National Writing Project

Book Review: Politics, Language, and Culture: A Critical Look at School Reform, by J. Check

By: Marcie Wolfe
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 3
Date: 2004

Summary: Wolfe reviews Joseph Check's text, which critiques the "top-down" process of educational reform and focuses on the struggle for school reform in complex urban environments.


Joseph Check poses the question, "Can a systemic reform movement which ignores questions of race, language, and culture hope to succeed in its goal of high achievement for all?" He answers his own question: "We must believe, and act as if we believe, that equity and achievement are not incompatible goals. For urban populations above all, achievement is linked to equity, academic success to equality."

To explore this question and its accompanying assertion, Check engages readers in a conversation with corporate leaders, teachers, principals, and academics about the history, failures, and potential of school reform. This conversation provides answers to important questions that many of us may not even have thought to ask: Are we really in a state of unprecedented academic and moral decline as some argue? Why has educational equity for immigrants and minorities been tied to long, painful histories of litigation? What have been the patterns of failure in previous waves of outside-in reform? Where are the voices of teachers and school leaders in policy discussions of reform?

Perhaps the last question is the one closest to many of us in the National Writing Project. Those voices are given ample space in Politics, Language, and Culture. We hear from writing project directors and teacher-consultants, including Barbara Kato, Sharon Ransom, Peter Golden, Judith Baker, Betty-Jane Wagner, and Carol Tateishi. Check references a study written by New York City Writing Project teacher-consultants Linda Vereline and Barbara Watanabe Batton. These NWP leaders get Check's attention because he insists that we consider the perspectives of practitioners who are the real experts on their classrooms, schools, and reform efforts. Check relies on the voices of these professionals to provide the bulk of the documentation for the social history of school-reform efforts in the three cities he studies. In both major and minor keys, these voices communicate the vision, complexity, and enduring hope of education in these communities.

With painstaking care and an occasional light dose of irony, Politics, Language, and Culture presents a thoughtful critique of our cities' reliance on "top-down reform, outside experts and exemplary programs." Check asserts that three avenues for analysis and critique of school reform have been virtually ignored: learning from our long educational and social history of previous attempts at reform, listening seriously to the voices of urban practitioners, and going beyond "best practices" to view urban reform in the larger, more controversial contexts of politics, language, and culture, including race.

The book comprises two parts. Part I provides an overview of the issue. Check explores the terms urban and reform, drawing on the work of historians of American education (including Patricia Albjerg Graham, Lawrence Cremin, Larry Cuban, and David Tyack), and considers the history of reform with a particular focus on its relationship to the education of immigrant and minority students.

He concludes this overview with a composite case to illustrate the implementation issues within school reform. From his knowledge of various cities, systems, and educators, he creates "East Elementary," an imagined urban school. At East Elementary, the school must adopt an exemplary reading program with funds from the Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration Act. Using this program as a vehicle for whole-school change provokes a set of issues that are at the heart of his case studies of the reform efforts he documents in Part II of the book. Readers of The Quarterly may remember this chapter, in an earlier version, from the Winter 2000 issue.

Check uses his portrait of East Elementary to argue that in order to succeed, reform should concentrate on developing "exemplary contexts" rather than importing into schools one or more exemplary programs. It should be no surprise to writing project colleagues that the features that contribute to developing East as an exemplary context place writing and student work at the center: 1) discussion of student work on a regular basis; 2) in-depth group analysis, again on a regular basis, of the learning patterns of individual students, using a protocol that keeps teachers focused on the goals; 3) regular reflective writing by teachers, and sharing of that writing with colleagues; and 4) school-based teacher research and discussion of the data produced by such research, to check on progress of schoolwide initiatives or promote inquiry approaches to teaching (74-75). Together, these elements suggest a positive internal response to external pressure for reform.

As Check observes at the end of his description of East (and here he joins forces philosophically with Deborah Meier, Theodore Sizer, and Joseph McDonald, among others), "the dirty little secret of mandated whole-school change [is that] before you can make a school change, you have to make it whole" (78).

