curriculum embodied a double standard: If students would be asked to “act like scientists,” as Mr. Babcock put it, who objectively and skeptically measure, record, and reproduce natural phenomena in lab drawings, data tables, and graphs, they would be asked to work as well on incremental assignments focused on ordinary objects and under the tutelage of an ever-solicitous teacher.

The first lesson in the unit targeted lab drawings and illustrated the disconcerting hybrid that resulted from a haphazard intermingling of elements of both the conventional and innovative versions of school science. For the subject of the lab drawing, Mr. Babcock chose the African American flag, not the plant or animal that might be expected in traditional biology. His choice may have reflected his perception of what students are interested in or, perhaps, what they ought to find “relevant”; it may also have mirrored a concern to keep the opening exercise simple, and it foregrounded the teacher’s social commitments and his training in sociology.18

Taping the three-banded, tricolor flag to the chalkboard, Mr. Babcock began leading students through their first lab drawing. With exaggerated motions and using a meter stick, he first made one-inch margins on his “lab paper” at the board. Alongside the “paper,” he wrote the step he was describing and demonstrating: “(1) Make margins,” he wrote. Mr. Babcock then sketched the flag by drawing a rectangle divided into three equal sections. He pointed out that he was leaving room on his “paper” for labels. He directed students to draw the flag on a sheet of lab paper at their desks. As students began, Mr. Babcock went around the room checking on their work. Responding to occasional disparagements, the teacher acknowledged the easy assignment and, in passing, distinguished it from “difficult” science that he hinted would come later: “Okay, so far these look fine. It’s not too difficult to draw a flag - - but drawings may get more difficult with a living organism.”

Moving to the second step in making a lab drawing—labeling—Mr. Babcock again performed the procedure larger than life. He marked a dot on the structure to be labeled (one of the three bands of the flag), marked a second dot in the margin of his “lab paper” and, again flourishing the meter stick, he connected the dots: “In the margin,” he said, “print the color, ‘red.’ Once you finish that, label the other two stripes.” The spoken instructions were again augmented in writing: “(2) Label parts.” And, again, Mr. Babcock walked around checking students’ papers, noting that “it looks like everybody’s got the idea.” As before, he also interjected an oblique disciplinary warning: “Don’t draw labeling lines freehand - - I can spot that a mile away. Use your rulers.”

Ready for the “last step,” Mr. Babcock noted that all lab drawings must have titles—“(3) Title”—and without waiting for suggestions from students he suggested, “How about ‘African-American flag’?” Placing the words at the top of his paper above the drawing of the flag, he commented briefly on appropriate titles by noting that they should represent a general class of items. He also marked science off from everyday discourse: “If you draw a goldfish, you might use the scientific name for goldfish, but you wouldn’t put ‘Joey, the dead goldfish’ because that wouldn’t pertain.”

Having “walked the students through” their first lab drawing—a leisurely stroll at fourteen minutes—Mr. Babcock followed up with “drill and practice.” At the chalkboard, he now drew a cartoon-like goldfish, joking genially about his own artistic expertise: “Now you know why I’m a teacher, not an artist.” Students were to “spot the errors” in his lab drawing by referring to the prior demonstration with the African American flag and, also, by consulting the list of rules on the daily handout, “Lab Drawings.” Contemplating the goldfish, students spotted easily that the title was at the bottom of the drawing rather than the top and that it was not underlined, that some labels began with capitals instead of lower-case letters, that some labeling lines were not straight and some crossed the figure in the drawing, and so forth.

Then, to conclude the lesson, Mr. Babcock “walked [students] through” lab drawings yet a third time. On this trip around, he turned students to the back of the handout where there was a sample lab drawing titled “A Simple Pinnate Leaf” (the title was not underlined and all the words began with capital letters, contrary to both the written directions on the handout and the teacher’s demonstration with the flag). Mr. Babcock carried around a bucket full of magnolia leaves he had gathered prior to class and gave one to each student. He told students the leaves were “similar to the example” on the handout and that students were to draw the magnolia leaf on their lab papers; they should label the vein, petiole, midrib, and leaf blade, as in the sample sketch. They should finish just before the bell, when they were to turn in their drawings in the blue box. Noting perhaps the pertinence of the “real-world” phenomenon they were examining, the only question was, “What do we do with our leaf?” The teacher’s reply: “Just put it back in the bucket.”

At first glance, this “step-by-step-by-step” curriculum might seem user-friendly, even simple: Taking it one step at a time, a kindly teacher was inducting novices who might be intimidated by science into a reassuringly mundane version of the subject. The pattern continued throughout the five weeks of the “Lab and Scientific Skills” unit. Students encountered other readily recognizable phenomena as lessons moved from magnolia leaves to eye color, shoe size, leaf length, and coin tosses (heads or tails). With Mr. Babcock’s help, they “collected data” about such ordinary phenomena and represented them in lab drawings or in bar graphs or frequency tables.

However, on second glance, “walking through” biology was not quite so simple. If the teacher presented data collection and representation as self-evident—“not too difficult”—he also interspersed a series of dicta, yet without directly owning up to them. If he characterized data about average shoe size as “relevant,” he did not explain why students, or scientists for that matter, might be puzzled or intrigued by them. If he chose unintimidating objects for study, he also minimized their import by failing to link them to practical problems, each other, or significant disciplinary topics so that the daily lessons attained a comprehensive purpose, or what Dewey (1916/1944) called “direction.”

Put simply, the opening unit presented mixed messages about science. The mix was subtle but unrelenting. The intermittent hints of harder things to come (“living organisms”) or strictures about the conventions of method such as always using a straightedge, being careful observers, or taking repeated measures, existed in counterpoint with “relevance,” common sense, and “walking through.”19

Furthermore, the relevant and rigorous versions of science formed a single pattern of ongoing alternation. As I continued observing, that pattern of alternation became the artifact that required explanation, not, as is more usual in the literature about science education, whether a rigorous or relevant curriculum is best practice.

Considering the pattern, I noted that the mixture might be Mr. Babcock’s response to the multiple goals for science education. His lessons commingled a little bit of relevance with a little bit of rigor. If expedient from the teacher’s perspective, however, the mix may have made it difficult for students to determine the knowledge that would count in biology, or when and in regard to what rules. For example, were students to regard science transactions as commonsensical or counterintuitive? Would the biology class reward “active learners [who] figure things out for themselves” or obedience to conventions shared within the community of scientists?

Given the double standard, I also wondered how the students could act competently. For example, how much energy did they have to devote to simply figuring out the ground rules that governed the class instead of to learning science (see Erickson’s [1986] insightful discussion of the trade-off between academic and social responsibilities, especially pp. 135–137)? At the same time, the muddled representation of knowledge succeeded as a medium of control. As Lemke (1989) has explained, when a focus on formal knowledge proves onerous or anxiety-producing, teachers often evoke “relevant” examples or applications to reassure students that science is not hard and the teacher, easygoing. However, if “relevant” topics then produce too much informality—if students reciprocate with jokes of their own or open complaints about difficult ideas—teachers can hint at “rigor” to restore order (no “freehand” labeling). Neither heavy-handed, obtrusive, nor self-conscious, the alternation of relevance and rigor seemed a particularly effective and stable form of control in Mr. Babcock’s biology.

A Second Curriculum Unit: “Cell Theory”

A colleague asked me whether the muddlement in the first unit might simply be an artifact of getting the biology class off on the right foot and of the need, at the beginning of any course, to introduce fundamental rules, skills, and concepts. By this line of reasoning, science could indeed be in short supply initially but it should appear once the biology course got under way. This seemed plausible when, in about the eighth week of the semester and with little warning, Mr. Babcock plunged from “Lab and Science Skills” into “Cell Theory,” a unit replete with traditional subject matter, or what the teacher once called “arcane” science. Equally abruptly, Mr. Babcock also announced that he was going to “wean” students from their over-reliance on him. On both counts, unambiguously “rigorous” science seemed to have arrived.20

However, “Cell Theory” too proved a muddle. The value of knowledge was again uncertain, now because the “more difficult” subject matter in “Cell Theory” turned out to be a list of discrete vocabulary words, not a logically structured body of knowledge or a systematic process of inquiry.21 Further, even though the vocabulary was what one might expect to see in a biology course and may be important for initiation into thinking biologically, students in Mr. Babcock’s class were expected only to mimic the words, not to master them.

