In The Gender Politics of Educational Change, Amanda Datnow illustrates the effect that gender politics can have on local debates over school reform. The author, a member of the Beyond Sorting and Stratification research team led by Jeannie Oakes and Amy Stuart Wells at the University of California at Los Angeles, uses data collected as part of that study (conducted in the early 1990s) to relate the stories of three schools whose reform trajectories were affected by gender politics. Each of these schools was in the midst of implementing a series of reforms that included detracking and other progressive practices.
The bulk of the book focuses on the reform process at Central High School (a pseudonym) where the “Idea Team,” a female-dominated steering committee for reform, clashed with the school’s self-proclaimed “Good Old Boys.” These two groups quickly became political factions as restructuring began to be implemented at Central. Using an impressive and well-researched theoretical framework, Datnow explores the groups’ identities and ideologies about schooling, demonstrating the competing nature of the groups’ beliefs about education and children. The Idea Team perceived themselves as people in a position to “change the world,” in the words of one team member, and accordingly invested substantial amounts of time not only in their teaching but also in rethinking the structure and culture of the school. Furthermore, members of the Idea Team saw all students as having the capacity to learn and student failure as the result of poor teaching. The Good Old Boys, on the other hand, saw teaching as an “eight [o’clock] to three [o’clock] job whose sole occupational purpose was to teach subject matter to students” (p. 50). As such, this group of teachers was reluctant to partake in any reform that forced them to rethink the role of teacher as imparter of knowledge. Because the Good Old Boys saw ability as innate and fixed, they were also averse to any restructuring proposal that included detracking.
In the early 1990s, the Idea Team developed a proposal for school restructuring and received grant money from the state to begin its implementation. The proposal included dividing the school into smaller units, detracking, changing the school calendar, and studying and implementing more effective forms of curriculum, assessment, technology, and professional development. The Good Old Boys opposed both the process of the proposal’s development and its content. The means they used to defeat the restructuring initiative form the heart of the book. Instead of arguing the reforms on ideological grounds, which would have made sense given their differences with the Idea Team, the Good Old Boys launched a political attack on their opponents. By political, Datnow means that the strategies used by the Good Old Boys were meant to gain power by means of personal attacks and other egregious methods. The Good Old Boys purposefully avoided discussion of the relevant issues. The main strategy of the Good Old Boys’ attack was to employ a sexist discourse that served to disempower the Idea Team. Within that strategy, the Good Old Boys had three substrategies. One, they portrayed the women teachers on the Idea Team as less committed to teaching than the Good Old Boys, saying these “dreamers,” as they termed them, were in it for themselves, less financially reliant on their work than male teachers, and eager to take time off to raise families. Two, they degraded the reforms, calling them “women’s work” because of the increased responsibilities teachers would have for the well-being of students. Finally, they made sexist jokes intended to mock the Idea Team’s efforts in the community and with the school board. These jokes occasionally crossed the line to sexual harassment. When the book went to press, some members of the Idea Team were pursuing their claims of harassment in court.
The Good Old Boys’ tactics were eventually successful, as they were able to gain the support of the superintendent and school board, both of which reflected the patriarchy that had historically defined the district. The superintendent effectively blocked the Idea Team’s plans in two ways: he gave the Good Old Boys more airtime with him and the board and he enacted structural barriers (like canceling crucial collaborative planning time) that disabled the reforms. At the end of the second year of reform, the principal of Central resigned and a new, less reform-oriented principal was hired. The state then suspended the grant funding that had supported the reform effort. Though some vestiges of the reforms persisted within departments, the overall initiative eventually petered out.
One interesting twist to the story that Datnow identifies is that the Idea Team responded to the sexist discourse of the Good Old Boys with gendered language of their own, arguing that “women were uniquely poised to handle reform” (p. 98). Specifically, they argued that men were less well-suited for the sorts of reforms they were proposing because they were less adept at playing the role of caretaker than women and mothers, less apt to participate in a support network, and less creative in the classroom. Some of these arguments fed the Good Old Boys’ arguments, allowing the Idea Team to be framed as good caretakers and mothers, but less competent teachers and professionals.
Lest the reader believe that the situation at Central High was anomalous, Datnow presents similar data from two other schools involved with the Beyond Sorting and Stratification Study: Explorer Middle School and Grant High School (also pseudonyms). In each of these schools, comparable phenomena occurred. Support for reform was divided largely along gender lines, and the strategies used to defeat reform included a sexist discourse similar to that employed by the Good Old Boys. The outcome at Explorer was a sharply divided school, with the two factions forming their own schools within the school, one dominated by male teachers and one by females. At Grant, the reform effort was defeated in a manner similar to what occurred at Central.
Datnow concludes the book with some important lessons for those involved in local school reform. First, “policy makers cannot assume that there is consensus among teachers over the goals for schooling, much less the goals for reform” (p. 134). Second, existing power relationships among teachers must be addressed if successful reform is to result. Third, reformers need to be careful that they do not create what Andy Hargreaves and colleagues have called an “innovative elite,” an isolated group of teachers responsible for creating and implementing the reforms. Instead, there needs to be widespread support and responsibility for change. Fourth, reformers should strive for a “healthy balance between idealism and pragmatism” (p. 135). And, finally, policymakers need to weigh carefully the question of what sort of reform strategy — incremental or radical — best suits the particular setting.
The Gender Politics of Educational Change will appeal to both researchers and practitioners. The book’s theoretical framework offers researchers a new lens through which to look at school reform initiatives. Practitioners will benefit from the careful documentation of a school’s culture and will likely see aspects of their own institutions in this portrait. Furthermore, the lessons for reformers are solid and born out of the research.