In Part II, Check focuses on "implementation dilemmas" in urban reform—the problems that develop because of the gap between a reform's public vision and the frantic but halting pace of school-level change. He presents the struggle for school reform in the complex urban environments: Chicago, Oakland/San Francisco, and Boston, in each case beginning his story a century or more ago. For each he includes a history of language and cultural issues in the educational politics of the city, and he discusses the local reform issues, concentrating on the perspectives and roles of expert practitioners—teachers and principals who understand reform firsthand, who have had educational roles that provide a broader perspective than a single classroom, and who have had significant involvement with outside networks such as the NWP. Check also consults "bridge professionals"—coaches, change facilitators, and others who function as insider/outsiders and whose views, along with those of teachers and principals, are rarely represented in the reform literature. These three constituencies form what Check calls the front lines of educational reform, carrying the largest burden for school-level change.

Each of the city chapters focuses on one of the issues that form the title of the book: politics, language, or culture. While each chapter has its particular focus, that focus serves as a lens to explore the other two issues as well. The Chicago chapter examines politics. Check presents Chicago school reform as "a long series of intertwined political and educational events" (93) that placed large minority communities in conflict with the mainstream business and political culture, and describes the impact on school personnel and students of the more or less continuous series of reforms that Chicago has endured since 1986.

In his chapter on Oakland/San Francisco, Check addresses language diversity. As in the Chicago story, the Bay Area story is one of minority populations resorting to litigation (i.e., the Lau decision and Oakland's desegregation order) in order to achieve some measure of educational justice. But unlike Chicago, the Bay Area has a population so diverse, with no clear majority, that it has led to what Check calls "inter-ethnic rivalry among nonmainstream groups over the scarce resource of a quality education." Check reviews the painful legacy of California's Proposition 227, which severely limits the conditions for supporting English language learners, and considers the impact of mandated testing on teaching and learning.

The last chapter considers Boston school reform through the lens of race and culture. Again, Check begins with a review of litigation, providing a quick tour through the court cases that failed to desegregate the schools and provide a quality education to all students. He considers the bitter period in the 1970s when Boston tried to integrate its schools through court-ordered busing, and he recounts the subsequent flight from the public schools of many families, both black and white. Check then explores how Boston's school policies have failed to take into account cultural analyses of urban reform. He cites three types of influence: ethnic and race-based influence, the influence of school culture, and the effects of a system-level culture of reform. He notes:

These three minicultures are like powerful trains centered on the same station, the school. If the trains acknowledge each other and operate in harmony, the station becomes a busy, productive place, a center of life in its community. But if each operates as if the other two do not exist, sooner or later the inevitable occurs: a train wreck. (180)

In exploring these minicultures, Check presents the consequences for nonmainstream students of a mainstream approach to teaching and testing, arguing that a seemingly "race- and culture-blind policy" (190)—such as using a standardized assessment as the sole criterion for graduation, or mandating particular curriculum and pedagogy across all schools and student populations—ultimately damages the success of minority students. This view is in line with the work of Ronald Ferguson (2002) and others whose research indicates that culturally responsive approaches to education have a positive impact on student achievement. The problem is, as Check reminds us, that reformers are not, for the most part, "in the same conversation as researchers and practitioners in, say, multicultural education, antiracism education, second-language learning, and cultural studies" (5).

Check presents these chapters to alarm us and urge us toward action. Across all three chapters we see the negative impact on teaching and school development of standardized testing, and the inability of systemic reform's radar to pick up the rich, complex, but localized changes enabled by school professionals on behalf of their students. The voices of teachers and principals (and, in Boston, a progressive foundation president) that animate these chapters are critical, but hopeful, and demonstrate resourcefulness of school staff in the face of problems. That resourcefulness ties to one of Check's central assertions—that the implementation dilemmas of school reform are more productively viewed not as roadblocks to change, but as "sources of knowledge that can help us achieve it more quickly."

The duality of experience comes across as a major theme of Politics, Language, and Culture. Check "double-sees" school reform—the past and the present exist simultaneously and interact in the school. He invokes Faulkner's quip: The past isn't history, it isn't even past. But while the past isn't even past, school reform proceeds with breathless speed into the future. Much has happened in Boston, Chicago, and Oakland/San Francisco in the two years since Check's book was published. All three cities have experienced fiscal crises, new initiatives, and infusions of foundation dollars, mostly notably from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop new, small high schools and/or restructure large, failing schools. Most recently, in June 2004, Chicago's mayor announced a new large-scale reform initiative, to close twenty high schools and forty to fifty elementary schools and reopen them as one hundred or more small schools over the next six years (Gewertz 2004).

