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Student Voice From a Turnaround Urban High School: An Account of Students With and Without Dis/Abilities Leading Resistance Against Accountability Reform



The Every Student Succeeds Act redefines the priorities of our nation’s education system. Prior to its passage, turnaround strategies advanced solutions for low-performing schools. Research literature examining how these reforms impacted the schooling experiences of students attending these schools is lacking. We present the results of a qualitative case study of a reconstituted urban school in the Southwest United States, providing the perspectives of 10 students with dis/abilities and the effects accountability reform efforts had on their high school experience. Three expressed needs and desires were identified: (a) a positive school identity, (b) stability, and (c) to be recognized and heard.
Urban Education
1 –38
© The Author(s) 2016
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DOI: 10.1177/0042085916666930
Student Voice From a
Turnaround Urban High
School: An Account
of Students With and
Without Dis/Abilities
Leading Resistance Against
Accountability Reform
Barbara L. Pazey1 and David DeMatthews2
The Every Student Succeeds Act redefines the priorities of our nation’s
education system. Prior to its passage, turnaround strategies advanced
solutions for low-performing schools. Research literature examining how
these reforms impacted the schooling experiences of students attending
these schools is lacking. We present the results of a qualitative case study of
a reconstituted urban school in the Southwest United States, providing the
perspectives of 10 students with dis/abilities and the effects accountability
reform efforts had on their high school experience. Three expressed needs
and desires were identified: (a) a positive school identity, (b) stability, and (c)
to be recognized and heard.
students with dis/abilities, accountability reform, student voice, dis/ability
studies, identity, high school, case study, qualitative research
1The University of Texas at Austin, USA
2The University of Texas at El Paso, USA
Corresponding Author:
Barbara L. Pazey, Department of Special Education and Department of Educational
Administration, College of Education, The University of Texas at Austin, George I. Sanchez
Building (SZB) 374C, 1912 Speedway, D5300, Austin, TX 78712-0374, USA.
666930UEXXXX10.1177/0042085916666930Urban EducationPazey and DeMatthews
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2 Urban Education
Since 2002, U.S. public schools have been charged with demonstrating their
students could meet specified standards of academic performance and school-
improvement benchmarks advanced by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB;
2002). Students in each measured subgroup including students with dis/abili-
ties (SWD), students receiving free and reduced lunch, and students classi-
fied as limited English proficient (LEP) were expected to make adequate
yearly progress (AYP) on state accountability measures in incremental per-
centages each year. When a school failed to meet AYP and received unaccept-
able accountability ratings for 5 consecutive years, districts had the option to
initiate a change in leadership and specific strategies within the school
designed to turnaround the negative pattern of academic performance. The
logic of high-stakes accountability initiatives dictated by NCLB was to com-
pel schools designated as “low performing” to improve student performance
on standardized, content-area exams and reduce the achievement gap across
student subgroups. The shortcomings of this approach have been well docu-
mented (Crocco & Costigan, 2007; Hursh, 2007).
On December 10, 2015, President Obama ended the era of NCLB (2002)
by signing into law the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a bipartisan
effort of Congress (U.S. Department of Education [USDOE], 2015). The
ESSA replaces NCLB’s prescriptive requirements, eliminating the progres-
sive sanctions leveled against schools that fail to make AYP via state account-
ability measures (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development,
2015; USDOE, 2015). When the law officially goes into effect in 2017, the
oversight and decision-making powers regarding specific actions or conse-
quences for schools in need of improvement shift to the states. Nevertheless,
the apparent relief provided by this new law provides little solace or restitu-
tion for students who, whether by choice or necessity, attended a school des-
ignated as underperforming and in need of improvement prior to the
enactment of the ESSA, particularly within the urban school context.
Moreover, states can still choose to reconstitute schools or enact similar
NCLB-type policies if they choose to do so.
Although ESSA will most likely help to decouple standardized tests from
other important educational decisions and emphasize the voice of parents and
educators in state and local decisions, the residue and discourses associated
with labeling students and schools as “failures” or “deficient” will undoubt-
edly remain (Carey, 2014). Milner and Lomotey (2014) characterize the cur-
rent context in which urban education exists as an “identity crisis” (p. xvi).
They underscore the need to examine the “structural forms of inequity” (p.
xvi) that are detrimental to student success rather than focus on the inaccurate
perceptions of others who pigeonhole certain students as deficient due to
identity markers such as poverty, race, or dis/ability.1
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Pazey and DeMatthews 3
Researchers have attempted to chronicle the broader institutional effects
of school reform and efforts from the students’ perspectives (Deeds & Patillo,
2015; Kirshner, Gaertner, & Pozzoboni, 2010; Kirshner & Pozzoboni, 2011;
Liou & Rotheram-Fuller, 2016; Taines, 2014). Such an approach can assist in
(a) understanding how a group of individuals perceive a particular phenom-
enon, process, or outcome (Brantlinger, Jimenez, Klingner, Pugach, &
Richardson, 2005; Maxwell, 2005; Paul, Kleinhammer-Tramill, & Fowler,
2009); and (b) providing “compelling and instructive accounts of the quali-
ties of life and culture in schools” (Paul et al., 2009, p. 11). Few research
studies, however, have specifically examined whether students with and
without dis/abilities are affected by school restructuring as a consequence of
accountability reform and only a handful have sought to understand the
effects of reform from the perspectives of SWD (Fitch, 2003; Pazey, Vasquez
Heilig, Cole, & Sumbera, 2015). We build on this body of research by focus-
ing on student voice from a diverse group of students with and without dis/
abilities, including some engaged in leadership and advocacy work.
The purpose of this study was to examine how high school–age students
with and without dis/abilities attending a turnaround urban high school
described the school turnaround process. We draw on literature focused on
school turnaround, student voice, and critical dis/ability studies (DS) to ana-
lyze and explore what students liked and disliked about their school, how
school turnaround policies impacted their identity and daily academic life,
and alternative recommendations students identified for improving their
school. Ten students with an identified learning dis/ability (LD) attending an
urban high school defined as “low performing” by the state based on account-
ability results for the 2010-2011 school year were individually interviewed.
At the request of the initial participants, a focus-group interview was con-
ducted with members of their leadership group, enabling us to gain further
insights into the school’s turnaround process. What emerged from these stu-
dents’ perspectives was a twofold discovery: (a) Students were fully aware of
the negative view the larger community held of their school due to the media
attention their school received, and (b) students could not escape the com-
pounding fallout and consequences of school turnaround and threats of school
closure, but were empowered to advocate for what they believed was a better
course of action.
Accountability and School Turnaround
For more than 30 years, the United States has been involved in a number of
educational reforms endorsing arduous goals for student achievement. A
Nation at Risk (National Commission on Excellence, 1983) became a turning
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4 Urban Education
point in public education because it oriented educational reform initiatives
toward values of competition, standards, and a comparative assessment of
students. Schniedewind (2012) refers to the graduated changes that have
occurred since A Nation at Risk as “a creeping ambush of public education”
(p. 4). Davis (2003) characterizes such educational reform efforts as “blurred,”
“faulty,” and “bankrupt,” attributing its failure to a disconnect between “theo-
retical solutions” and “educational practice” (p. vii). Others contend account-
ability reform policies are premised on the belief that threats of school closure
will motivate educators to work harder and cause students to learn more
(Shepard, 2008; Vasquez Heilig & Darling-Hammond, 2008).
Impact on Individual and School Identity
Several researchers assert the identities of individuals and institutions are
dialogically constructed by the interactions that take place between them
and others, the ways they are perceived by others, and the contexts in which
their identities are formed (Bacon, 2015; Holland, 1998; Rubin, 2007).
Others highlight the intersection of multiple identity markers such as race,
culture, ability, ethnicity, social class, and gender (Ghosh, Mickelson, &
Anyon, 2007), noting their membership within a marginalized versus privi-
leged group is determined through interactions “between people, institu-
tions, and practices” (Faircloth, 2009, p. 325). Hatt (2012) surfaces the
notion of “smartness as a cultural construct” (p. 438), particularly among
turnaround urban school settings. As a verb, “smartness” is displayed
through the simultaneous interplay of “culture, power/status, and identity
within practices of everyday life” (Hatt, 2012, p. 444), as “something done
to others as social positioning” (p. 439). According to Jones-Walker (2015),
micro-level interactions are apprised by the social and historical realities of
the organization which act together to develop the identities of “individuals
and the spaces they inhabit” (p. 5).
Turnover of Teachers and School Leaders
Turnaround efforts have included the removal of “ineffective” teachers and
leaders plus the implementation of specific steps geared toward improving
school climate and leadership (Mathis, 2009). In some instances, veteran and/
or effective teachers with expertise in core content areas and classroom man-
agement have left their schools or the profession due to uncertainty caused by
(a) fear of eventual school closure, (b) potential for termination, (c) stigma-
tizing and demoralizing effects of working in a school advertised as low per-
forming (Hamilton, Vasquez Heilig, & Pazey, 2014; Maxcy, 2009), and/or (d)
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Pazey and DeMatthews 5
emotional fallout caused by working in a high-stress environment (Smarick,
2010). Novice leaders and teachers who lack expertise in critical content
areas, long-term substitutes, or teachers unable to obtain positions at other
schools have frequently filled vacancies created by their departure (Hamilton
et al., 2014; Malen & Rice, 2009; Mathis, 2009). Turnover causes a broad
disruption within the school, impacting both students and the morale of the
remaining teachers (Ronfeldt, Loeb, & Wyckoff, 2013).