The show of rigor, now more paramount than “relevance” but still alternating with it, was visible, first, in a shift in the discourse in Mr. Babcock’s classroom. Instead of “shoe size” and “tossing pennies,” students now encountered “mitochondria,” “cytoplasm,” and “deoxyribonucleic acid.” Because the vocabulary was increasingly unfamiliar, the teacher’s voice was more often the only one sounding. Mr. Babcock lectured more. His strictly organized presentations followed main topics that were always outlined on the chalkboard before the first bell (between classes, Mr. Babcock erased the sub-headings he inserted as he lectured so as to be ready for the next of his four back-to-back biology classes). In general, the lectures were “step-by-step-by-step” commentaries on the list of key words and phrases on the board, with only occasional references to biological processes, relationships among the terms, the contemporary import of topics, or how knowledge about them had evolved.

Student participation reciprocated Mr. Babcock’s, so that as he talked more and was more the center of attention, students talked less and were less overtly engaged. Even recitation—that old classroom standby—was rare, and the contributions Mr. Babcock expected students to provide were not only infrequent but almost always procedural. The “hands-on” labs continued and now included microscopes, but students worked with fixed slides rather than live, one-celled organisms; lab drawings continued to entail reproducing the diagrams pictured on handouts. During lectures, students dutifully replicated in their notebooks the outline of words and phrases the teacher placed on the chalkboard; the notes I examined included nothing more than the words written on the board. Such note taking may have seemed sufficient to students, given that they were never asked to describe complex processes such as meiosis, its pertinence to them, or the influence of historical events on the development of the concept. Indeed, students did not have to recall or use even the vocabulary words because weekly quizzes asked only that they match five or ten words with definitions selected from among multiple choices.

During seatwork assignments, too, “cell theory” was modulated so that, however rigorous on the surface, scientific thinking was held in abeyance. For example, when students had questions about assignments, Mr. Babcock came to their desks and answered them privately. Using this technique, he protected students from the harsh spotlight of public evaluation and possible failure. However, the privatized encounters also meant that students did not see their peers or the teacher raise questions about biology. The private encounters may have suggested that scientific inquiry is dangerous and best avoided, or that inquiry is irrelevant to students or to science.

Like the shift from the “real-world” lab phenomena of shoe sizes to the technically construed vocabulary list of cell theory, Mr. Babcock’s decision to “wean” students from his solicitous, “walk-you-through” approach was also enacted precipitously and seemingly unequivocally. He simply announced one day that he would no longer show students what to do in labs, they would have to read the lab assignments themselves beforehand; he would not spell words for students, he said, they should use a dictionary; and, once a lab was under way, students should not ask him questions but should find their own answers by asking each other or checking in a reference book. However, this new regime lasted less than a week and the projected change to independent social relations proved as unstable as the shift to traditional academics.

For one thing, to work independently in the biology class was difficult because the standards for acceptable work fluctuated continuously. The guidelines on handouts, for instance, often contradicted demonstrations, as in the “lab drawing” lesson. Further, students could not rely on the teacher’s standards as model. His easy going approach to their academic progress was characteristic of his own work, so that, for instance, the daily handouts typically contained grammar and spelling mistakes as well as inconsistencies in rationale. Nor could students easily check or elaborate on the information they received from Mr. Babcock’s lectures or in labs by consulting a textbook because no textbooks were provided. Mr. Babcock prided himself on not being one of those teachers who “can’t teach without a book.” In this, he reflected encouragement from California’s State Department of Education to eschew ready-made texts which presumably account for teachers’ overreliance on “factoids” and recitations. Instead, the Department advises teachers to make their own texts, although where teachers will find the resources to do this is not specified.22

Working independently was also difficult because Mr. Babcock himself did not adhere long to the change in protocol. Instead, he resumed “walk-you-through” lessons within the week as he confronted the unceasing blandishments of students who wheedled, accused him of being uncaring, slowed down the pace, and wore him down simply by outwaiting him. Thus, when, despite several days of naming the parts of the cell, some students could not identify the nucleus—just as earlier, after a month of “statistics,” some students drew pie graphs when they were supposed to draw bar graphs and few could keep straight the difference between mean, mode, and median —Mr. Babcock simply resorted again to showing students how to resolve the problem.

As in the first unit in the biology class, then, so in the second, even though one might expect science in the second because the unit seemed to offer more substantive topics and rigorous expectations than “African American flag” or measuring heights or shoe sizes. Biology lessons continued as hodgepodge, where students were reassured that school science was “easy,” “relevant,” and commonsensical, but expert knowledge was always around and those in the know could deploy it to advantage at any time. The double standard both confused knowledge and controlled it.

In addition, the double standard was duplicitous, and this lent an edge to the biology lessons. I began to wonder whether engagement with school science was being undermined because students were kept off balance, alternately intimidated with purportedly “more difficult” materials but then held accountable only for mimicking the materials, complying with procedures, or soliciting help from an ever-available teacher. Similarly, when disparate versions of science were intermingled, each version operated as a foil for, or commentary on, the other. Because the versions contradicted each other and the contradictions were left unexamined, the authenticity of the claims of both sciences was put in question.23 Muddled biology could prompt students to ask which version of science is science and, given the contradictions between the relevant and rigorous, is either worth learning?24 Posing such questions about the value of school knowledge, at least in part in response to the muddled lessons they encountered, students themselves might begin contributing to the absence of science in science classes.


Because what teachers say about curriculum, and how, can throw light on the lessons that an observer watches teachers enact, I conducted a long, formal, loosely structured interview with Mr. Babcock, in addition to conversing with him informally in and outside of class. I hoped particularly to gain a better understanding of how he conceptualized curriculum, the influences on his model, and the specific words (and other signs) he used to project a particular “world” of school science, with characterizations of teacher and student roles and worthy knowledge, all within the context of the Westridge school community.25 Because Mr. Babcock was well trained in science and worked with able students in an academic high school, I was especially curious about how it was sensible to proffer and persist in a hodgepodge whose effects seemed to undermine rather than establish the value of school science.

As I will delineate, my conversations with Mr. Babcock led me to see his ideas about school knowledge as a version of a classic pedagogical dichotomy: caring for students versus covering content (Dewey, 1902/1956). This is how I think he himself thought about school science because, even though he did not talk explicitly in these terms (or about Dewey or curriculum history, either),26 his discourse about lessons was structured as a series of dichotomies between whose opposing poles he, as teacher, seemed to feel compelled to choose. Seeing the structure, I began to appreciate that if Mr. Babcock’s lessons muddled subject matter knowledge, it was not because he was ill informed about science or confused about the value of knowledge. Rather, Mr. Babcock contributed to the absence of science in the biology class because he was acting out of what was, in his scheme of things, a cherished but competing concern for students. Moreover, his concern for students was especially strong because he anchored it in equality, a potent cultural symbol. Thus, while Mr. Babcock’s talk with me ranged freely across a wide variety of topics (e.g., the importance of “relevant” lessons, the value of routine, “easy” science, the need for respect), “guaranteed success for all” was a glue that gave the diverse topics coherence and meaning. It also made less readily discussible—and less visible—other topics, such as difference, distinction, and disciplinary expertise.

“Equal Access to Science”

Mr. Babcock described himself, first and foremost, as a teacher who cares about students. “The kids” were the reason he teaches. On dark, chilly mornings, his classroom glowed like a beacon, calling students (and me) to a cozy warmth, the soft sounds of the blues from the teacher’s CD player, and the teacher’s relaxed presence. More often than not, Mr. Babcock was calmly reading over the sports page in the minutes that remained before the bell at 6:55 would announce “zero period,” an extra-early round of classes. Several students always joined the teacher in the room before the bell. Most talked quietly in twos and threes; a few caught extra winks.

