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A SPECIAL SECTION ON The Achievement Gap

Education Reform as if
Student Agency Mattered:
Academic Microcultures
And Student Identity
Placing the self and student agency at the center of the educational
process might make educators steeped in subject-matter standards
uncomfortable, Mr. Jackson avers, but at some level most laypersons
understand the importance of a school culture that encourages students
to identify with academic work.


Our thought, incessantly deciding, . . .

chooses one of many possible selves or char-
acters and forthwith reckons it no shame to
fail in any of those not adopted expressly as
its own.
—William James, Psychology, 1892

he words of William James echo

through the halls and classrooms
of the urban high school where I
teach, resonating in the studied
nonchalance of students like Dev-
on,1 arriving at algebra class with- Students are central to the educational process. It
seems strange to write the obvious as if it were a revela-
out paper, pencil, or textbook but tion, but it’s something education reformers keep for-
with a meticulous attention to dress getting. We (and I count myself among the reformers)
and demeanor that announces: “I am coolest of the
cool.” Devon is telling us something we should try D. BRUCE JACKSON teaches mathematics at Tennyson High
School, Hayward, Calif., where he also participates in the Ten-
to hear. nyson Community Multi-Media Academy.

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forget with the best of intentions. When students fail work, but student self-definitions dictate whether and
in our schools, we are leery of explanations that seem how carefully it will be completed. Again the echoes
to blame the victims. No, it must be failing or “under- of William James: a student who chooses a self-defi-
achieving” schools, schools in need of higher standards nition that excludes serious academic effort will “reck-
and better teachers, perhaps even schools in need of on it no shame to fail” at algebra and will turn a deaf
reconstitution. Or it must be poverty, broken families, ear to my pressures, pleas, and reasoned arguments.
lack of social services, and the cumulative effects of prej-
udice, discrimination, and social inequality. Since all of
these explanations carry grains of truth, we are easily
led away from the students themselves, as if they were We know, without lengthy research citations, that
but passive players, pawns in games organized and con- high academic achievement depends to a substantial
trolled by adults. In short, student agency is buried be- degree on the time and mental energy students put in-
neath layers of well-meaning obfuscation. to academic pursuits, including such activities as com-
In my algebra classes, I know that my own words pleting homework, reading independently, and ask-
and behavior, classroom organization, and lesson plans ing serious questions. We know that as students move
make a real difference in determining my students’ up through school and become more independent of
success or failure. But education is dialogical — and their families, the time and energy they devote to ac-
many factors beyond my direct control have a power- ademics are increasingly functions of their willingness
ful impact on our classroom dialogue: student willing- to take on and sustain what might be called an “aca-
ness to struggle with difficult concepts and vocabulary, demic identity” — an understanding of self in which
to put in long hours on homework, to study for mas- “intellectual” activities both within and outside of school
tery of building-block math skills, to show up for tutor- play a valued role. Such an identity is difficult enough
ing sessions. If all of my students were willing to become to sustain in society as a whole; in low-income areas
serious math students for the duration of the course where few students have experienced strong academic
— both full-time inside of class and part-time outside traditions, it tends to be possible only for a high-achiev-
— virtually all of them would pass. But the chances of ing few who find support in gifted or honors classes.
this happening within the current social contexts of Devon was once in a GATE (gifted and talented ed-
their lives are near zero, and I’ll be lucky if 60% of my ucation) class, but he no longer identifies with that crowd.
students pass algebra this term.
I have high hopes for Devon. He is bright and capa-
ble, and he’ll have a head start: this is his second try at
passing algebra. But I worry about his mental attitude. Fostering and sustaining academic identities for
The reality is that success in a college-preparatory low-status students is not a simple task. In tradition-
math class depends so heavily on what students decide al schools, students not already strongly committed to
to do or not to do — on planning and effort outside an academic identity face powerful pressures, both in-
of the classroom — that even my best teaching is close ternal and external, to define themselves in ways that
to useless if too many students decide not to invest in minimize identification with schooling. Internalized
becoming serious about mathematics. To be sure, I can voices argue incessantly against alignment with teach-
influence these decisions, and doing so is in many ways ers and their academic tasks, making schoolwork seem
my most important role as a teacher. But ultimately my incompatible with popularity, the good life, or loyal-
students are in charge of how they spend their time, ty to some key reference group: culture, ethnic group,
how they wish to be seen, who they wish to be. They gender, family, or peers. By high school, barely 5% of
are active agents, critical decision makers. When it comes all students belong to groups primarily defined by ac-
to visible effort in public — in front of peers and rivals ademic excellence, and many of those students would
for peer-group status — student decision making be- opt to join other groups if they had the chance.2
comes a high-stakes matter of self-definition in which For students who start school feeling unsuccessful
academic behaviors may directly conflict with social or “slow” in crucial academic skills such as math and
identity needs. I can design engaging lessons, but un- reading, the process of disidentification and alienation
less students are willing to be seen seriously engaged from academic work soon becomes self-perpetuating.
in mathematics, my efforts are futile. I can assign home- Initial disappointments lead to resentment and redi-