Student Perspectives
Students attending reconstituted schools under threat of state oversight or
closure spoke about an overriding focus on test-prep classes, Saturday school,
and anxiety over needing to pass the state test (Pazey et al., 2015). Other
students adjusting to displacement caused by the closure of their former high
school expressed anger and sense of loss in terms of former relationships
with teachers and friends and the stigma applied to them at their new school
(Kirshner et al., 2010; Kirshner & Pozzoboni, 2011). Despite students’ belief
their voice and involvement in determining school policy could improve their
school and classrooms, they were nervous about what might happen if they
overstepped their boundaries or were viewed as opposing school authorities
(Taines, 2014).
Effects on Students
Students attending low-performing schools have reportedly experienced
instability, a casuality of the education reform strategy of reconstitution
(Losen & Orfield, 2002). Reconstitution, a school turnaround tactic and
major restructuring option under NCLB (2002), involves the replacement or
removal of school staff, including the school principal. Yet, achievement gaps
have remained intact or widened even further (Darling-Hammond, 2007;
Supovitz, 2009), making SWD and other marginalized student groups the
scapegoat for schools deemed ineffective (Bacon, 2015; Jones, Jones, &
Hargrove, 2003). Students in this study represent numerous NCLB subgroup
categories (i.e., economically disadvantaged, LEP, racial diversity, dis/abil-
ity) and have been penalized through accountability reforms rather than
regarded as unique due to their diversity. These marginalized student popula-
tions become “faceless” entities, reduced to a “mere statistic and/or score”
(Bejoian & Reid, 2005, p. 227) with no sense of agency. They become even
more stigmatized due to pressures imposed on their school to increase test
scores (Bejoian & Reid, 2005). Rather than recognizing students’ diversity as
an asset, they are judged by their “ability to perform on multiple choice tests”
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6 Urban Education
(p. 227) and otherwise made invisible. Moreover, accountability policies of
school turnaround contribute to distrust among the school and community
which causes the overall school community to become “stigmatized and
demoralized” (Mathis, 2009, p. 13).
Student Voice
Student voice provides a useful tool for highlighting how students are
oppressed within the context of school reform and exploring how, if at all,
students advocate or fight for a voice in the educational policy arena. One of
the purposes of research on student experiences in schools is to investigate
how the identities of a particular group of students may be impacted by what
happens in their classrooms and schools (Thiessen, 2007). Using student
voice has been referenced as “emancipatory” and “empowering” as it can
effect change and show “how lives are constrained by systems that are
oppressive” (Lewis & Porter, 2007, p. 324).
Student voice has been advanced as a viable approach to involve youth in
the “broader democratic mission of schools” by affording them the opportu-
nity to share in “school decisions that will shape their lives and the lives of
their peers” (Mitra, 2009, p. 819). Nevertheless, students are rarely consulted
or heard in national, state, or local policy debates and their lived experiences
and perceptions of school and learning are rarely given voice (O’Hair,
McLaughlin, & Reitzug, 2000). Goodman and Eren (2013) suggest our
nation’s focus on educational reform and current obsession with high-stakes
testing has struck a major blow to the possibility for student voice since edu-
cators are under “daily pressure to improve academic progress, always facing
the relentless gun of an approaching test” and recognize “their own status is
contingent on student performance” (p. 123). Drawing upon students’ experi-
ences to inform educational policy by “including the excluded” has been
termed “a radical idea” and requires us to ask different questions, challenge
old assumptions, think outside the box, and move beyond the “privileged
perspectives of adult academics” (Cerecer, Cahill, & Bradley, 2013, p. 220).
Keefe, Moore, and Duff (2006) concur, naming SWD the real experts on
Reconstituting a school might elicit a new purpose for achieving success,
separate from the typical assumptions of school accountability mandates and
high-stakes testing requirements for graduation (Shepard, 2008; Vasquez
Heilig & Darling-Hammond, 2008). However, including students’ perspec-
tives when adopting changes made to the school, particularly for high school–
aged students, is critical. Students generally possess a strong sense of what is
“fair and just” regarding how they are treated, plus their views may not align
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Pazey and DeMatthews 7
with “conventional notions of hierarchy, policies, rules, and school proce-
dures” (Smyth, 2007, p. 641). When schools do not offer spaces for students
to express themselves, students will be more likely to resist any change
efforts, alienate themselves from school authorities, and disconnect from
school altogether.
The incorporation of individuals’ voices and perspectives serves as a form
of inclusive research (Nind, 2014). According to Harris et al. (2014), when
we listen closely to students regarding their school experiences, we are in a
better position to (a) understand and address school-related topics and prob-
lems, (b) rethink policy and practice, and (c) embark on school-improvement
efforts. Listening to students’ voices, including SWD, has been justified by
several researchers for several reasons:
Students provide an alternative source of knowledge and expertise due
to their insider perspective of school culture and climate (Cooper,
Investigations into issues concerning students should represent their
experiences and viewpoints (Walmsley & Johnson, 2003);
Any determination of whether an adopted policy/practice is effective
can only be achieved by communicating with students who are most
directly affected (Keefe et al., 2006); and
Once students voice their concerns and suggestions, they should be
allowed to engage in future decisions so their views can be transformed
into the school’s policies and practices (Cefai & Cooper, 2010).
Leiding (2014) underscores the need to recognize student voice in reform
initiatives as “central to the daily schooling experience because this is where
the students are” (p. 24). Despite the argument that any chance of success in
accountability reform must include a consideration of the hopes and aspira-
tions of the students themselves (Smyth, 2006), the pressures placed on
school leaders to demonstrate their school’s success tend to preclude any
readiness on their part to fully indulge the different opinions offered by stu-
dents (Conner, Ebby-Rosin, & Brown, 2015; Mitra, 2008).
Arguments relevant to improving school and student outcomes support the
importance of eliciting input from SWD as the acumen of “students who are
not succeeding under current conditions are often the most important voices
that need to be heard in reform efforts” (Mitra, 2009, p. 821). To authenticate
the significance of various student experiences, input must be garnered from
students representative of multiple backgrounds and abilities, not just stu-
dents from privileged backgrounds (DeFur & Korinek, 2010; Kozleski &
Smith, 2009; Silva, 2003). Barnes and Sheldon (2007) contend that
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8 Urban Education
“emancipatory” research should not be premised on the view that SWD have
“needs that are ‘special’” (p. 237); rather, one should focus on a social model
of dis/ability that recognizes their needs are similar to any child but are not
being met by the current educational system.
Disability Studies (DS)
DS offers an additional analytical framework to explore student voice (includ-
ing other marginalized student groups) and “examine the policy from the
perspective of the ones for whom the policy was implemented” (Ferguson,
2006, p. 173). Although all the students in this study were not identified as
SWD; arguably, they were viewed as academically “deficient” and in need of
a school turnaround policy remedy.
DS exposes the socially constructed assumptions influencing a particular
policy from the perspective of those for whom the policy was actualized
(Baglieri & Shapiro, 2012). Educational systems juxtapose social difference
against a construct of normality that sorts, organizes, educates, and evaluates
students by using a standardized set of criteria. Instead of recognizing the
diversity of students on the basis of race, class, gender, dis/ability, and other
areas of difference and the potential qualitative differences of their school
experiences and outcomes, they create a normative code that honors and
rewards homogeneity over heterogeneity (Erevelles, 2006). Dis/ability is
reframed as a social construct entrenched in social and educational struc-
tures; therefore, the “practices of schools, the failures experienced by some
students, both those labeled as ‘special needs’ and those who are not, must be
reexamined as social and institutional problems” (Gallagher, 2006, p. 72).
DS scholars advocate for listening to the experiences of individuals with
dis/abilities as a legitimate and promising approach to research and the pos-
sibility of “an inclusive, anti-hierarchical democratic dialogue” (Danforth,
2006, p. 87). Thus, the need to honor the voices of SWD and their peers
transcends any argument for social justice.
Qualitative Research Design
An in-depth qualitative case study approach was used to examine how 10
SWD and their friends understood, felt, and reacted toward an accountabil-
ity-based school turnaround process in a low-performing urban high school
(Yin, 2014). Concentrating on a single case with these boundaries established
a depth of interviews and document analysis to capture the intricacies of
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Pazey and DeMatthews 9
accountability related to school turnaround, and the opportunity to explore
student voice, student leadership and advocacy, and the effects of school
turnaround on students within a school and community (Merriam, 1998). Our
approach centered on student voice, focusing on the personal meanings par-
ticipants attributed to their own experience and giving voice to individuals
“who have been historically silenced or marginalized” (Brantlinger et al.,
2005, p. 199).
Criteria used to select the 10 students were identical to the criteria used for
previous studies conducted at the same school at two different points in time:
Central High School (CHS) in 1995 and Heritage High School (HHS) in
2010 (Pazey, 1996; Pazey et al., 2015). Six of the 10 SWD were first-time
participants; the remaining four students were students who participated in
the 2010 study as ninth- or 10th-grade students.
In 1995, the following criteria were used to select the school site: (a) The
student body reflected a diversity in ethnic composition, socioeconomic sta-
tus, and student achievement; (b) the school contained a wide range of edu-
cational programs, curricular offerings, and social and community support
systems; (c) the school provided special education services to approximately
11% of the student population; and (d) the school offered a variety of extra-
curricular activities, clubs, and student support programs. Pseudonyms were
used for student names and the school site.