Mr. Babcock exhibited his concern for students, and for school science too, with a classroom that was always readied. In the left-hand corner of the chalkboard stood the week’s schedule, listed day by day. The main headings for the day’s lecture or activity were outlined on the chalkboard, waiting for Mr. Babcock to fill in the subheadings as he moved through his presentation. Handouts to accompany the lecture or lab were stacked near the door, ready for students to pick them up as they came into class. The clean floor, the forty neatly arranged desks, the dusty specimens—all were ready.

To accompany the orderly yet comfortable physical environment, Mr. Babcock broadcast a reassuring academic and social environment. Thus, on the first day of the fall term, Mr. Babcock promised the biology students that “all will find success” and that “biology will not be hard.” During the first week, he asked the mostly ninth and tenth graders in the class to complete a writing assignment about “what I am afraid of in science class.” Responding to the papers the following day, Mr. Babcock emphasized that students need not be “afraid.” Success in science would depend on “work,” “effort,” and “trying,” not on “brilliance” or “genius. . . . I’m committed to all of you getting As. You have to work to flunk this class.”

In subsequent classes, Mr. Babcock reiterated the message: To succeed with lab drawings, for example, students “shouldn’t worry about being an artist; you don’t have to be a Matisse or Van Gogh, just be neat, concise, and accurate.” To promote confidence further, the teacher told students they could count on him to be “consistent; every week will be the same.” True to his word, there were lectures on Monday and Tuesday, labs on Wednesday and Thursday, and a quiz every Friday.27

The teacher’s first handout of the year was a “contract” that announced that students also “can expect Mr. Babcock to be fair . . . and honest; to treat me [the student] with respect and sensitivity; and to listen to me and not judge me.” Mr. Babcock elaborated on the handout, marking explicitly his commitment to equality in the classroom: “I will treat each of you equally. . . . Our society has biases, there’s a bias of society against women in science. If you feel I am biased, tell me.” He insisted that students follow “the Golden Rule” too:

I’m big into people’s rights. . . . Marco [a Latino] and Mike [an African-American] might be just joking around together, trading insults, but other people might hear their jokes as derogatory. That perpetuates stereotypes. We want to stay away from derogatory policies.

“Relevant” Curriculum

Mr. Babcock’s assurances that “biology is not hard” and that fair play would be paramount bespoke a relaxed, decorous world in which a caring teacher would “provide all students equal access to science.” In this “world,” however, knowledge proved problematic: It was cast as a threat to the egalitarian community Mr. Babcock hoped to ensure.

A telling example of the teacher’s juxtaposition of caring for students and covering content entailed Mr. Babcock giving students many chances for virtually certain success in biology. He awarded extra points when “notebook checks” showed that students had their papers properly organized in sections (lab drawings, lecture notes, tests, and so forth) or that they had brought the requisite supplies, such as a metric ruler or lab drawing paper. Students could also earn extra points if they brought a parent to meetings of the school’s Science Booster Club or if they agreed to be interviewed by me for the research project.28 All of these activities buoyed students’ grades and were intended to foster perseverance and success in the course. Yet, all of the activities avoided subject matter: Students earned extra credit only for nonacademic tasks, not for extra academic work.

Mr. Babcock minimized knowledge in other ways too. For example, in our conversations he consistently reframed issues of knowledge as questions about students. Thus, “equal access” to biology occupied a prominent place in Mr. Babcock’s discourse, but considerably less scrutiny was given to what students were getting access to or why particular knowledge was worth acquiring. In this regard, Mr. Babcock’s orientation is not particularly unusual. Until quite recently, many of the century’s educators and policy makers have been preoccupied with access to schooling and have neglected critical questions about the value of the knowledge students encounter once they enter or how knowledge is distributed among diverse students (Kliebard, 1992, Introduction).

Similarly, the teacher foregrounded processes of instruction and placed content in the background. For instance, he emphasized that science should be “activity-based, because students learn by doing. . . . When you’re in an apprenticeship, you learn stuff step-by-step-by-step. Students learn it by doing, that’s a real key for us because science really lends itself to doing that.” Again, Mr. Babcock’s emphasis was not idiosyncratic. It mirrored many constructivist proposals in its focus on “learning by doing” (California, 1990, p. 156), and with less scrutiny of the knowledge students “do” with. The position seems to be predicated on the assumption that dramatic changes, particularly in women’s and minority students’ interest and achievement in science, will follow automatically from “direct experiences” (California, 1990, p. 156).29

Finally, the threat Mr. Babcock seemed to see in academic work suggested some unacknowledged uncertainty on his part about whether the students in his classes were likely to succeed academically and continue taking academic courses. As he told the biology class, he knew many students would not pursue careers in science, but he “hopes that science will be useful, even if you don’t go into science or to college.”30

Mr. Babcock did not explicitly mention any uncertainty about students’ interests and abilities but he was vehement in his concern about kids’ victimization and social injustice. The teacher’s manner was most ardent when he explained to me that “in science classes, bright students get ‘Ds’ and ‘Fs’ because there is institutional racism. . . . [If the curriculum were] not White, male, and Eurocentric, more than the usual 10 percent of the students would do well in science.” A basic problem, according to Mr. Babcock, was that traditional school knowledge is “irrelevant” to most students. Instead, school science should be about “something that will prepare students for life” (another familiar slogan in U.S. education during the twentieth century).

Following this declaration, I fully expected that Mr. Babcock would direct the interview to his views about school knowledge: It should be “relevant,” he said. However, I was mistaken. Mr. Babcock recounted instead a long, intriguing fable about two hypothetical students who differed in their social backgrounds. One student was from “the laboring class” and the other, from “the mental class.” I recount the tale in some detail because it illustrates the oscillating process in which, even as Mr. Babcock bumped up against questions about knowledge, he consistently reframed them as questions about students.31

Persisting in Dualisms

Mr. Babcock led into the story by juxtaposing equality and difference. He contrasted his perspective with what he saw as the common standpoint among Westridge teachers:

I believe that what we do here [at Westridge] differentiates. . . . We track. . . . Some teachers favor the rich, White kids. [But] my personal thing is, free health care, free education, some of the socialized things, so that everyone at least starts out, so-called, a lot more evenly.

Yet, Mr. Babcock went on, he worried that he and other teachers might not be able to level the unequal playing field, even when their hearts were in the right place. Invoking Bourdieu’s ideas of “cultural capital” and “habitude,” he pictured as advantaged in schools the students who come from “professional families” and whose knowledge and attitudes match those taught in schools.32 By contrast, he pictured students from the “laboring class” as disadvantaged because their “cultural capital” differs from the school’s. He added that these differences are reproduced across generations, even in socialized economies where one might expect a more open distribution of opportunities:

But then, if you look at the home environment, even in, like the Soviet Union, you still had a professional class and a laboring class. And there’s still that “habitude” that predisposes children to choose the “cultural capital” of their families. How are we [teachers] going to address that?

Mr. Babcock elaborated the example in answer to his own question about choice and discrimination—what should teachers do about students who choose so-called “low-status knowledge”? The teacher’s story loosely linked notions about caring for students, “relevance,” and the difficulties teachers experience if, in the name of equality, they try to change students’ “predispos[itions]” toward the values they learn in their “home cultures”:

Say I’ve got two kids coming in with different amounts of “capital,” OK? From a laboring class and from the mental class. Yet I want to teach them something that will allow, if not even it up, at least allow the other person with less capital to have that choice to pursue alternatives that he doesn’t normally have.

Mr. Babcock then proposed a solution to the unequal statuses with which the students come to school, one that would lift the “laborer” up to the level of the “mental person”:

And, maybe both the laborer and the mental person get the same education, so when the laborer goes into his field, it’s on the college level. He’s got all the gifts of critical thinking he needs as that other person who’s going to go into academia.

At just this point, however, Mr. Babcock interjected an oblique but telling comment on his plan to give all students “the same education”: “But will we have eliminated - I know I shouldn’t say eliminate - cultural differences, enough - so that a kid is not predisposed to choose his home culture?”