rection of effort away from academics into more re- sis of schooling in terms of identity congruence or con-
warding areas. “Acting out” behaviors contribute to a flict. We would discover, I believe, that there are only a
downward spiral of low achievement and conflict with few critical areas of conflict, all of which can be addressed
school authority: each new difficulty weakens ties to by thoughtful adults willing to collaborate in chang-
school and strengthens identification with other stu- ing the social architecture of their schools.
dents who are building a sense of self divorced from
schooling or directly counter to it.
Anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists who
have studied this process in depth often conclude that For most students school is not altogether a bad place
most school failure is socially constructed.3 Some fur- — it’s where their friends are, it’s the scene where stuff
ther argue that school success could in principle be so- happens, it’s the place to be for school-age children
cially constructed as well, if only we could influence and youths. Attending school, doing the minimum
enough of the relevant social factors. But most research- needed to pass, participating in required or popular
ers see that challenge as being far outside their academ- activities, and even obeying strictly enforced rules are
ic fields if not altogether mind-boggling in scope.4 How not normally identity issues — they’re what you do.
could one possibly design an experiment that would con- The problems arise when school expectations involve
trol all of the social influences impinging on a student’s public choices and visible student efforts that set some stu-
learning-related behaviors when school classrooms them- dents off from others. During the course of a student’s
selves exert control (and very loose control it is!) over career, a critical set of behaviors that are necessary for
only about one-sixth of their students’ waking hours? school success become identity watersheds: complet-
So in the academic world, the notion of socially con- ing homework, reading independently, studying seri-
structing school success tends to remain hypothetical. ously for tests, striving for good grades, mastering and
There is much research on the social mechanisms of using proper English, paying attention to the teacher,
school failure and very little on the mechanisms of suc- asking questions and getting help, signing up for spe-
cess, even though that is manifestly what schools are cific academic courses, and choosing to obey loosely
all about. enforced rules. It is not a long list, but each element is
Meanwhile, out “in the trenches,” school reform tends increasingly essential to academic success as students
to be driven haphazardly by politics, intellectual fash- progress through the grades, and each is heavily laden
ion, and piecemeal research, focusing first on one part with meanings supplied by the social context of schools
of the picture, then another. Conscious planning rarely and their youth subcultures.
addresses the overall social fabric of schools, let alone Three of these watershed activities — homework,
the powerful outside social forces acting on students. independent reading, and serious study for tests —
It needn’t remain this way. If we were to treat stu- must generally be performed outside of school, far
dent agency as the single most important ingredient from the watchful eyes of teachers. They are no longer
in the educational brew, we would have to acknowl- part of the price of admission; they are now statements
edge the power of the social forces each student must of self. Doing them in front of friends, or when friends
contend with. We would also begin to recognize the would have you join them in some other activity, can
potential of having small groups of students work close- become an identity-defining act — a statement of al-
ly with supportive teachers to take substantial charge legiance to a distant school authority or an elitist at-
of their learning and play active roles in constructing tempt to appear better than others. Similar meanings
their own success. We would take a fresh look at the attach to the other six watershed behaviors, each of
processes leading to school underachievement and dis- which must be carried out publicly in school, in front
cover that they are thoroughly interlaced with student of peers who may be choosing different courses of ac-
identity issues: failure to identify with school, insecurity tion. One cannot: a) use correct English in front of
at not belonging or not measuring up, feelings of mis- others who are using slang or vernacular, b) attend to
match or incompatibility with school, difficulty seeing the teacher in front of others who are off-task, c) com-
schoolwork as an important part of who they want to pete for high grades when others are refusing to com-
be. We would meet William James many times over. With pete, d) ask questions and seek help when others are
a new appreciation of the centrality of the self in edu- rolling their eyes, e) sign up for academically difficult
cation, we would bring this understanding to an analy- classes when friends are choosing easier courses, or f )