School Profile
HHS is situated within a prominently Mexican American and African
American (AA) section of a metropolitan city within the Southwest United
States. According to the state education agency website, for the 2011-2012
school year, the student body at HHS totaled approximately 600 students.
Students receiving special education services numbered 116 or 18.8% as
compared with a district total of 9.9%. The ethnic breakdown of students
attending HHS was 80% Hispanic, 16% AA, 1.6% White, and 1.3% Asian. In
addition, 91.3% of the students were categorized as economically disadvan-
taged, 20.3% as LEP, 72.8% as at risk, and 36.8% as students of mobility.
Selection of Participants
To get as comprehensive a sample of students as possible, SWD representa-
tives of the student population were recruited from all four high school
grades—ninth, 10th, 11th, and 12th—who were knowledgeable about the
school’s history and turnaround efforts were recruited. Other criteria
included their involvement in school-based activities or programs. With the
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10 Urban Education
assistance of the principal and lead special education teacher, students with
an identified LD, receiving special education and related services according
to the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA; 2004), were asked
to participate in the study.2 Ten students representing each of the high school
grade levels agreed to participate: (a) two female ninth graders, one Hispanic,
and one AA; (b) two male 10th graders, both AA; (c) one AA male, one
Hispanic female, and one AA female in 11th grade; and (d) two AA males
and one Hispanic male in 12th grade. All 10 students received their aca-
demic instruction in general education classes with or without a special edu-
cation teacher assigned to provide academic support. Table 1 provides a
brief description of each student and their grade level, race, and dis/ability
Within the course of the initial interviews, the lead author discovered four
students were part of a school-wide, student-formed “leadership group”
encompassing students across Grades 9 to 12.3 One student, EJ—a junior
male AA student with a LD—served as one of the core members of this group
during his sophomore year. The assistant principal, who previously served as
the principal of one of two schools-within-a-school from 2009 to 2011, asked
him and several of his friends to search for ways to bring pride to their school
and help other students prepare for the state-mandated test so they could
receive an acceptable rating from the state. Although they now had a different
high school principal, he and other students in the leadership group—four of
10 students involved in this study and their friends—viewed themselves as
“advocates” for the school, even though they were not part of the Student
Council. In fall 2011, they attended information sessions with the superinten-
dent to discuss various options available to their school and spoke at school
board meetings in December 2011, protesting the proposal to change their
school to a charter school. After each participant was interviewed separately,
they asked the lead author to pose the same questions to the leadership group
via a focus-group interview (see Table 2).
Data Sources and Analysis
Using a semistructured interview protocol, data obtained from 10 individual
interviews and the focus-group interview served as primary data sources.
Interviews were conducted in a classroom/office, a courtyard outside the
school cafeteria, or the school library and ranged from 20 to 45 minutes.
Interviews were audio-recorded and fully transcribed. Secondary data sources
included data from newspaper articles, local media reports, district and school
websites, a House Education Committee hearing, and anecdotal evidence
from field notes.
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Table 1. 10 Individual Student Participants with an Identified LD.
Heritage High School 2012
Pseudonym Grade Ethnicity Dis/ability
Involved in
2010 study Additional information
JJ 12 African
LD Yes No Extracurricular activities/interests
EJ 11 African
LD Yes No Extracurricular activities/interests
QW 10 African
LD No No Extracurricular activities/interests
TG 10 African
LD Yes No Extracurricular activities/interests
QF 9 African
LD No No Extracurricular activities/interests
Dance team
LX 9 Mexican
LD Yes No Extracurricular activities/interests
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Heritage High School 2012
Pseudonym Grade Ethnicity Dis/ability
Involved in
2010 study Additional information
SQ 12 African
LD No Yes Extracurricular activities/interests
Communities in schools parent support
Online classes
Culinary school
ST 12 Mexican
LD No Yes Extracurricular activities/interests
CC 11 African
LD No Yes Extracurricular activities/interests
MR 11 Hispanic LD No Yes Extracurricular activities/interests
Communities in Schools Parent Support
Note. LD = learning disability.
Table 1. (continued)
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Table 2. Student Participants in Focus-Group Interview.
Heritage High School 2012
Members of the
student leadership
group Grade Ethnicity Dis/ability
Involved in
2010 study Additional information
Students with and
without Dis/abilities
9-12 AA
Yes No Extracurricular activities/interests
Football, basketball, wrestling, track,
Choir, band
Science, technology, math, robotics
Postsecondary classes at community
Honors and AP classes
Cheerleading, dance team
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14 Urban Education
Primary data sources were used to identify and highlight categories,
properties, and dimensions within and across interviews. Discrete data
parts derived from students’ perspectives, reactions to, and descriptions of
specific experiences were grouped into larger categories and subcategories.
Initially, the lead author coded all transcripts and checked for validity,
accuracy, and an adequate representation of the data (Miles & Huberman,
1994). Throughout the initial data collection, data analysis, and data trans-
lation process, she met with two doctoral students familiar with the phe-
nomenon being explored due to their involvement in a previous study at
HHS (Pazey et al., 2015). To further analyze the data, she generated addi-
tional inductive codes representing important topics and patterns (e.g.,
policy perceptions, district interactions, advocacy, pressure, frustration,
fairness, hope, disappointment, criticism). The second author reviewed the
codes and patterns, raised questions, discrepancies, and inconsistencies
with the lead author, and helped to refine the codes into themes, made evi-
dent between and among study participants, through critical conversations
and reflective memos (Bogdan & Biklen, 2007). Both authors collabora-
tively utilized the secondary data sources to inform, clarify, supplement,
confirm, and/or refute the findings.
Follow-up interviews were conducted with each of the 10 students, allow-
ing them to review their transcripts and clarify and/or provide feedback on
the preliminary findings. A draft copy of this manuscript was shared with
three SWD who were members of the student leadership group to ensure their
voices and perspectives were accurately represented. By engaging student
participants in data analysis, our assumptions were challenged. Students
asked tough questions about the research approach and interpretations
(Creswell & Miller, 2000); however, they did not make any changes or addi-
tions to the transcripts, codes, or categories and indicated the translation of
their schooling experiences and concerns had been accurately represented
(Cho & Trent, 2006).
Throughout the process of making meaning of their experiences, both
researchers and the participants examined “unanticipated and unexpected
findings and dilemmas” (Cook-Sather, 2007, p. 859) to construct their own
knowledge and understanding of participants’ experiences. Based on initial
interviews conducted with two of the 10 student participants, it became
immediately apparent their responses, stories, and rationale were inextricably
linked to what they had experienced within the past year. The need to “listen
and respond” (Cook-Sather, 2007, p. 860), tell their story, and provide an
account of how SWD and their friends—who have traditionally been left out
of any conversation about school improvement—took precedence.
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Pazey and DeMatthews 15
Researchers must have experience related to their research focus and must be
“reflective” and “introspective” (Brantlinger et al., 2005, p. 197). Both
authors have extensive experiences working in the area of general/special
education, school administration, and teaching in high-needs urban public
schools. These experiences directly contributed to our attitudes and beliefs
about accountability reform and their effects on various stakeholders at the
campus level. We recognize all students, particularly students with LDs, have
unrecognized and undocumented strengths, abilities, and experiences. These
undocumented aspects of their lives are intricately related to the context of
their learning environment and how they feel connected to or disconnected
from teachers and school (McCray & Garćia, 2002).4
Background: HHS
CHS and HHS have undergone numerous changes since opening: from a
neighborhood school in 1960 to an integrated school in 1980, to a magnet
school in 1987, back to a neighborhood school in 2002 (Pazey et al., 2015).
In 2008, the school was closed by the state and reopened with its current
name, HHS. The following year, in 2009, the school was split into two sepa-
rate academies. Two years later, spring 2011, anticipating an academically
unacceptable rating for 3 consecutive years, the district administration pre-
pared a reconstitution plan for the 2011-2012 school year which, according to
the district website, was approved by the school board in May 2011. District
officials publicly and privately disparaged HHS due to what they perceived
to be an exorbitant expense to maintain separate administrative teams for
both academies within the school. After 2 years, administrators were “fired”
and told they needed to reapply for their positions (Academy principal, per-
sonal communication, May 18, 2011).
In June 2011, preliminary results on the state-mandated, high-stakes test
from the SEA revealed students at one academy had improved their achieve-
ment scores across all five content areas, with the promise of receiving an
acceptable performance rating from the state after years of unacceptable rat-
ings. Attendance, dropout, and student removal figures showed signs of
improvement. As stated in the editorial commentaary of the city newspaper in
2011, gains in student performance were achieved at the second academy as
well. HHS was moving in a positive direction, and school turnaround efforts
seemed to be paying off. Nevertheless, the district downsized the administra-
tion and reconstituted the two schools into one, led by one principal and
administrative team for the 2011-2012 school year.
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In August 2011, HHS started the school year with a new principal. As the
semester progressed, conversations came to light about a possible agreement
between the district and an outside charter school organization to convert
HHS into an in-district charter school, slated to open in fall 2013. Community
meetings held with the superintendent took place at the school and coalitions
for and against the charter began to form. To add to the plight of the students
and school community, the newly hired HHS principal announced his resig-
nation on December 1, 2011, via an emergency staff meeting due to personal
reasons (HHS principal, personal communication, December 13, 2011). An
assistant principal from another high school in the district was named as
interim principal for the remainder of the school year, effective January 2012.