If only momentarily, Mr. Babcock’s aside, “I know I shouldn’t say eliminate,” points toward the cultural paradox that he and other teachers encounter when planning for an equitable distribution of school knowledge. If teachers give “laboring class” kids lessons that are “relevant” and that will presumably appeal to students, they risk reproducing the social order by teaching the students “where they are at.” However, if teachers give all students “the same education,” they risk effacing the very cultural differences that a democracy should value because, as it turns out in Mr. Babcock’s story, “college-level” knowledge will be deemed best for everyone. In short, Mr. Babcock’s scenario about two students described a dilemma, not a clear-cut choice. Selecting either option—relevance or rigor—risked reinscribing the very scholastic and social hierarchy that Mr. Babcock’s story criticized.

The twists and turns in Mr. Babcock’s example made me wonder whether his thinking about “relevant” and “rigorous” lessons might be limited precisely because he paid relatively little attention to issues of knowledge. Mr. Babcock did not consider, for example, that “laboring class” knowledge has value or that “mental class” kids might benefit from knowing it; that knowledge may not belong to particular classes or institutions; or that people’s social characteristics may not predict the knowledge they have, value, or can learn.

Indeed, quite the opposite. However well-meaning, Mr. Babcock’s discourse about relevant curriculum trafficked close to social determinism and identity politics.33 It rested on three assumptions, all of which reduced knowledge to students’ social characteristics: (1) teachers are able to deduce relevant knowledge from students’ social positions, which are readily apparent; (2) like the social attributes it derives from, relevant knowledge is differentially distributed so that some texts are relevant to African Americans and some subjects are relevant to college-going students, just as some ideas are “White, male, and Eurocentric”; and (3) the attributions are stable, so that relevance is something texts, activities, or bodies of knowledge have, not a quality that people produce as they appropriate knowledge from texts or other sources and refract it in light of their own lives, times, and purposes (compare Dewey’s [1916/1944] discussion of “interest”). Guided by such notions about curriculum, Mr. Babcock’s foremost responsibility was to concentrate on students because their social positions predicted motivating knowledge, produced learning, and had to be considered to guarantee fair schooling.

Freedom from Subject Matter Knowledge

Mr. Babcock’s story caught him on the horns of a dilemma, pressing him to attend to students and school knowledge and to difference and equality: “I know I shouldn’t say eliminate,” he admonished himself. It brought him face to face with “America’s” enduring and distinctive alternation between competing but equally cherished values: how to honor difference and equality without lapsing into discrimination with the first or sacrificing freedom with the second (Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler, & Tipton, 1985; Berlak & Berlak, 1981; Cohen & Neufeld, 1981; Kammen, 1974; Lampert, 1985; Page, 1991, in press; Varenne, 1986). Nevertheless, in his next move, Mr. Babcock sidestepped the dilemma and fled curriculum altogether.34 That is, he continued structuring curricular issues in either/or dichotomies, with right action dependent on a focus on students rather than knowledge.

Mr. Babcock went on the offensive, turning the interview away from the problematic tale about two students and relevance to an explicit critique of traditional, academic subjects, a critique that Americans, including many progressive educators, have voiced throughout the twentieth century (Hofstadter, 1962): “So much of the traditional material in biology is arcane,” Mr. Babcock said. “First, I’m not really enthused about it, and - it’s just so arcane.”

But I had watched Mr. Babcock use a lot of “traditional material” in his biology class, as in “Lab and Science Skills” and “Cell Theory,” so I asked him: “So, why do you teach it?” He paused and turned in his chair. Hesitantly at first, and then with growing confidence, he replied that, for all its problems, the traditional material provided a “crutch” that got him through the day:

It’s been, eh, such a crutch. [Laughs.] That’s putting it - it’s been a crutch, yeah. Why do I teach it? [Again laughs, then becomes serious]. It takes such an incredible amount of work to invent things. Like this “integrated science” thing [Mr. Babcock is piloting one section of Integrated Science 1, in addition to teaching biology].

“Ideally,” Mr. Babcock continued, he would like to throw away biology entirely. He envisioned “Science Lab,” a course with “no agenda”—no constraints imposed by an academic discipline—in which students and teachers would spend their time “gathering data and analyzing; I mean, that’s what science is all about - - trying to figure out what the hell is going on here.” He said this tactic was one that he and other Westridge teachers were trying in Integrated Science 1 but, “even there, I don’t think we’re accomplishing it. It has been enormously time-consuming. Even just throwing away the curriculum, having no agenda—the crutch!—has been enormously time-consuming.”35

In the best of all possible worlds—“ideally” according to Mr. Babcock—there would be no curriculum. Teachers and students would meet de novo to “gather data and analyze,” unencumbered by ideas and methods codified in a discipline such as biology. Quandaries about accommodating diverse students would evaporate along with the strictures of subject matter in this most “American” version of school knowledge—a veritable uncharted, perennially “New World” of school science.

However, Mr. Babcock’s vision was neither unique nor unproblematic. On the one hand, it illustrated what Dewey (1916/1944) described as an American proclivity for posing sociocultural issues dualistically. That proclivity saturates educational discourse, including Mr. Babcock’s, as he drew on the often contradictory homilies of “pedagogical lore” (Schwab, 1969), fragments of individualistic and structural social theory, and the polyglot recommendations in The Science Framework, which Mr. Babcock had heard about in in-services, at professional conferences, and in informal discussions with colleagues over lunch. As Dewey warned, however, the choices are false because dualisms fail to credit the complex values that compel a competitive yet democratic culture. To do that requires considering the child and the curriculum (Dewey, 1902/1956)—and not simply by attending to one and then the other so that the two are cobbled together in a double standard. It requires intellectual action to develop the theoretical concepts (Kliebard, 1977, 1982), such as experience, that can link apparent opposites metaphorically.

In addition, Mr. Babcock’s imagined state of freedom from tradition and disciplines overlooked several practical constraints, too. First, in “gathering and analyzing data,” as in all learning and teaching, one is necessarily gathering or learning something. Choices about what schools should teach are unavoidable even were there “Science Lab.” The choices will not be clear-cut but intricate, because the culture values both excellence and equality in education and the two are often contradictory. Second, Mr. Babcock’s ideal displaced attention from the possibility that the logically organized something that is represented in disciplines—what Dewey (1916/1944) characterized as the ordered, abstracted accumulation of centuries of queries, knowledge, and methods generated initially in response to practical human perplexities—might have anything to recommend it to him and the diverse students in a contemporary “Science Lab.”36 It would not be “relevant,” given the teacher’s assumptions about relevant knowledge. Finally, “ideals” notwithstanding, Mr. Babcock and other teachers knew that they could not throw away the traditional content and activities of biology even if they wanted to. Not only was biology a functional “crutch” that teachers relied on to get through the day, it was also a “shackle” imposed on high schools by U.S. colleges and universities (see Kliebard, 1995, chap. 8). Biology must be taught in California high schools because it satisfied the entrance requirements of the University of California for a lab science and was crucial, therefore, to students’ gaining admission to UC.37

In sum, Mr. Babcock configured a “world” of school science in which knowledge was cast as a threat to “equal access” and caring about students. The configuration was reflected, re-created, and consequential in biology lessons that muddled and, therefore, minimized knowledge. Even when Mr. Babcock encountered problems with maintaining the dualistic structure, he continued with it by reducing relevant knowledge to students’ social characteristics and, as a last resort, by proposing flight from disciplinary knowledge altogether in “Science Lab.” His views were not merely idiosyncratic, however. Other science teachers at Westridge, although without Mr. Babcock’s training in sociology, were equally concerned about providing equitable and excellent science courses and they told anecdotes that were comparable in their import to Mr. Babcock’s more elaborate fable. Their concern reflected popular rhetoric in California about the new “majority–minority” population in public schools. It was heightened by an investigation in Orangetowne by the U.S. Office of Civil Rights into the underrepresentation of minority children in upper-level science and math courses. Furthermore, even though my account details Mr. Babcock’s talk about school science, it also indicates how it draws on and contributes to the long-standing ambivalence about the value of expertise and, increasingly, the authority of science, in the democratic culture called “America” (Brint, 1994; Hofstadter, 1962) and, especially ironically, in U.S. schools.