As I write this review here on the homefront of the city I love the most, the directors and teacher-consultants of the New York City Writing Project, along with children, their families, and school personnel, find themselves caught in a maelstrom created by the latest and perhaps most far-reaching round of school reform efforts in our city. The lessons in Joe Check's book, then, are personal for us: the battles of the teachers union with the mayor and the central administration affect us and the students we care so deeply about. About one-third of the teaching force in New York City has been teaching three years or fewer. The curricular changes, centrally imposed but attempting to respect sensible notions of literacy practice, raise contradictions that are difficult to resolve regarding the need for teachers to have time to develop sound practice while children's educational futures are at stake right now. The valuable work of the writing project, playing an inside/outside bridge professional role, is embedded so deeply within the system that it can easily be overlooked in the rush to bring in more transparent and identifiable outside "experts" to turn the department's message into accountable practice.

Further, the history of litigation painfully detailed for Chicago, the Bay Area, and Boston continues to play out in New York. The Campaign for Fiscal Equity, which waged a ten-year battle against New York State for failing to provide the funds that would enable New York City children to have a sound basic education, finally won its suit, though the state has thus far been unable to create a formula that would actually disburse additional resources to the city. And the small schools movement in New York, as in the other cities, coexists with accountability-focused reforms. New York City Writing Project teacher-consultants have themselves started new small schools or are assisting new school communities as they grow and develop. Check's paradoxes live for teachers and principals in our new schools: we need to reflect deeply on our practice, but must get results now; performance-based assessment will help us understand our students' needs and progress, but we must ensure that students pass standardized tests; school design must involve themes and attention to diverse student populations, but we must follow the central curriculum mandates.

I am sure that ours is not the only place where the school-reform issues explored in Check's book resonate so deeply. As of spring 2003, writing project sites in thirteen states were working in school-reform partnerships through the Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration (The Voice, 2003). The National Writing Project at Work series offers portraits of sites where teachers have documented their "ideas behind their designs for reform, their grassroots theories about what it takes to transform school culture, teaching, and learning, and what support they need to do this work" (Alberts and Simons 2003).

Check's vision is ultimately an optimistic one, based as it is on a democratic vision of conversation and scholarship. For schools to get better, he argues, policymakers must sit at the table with practitioners—the leaders, teachers, bridge professionals, and others who are intimately connected with the day-to-day life of schools and the situated nature of learning within local communities and within the political and social histories of the surrounding cities. Trenton Public Schools Superintendent James Lytle (2002) echoes Check's concerns and vision, noting that he has approached whole-school reform as a collaborative inquiry between his schools and the national reform programs they have chosen, and observing that "several developers we work with seem slow to learn from the experience of implementation, don't give enough credence to practitioner knowledge, and don't give sufficient consideration to local context." He argues, "We all need to approach this work with a firm belief in the co-construction of knowledge."

Richard Elmore (2002) notes that "the pathology of American schools is that they know how to change. They know how to change promiscuously and at the drop of a hat." In Politics, Language, and Culture: A Critical Look at School Reform, Joseph Check underscores the historical persistence of racism and reform. There is hope in realism—which we may always need to keep fighting, and can. For Check, a reform stance dares us to understand the history of our schools, consider the richness and diversity of our students' strengths and challenges, seek out multiple perspectives, claim a space for our voices and our knowledge at the policy table, and work hard and collaboratively at getting it right.


Alberts, J., and E. Radin Simons. 2003. "Documenting the Real Work of School Reform with the NWP at Work Series." The Quarterly of the National Writing Project 25 (2).

Elmore, R. F. 2002. "The Limits of Change." Harvard Education Letter, January/February.

Ferguson, R. 2002. What Doesn't Meet the Eye: Understanding and Addressing Racial Disparities in High-Achieving Suburban Schools. Oak Brook, IL: North Central Regional Educational Lab.

Gewertz, C. 2004. "Chicago to `Start Over' with 100 Small Schools." Education Week 23 (42): 1, 21.

Lytle, J. H. 2002. "Whole-School Reform from the Inside." Phi Delta Kappan 84 (2): 164-167.

NWP Staff. 2003. "NWP Model Accepted for Latest School Reform Catalog," The Voice, A Newsletter of the National Writing Project 8 (1).

Winerip, M. 2003. "Going for Depth Instead of Prep," New York Times, June 11.

About the Author Marcie Wolfe is a director of the New York City Writing Project and the director of the Institute of Literacy Studies, Lehman College, CUNY.

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