When the school board met in December 2011 to discuss the possible
merger with the charter school, students, teachers, parents, community mem-
bers, and school supporters attended the meeting to speak against the proposal.
Other local community members plus student, parent, and administrative rep-
resentatives from the charter school spoke in favor of turning HHS over to the
charter school management organization. Although current students were
assured they could graduate from HHS without having to adopt the identity of
the new charter school, they were devastated. Despite efforts to stop the plan,
the board voted to approve the proposal, based on the superintendent’s argu-
ment that students would be better served due to their exposure to a college-
preparatory curriculum. When students returned to HHS in January 2012, they
met their third principal over the course of 1 year. Press coverage from mid-
December to mid-January was mixed: some defending and others decrying the
school board’s decision to approve the charter school takeover of HHS.
Searching for a Positive School Identity
Students attending HHS wanted to maintain every aspect of their school,
including its name. CHS maintained its founding name until 2008, when the
school was closed, reconstituted, and reopened as HHS (Pazey et al., 2015).
When HHS opened with two academies in 2009, students who were fresh-
men or sophomores recalled the excitement they felt when they entered the
school. When asked what they liked about the school, SQ referenced the
“team building activities” at the beginning of the year; CC, MR, and ST men-
tioned the laptop computers they received to complete their work; and EJ and
JJ recounted the “positive” and “welcoming” atmosphere of their school
academy and principal. According to EJ, “My freshman year was my best
year when I came here.”
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Identified by a negative label. In spring 2012, students told a different story.
They were told the opening of HHS represented a clean break from the previ-
ous history and negative press surrounding the state’s low-performing label
of academically unacceptable attributed to CHS. They soon discovered this
was not the case. EJ explained,
A lot of people already still compare us to CHS. What we’re trying to show the
people is that we’re not CHS, we’re HHS and HHS is going to strive for more
than what CHS wanted to strive for. And really, when they said that this school
was going to be a new school and they was going to give us a new name, they
should have gave us a new school number. But they didn’t. They had us keep the
CHS number. If they would have gave us a new school number and let us start
fresh I don’t think we’d be going through half of the stuff we’re going through.
EJ’s statement reflects the power of labels and problematic aspects of
accountability reform policies that inhibit a school’s ability to craft a positive
identity when identified as unacceptable, in need of turnaround, integral
terms used to describe HHS.
Unbeknownst to students, CHS’ school number assigned by the state was
carried over to one of the academies in the new school. Their state perfor-
mance rating for the 2009-2010 school year was compared with the school’s
previous test scores from 2008 to 2009—when the school was in disarray,
recovering from the state’s closure. Although their academy had reached an
“acceptable” rating 2 years after they reopened in 2009, their accomplish-
ments were not fully recognized. Alumni from CHS were working behind the
scenes, hoping to maintain a clear connection with the past history of their
school. They attended school board meetings and asked the board to change
the name of the school to reflect its original name. In June 2011, CHS alumni
formed a coalition with neighborhood and community members and asked
the SEA to close CHS and reopen the school under an alternative form of
management because 29% of the senior class failed state-mandated tests and
could not graduate.
Creating a new identity. Students at HHS wanted to achieve a complete break
from anything related to CHS and establish their own positive identity.
Because they believed the CHS alumni played a role in trying to take away
the identity of their school—as they knew it—from them, maintaining the
HHS name was paramount:
AI: Since you actually started as a new school, would you rather have the
identity be HHS as opposed to CHS?
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S1: Yes.
AI: And there’re other people that don’t want that?
S2: CHS alumni don’t want HHS.
S3: And some of them are the ones that want the charter school to come in.
EJ: They don’t see our school as making progress—that we’re actually
doing stuff. They still view our school—them, the [school district], the
state still views our school as CHS. They still have their old numbers,
which shows that the test scores were academically unacceptable. We
still have all their old information and people just see our school as
what CHS was.
Members of the student leadership group expressed the same reaction to
their situation as EJ. TG stated, “I don’t like that we don’t have our own iden-
tity even though we’ve been HHS for over three years.” They realized their
state rating was being compared with the academic performance of students
who attended the former CHS. Rather than getting a new identity and fresh
start, they believed the SEA, school district, community, and CHS alumni were
holding them hostage to a school which no longer existed. For them, creating a
new identity was a process that would take time. What they seemed to want
most was the opportunity to create their own traditions. According to JJ,
Our school, it lacks tradition. I mean, we’re still kind of like a newborn school.
We’re on a campus that has lots of tradition but it hasn’t carried over to HHS.
And if you really haven’t got the chance to start your own tradition it’s because
it keeps changing teachers, principals. What they want, I mean, they wanted
higher test scores and we gave it so apparently it wasn’t enough in the end.
EJ added to JJ’s remarks, underscoring the importance of school spirit and
being able to change the public’s estimation and characterization of HHS:
It just makes me feel like everything at this school is just going in a big hole
unless we get spirit. Then this school will come out of that hole and become
something in the light. And the only way we’re going to come out of that hole
is if we get people to think positive about our school.
Other students recognized the importance of perception and argued their
school’s culture could not be remedied by a name or a quick fix. LX, a ninth-
grade female in the leadership group, displayed great insight into her under-
standing of the complex and uncontrollable factors students attending the
school faced in their daily lives. She asserted the ability to transform a school
involved more than a simple name change, shedding light on the variable
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aspects of their lives that accountability reform initiatives, and federal and
state legislators creating such policies tend to ignore:
How I see it is that you still have the same students that live in the same area.
You still have the same types of teachers that come and teach here. You have
the same drugs, alcohol, pregnancies, everything that’s in this area that still
comes in this school. So, why change the school when you can’t change the
situation that comes to the school? You see what I mean? That’s my issue.
Why change the school name or try and change the way the school is when
you can’t change what comes into the school or get out of the school? It has
no point to it. So, it conflicts with itself, it contradicts itself. So, it has no
LX stressed she did not want to change the people because they contributed
to the uniqueness of HHS: “I’m not saying the people that come here needs
to change because that’s what makes the school. That’s what makes the peo-
ple. That’s what makes the attitudes, the atmosphere.”
A Need for Stability
The need for stability—related to identity—was a common concern due to
changes and threats leveled against the school, teacher turnover, and incon-
sistent leadership. Students watched their favorite teachers come and go and
had to figure out how to adjust to their new teachers’ instructional style. CC
detailed the type of turmoil students at HHS had to endure:
We’re going through so many changes! So many principals from this year to
last year! Most teachers are like, not wanting to lose their jobs. But they’re just
taking—leaving from left to right. That’s what I don’t like about the school
because you take more teachers that most students like, like teaching them,
because everybody teaches in different ways. So, if that teacher’s gone, then
what is a student supposed to rely on? Well, she taught me this way and a new
teacher coming in? He or she will feel confused about it.
Changing the school’s curricular focus. Another student noted when HHS first
opened, the curricular component was supposed to be guided by a focus on
project-based learning (PBL). Every student in the leadership group indicated
they liked PBL:
. . . It’s pretty good. It teaches you a lot.
. . . It teaches you how to work with people.
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. . . It gets you ready for life.
. . . Like hands-on; it’s like applying to a real-life situation.
Another student reminisced about the first year the academy opened, when
every student was given a laptop computer to work on specific projects and assign-
ments: “At the beginning, we were PBL. Then the next year, they said they didn’t
want that and we didn’t get any laptops.” JJ noted, “It really all comes down from
[District name], like, the school board not giving it a long enough time.”
EJ’s assessment of the situation was tied to the superintendent’s claim that
having two teachers in the classroom to co-teach placed a financial drain on
the district:
We started out with the project-based learning and the two programs because
the first superintendent that put all this in place left. And when [Superintendent
name] came in, for whatever reason, she didn’t think it was working. Like we
had our classes, like we had a traditional schedule but they would take a block
of classes and the two teachers would team-teach and it was really sticking with
the model, especially the first semester. Then it came down from the top that
we didn’t have money to keep that up or pay to have two teachers in the
classroom so they started to go to a more traditional model.
One student admitted they rarely engaged in PBL anymore: “We’re sup-
posed to be doing project-based learning, but we don’t do that very often.
Maybe one teacher will try. But, the teacher who tried the most was [teacher
name] and she’s gone.” JJ followed up by highlighting the need for more
continuity and structure: “I don’t like the constant change in the school and
changing of teachers. I would like more structure. Like, as far as the changing
of procedures and the way things are structured here.”
Teacher and leadership turnover. TG, a male student in 10th grade, referred to
three different teachers who were assigned to his English class during the first
At the beginning of the year, teachers would get laid off. A few of my teachers
got laid off and now we got like new teachers, so I got to get to know them and
stuff and they get to know me. Actually, like the first semester, we actually
went through, for our English class we went through three teachers.
Echoing TG’s predicament, students in the leadership group stressed the
value of stability due to having to adjust to how each new teacher provided
instruction and the different ways they related to the students:
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EJ: I think that the best one [learning environment] is one that’s stable for
all students—where there’s not going to be a constant change all the
time. I guess I mean teacher wise. They have the same teacher, that’s
very beneficial. When one leaves and another one comes in and tries to
pick up where the other one left off they may have a whole different
teaching method which confuses the student, I think.
TG: Then they tell us that they have to start all over again . . .
EJ: From the beginning . . .
JJ: And there’s already a certain way that we’re learning . . .
EJ: That’s all the way my Chemistry and my Math class were . . .