As I began to better understand the tenuous hold that subject matter knowledge had on Mr. Babcock’s conceptualization and enactments of school science, I found myself increasingly puzzled by the other half of the equation—students. At first, I wondered about the teacher’s devotion to them. It seemed unusual because, in general, high school teachers are notorious for their emphasis on teaching subject matter rather than students, and Westridge was a “prep” school in which “college professors” (Waller, 1932) might be expected to flourish. In addition, Mr. Babcock’s solicitude seemed unusual since most Westridge students were members of what Mr. Babcock himself termed “the professional” or “mental class”; they should therefore arrive in school already valuing and benefitting from the knowledge that schools transmit and their instruction should not be problematic. In time, I shifted from Mr. Babcock to the students themselves: What meaning did students attribute to the muddled biology lessons? Specifically, I wondered if students oriented to their confusion as I did, how they responded to it, and whether, in responding, they too contributed to the absence of science in science classes.

As it happened, the more I pursued the student perspective, through informal conversations and interviews with them38 and by looking again at their participation in the biology lessons, the more I was drawn beyond the classroom to think about just what species of “college-prep high school” Westridge was. If Mr. Babcock seemed muddled about school knowledge, the students—close to the “ideal” (Keddie, 1971, citing Becker, 1956)—seemed downright disdainful. Seeking to understand their surprising stance, my concern was whether circumstances at Westridge were such that the school might be unwittingly supporting the distance from rather than an attachment to school knowledge that I heard teachers and students alike expressing.

I began looking beyond the high school, too, to the wider community because, although U.S. high schools are similar structurally, each evolves a “we-feeling” (Waller, 1932, p. 13), or ethos, that reflects its specific history, internal politics, and external social conditions. Within distinctive meaning-systems (Metz, 1978, 1986; Page, 1990), features of schools that are often treated as though they are everywhere the same—worksheets, recitations, the student role, subjects—turn out to have a decidedly distinctive, local meaning.

In what follows, I characterize Westridge as a kickback culture. The metaphor both heeds and elaborates descriptions I heard people at the school use to signal the relaxed air of students on the well-appointed campus, the self-confidence that realtors pointed to to sell houses at premium prices, and what teachers remarked as a distinguishing “aura of friendliness” in the faculty. As it turned out, the metaphor also marks a less positive principle which, however inexplicit, undergirded the school’s congeniality and its reputation as the district’s best: “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” In the following section, I describe how the culture combined the under-the-table connotation of kickbacks with the relaxed sociability of “kicking back” to give a distinctive twist to the meaning of “ideal pupil,” “caring” teachers, “high-status knowledge,” and “prep” high school.

A Web of Kickbacks

Westridge students, many of them advantaged, are a self-assured lot. Most I talked to and observed knew how to schmooze with adults they saw as important (including a research team from the University of California). Advantaged or not, all had mastered the adolescent pout. They took for granted their own and the school’s position as “Number 1.”39

In talking with students, I did not hear much mention of the satisfactions of hard work, the joys of learning, or even the extracurricular pleasures of high school. Instead, Westridge’s “ideal pupils” explained that they planned their high school careers, especially the senior year, so that they would be able to “kick back” and relax. In classes, they were compliant, if minimally engaged, as they exhibited a try-and-make-me posture that worked surprisingly well to keep teachers in check.40 They explained their lack of engagement, not in terms of being oriented to a diverting adolescent subculture (Coleman, 1961), scheming to get away with as little as possible (Cusick, 1973, 1983), or suffering alienation in a stifling school order (McNeil, 1986). Rather, their explanation was thick with self-righteousness and a sense of entitlement. Westridge students said they had been “good adolescents” for a number of years by complying with rigorous course schedules and attaining gentlemanly “As,” “Bs,” and “Cs.” In return—as kickback—they should now be allowed to “live a little.”

In the student view, however, “living a little” was not going to happen in or around Westridge High. The school seemed insignificant in students’ scheme of things and they described how they mastered high school while spending as little time there as possible. For instance, students enrolled in “zero-period” classes, beginning the school day before 7:00, so that they could complete all their classes by noon. Then they were able to leave school, avoid the school lunch and potential trouble in the corridors, and escape the ignominy of “closed campus” (a school policy in which adolescents cannot leave and return to campus during the school day).41 Students also frontloaded the four-year schedule, racking up most of the credits they needed for graduation by attending school year-round during the first two years. This assured them a light senior schedule so that they would have time for a part-time job, the beach, personal interests, and parties.

Not only did these tactics not endanger students’ academic reputations, school policies provided for them. The high school enabled students to compete academically by leaving the school.42 Thus, while students enrolled in summer school to “get required classes out of the way,” the courses also boosted grade point averages for college because, according to students, summer courses were invariably easier than the same courses during the regular year. Similarly, “kicking back” did not preclude seniors taking an Advanced Placement course that would “look good on your transcript.” Students could handle the more onerous requirements of an AP course “without killing myself” because they did not have a lot of competing course obligations (they had extra credits from summer school). Many students also took an AP class because they counted on getting at least a “B” just for enrolling. A “B” or even a “C” would not hurt their grade point averages or college prospects because AP courses were “weighted”; this meant a “B” would count as an “A,” or as 4.0, in figuring GPAs.43

Like students, albeit from different vantage points and without realizing it consciously, adults at Westridge were also entangled in the web of kicking back and kickbacks.44 For example, while some teachers, including Mr. Babcock, expressed special concern about the plight of socially disadvantaged students whom they saw as faring particularly poorly at Westridge, all of the educators I talked with, in science and in other departments, expressed concern about the “pressure” that “ambitious parents” at Westridge put on their socially and academically advantaged children. Among the faculty, stories circulated about “anxious kids,” “unrealistic parent expectations,” and recurrent demands (often accompanied by legal threats) for the school to overlook or rectify any event that stood in the way of student success. In the stories I heard, Westridge always adjusted.

As a result, I began to see “pressure” as a key aspect of the concern for students and “equal access” that centered Mr. Babcock’s configuration of biology and that tempered the attention he gave to subject matter knowledge.45 Further, “pressure” was traceable to social class differences although, as I learned, not in the readily predictable fashion that traditional or revisionist social theories suggest. Precepts of the social order operated at Westridge, but they were mediated, or translated (Clifford, 1997; Page, 1991), within the school’s distinctive culture.

Accordingly, in addition to the “pressure” that Westridge teachers worried about explicitly with regard to students, they themselves were also “pressured” because many of them had less “capital,” cultural and otherwise, than students and their families. On the one hand, teachers derived status from working with students who excelled scholastically and who enjoyed privileged social positions: They basked in the reflected glory of the winners of Westinghouse scholarships and those who could afford to go to Ivy League schools. They worked to accommodate Westridge clients and keep them happy. They were particularly attuned to status politics because of mounting threats to Westridge’s reputation for academic preeminence, including competition from Endeavor High. They knew that if superior students and their families were not given what they wanted, they could leave Westridge and they would. If this happened often enough, the high school would be left to serve a larger proportion of socially and academically disadvantaged students, with the likelihood that test scores, extramural resources, and the school’s reputation would suffer and, along with them, the reputations of the educators themselves.

On the other hand, teachers were simultaneously vulnerable to and could be put on the defensive by “pressure” from students and families who surpassed them in social status and, possibly, academic prowess. As professionals, they often judged inappropriate a student or parent demand for special treatment, especially when it entailed changing grades, excusing absences, or revoking disciplinary sanctions. Some were disheartened because, in the “kicked back” milieu, there was not much of a lobby for serious academic work, even though the school’s middle- and upper-middle-class clients were constituents who would presumably appreciate the exchange value of “high-status knowledge.” Instead, parents seemed to regard the high school as a mere way station, or credentialing operation, that stood between students and genuinely important institutions such as college or jobs.

