Harvard Educational Review
  1. Our Schools Suck

    Students Talk Back to a Segregated Nation on the Failures of Urban Education

    Gaston Alonso, Noel S. Anderson, Celina Su, and Jeanne Theoharis

    New York: New York University Press, 2009. 289 pp. $22.00 (paper).

    In the tradition of Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities and Jean Anyon’s Ghetto Schooling, the collaborative work of Gaston Alonso, Noel Anderson, Celina Su, and Jeanne Theoharis in Our Schools Suck once again illuminates the shocking and heartbreaking realities of life inside neglected urban schools and communities, but this time we hear it from the students themselves. Pitted as a response to such public statements as Bill Cosby’s 2004 accusations that poor and working-class students of color are simply failing to embrace the worthy educational opportunities readily available to them, Our Schools Suck integrates the findings from three research projects to present youth perspectives on educational inequality. The book challenges researchers and public figures who draw on a cultural explanation for educational underachievement, positing instead that a structural explanation is at play and employing the voices of youth to illustrate the lamentable state of education in the inner city. Although the argument is not new, the structure of this book—first considering existing research that refutes cultural explanations and then providing insights from three new studies—integrates a multitude of rich sources to make a convincing case that structural inequalities still infect our nation’s segregated high schools.

    Arguing for a “culture of aspiration” (p. 69) among African American and Latino/a students, Jeanne Theoharis presents her analysis of the content of student journals in four history classes at Fremont High School in Los Angeles. Documenting the challenges faced by the diligent and devoted history teacher, Theoharis makes a persuasive case that institutional structures at Fremont—bureaucratic referral systems and overcrowded classrooms, for instance—work counter to the goals of education. In doing so, she harnesses the writing of more than one hundred students to illustrate the genuine eagerness and caution with which these teens evaluate their own abilities and anticipate their futures. Integrating her examination of the journals with court declarations on the conditions at Fremont, Theoharis reveals the often-ignored experience of educational inequality and challenges the notion that the cultures or attitudes of African American and Latina/o youth are the causes of underachievement in urban schools.

    Taking a different lens, Noel Anderson presents case studies of four young Black and Latino men as they navigate high school, a college preparation program, and the youth labor market in New York City. In addition to documenting the inadequate and uninspiring educational offerings for these young men, Anderson’s work uniquely links low-quality education and the lack of employment opportunities for city youth to present a more nuanced portrait of the circumstances facing young men growing up in poverty. He examines how racial discrimination and rampant unemployment limit the labor options for urban youth of color who face racial profiling in many retail outlets and who must compete with adult men for low-wage, unskilled positions in their local neighborhoods. Through these four cases, Anderson highlights the complexity of these discouraging conditions and the courage it takes to persist and dream big amidst such adversity.

    The book’s third study highlights more positive circumstances as Celina Su presents her case study of Sistas and Brothas United, a youth organizing groupthat fights to improve educational conditions for students in the Bronx. Delineating the growth and empowerment experienced by participating youth, Su reveals the transformative nature of collective action and of youth seeing one another as role models for change. She relays the young people’s tales of finding influence in political circles and standing their ground with policy makers. She traces their pathway to greater understanding of the harsh educational inequities between schools in the Bronx and elsewhere.

    As a collection, these three studies present fresh evidence that many urban youth continue to suffer in segregated, ineffective schools. Yet, despite these provocative studies and the powerful voices of youth, readers will find  themselves wishing the authors had done a little streamlining. After wading through the introduction and Gaston Alonso’s long opening chapter devoted to establishing and dissecting the cultural perspective on educational underachievement, readers will find themselves renavigating the same setup in subsequent chapters as each author reestablishes the perspectives they will refute. Those who are well read will also find themselves wondering about the extent to which the authors overstate the prevalence of the cultural perspective in policy discourse and understate the volume of existing research that already supports a structural argument for educational inequality. Despite these shortcomings, however, the honest and outspoken youth portrayed in Our Schools Suck are, as the authors intend, a critical reminder that our nation still has a long way to go in providing a quality education to all students.
    k.s.c.
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    Abstracts

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    Rethinking Education and Emancipation
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    Representing Family
    Community Funds of Knowledge, Bilingualism, and Multimodality
    Elizabeth Marshall and Kelleen Toohey
    “The Beauty of America”
    Nationalism, Education, and the War on Terror
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    Book Notes

    Children of the Gulag
    Cathy A. Frierson and Semyon S. Vilensky

    Our Schools Suck
    Gaston Alonso, Noel S. Anderson, Celina Su, and Jeanne Theoharis