CC conveyed the confusion she experienced within the past year due to
teacher turnover, the uncertainty and lack of consistency that ensued, the
negative effect the changes had on student attendance, and the laissez-faire
approach toward completing assignments:
I wish they’d kept the teachers who are good for this school to teach the kids so
they can help them go to school. Because most kids? They either skip or they
just don’t come to school. That’s what I don’t like. That makes them feel,
“Well, since teachers are leaving, I’m not going to do my work or pick up a pen
or pencil.”
A number of students in the leadership group disdained the revolving-door
approach taken by the newly hired principal who resigned 2 weeks prior to the
school board’s vote in December. His decision to leave while they were
already receiving “bad press” documenting the school’s failures and weak-
nesses caused one student to label him as “an idiot.” LX shifted the conversa-
tion about the number of teachers leaving to the principal’s sudden departure:
“Not just the teachers, but the principal. Who gives up on the school like that?”
EJ extended the argument of inadequacy to the district administration and
school board. He vehemently disagreed with their decision to partner a char-
ter school management organization and attributed their actions to incompe-
tent leadership:
Like the charter school trying to come here? I don’t really like it. It’s just that I
don’t think they should send somebody else to do their job. That’s basically
what the school board is doing. They can’t make the changes by themselves so
they have to get a charter school to come make the changes.
Loss of a neighborhood public school. For LX, the very notion of the decision to
eliminate their neighborhood school by parceling students out to other high
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schools and splitting them up if they chose not to attend the charter school
was ludicrous:
Don’t change what people need and what people would have. Some people?
For example, some people only have school. That’s the one thing they have.
Why try to change the academics of it or the surroundings of it? Some people
don’t have families: They don’t have no cousins to chill with or daddies and
mommies to love them. So the only thing they do have is school. All they have
are sports here or their teachers here. So when they don’t have it [HHS], what
do you do?
LX also decried the action to eliminate the library at an elementary school
managed by the charter school organization. For the students, the library
epitomized the educational benefits and social aspects of attending a neigh-
borhood public school.
LX: Like [Elementary school], they won’t even have a library. So how do
you do that to a kid and to a student?
S: Limit their education. A school without a library . . . what’s the point of
a school with no library?
LX: The library provides like the social aspect that all the kids need. I
think all of us, a majority of friends come to school with you or you
meet them at school. That’s how that is. But you keep changing it
around; I mean, if you bring in the charter? I mean, charters have limits
to what they can teach you: what they can provide for each kid versus
public school. Yes, public school has to cover a broader range of educa-
tion, but it also makes you a more rounded student.
Pressure. When asked to characterize the 2011-2012 school year, QF
described the varying uncertainties and student, teacher, and administer reac-
tions as ongoing “drama” while EJ narrowed his answer down to two words:
“the pressure.” He referred to the pressure each person was feeling, both
individually and collectively, due to the possibility of the charter school
“coming up and taking over.”
Despite the successes they had achieved at the school, students believed
outsiders and district-level officials were placing greater emphasis on their
mistakes. Yet, they alleged their actions were motivated by what they per-
ceived to be the failure of the school district and school board:
. . . They’re watching everything that we do and if we mess up once, then they
take that and they use it against us.
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. . . One of the worst things about this school is that the school board controls
everything we do.
. . . The school board doesn’t know how to control the school, for which they’re
hired to do, that’s why.
. . . They come and walk around but they don’t talk to the students. They don’t
really . . . I mean, they may walk through a classroom but they don’t sit there
and pay attention to how we learn.
CC was completing the second semester of her junior year. She recounted
the turmoil she felt due to the reorganization of HHS from two academies
into one school prior to fall 2011, and the continuing pressure she felt due to
the changes made throughout the year. Rather than stay at the school for her
senior year, she decided to transfer to a different school: “I want to have more
fun in my senior year and just do more activities. I don’t feel like that’s hap-
pening here because of all the pressure that’s on the school.” She underscored
her rationale for changing schools to avoid the pressure: “I don’t want to feel
like that every day when I come here.”
A Need to Be Recognized and Heard
In April 2012, EJ went to the State House Education Committee meeting with
two of his friends to testify and advocate on behalf of HHS. He started his
speech by saying, “We need your help to be heard.” To justify their right to
speak on behalf of the student body at HHS, they highlighted their own
achievements. All three spoke about how they worked hard to earn high
grades. Based on their grade point average (GPA), they were ranked in the
“top ten percent” of their class.
EJ and his two friends were ambivalent about their achieved status and
academic prowess. In their estimation, the district administration and school
board totally ignored their accomplishments: “They don’t see us as making
progress. They don’t treat us like a new school.” To the contrary, EJ pointed
out the unity among the HHS student body and milestones they had already
reached: “We have students standing up for their school and what they believe
in and we also have students getting ready to go to college.” In fact, EJ dis-
played confidence in their ability to achieve even greater things as a school—
if given the chance:
There’s a lot of good things going on at this school and we just want people to
understand that we’re coming, we’re coming, a change is going to come. Just
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like the song says. And it might not be tomorrow, it might not be the next day,
but HHS is going to be known unless [charter school] comes to take over.
We’re going to make sure HHS is known—for something.
Most of the students in the leadership group believed the dark cloud of
school closure that predated the opening of their school appeared to be fol-
lowing them into the 2011-2012 school year, overshadowing the success sto-
ries they had to tell about themselves as well as the school. Any recognition
of what they had achieved had not warranted the attention of others. Even
worse, they were ignored although at times they felt empowered to resist and
speak out.
Choosing not to act. Some students believed their opinion and voice did not
carry any weight or credibility. TG expressed the belief he could not do any-
thing to change the school because for him, “school is always going to be the
same, really. I won’t be able to change that, I don’t think.” When asked to
clarify whether the focus for change pertained to his ability to become
involved, he responded, “Oh, I can’t do nothing.”
ST expressed a preference for not bringing in a charter school, yet he
chose to distance himself from the struggle to be heard because he did not
want to do anything to jeopardize his ability to graduate his senior year. Yet,
he stated, “I would prefer for them to keep it the way it is, but I don’t know.
They have their reasons.”
Fighting to be heard. Despite the fact she would be transferring to another
school the following year, CC praised the continuing efforts of the students,
teachers, parents, and school supporters to have their voices heard in protest
to the school becoming a charter school:
This school will fight for everything. Everybody always talks down on them,
but this high school fights for everything. Like raising money to get what they
need. And they had a voting thing to make sure this school? Don’t make a
charter school. They stand up for what they believe in and they take charge in
it. That’s what I like. It’s strong. Everybody around this school; everybody
does. Even when they get mad at each other they still help.
EJ, LX, JJ, TG, and other members of the leadership group attended sev-
eral school board meetings in fall 2011 to speak on behalf of their school and
persuade the board members to vote against the proposed charter. Nevertheless,
the board listened to the Superintendent and voted to move forward with the
charter school proposal.
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The fight to be heard, however, was not relinquished. The following spring
2012, parents, students, teachers, and community members continued to
attend school board meetings. One of the most vocal students in the school,
EJ, decided to attend a meeting during state testing in April to speak “on
behalf of all the families and students terrified by the seeming disinterest
from the board about what their planned handover to [Name of charter school]
means for his community” (City Newspaper, 2012, para. 2). He read the fol-
lowing excerpt at the school board meeting, quoted by one of the local news-
papers, which recognized EJ and a student from another school in the district,
the “smartest kids in the room.”
His opening remarks exemplified the school and students’ commitment—
who have “small numbers” but are “big in heart”—toward establishing their
own identity and the future legacy of HHS as their neighborhood school:
There were a lot of students who would like to be here tonight, but they’re
resting for the [state-mandated] test, so they sent me as a representative for
HHS students. I want to tell you that I’m tired. I’m not tired of being an HHS
student. I’m not tired of showing my [school mascot] pride. I’m not tired of
fighting for my school. I’m tired of showing up every month and feeling like it
doesn’t matter and you don’t hear me. I’m tired of watching teachers stand up
for me and then disappearing. I’m tired [of] parents taking their kids out of my
school because they think it’s turning into a charter school and shutting down
next year.
At the end of his speech, he asked, “What are y’all planning to do for the
next three years to help HHS again be successful?” His final plea to the board
asked them to provide “support” and “stability” and “ensure and offer a variety
of programs” for the school so they could increase their student numbers.
Finding voice. While some students may have given up on making their voice
heard, EJ and two friends in the leadership group traveled with their teacher
sponsor to speak before the state Education House Committee. The hearing
was dedicated to student discipline; however, they took the opportunity to
talk about their school, hoping someone would hear them and support their
EJ shared how he had lobbied the superintendent and school board to sup-
port the school by bringing more clubs and activities to the school. He told
them the superintendent countered every question with another question or
shot down their requests and concerns with a reason their requests could not
be granted. On the other hand, when EJ and his two friends (F1, F2) explained
their perspective to the state legislature and one of the legislators (L) on the
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committee appeared to be thinking in line with their view, they felt like some-
one was finally listening to what they had to say.
EJ: We talked to [superintendent] about bringing more activities to our
school but she told us that in order for them to bring more activities to
our school, we got to have more students. But a lot of the students were
telling her that it’s the other way around . . . In order to have students
come to our school, we got to offer . . .
L: If you build it, they will come.
F1: Yeah.
F2: Exactly.
F1: But she doesn’t see it.
F2: Our [superintendent] likes it the other way around. She’s not going to
bring . . .
L: How’re they going to come if there’s nothing to do?