In the Westridge context, therefore, “caring” for students was an ambiguous undertaking and served disparate functions. It was not solely the disinterested moral commitment that Mr. Babcock’s constant solicitude or his dismay about “institutional racism” might suggest. Nor, however, was “caring” simply an artifact of power struggles in which teachers capitulated to more powerful clients. Rather, in the Westridge context, Mr. Babcock’s and other teachers’ concern for students—and not simply those who were prosperous and cultivated46—was also a tactic in symbolic politics that served teachers’ self-interest. For example, by casting students as poor-little-rich-kids who needed to be protected from “ambitious parents” and the incessant demands of a competitive culture, teachers corroborated students’ representation of themselves as entitled to “kick back.” The corroboration played to students, humanized teachers (Henry, 1963), and helped smooth relations in classrooms. At the same time, the characterization and the solicitude that went with it reassured teachers that they, at least, were professionals who understood the value of heeding students; in providing “step-by-step-by-step” instruction, they enhanced scholastic success yet also took “pressure” off students and enabled “kicking back.” Finally, as teachers assumed the role of heroic protector to shield put-upon adolescents, they simultaneously carved out a constituency from whom they could gain power in the organization and, as a result, shored up their limited professional prerogatives in relation to parent demands. In a nutshell, kickbacks were myriad.

“Kicking Back” in Biology

Within the Westridge culture, students had a degree of influence far greater than that defined by their formal position in the organization. If most brought to school considerable social and academic resources, the kickback ethos allowed them to deploy them with an impunity that sometimes bordered on disrespect. Specifically, students too exerted “pressure” and set limits on teachers’ ability to teach and on the curriculum. Recall, for example, their extraordinary success in the unit, “Cell Theory,” at undermining Mr. Babcock’s determination to “wean” them from their overreliance on him and “step-by-step-by-step” instruction. I turn to a third curriculum unit to delineate that while student participation in biology was determined in part by Mr. Babcock’s muddled curriculum, it also reached beyond the classroom to the larger school and community. As students responded to the hodgepodge with a parody that mocked both the traditional and relevant versions of school science, they too contributed to the absence of science in science classes.

A third curriculum unit: “Research Reports.” Students’ interpretations of Mr. Babcock’s biology were particularly accessible during oral reports, a “hands-on activity” in a two-week unit, “Research Reports,” which took place in mid-November. Like earlier units, “Research Reports” was characterized by a continual commingling of relevant and rigorous science. Thus, for example, Mr. Babcock divided the class into small, “cooperative” groups. He asked each group to choose a topic from a list that included such popular, contemporary concerns as the disappearance of rain forests, steroids (Mr. Babcock’s class included a lot of “jocks”), pesticides, the greenhouse effect, dinosaurs, cancer, and food additives. At the same time, the unit’s rationale was also a throwback to Sputnik science. It embodied “what real scientists do.” As Mr. Babcock explained, just as scientists cannot “know all the facts” and must be able to retrieve information through “research,” so with high school students. An introductory handout expressed the student-oriented, subject-oriented hybrid:

A significant portion of a scientist’s work is dependent on their ability to retrieve information about a given topic. A scientist cannot be expected to know all the facts. . . . The fast rate at which scientific knowledge is increasing makes it extremely important that science students learn how to find, interpret and analyze information about a given topic. Finding and using information are important skills in most aspects of our lives. The goal of this project is for your develop some of these skills. [Errors in the original.]

Students spent the first week of the unit in the school library, looking for five to ten texts with information about their topics. They were to list sources on 3 x 5 cards, read them and take notes, share and scrutinize each other’s notes and understanding, and decide how to prepare their final, five-to-ten-page, typed “research papers.” The papers had to include a data table or graph and a correctly formatted bibliography. Also, students were guided in their research by questions Mr. Babcock posed on the original handout. For example, for the topic, “Cancer,” students were expected to address these queries: “What is cancer? How is it caused on the genetic level? How is it caused at the environmental level? How is cancer treated? What types of cancer are there? What cancer is the most common occurring?”

In addition to producing individual “research papers,” each small group was required to report on its topic in a fifteen-minute oral presentation to the class. The second week in the unit was set aside for the oral reports. Students had to “use some type of audiovisual presentation during your report . . . charts, transparencies, video, laser disc, slides, or video camera.” As Mr. Babcock told me, the requirement coincided with recommendations in The Science Framework and it was “practical; this may be the one chance some of these kids ever have to get close to technology.”47 The teacher also arranged for the reports to be videotaped so that, in their free time, students could come in to see how they had done; he also provided me copies of the tapes.

As a curriculum-in-prospect, this unit seemed to come close to successfully hybridizing rigorous and relevant school science: Students were doing “research” and the topics they considered were timely; each completed a significant, individually written assignment and they worked collaboratively; the required work was academic and there were practical experiences, as with the technology requirement.

As curriculum-in-practice, however, the teacher’s version of school science was re-interpreted by students. Students appropriated the hybrid and gave it meaning as they negotiated their and the teacher’s representations of valued knowledge and roles. In what follows, I document that Mr. Babcock’s biology lessons “worked”; students oriented to the muddled requirements they embodied. However, students also “worked” lessons (Goffman, 1961) and, in ways Mr. Babcock certainly did not intend, students themselves contributed to the absence of science in the science class.

For example, students squandered the library days when they were supposed to “learn how to find, interpret, and analyze information about a given topic.” Most floated through the stacks, kibitzed at tables, went to the bathroom, applied make-up and, in general, “hung out.” They explained their lack of attention by saying they planned to “go to a better library after school” (several had parents who had access to local university libraries).

Mr. Babcock, with assistance from the school librarian, tried to keep students on task by circulating among the groups and directing them to materials. However, acting as “facilitator” to thirty-five individuals is well nigh impossible if they have not bought into the assignment, and Mr. Babcock’s students had not. Judging by their actions, “research” was apparently not “extremely important,” even with “relevant” topics that should have been motivating and a research paper that demanded “rigor.” At the same time, because students did not encounter compelling representations of scientific “research,” many may not have realized what “research” is or that it has anything to offer them. Given both their disdain and lack of experience, students were able to ignore school science and “kick back,” apparently content with the knowledge about science they already had.

Oral Reports.

A similar disregard typified the oral reports that took place following the library work. Despite differences in students’ abilities, styles, and topics, the student reports were remarkably alike in structure. On the one hand, students followed Mr. Babcock’s lead in lessons; like him, they attended to pace and procedure more than to knowledge and knowing. On the other hand, students also caricatured his teaching, evoking its ponderous, sentimentalized, “step-by-step-by-step” curriculum with their own slick improvisations on it. The unspoken rule for science that was manifested in students’ oral reports inverted Mr. Babcock’s: Hurry-through-and-don’t-stop-for-anything.

The report on cancer was representative and I draw examples from it to describe, generally, the oral reports.48 Group members were Jack, Suzanne, and Meg. Suzanne and Meg were with-it freshmen who tolerated Jack, a genial if somewhat dim upperclassman. During the oral reports, few students in the biology class were noticeably anxious about performing in front of the class or the camera. The two girls in the cancer group fussed with their hair; Jack joked with a friend. Apparently, oral report was a familiar school ritual.

Speed, not “walking you through,” emerged as the essence of a student representation of school science. I watched students race through their reports, reading mechanically and giving little attention to punctuation, meaning, or audience.

Hence, the cancer presentations began and ended abruptly. No prefaces prepared listeners; students simply started in about “Types of cancer are . . .” or “Cancer is caused by. . . .” The second report in the group began on the heels of the first, the third followed immediately on the second. All trailed off with an, “And that’s all.” The girls’ reports each lasted less than two minutes; Jack’s came in at 28 seconds.

Speed also helped hide students’ lack of preparation and understanding. For example, Jack read nonsense without a pause: “Cancer-r-r-s caused by, uh, injuries to minute cellular structures and, they can come in the sizes that range from not being seen from electromagnetic microscopes to hugh size in a few weeks.” There was other evidence that students were unprepared. For instance, using technology (usually the laser disc) was always problematic, even though it was a central requirement, and Mr. Babcock had to come to the rescue of most groups.

The scientific knowledge that students chose to present lent itself to a blitz. It consisted of lists of technical terms, not unlike the outlines of key words that Mr. Babcock put on the blackboard and lectured from. Hence, in her presentation, Suzanne spieled off a string of more than twenty types of cancer, exaggerating some words, skimming over others, and stumbling over those she could not pronounce: “Esophagal cancer, laryngeal cancer, u-uuterine cancer (heh-heh), liver cancer, Hodskins, uh HODSKINS, no, what? [to the teacher] Hodgkin disease. Whew! (laughs). . . .”

