Strings attached : performance and privatization in an urban public school

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Brown, Amy Elizabeth, 1979-

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This dissertation breaks new ground in qualitative educational research by looking closely at the community and curricula of a well-resourced seven-year-old public high school in a New York City borough, which I call the Legal Studies Academy (LSA). This school created its own nonprofit organization in order to accrue private donations. Its most important “funder and founder” is an elite Manhattan law firm. The relationship between the firm and the school is emblematic of the direction that many urban public schools in the United States are moving: toward increased dependence on private funds to secure the resources deemed necessary for quality twenty-first century education (Anyon 1997; Lipman 2004; 2005). My project explores how the privatization of public institutions affects definitions of social justice and good education in the United States. I document the ways that students and teachers in the LSA community both reproduce and contest school norms. My methods in this two-year study included: teacher-research, participant observation of teachers and students, extensive interviews with teachers, students and parents, conduct of a summer book club / cultural circle, and analysis of data from a schoolwide student questionnaire. I also examine materials the school uses to solicit donations from its funders in relation to cultural constructions of urban students and their teachers in literature and the media. I explore what students’ and teachers’ daily practices of resistance or conformity to these cultural constructions might reveal about the place of democracy, humanization, character education, and critical pedagogy in U.S. public schools that depend on private or corporate philanthropists for resources. This ethnography nuances the often polarized debate around issues of achievement in education in the context of the demands of a global economy by documenting how the daily practices of students, families and teachers reflect on a social structure of education and achievement that, in the United States, ever more unequivocally aligns one’s identity and success with marketability. On a larger scale, it inspires critical questions about the place of democracy and citizenship as juxtaposed with inequities furthered by global racial capitalism.




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