EJ: Exactly! She don’t understand that.
L: We got it. She could be watching this right now, you know.
F1: I hope she is.
Several weeks later, when asked what he learned by going to speak to the
legislature and at school board meetings, EJ answered, “I learned legislatures
and school boards: they actually cared.”
This study highlights how students are impacted by school turnaround poli-
cies and subsequent staff turnover and raises important questions for how
policy makers and district administrators construct and understand school
turnaround. Student voice was generally ignored, students often felt deficient
as a result of test scores and sanctions, and adults in power left the school or
made decisions that did not reflect any knowledge or consideration of context
and the lived experiences of students. This point is not made to suggest HHS
did not need to engage in ongoing improvements, but to highlight that school
turnaround policies can create even greater school-improvement challenges
while damaging positive student identity it arguably intends to foster. HHS
obviously had numerous issues that needed to be addressed in terms of aca-
demic achievement, school culture, and staff turnover, but these issues as
well as mainstream accountability discourses and special interests associated
with charter school management prompted the adults with power to minimize
the view and voice of students. The case of HHS highlights how “failure is a
dangerous category, easy to overuse institutionally and terribly unfair to
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young children who are increasingly subject to classification before their
potentials are meaningfully explored” (Varenne & McDermott, 1998, p. xiv).
The students who participated in this study were thoughtful, strategic, and
well aware of the political instability and turmoil associated with school turn-
around policies. Dis/ability was not central to their identity because students
regardless of dis/ability classification felt marginalized and unheard due to
the politics of the turnaround process. This case highlights the importance of
student voice, and although we did not particularly emphasize the importance
of dis/ability throughout this study, it was clear: the students engaged in this
process felt marginalized, criticized, and ignored. Our findings are in line
with previous research that draws upon critical dis/ability discourses to high-
light how students from various backgrounds struggle to build and maintain
a positive identity in the context of urban schools and school reform. For
example, Peters (2010) found students attending high school who were iden-
tified as having a LD struggled to “develop a positive identity” and draw
upon the “politics of hope” (p. 592) through which, according to Barton
(2001), individuals strive to change their current situation and relationships
out of “a desire to be in a different situation” (p. 3). In this study, students
fought continually to be heard and viewed as a community of value. They felt
the powerful negative stigmatization of accountability discourses and
believed adults with power were setting them up for failure (Bacon, 2015;
Faircloth, 2009; Holland, 1998; Rubin, 2007).
The students demonstrated a community-oriented leadership approach
despite adult resistance and purposefully educated themselves to articulate a
critically informed opinion of policy and school turnaround processes
(Burke, Greene, & McKenna, 2016; DeMatthews, Edwards, & Rincones,
2016). Although they struggled to understand why the actions of adults like
the superintendent and school board were so misguided, they found solace
in each other and engaged in ongoing advocacy based on their core values
and practical beliefs about what it takes to reform a school. As much as pos-
sible, these students took control over their own democratic and civic educa-
tion while dealing with continuous staff turnover, including three different
school administrators and numerous teachers. Notwithstanding numerous
marginalizing conditions in their lives and schooling experiences, these stu-
dents trusted their beliefs which told them school turnaround could not work
without sustained effort from a committed staff. Policy makers and leaders
ignored their opinions regarding how the school was being managed despite
the fact their perspectives were aligned to school-improvement research
highlighting the importance of systemic improvement, teacher and leader-
ship stability, and positive school culture (Hopkins, Stringfield, Harris,
Stoll, & Mackay, 2014).
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The way student voice was ignored is clearly related not only to the poli-
tics of school reform but also to the numerous intersectional and marginaliz-
ing conditions associated with high-poverty, urban communities of color
(Ghosh et al., 2007; Su, 2016; Venzant Chambers & McCready, 2011).
Students sought to break free from the constraints, pressures, and labels asso-
ciated with their school and community which were placed upon them as a
by-product of high-stakes accountability as well as larger social and histori-
cal issues associated with the community (Jones-Walker, 2015). Although
they did not deny their school and community were struggling with various
educational and social issues, they recognized numerous areas for improve-
ment, were unwilling to give up on their school even though they believed
many adults (e.g., principals, teachers, board members, central office admin-
istrators) already had, and posed new ideas for improvement which were ulti-
mately ignored. Their “smartness” (Hatt, 2012) and desire to learn and
advocate was overlooked and not understood by adults as a sign of school
improvement or a reason to follow the students’ recommendations.
In a context where adults refused to listen and continued to implement
top-down policies without student input, HHS students had to establish and
maintain a positive identity and sense of self. They found ways to adjust to
the constant turnover of teachers and administrators from their school, both
emotionally and academically. The experience of having their perspectives
overlooked and ignored by those who seemed to control the destiny of their
school and their individual futures propelled them to search for anyone who
would take time to listen to what they had to say. Throughout the year, they
turned to one another for motivation to remain politically active on behalf of
themselves, the school, and the community. They searched for individuals
who would honor them as individuals and provide opportunities for them to
resist or retaliate against structures or actions that epitomized a denigrating
and degrading force directed toward them, both as a school and as individu-
als. Unfortunately, many of the adults they sought help from failed to act
responsibly or challenge the status quo of education reform.
To deal with the disruptive forces that upended their schooling experiences,
these students wanted to be able to associate their educational experiences
within the context of a school with a positive identity. This desire was inextri-
cably linked with the ways in which they were forced to respond, react, and fit
in with the structural and programmatic changes enacted in their individual
classes, their school, the school district, and the community at large (Johnson,
2012). Through individual and collective action, they drew upon their aware-
ness of school-, district-, and state-level policies to develop survival strategies
acceptable within the mainstream environment of their classroom, school, and
school community (Hatt, 2012). As they fought to have their voices heard,
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Pazey and DeMatthews 29
they learned new ways to negotiate and advocate for themselves within the
school (Peters, 2010) by becoming an integral member of the school leader-
ship team. They continued to search for alternate and legitimate means to
express their views. Those committed to the long-term goal to save their
school vowed they would continue to do so until others took them seriously.
Students voiced their dissatisfaction with what they interpreted to be a
disregard on behalf of district officials to include them in the change process.
Regarding their need to be honored as integral members of the school and
school community, most students espoused a personal goal to pursue a spe-
cific career path through additional training or a postsecondary education.
Nevertheless, their academic achievement efforts were motivated more by a
need to be recognized and heard—to have both their achievements and voices
recognized as a legitimate force within their individual schooling experi-
ences. Students were angered and felt frustrated and let down by the number
of adults who failed to acknowledge their perspective, experiences, and the
real issues they believed impacted student achievement and school turn-
around (e.g., staff turnover, time, culture).
Within the context of being targeted as a turnaround school and reconsti-
tuted numerous times, the students had to contend with the positive and nega-
tive media attention regarding the district’s recent decision to contract with
an out-of-district charter organization to improve their school. Many were
searching for ways to honor their school and school community through both
individual and collective action to obtain a satisfactory rating from the state
agency for their school. After all, they had done it once; why could not they
do it again? If given the chance, they believed they possessed the innate abil-
ity and fortitude to forge a different path for themselves, as individuals and
the school.
To some extent, these findings highlight how accountability policies
deemphasize other important academic outcomes related to democratic and
civic engagement for students (Rothstein & Jacobsen, 2006; Sleeter, 2007).
Some might argue these students and their school deserved significant atten-
tion because of the meaningful political engagement of students. While their
outcry to be heard and taken seriously was ignored by many, the legitimacy
they received by state legislators as voices to be reckoned with infused them
with hope and the determination to keep pressing ahead.
At the conclusion of this study, it remains unclear how students will feel
about education policy, civic engagement, and democracy in the future. We
found ourselves asking the following questions: “Could HHS sustain further
changes in leadership and school personnel given the way students feel about
themselves and the school?” “Would the students be able to build a meaning-
ful relationship with yet another set of administrators and teachers?” “How
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30 Urban Education
will HHS students interpret their voices failing to be heard in terms of buying
into a new school and remaining motivated academically?” “Will students be
less likely to politically engage and advocate for policies they value because
of the impact of school turnaround policies at their school?” or “Will these
experiences provide them with resources, skills, and strategies to become
more actively engaged and more skilled as advocates for policies they believe
are effective and important?” These questions put students at the forefront of
school turnaround policies and practices. These questions and other student-
centered questions should be continually considered in school turnaround
discourses. Although the long-term outcomes are unclear, it is obvious school
and district officials did not consider or take heed to the arguments and con-
cerns students voiced in regard to the policy-related issues that directly
impacted their lives.
The ESSA (USDOE, 2015) still requires states to identify consistently under-
performing schools based on the performance of student subgroups on state-
created assessments (Klein, 2015). Under this new act, several important
questions remain unanswered: How will reform efforts and actions affect
already marginalized students? How might reform efforts balance a stable
learning environment with other school reform priorities? Will policy makers
and district administrators acknowledge the marginalized voices of high
school students and allow them to meaningfully participate in important deci-
sions related to the school reform process?
Between 2008 and 2012, HHS changed leadership 5 times. Thus far,
America’s affair with accountability reform and the media spotlight chroni-
cling the ups and downs of HHS over the past two decades have helped to
ensure HHS’ successful failure, creating a pressurized learning environment
due to the outward gaze of outsiders, ready to pounce when something at the
school goes awry. In the case of HHS, failure hovers as a dangerous category,
waiting for powerful decision makers to microscopically examine the data
and determine whether the school and its inhabitants should be assigned a
negative classification, hindering their ability to meaningfully explore their
innate potential to craft a positive future.