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obey loosely enforced rules while others are ignoring liers” — blips on the smooth curves of educational pre-
them — without making a high-visibility statement dictability, assumed to represent combinations of cir-
of identity and risking being labeled as “not one of us” cumstances so unique and so dependent on the dis-
(or some more graphic phrase from the rich vocabu- tinctive qualities of the lead personality that they can
laries of adolescents). contribute little to the broader conversations around
These identity watersheds are active in virtually all education reform. A careful look at such unexpected
schools by early adolescence. In large urban schools, academic microcultures, however, suggests that they are
they are given added strength by powerful forces of not statistical aberrations but rather part of a consistent
ethnic, class, culture, and language divisions, such that pattern that cries out for greater recognition by edu-
choices essential to school success may be seen as be- cation policy makers.
trayal of group solidarity, The patterns found in
denial of ethnic heritage, “unexpected success” sto-
or rejection of family and
friends (“acting white, for-
getting your roots, sucking
up to the boss, selling out”
are typical interpretations
of academic striving). In 5

many urban schools, actions

in the identity-conflict zone
that are academically criti-
W hat matters most is
that students come
to believe deeply in
their own capacity to master
ries are easy to misconstrue
and mislabel. The adults in-
volved in educational oases
are themselves products of
an education system in which
the prevailing metaphors for
school reform channel think-
ing toward specific pedagog-
difficult academic materials through ical approaches. When look-
cal become socially impos- ing for answers to why cer-
sible for the large numbers
sustained, thoughtful effort. tain schools or programs suc-
of students who lack a strong ceed, many of us would ex-
academic identity. These students, predictably from groups pect to find that they are all constructivist, others would
already underrepresented in college-preparatory pro- assume that they all use clearly stated academic stan-
grams, almost inevitably engage in enough academi- dards, still others would look for evidence that they
cally self-destructive behaviors to ensure the “social re- all emphasize “culturally sensitive pedagogy.” And we
production” of existing ethnic, class, and gender dis- might each find just enough evidence to support our
parities in achievement. beliefs in what we should be finding. But in doing so,
Devon, a fluent reader, has learned to keep his excel- we would be distorting the data, for in fact, none of
lent mind under wraps except in such socially approved these generalizations holds true.
realms as the extemporaneous exchange of creative insults For some years I have been studying unexpected ed-
with other students. ucational success stories ranging from those of such
highly visible figures as Jaime Escalante and Deborah
Meier to those of countless unsung groups of commit-
ted educators working in small schools, career acade-
But even in the wastelands of urban education, there mies, and schools-within-schools. I have also followed
are occasional oases of excellence, places where success the work of those few replicable programs such as
has in fact been “socially constructed” and locally pro- AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination)
duced microcultures of academic achievement allow stu- and Puente that have managed to raise the academic
dents to flourish in defiance of the surrounding pover- achievement of historically low-achieving groups of
ty. These educational oases are usually small — a sin- students within social spaces carved from traditional
gle classroom, program, or school. Almost always there school structures. Inevitably this quest has been a process
is a strong individual at the center, a dedicated teacher of interpretive analysis — almost by definition, these
or administrator whose convictions and vision for what “outlier” programs involve far too many confounding
is possible are major factors in making it possible. And variables to yield quantitative data on their most impor-
it is this personal element which tends to guarantee that tant features. Yet all are successful by almost any meas-
these oases are rarely counted as significant in the big ure, including that of standardized test scores. And their
picture of school improvement. They are statistical “out- evidence is compelling. One can find academic oases


