From corporation to community: Culturally relevant pedagogy in an urban laboratory for school reform


Background/Context: Memphis has, in many ways, become "ground zero" for neoliberal-or corporate-reform efforts, including a statewide turnaround school district, proliferation of charter schools, and value-added teacher evaluation measures. Along with these reforms come models of schooling that undermine the concept of the "community school," leading to different conceptions of schools, teachers, and students. In this reform context, it is challenging to implement culturally relevant pedagogy (CRP) in a way that is true to its three pillars: academic achievement, cultural competence, and sociopolitical consciousness. The challenges that those who desire to implement CRP face can be categorized as either conceptual-representing a lack of understanding of CRP's conceptual underpinnings-or systemic-representing institutional barriers that impede the integration of CRP. Purpose/Objective: The purpose of this analytic essay is to outline particular challenges to CRP in a hyper-reform context and to propose a framework describing changes that must take place in the process of implementing CRP. Setting: The authors use Memphis as a model of hyper-reform and the backdrop for discussions of how CRP can be implemented in such a setting. Research Design: This paper is an analytic essay. Conclusions/Recommendations: We propose that effectively implementing CRP in a reform context is a process that requires a shift from a methodology of individualism to a methodology of collectivism. We align corporate reform with an individualist approach, while CRP, we argue, takes a more collectivist stance. The shift from individualism to collectivism also signals a shift in our conceptions of students, from trainees to successful citizens; teachers, from engineers to artists and activists; and schools, from corporations to community. A quick tour of the school reveals nothing out of the ordinary: Classrooms, desks, cafeteria tables, bulletin boards, posters with announcements, etc. But a closer look exposes several clues to the influence of local and national trends in educational reform. First, it is a charter school, a fact attested to by the student uniforms3/4plaid skirts and button-down shirts for girls, and khaki pants with shirt and tie for boys. Also, an observer would notice that each teacher's door is decorated with the name and paraphernalia of her or his college alma mater. The local public university is heavily represented on these doors, along with a small number of other local or regional universities. However, sprinkled throughout the school are decorations reflecting the universities of the Teach for America corps members who are part of the school's faculty: Syracuse, Valparaiso, Florida, Washington University, etc. In addition, a quick look inside each classroom reveals "data walls," places to track student achievement over the course of the semester and school year. Similarly, an announcement on the television screen in the cafeteria announces the school's distinction as a "reward school," meaning that the school's gains on the standardized achievement tests were among the highest in the state. In the same cafeteria is a bulletin board featuring examples of "nonverbal classroom cues," "snapping," and "tracking with your eyes." The title of the bulletin board is, "What's the word on culture?"

Publication Title

Teachers College Record

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