Regardless of whether U.S. public schools continue to prioritize scores
on statewide tests, student voice needs to be at the forefront of our educa-
tional research and discourse, particularly at the high school level. The indi-
vidual stories of SWD must be told if we are going to remain dedicated to
the purposes of social justice and allow individuals to make choices and
advocate for themselves. To model democracy within our educational
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Pazey and DeMatthews 31
system, we must diffuse the democratic values of choice and autonomy
throughout our districts and schools. Any attempt to make school reform
decisions through a top-down, authoritative approach, in practice, repudi-
ates the principles of social justice.
We must begin to recognize and honor the strengths, abilities, and talents
of every high school student as legitimate members of the school community.
Their unique voices and perspectives have the potential to inform us on how
the construction of various accountability-based reforms and incentive sys-
tems can disrupt and complicate the lived experiences of these students while
they can empower and motivate students to leadership, if given the opportu-
nity and support necessary to act. More importantly, as organizations of
change, initiating the practice of incorporating their voices into our investiga-
tions of school improvement and policy-making endeavors may assist us in
finding ways to best support the needs of each and every student in urban
high schools and sustain those supports over time.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research,
authorship, and/or publication of this article.
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publi-
cation of this article.
1. Similar to the rationale provided by Annamma, Connor, and Ferri (2016), we
utilize dis/ability to both disrupt “misleading understandings of disability” and
convey “the social construction of both ability and disability” (p. 7) in the con-
text of accountability reform narratives.
2. Students who participated in a former study at the same high school in 1995
(Pazey, 1996) were selected by the high school principal with input from the
special education chair. All six students were categorized as having an identified
learning dis/ability (LD) as their primary dis/ability category. To conduct a com-
parison of students’ responses with the same interview questions in 2010 (Pazey,
Vasquez Heilig, Cole, & Sumbera, 2015), 2012, and 2013, the lead author main-
tained the same criteria as a purposive sample.
3. Upon making this discovery, the new high school principal and lead special
education teacher were asked whether they knew the four students they recom-
mended to participate were involved in the student leadership group. They both
knew about EJ, but they were not aware of the other three students’ involvement
in the group. The special education teacher recommended the students to the
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32 Urban Education
principal based solely on his conversation with the students and their desire to
participate in the study.
4. As former practitioners, the researchers witnessed the emotional fallout that
ensued when students with dis/abilities as well as other underprepared students
were forced to take a test they had no prior experience taking. Watching stu-
dents break down in the midst of testing and seeing their spirits broken in the
process was devastating. This experience underscored the importance of keep-
ing students informed, especially when a particular policy, practice, or action
has a direct impact on their schooling experience and overall well-being, and
strengthened our resolve to “include students’ voices and perspectives in larger
conversations about policy and practice” and allow them to “help define the
terms of those discussions” (Cook-Sather, 2002, p. 7). This approach enabled
us to learn from the students in this study, extend beyond our initial intention
to interview only students with dis/abilities, and to include a focus group with
students because of their recommendation to do so. In sum, our deeply ingrained
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Author Biographies
Barbara L. Pazey is an assistant professor in the Departments of Special Education
and Educational Administration at The University of Texas at Austin. She has served
as a general and special education teacher in urban, rural, and suburban districts, a
high school administrator in urban districts, and a higher education administrator. Her
research interests include urban education, accountability reform, disability studies,
law, and policy, social justice, and student voice.
David DeMatthews is an assistant professor of educational leadership at the
University of Texas at El Paso. He has worked with urban districts as a high school
teacher, middle school administrator, and district administrator. His research interests
include K-12 school leadership, urban education, special education, dual language
education, and social justice.
at University of Texas Libraries on September 9, 2016uex.sagepub.comDownloaded from
... Under such regulations, students' performance on state-mandated accountability measures were published for all to see, creating a binary narrative where (a) schools were reported as being good or bad (Niesz, 2010) and (b) the identity of the students and those associated with the school were constructed as abled versus failures or dis/abled (McDermott, 1987;McDermott & Varenne, 1995;Pazey, 1996). Adding insult to injury, parents, students, and other stakeholders residing in these communities disenfranchised (Lipman, 2013) or displaced from any conversations related to making decisions about how to improve and, ultimately, the future and fate of their school (Kirshner & Pozzoboni, 2011;Pazey & DeMatthews, 2019;Trujillo & Renée, 2012. ...
... Due to the upheaval that individuals who are associated with a so-called failing school like HHS endure when branded with a negative label such as academically unacceptable (Granger, 2008;Kirshner, Gaertner, & Pozzoboni, 2010;Malen & Rice, 2004Meier & Wood, 2004;Nichols & Berliner, 2007;Pazey, Cole, & Spikes, 2017;Pazey & DeMatthews, 2019;Pazey, Vasquez Heilig, Cole, Countering the Effects of Neoliberal Reforms & Sumbera, 2015;Ravitch, 2010;Shepard, 2008;Vasquez Heilig & Darling-Hammond, 2008), critiques of neoliberal reforms like NCLB (2002) abound (Ferri & Ashby, 2017;Hursh, 2007;Johnson, 2013;Tienken, 2013). What made HHS unique, however, stemmed from the level of student involvement and adult advocacy that occurred throughout the fall 2011 semester in efforts to disprove the academically unacceptable label that the state, the media, and individuals in the larger community repeatedly used to construct a negative identity of their school and school community. ...
... Yet, taking an advocacy-oriented and critical approach, I sought to illustrate, support, or challenge the theoretical assumptions reinforcing neoliberal reform. In previous studies conducted over time at this school (Pazey & DeMatthews, 2019;Pazey et al., 2015;Pazey et al., 2017), I critiqued the implementation and results of these reforms by focusing on their disparate impacts, specifically their marginalizing effects on students with dis/abilities and their friends. By utilizing an interpretive critical approach, my initial intent was to illuminate the counternarratives of HHS student and adult advocates who, in opposition to the district's proposed action, challenged the underlying assumptions and rhetoric of neoliberal-infused reform. ...
This article provides an account of the ways in which students and adult supporters of an urban turnaround high school mobilized to defy the rhetoric of neoliberal reforms and the subsequent deficit narrative imposed on them and on their school. Their counternarratives refute the master narratives advanced by federal and state educational reforms. The current rationale of neoliberal reforms and the disabling terminology used to construct the identity of a school and the individuals associated with the school are interrogated through the theoretical framework of Dis/ability Critical Race Theory. An alternative approach and philosophy of thought regarding school reform and the ways in which we define the worth and value of a school, its students, and the larger community is offered.
... More recent policies like Race to the Top show equally mixed results for student test scores and/or gap closures (e.g., Dougherty & Weiner, 2019). Others have highlighted how external accountability has undermined educators' professionalism (Anderson & Cohen, 2018) and urban schools' standing in public discourse (Pazey & DeMatthews, 2016). As Reed and Swaminathan (2016) explain, "rarely, do we describe the opportunities and resilience presented by urban settings and instead… the term 'urban' is considered tantamount to 'deficit'" (p. ...
... Indeed, Hinnant-Crawford (2019) and others (e.g., Milner, 2013) argue that the myriad external reform efforts directed at urban schools-including performance pay, high-stakes testing, scripted curriculum, teacher evaluation, and school choice-consume resources but lack potential in genuinely supporting schools' focus on teaching and learning (Childress et al., 2006;Pazey & DeMatthews, 2016;Reed & Swaminathan, 2016). Together, such findings conclude, as Hinnant-Crawford (2019) suggests, that "accountability erodes the equitable access to high-quality education that its rhetoric claims to foster" (p. 7). ...
... Many students in Portland's schools face racism and other forms of discrimination on a daily basis (Goessling, 2018). Micro and macro aggressions that students deal with can present a significant barrier to learning and engagement in classrooms (Pazey & DeMatthews, 2019;Safir & Dugan, 2021). It is critical that students have a place to process what is happening within the context of their curriculum (Picower, 2011). ...
... The extant literature proposes capacity building as an essential means of strengthening schools' power "to engage in and sustain continual learning" (Stoll, 2009, p. 116). Turnaround schools can strengthen their capacity building through internal efforts, highlighting such intra-school stakeholders as principals, counselors, teachers, and students (Hines et al., 2020;Pazey & DeMatthews, 2019). Principals' central role in leading schools' educational turnaround is widely recognized (Leithwood et al., 2010;P. ...
Collaboration and networking have been widely recognized and adopted as strategies for school turnaround. However, most studies focus on external forces’ (particularly governments’) role in promoting collaborative turnaround, paying less attention to turnaround schools’ reactions to external actors. With specific reference to Shanghai, China, this qualitative empirical study examines the complexity of schools’ role in school turnaround through network governance. Drawing on document review and interview data, this study found three patterns of turnaround schools’ interactions with local governments and third-party actors in different school turnaround networks – compliant follower, reserved enforcer, or rational aspirant. Turnaround schools’ differentiated responses to external actors in China’s collaborative turnaround indicated their different awareness and capacity to utilize external resources. This resulted from schools’ different levels of disadvantage and leadership and external actors’ different extents of power exercise and differently impacted schools’ positions and power relations with external actors.