Nor did students slow down to credit the “relevance” of the ostensibly popular topics they were reporting on. No one mentioned an acquaintance who had cancer; no one indicated how he or she felt about getting cancer. The students could just as easily have been talking about Wonder Bread or homogenized milk. In fact, prior to the oral presentation, one student identified the group by writing the word, CANCER, in block letters on the board. Then, she underlined it and followed it with a “smiley face.” Hence, CANCER  Reports also had the mechanical flavor of the World Book encyclopedia, perhaps because students did not rewrite ideas from sources in their own words. A video shot of the paper Suzanne read from showed a xeroxed magazine article with portions highlighted with a magic marker, presumably the portions that Suzanne read aloud.

To maintain speed, students made little eye contact with other group members, classmates, or Mr. Babcock. Interactions occurred only when a student faltered, usually over the pronunciation of a word. Hence, at one point Meg slowed down in her reading and then stopped mid-sentence: “In many cases, treatment consists of a combination of two or three of these methods - in a procedure called - I have NO idea - - -.” In rapid succession, Meg shrugged her shoulders, frowned at the teacher, appealed to peers with a look of disdain toward her paper, and consulted offhandedly with Suzanne. When the teacher asked her to “spell it” and then suggested that the word was “multimodality,” Meg refused to say the word. She did not repeat the sentence or acknowledge that she understood the word’s place in it. She simply moved ahead to the next sentence, picked up speed, and continued.

Finally, the obligatory conclusion to an oral report was not the student-preferred wrap-up, “And that’s all,” but the teacher-prescribed opener, “Any questions for the group?” Upon being reminded by the teacher to ask for questions, Suzanne pronounced the phrase defiantly, warning peers not to have any questions. Peers obliged and, faced with a gap, the teacher filled it himself.

Typically, Mr. Babcock’s questions required presenters to demonstrate bits of information about their topic. However, students often countered with “smart” answers. For example, when no students had questions for the cancer group, the teacher asked the group what an “oncogene” is. Suzanne deflected the question by smiling coyly and pointing to the overhead TV monitor where the group had just shown a 30-second clip on the laser disk in which a technician injected an oncogene into a healthy cell: “It’s that thing the guy has in the needle.” Peers laughed appreciatively; when the teacher himself proceeded to define “oncogene,” students in the group and the class fell silent. Similarly, Mr. Babcock insisted that the rain forest group identify the photographs of animals they leafed through, one after another, on the laser disc. When a boy identified an animal as a gopher, the teacher corrected him: “prairie dog.” The student got a laugh with his correction: “Okay, prairie dog gopher.”

In their oral reports, then, students displayed their interpretation of the science called for in Mr. Babcock’s unit, “Research Reports,” in which they were supposed to act rigorously, like scientists “doing research,” about important, “practical” topics. Their interpretation: Doing science is using lots of specialized words as one speaks rapidly, arbitrarily, in a monologue, and from afar. Students “pressured” the teacher with this counter-representation that both derived from and derided Mr. Babcock’s version of school science. Students trivialized as so much mumbo-jumbo a science the teacher had already reduced to technical vocabulary; they took to an extreme his combination of solicitousness and soliloquizing so that, during student reports, other classroom participants might as well have disappeared; they reconverted the teacher’s real-world topics into “arcane” abstractions, so that cancer and rain forests were no more relevant than “a simple pinnate leaf”; and all the while students displayed “smarts” to do pedants one better.

In short, students parodied “walk-you-through” biology. Their version was produced, in part, on account of the mixed messages of Mr. Babcock’s hodgepodge. Students rejected some features, inverted others, and mocked both relevant and rigorous science. They could mount and sustain a parody that “pressured” the teacher, at least in part because of the dynamics of status politics in the school at large. Walking the walk and talking the talk of a cool, kicked-back teen, Westridge students gave the appearance of being satisfied with the scientific knowledge they already had, unimpressed with high school, and secure in the places to which they assumed they were entitled.


This analysis participates in a stream of research that notes the muddled state of academic work in U.S. high schools. Explanations for the muddlement have shifted somewhat with recent waves of reform. For instance, following A Nation at Risk (National Commission, 1983), curriculum confusion was attributed to institutional compromises, classroom “treaties,” and contradictions among schooling’s multiple goals (McNeil, 1986; Powell, Farrar, & Cohen, 1985; Sedlak, Wheeler, Pullin, & Cusick, 1986). Thus, a prototypical English teacher, Horace (Sizer, 1985), reduced the writing he assigned, not because he did not value writing or know how to teach it but because more insistent desires for efficiency meant that he taught large classes and there were simply not enough hours in the day for him to respond meaningfully to papers from 150 students. Yet, several years later, after efforts to restructure schools, empower teachers, and introduce systemic reforms that sent clear messages about more “rigorous” standards and, in addition, gave them teeth by aligning them with professional development, textbooks, and tests (California, 1990; NRC, 1994; Smith & O’Day, 1990), analysts noted that, if anything, curricular muddlement may have worsened. Schools claimed to have “revolutionized” teaching and curriculum in line with the new, often constructivist, policies, but observers suggested that many practitioners simply paid lip service to the new techniques or added them to traditional strategies so that business in classrooms proceeded pretty much as usual (Black & Atkin, 1996; Cohen, 1990; Page, 1995b; Pennell & Firestone, 1996).

This contemporary case of curriculum, analyzed culturally,49 helps illuminate that assessment by documenting the obliquity of a practice more often presumed to be either commonsensical or rational or, at least, rationalizable. Thus, the study corroborates White and Tishler’s (1986, p. 893) claim, in their major review of science education, that “curriculum is complex.” More specifically, it delineates something of the nature of the complexity by documenting the diverse notions people have about what school science is and ought to be and about who and what it is good for—including whether it is good at all. Then, because the analysis connects the science in classrooms with precepts about knowledge in local school-communities and American culture, it also illustrates how diverse notions of curriculum may issue in muddlement; particularly, it portrays a hybridization process in which rationales for school science not only conflict but, under some conditions, cancel each other out so that no science is present in science classes. Finally, to the earlier studies of muddled academics, the cultural analysis adds attention to the compounding influences of the largely tacit and mobile character of people’s perspectives, the partial and sometimes unequal knowledge and status among constituents of school science, destabilizing historical contingencies such as a state budget “shortfall” of $14 billion occurring just at the time that California’s Science Framework was being mobilized, and a subtle but pervasive ambivalence about the value of knowledge, including school knowledge, that is sustained by American culture’s paradoxical attachment to both expertise and egalitarianism.

The uncertainty documented in the Westridge case may suggest to some readers the warrant of state and national standards for science. After all, standards promise to corral confused wrangling among schooling’s constituents and offer escape from the seeming “vise-like stability” (Van Maanen, 1997) of a cobbled-together and often inconsistent system. In their place, standards stipulate one “vision” of school science, authorize it with references to research, and hold schools “accountable” for its adoption by coordinating related components such as high-stakes testing or teacher certification.

However, such a reading fundamentally misconstrues the Westridge case. First, its claim is that diverse definitions of school science are ineluctable, with even small variations in meaning potentially significant. When students in Orangetowne said lessons about evolution were “brainwashing,” for example, that is what school science was for them, irrespective of the “Biology I” listed on their transcripts or the “higher graduation requirements” touted by distant commissions.

Second, the Westridge analysis illustrates that muddlement in lessons arises, not simply because curriculum is complex, but because the complexity is not credited. Standards seek to circumvent or reduce complexity and may actually exacerbate curricular confusion. Thus, even though Mr. Babcock’s training in sociology made him more eloquent than many teachers about connections between schools and society, he nevertheless had no name for the difficulties he encountered in developing lessons that would be both excellent and equitable. As a result, he resorted to slogans, themselves echoes of the peremptory discourse with which schooling in the U.S. is usually discussed: Make lessons “relevant,” he suggested, or adhere to the Framework or, better yet, do away with disciplinary knowledge altogether in “Science Lab.”