... Though the term educational decision-making has not been operationalized in the literature, our definition is informed by research that focuses on youth voice, youth activism, and/or YPAR, which argues that youth perspectives are important in educational decisions about policies and practices. Overall, this literature highlights the influence or potential influence of youth, especially youth of Color with or without intersecting minoritized identities, in urban school and district governance (Cammarota, 2011;Irizarry & Welton, 2014;Pazey & Dematthews, 2019;Quijada Cerecer et al., 2013). For instance, the introduction to an edited volume on student voice argues that "students have valuable contributions to make to educational reform because of their unique vantage point within schools" and, moreover, have a right to participate (Conner et al., 2015, p. 4). ...
Research indicates that youth, especially those facing injustice, such as youth of Color in urban settings, are essential participants in educational decision-making. However, due to adultism and intersecting forms of oppression, their inclusion is not the norm. Grounded in the concept of adultism and the tradition of storytelling, we address the following question: How can educational researchers and practitioners challenge the adultism that constrains youth’s participation in school- and district-level educational decision-making? We share stories about our experiences in urban schools, considering adultism at the interactional, institutional, and curricular levels. Our implications center on using critical reflexivity to challenge adultism.
... Debates about test-based accountability's implications for urban schools intensified with the passage of NCLB in 2001 and have continued through the creation of the Race to the Top program in 2009 and the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015, which replaced NCLB (see, e.g., Harris, 2012a;Pazey & Dematthews, 2019). Some scholars and practitioners have raised the concern that, for urban schools, test-based accountability sanctions could worsen the inequalities they seek to remedy (Diamond & Spillane, 2004;Johnson, 2012). ...
We conducted an inductive analysis of 166 interviews from a longitudinal study of 26 Chicago Public School principals. Test-based accountability pressures played a visible role in principals’ views of and relations with parents. Some principals reported banning parents from classrooms based on the need to protect instructional time to raise test scores; others thought more parental involvement would help their school reach its academic goals. Viewing principals in urban schools as street-level bureaucrats who have discretion in how they implement policy demands offers a way to understand variation in principals’ decisions about parent involvement.
... Examining policy and analyzing its purposes with some nuance requires understanding that such policies are the product of multiple agendas, discourse communities, and compromise (Ball and Exley, 2010). Even with this mix, the perspectives of marginalized groups remain untapped, neglected, or ignored in schools (Pazey and DeMathews, 2019). In response, development and implementation of educational policy must account for the access, participation, and sustained feedback of individuals and groups that represent multiple (Kozleski and Smith, 2009). ...
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Purpose This article focuses on the strategic importance of framing cultural changes in special education through a critical lens. The article explores why cultural responsivity must be understood from a critical perspective that accounts for the historical sedimentation of racism that exists within special education organizational policies and practices. This sedimentation affects current and future organizational features that sustain historical, persistent and pernicious racial and ableist structures, relationships and outcomes. Design/methodology/approach By examining the role of power within organizational systems, the authors trace its contribution to reproduction of these systems through special education leadership. Special education leaders along with their peers in general education can frame transformative change through a systemic lens designed to address structural, regulatory and cultural practices that perpetuate raced and ableist outcomes. The pernicious and sustaining structures and practices that have created unequal outcomes in our educational systems need strategic intervention, prevention and re-creation to create equitable supports and services programs. Findings By examining the role of power within organizational systems, the authors trace its contribution to reproduction of these systems through special education leadership. Special education leaders along with their peers in general education can frame transformative change through a systemic lens designed to address structural, regulatory and cultural practices that perpetuate raced and ableist outcomes. Practical implications With clear outcomes that are responsive to all students, including those identified with dis/abilities, education leaders can make consequential shifts in access, opportunity and the distribution of social and intellectual capital throughout education. Social implications The pernicious and sustaining structures and practices that have created unequal outcomes in our educational systems need strategic intervention, prevention and re-creation to create equitable supports and services programs. Originality/value The application of DisCrit to educational leadership practices offers an opportunity to frame leadership through a powerful equity lens.
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Background/Context Increasingly, K–12 students are seeking to influence educational policies that directly affect their lives. As student intervention in policy increases, it is important to understand the composition of these groups and how they seek to exercise power and influence over policymakers. Purpose This study sought to examine how two state-level student voice groups for policy change sought equitable representation in their composition. As student voice groups expand beyond school, city, or district level groups to focus on state- and national-level advocacy, the character of their composition takes on additional importance as they claim to speak on behalf of larger numbers of students. Setting This study draws on interview, document analysis, and observation data from two student voice groups working to influence state-level legislative action on K–12 educational policy. Research Design: We combine secondary data analysis of data from state-level student voice groups with elements of duoethnography to explore how participants thought about, strived for, and fell short of equitable intra- group representation. Findings We found that the members of both groups were personally committed to equity both in terms of group composition and advocacy. Additionally, group members had structures and policies—such as remote access and low barriers to entry—that encourage equitable representation. Participants reported a relational climate of inclusion. Despite these assets, outcomes were mixed: the groups successfully achieved racial and ethnic proportionality with the state, but remained predominantly urban and able- bodied in their composition. Conclusion Despite the groups’ best efforts, group members’ challenges with distributed recruitment and emphasis on certain skills such as public speaking limited equitable outcomes in representation. This research makes clear that who is involved in the group at the outset and their network will shape representation. It also indicates that although technology can lower barriers to entry, it is not a panacea. Finally, this research reinforces the notion that students engage in self-policing of the group in order to gain greater legitimacy in the eyes of policymakers.
A long history of racism and ableism exists within the U.S. and shapes policies, practices, and assumptions within the public education system. Racism and ableism are built into educator and principal practices, which contribute to the reproduction of inequitable systems and outcomes. Yet, principals are in a key position to challenge dominant narratives about race and ability and facilitate equity-oriented change. The purpose of this article is to consider how school leadership practice can systematically address racism and ableism. Dis/ability Critical Race Studies (DisCrit) is used to critique and expand existing conceptions leadership practice.
Background/Context School closure is becoming an increasingly common policy response to underperforming urban schools. Districts typically justify closure decisions by pointing to schools’ low performance on measures required by No Child Left Behind. Closures disproportionately fall on schools with high percentages of poor and working-class students of color. Few studies have examined how students interpret or respond to school closures. Purpose Our purpose was to document narratives articulated by students about the closure of their high school. Doing so is important because students, particularly students of color from low-income families, are often left out of policy decisions that affect their lives. Population/Participants Research participants were recruited from the population of youth who had attended the closed school and who remained in the district during the subsequent year. Twenty-three percent of students at the school were African American, 75% were Latino, and 2% were White. Over 90% of students were eligible for free and reduced lunch. A total of 106 students responded to surveys and peer interviews, and 12 youth who had dropped out of school participated in focus groups. Research Design This was a youth participatory action research (YPAR) study, designed collaboratively by former Jefferson students, university researchers, and adult community members. Data sources included open-ended surveys, peer interviews, focus groups, and field notes describing public events and YPAR meetings. Findings Our data show that most respondents did not agree with the decision to close their school. Student disagreement surfaced two counternarratives. First, students critiqued the way the decision was made—they felt excluded from the decision-making process that led to closure. Second, they critiqued the rationale for the decision, which suggested that students needed to be rescued from a failing school. Students articulated features of Jefferson that they valued, such as trusting relationships with adults, connection to place, and sense of belonging, which they felt were discounted by the decision. Conclusions/Recommendations Evidence from this study lends support to developmental and political justifications for robust youth participation in equity-based school reform. By developmental justification, we mean evidence that young people were ready to participate, which counters discourses about youth as immature or unprepared. By political justification, we mean evidence that youth articulated interests that were discounted in the decision-making process and that challenged normative assumptions about school quality. In our conclusion, we point to examples of expanded roles that students could play in decision-making processes.
A mainstay in NCLB and the Obama administration education plan is turning around low-performing schools. This study utilized surveys and interviews with school leaders from four turnaround urban high schools in Texas to understand student outcomes before and after school restructuring and reconstitution. Although some organizational changes were apparent; overall , respondents cited rapidly changing technical strategies and haphazard adjustments from external sources as a great challenge. Reconstitution also magnified challenges that existed before and after restructuring efforts. Most importantly, the evidence suggests that school reconstitution did not immediately improve student achievement, impact grade retention and decrease student dropout in the study schools.
In this controversial work, Herv Varenne and Ray McDermott explore education as cultural phenomenona construct of artifice and reality we impose upon ourselves. Questioning how the American education system defines and measures success and failure, Successful Failure is a must-read for anyone interested in educational reform, the American educational system, and the anthropology of education. In this controversial work, Herv Varenne and Ray McDermott explore education as cultural phenomenona construct of artifice and reality we impose upon ourselves. The authors discuss in five case studies how the American education system defines and measures success and failure, why there is polarization between suburban schools and urban schools, and what about our system leads us to focus on the negative. Their exploration focuses not on the people or the activities of the system, but on the institutions themselves: who decided what was a success or failure? How was the identification done, and with what consequences?This important and timely book is a must-read for anyone interested in educational reform, the American educational system, and the anthropology of education.
Rev.& expanded from Case study research in education,1988.Incl.bibliographical references,index
Although education reforms have been designed to improve academic achievement for all students, there may be intervening factors, such as teacher expectations, that interfere with the success of these initiatives. This ethnographic case study examined student and teacher perspectives on an urban high school reform, and how that reform was experienced within the classroom by African American students. Findings suggest that these African American students felt a strong sense of positive identity with their small school, despite racist public perceptions of it. Within the classroom, students continued to face persistent low academic expectations despite the school’s pursuits of equity.