Third, whether state or national, standards are themselves a “maze of inconsistent compromise” (Dewey, 1902/1956, p. 10) and no less equivocal about the science schools should teach than Mr. Babcock. Despite their apparent and appealing orderliness, they prescribe that school science must be both excellent and equitable but provide no insight into the fundamental paradox of the two imperatives or how it might be managed; they reinscribe rather than reconceptualize troublesome dichotomies by assuming, for example, that the content of science can be determined in Washington, DC, or Sacramento while the process of teaching it is a separable matter that can be left to local authorities; and, in pronouncing constructivism best practice, standards actually increase complexity because, among other things, that pedagogy implies challenges to the authority of school science, not an end to them.

Instead of standardization, the Westridge case presents curriculum as practical action and, therefore, dependent on its circumstances and thoughtfulness about them (Dewey, 1902/1956; Erickson, 1986; Kliebard, 1993, Schwab, 1969). Because any research or policy is general by definition, attempts to draw direct recommendations for practice from them are a pipe dream. This does not mean, however, that each instance of school science is unrelated to every other or that research and policy cannot be useful to persons concerned about school science. This account of Westridge science, for example, offers readers details and concepts they can use as they think about what is and ought to be in the school lessons they are responsible for. Even though the specifics of the case are peculiar to Westridge and science, they allow readers to “visit” the school, to grasp something of what it meant to teach and study science there and, having visited, to recognize comparable (and different) instances in their own institutions and subjects. By including the categories that people at Westridge used to organize and interpret curriculum as well as those I used, as I sought to see Westridge science by relating it to other instances I knew about in the research literature, the case also provides an explicit framework with which readers can connect the disparate facets of Westridge science and generalize to different schools or subjects.

For example, with the Westridge case in hand, readers might reflect on the extraordinary reach of ordinary school lessons. Biology at Westridge was not limited to decisions about course content or direct versus discovery instruction. It was constituted in teacher plans but also student responses, in classroom events and also those of the larger school, in contemporary policy imperatives and long-standing pedagogical debates, and in subject matter knowledge and status politics.

At the same time, readers might note that the very reach of lessons suggests something of curriculum’s equally daunting limits. Even with a world-class science curriculum, Westridge would have had difficulty commanding student interest, much less global competitiveness or social justice, given students who portrayed themselves as having already been “pressured” enough, who set limits on what teachers could teach (just as teachers’ lessons set limits on what students could learn) and who, with their parents, treated Westridge principally as a conduit to more important institutions—which representation the high school itself inadvertently colluded in.

Furthermore, as readers contemplate the strain engendered by responsibilities that are simultaneously far-reaching and circumscribed, they will note too that the Westridge situation is neither idiosyncratic or coincidental. As the case specifies, curricular complexity there is an enactment, in the particular circumstances of one “prep” high school, of an enduring ambivalence about knowledge in the U.S. (Hofstadter, 1962). School knowledge is of uncertain value because, even though expertise, particularly scientific expertise, is increasingly useful and profitable, it is also seen, as Mr. Babcock saw it, as conflicting with cherished mores of egalitarianism. Citizens, too, including Westridge students, may wonder about a democracy in which their only recourse is to defer to knowledgeable specialists. The question becomes particularly pointed, given shifts in the role of the professional who, whether scientist or high school teacher, is now at least as devoted to self-interest as to a public good (Brint, 1994).

Readers might consider too that ambivalence about school knowledge is not only symbolic. It undergirds the polity’s approval of woefully inadequate material resources for accomplishing grand changes such as a “world-class” curriculum or students who “will be first in the world in science achievement by the year 2000” (U.S. Department of Education, 1991, p. 3)—or, at least, 2061 (AAAS, 1989). The several Orangetowne teachers who piloted Integrated Science 1 in 1993–94 received, at most, five release days to develop a course that represented nothing less than a revolution in high school science, and they were teaching the course at the same time that they were designing it; three half-day in-services, principally hortatory, were provided for teachers of traditional courses such as biology. One Westridge teacher quipped, as she rushed between classes to grab yellowed worksheets developed for other courses to be used now in Integrated Science 1, “Here, you see, we develop curriculum on the fly.” The causes and consequences of this kind of curriculum flight are visible in “Lab and Science Skills,” “Cell Theory,” and “Research Reports”—and schools are not the only “accountable” party.

Put bluntly, school science at Westridge reflects the incomplete knowledge and inadequate time with which educators struggled to respond to the state’s uneven recommendations for curriculum, the school’s own cross-purposes, and the local and larger conditions that hold ambivalence about school knowledge in place. Even though California’s economy makes the state the seventh richest political entity in the world, it spends approximately $1,000 less per student than the national average ($6,495) to rank thirty-seventh among the fifty states.

Readers may find such “thick descriptions” (Geertz, 1973, p. 5) paralyzing, but the account of Westridge also offers them conceptual tools, such as curriculum-as-hybrid, which provide a means of acknowledging complexity without being overwhelmed by it. In brief, the metaphor points toward curriculum as a social construction, rooted in history as well as contemporary practices; if its character cannot be easily altered, it can be acted on more self-consciously, with greater appreciation of the intricacies of its promise.

For example, curriculum-as-hybrid provides for readers’ consideration a theory of change that contrasts with the lingering notion that if schools will faithfully adopt innovations recommended by research and policy experts, the innovations will transform practice; as Berman and McLaughlin (1978) pointed out two decades ago, schools do not adopt innovations, they adapt them. However, curriculum-as-hybrid also goes beyond treating change as adaptation, where the principal focus remains on the innovation as the impetus for change, or as a mere addition to standard practices (see also Cohen, 1990; Tyack & Cuban, 1995). The metaphor puts past, current, and recommended practices in relation. Conventional and innovative school practices are not posed as separable phenomena, each lined up waiting to conquer or complement the other; instead, they impinge on and set limits on each other. In relation, or interaction (Dewey, 1916/1944), they constitute a third entity which is neither a simple choice between the original two nor their amalgamation.

Particularly, curriculum-as-hybrid redirects readers to the importance of what is in schools and away from the popular escape offered by what ought to be. Although lip service is given to the idea that practice can be expected to influence innovations, reform cycles are still initiated with only the faintest concession, by educators themselves as well as policy makers, that a reform’s fate will hinge on what is already going on in particular classrooms or schools and on the conditions that hold what is in place. Indeed, as Mr. Babcock’s biology indicates, introducing change with insufficient regard for local practice may do as much harm as the local practice itself, no matter how much it bears altering. After all, curricular mutants such as hodgepodge biology will carry no benefits for anyone.

The concept also encompasses a thoughtful and creative role for teachers. Readers may consider that, in planning even the most ordinary lessons, teachers confront diverse representations of school science—their students’, for example, or the generic and often contradictory topics identified in a district course of study or in standards. Acknowledging opposed representations helter-skelter or merely arraying them so that classes encounter first one science and then another will prompt mixed messages, such as those in Mr. Babcock’s biology class; they can have the unintended effect of leaving students doubtful about the value of any science. Constructing viable hybrids instead requires judgment and artfulness—Dewey (1902/1956, p. 4) termed this an “effort of thought” in which doctrinaire options are imaginatively reconceptualized to bring into view a world to which both belong.

Readers can use the Westridge case to consider the “effort of thought” that this integrated science will require. Fundamental is a shift to seeing the diversity in school science, not as a chilling problem to be gotten over in consensus or sidestepped with relativism, but as a fertile resource for curriculum planning; the very tensions between perspectives can be generative of remarkable, valuable inventions—a curriculum at the Dewey School that integrated disciplinary and children’s knowledge by reconstructing both as experiences with practical questions about the world; math lessons that are both excellent and equitable (Lampert, 1985); a tracking program that honors both individual differences and a common culture (Valli, 1990). Hybridization, like curricular complexity in general, is not automatically enriching. But, given mindfulness about its character and conditions, we may yet provide youth school lessons with redemptive value.


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Aldridge, W. (1989). Fire up secondary school science. The School Administrator, 45(8), 18–20.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 100 Number 3, 1999, p. 554-601 ID Number: 10323, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 1:44:02 PM

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