that violate each of the cherished “truths” of different ing for tests, and reading independently outside of class.
reform groups: they are not uniformly constructivist, In short, these oasis programs have managed to bring
not consistently standards-based, not all models of cul- about identity congruence — at least with regard to stu-
turally sensitive pedagogy. dents’ academic identity.
At our high school, we’ve recently begun trying to cre-
ate just such an oasis program in the form of a career
academy, recruiting many students like Devon who have
But if pedagogical technique does not predict aca- the potential for college-preparatory work but haven’t con-
demic oases, what does? Interestingly, the patterns one nected to a college-bound crowd.
finds are rooted in something more fundamental to
education than pedagogy: the attitudes and beliefs of
students about their own learning. What all the oasis
programs have accomplished is a focus on student agency Identity-sensitive education seems to emerge in three
through what I would call identity-sensitive education. basic patterns: 1) the charismatic teacher model, ex-
They have not tried to influence all of the social fac- emplified by such teachers as Jaime Escalante, Marva
tors impinging on each student, nor have they imag- Collins, and other “star” teachers of more localized
ined they could end poverty, prejudice, and intolerance fame; 2) the “together we’ll make it” programs exem-
in the society at large. They have not tried to change plified by AVID, Puente, and the Mathematics Work-
their members’ or anyone else’s culture — they have shop Program created at the University of California
simply created small but powerful microcultures in which at Berkeley by Uri Treisman (now the Merit Workshop
students from every background are able to develop Program); and 3) the small-school, intellectual hothouse
an academic identity that is compatible with their oth- model exemplified by Central Park East Secondary School,
er components of self. That academic identity, in turn, some career academies, and many individual small schools
has empowered individual students to change how they with a strong culture of achievement. The charismatic
respond to the still-powerful outside social pressures, teacher model builds on the influence of a compelling
to develop reactions of “resilience” or immunity. They personality to create a school or classroom that over time
can make success-related behavioral choices that would becomes central to the identity of its students, justify-
otherwise have been impossible. Within these micro- ing almost any amount of outside work. The “together
cultures, students are able to pursue educational growth we’ll make it” model carves out space from existing schools
with a commitment rarely seen outside the honors track for carefully structured programs with a separate group
of traditional schools. identity, a reputation for excellence, and peer social sup-
Identity-sensitive education, it turns out, is compat- port for academics. The “intellectual hothouse” model
ible with a wide range of pedagogical styles and strate- creates small schools (sometimes within larger schools)
gies. What matters most is that students come to be- with a distinctive scholarly image and a sheltered en-
lieve deeply in their own capacity to master difficult vironment in which intense teacher/student relation-
academic material through sustained, thoughtful ef- ships can be built around a shared academic focus.
fort. Correspondingly, the social architecture of the All three models create self-contained environments
classroom, program, or school must strongly foster and of unusual student engagement and high academic
support such beliefs. There is nothing inevitable, after achievement. They are staffed by committed teachers
all, about the meanings attached to the essential “water- with an infectious enthusiasm for their subject matter
shed” academic behaviors. Even in large, impersonal who communicate a caring concern for their students
schools, their meanings vary with the popularity of teach- as individuals, combined with a conviction that they
ers, the social pressures within local ethnic and social can accomplish more than the students themselves be-
groupings, the overall image and reputation of the school, lieve possible. All manage to build a reputation, an aura
and the accidental microcultures that may develop. When that makes their classroom, school, or program “the place
intentional microcultures are created by “oasis” schools to be” in the social map of student peer cultures. In such
and programs, however, many of these behaviors cease microcultures, hitting-the-books time taken from other
to be identity watersheds at all because they no longer activities is no longer a source of identity conflict for
set some students off from others. Within these oases, vir- students, but part of a strong new academic identity.
tually every student is completing homework, study- But cultures don’t come into being overnight through

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the willpower of a few teachers. It takes time, and our behavioral expectations of school, workplace, and peer
new academy has been in operation for only six months. groupings.6
For some students, like Devon, habitual defense-of-self
strategies make it doubly hard to buy into the still tenu-
ous patterns of scholarly behavior we’re trying to estab-
lish as the academy norm. Robert Marzano’s “four elements of thought” pro-
vide a conceptual framework that clarifies the role of
the self and identity in student learning-related deci-
sions.7 Marzano groups the full range of learning process-
Certain features tend to be characteristic of all three es into four domains: 1) knowledge, 2) cognition, 3)
models of identity-sensitive schooling, particularly at metacognition, and 4) the self-system. The self-system,
the upper elementary and secondary levels: the “control center for human behavior,” is ultimately
1. Intentional creation of academic microcultures, in responsible for whether or not a student engages seri-
which intense pursuit of high-status skills and knowl- ously in a learning activity and makes use of available
edge is the norm, pervading student activities and so- knowledge resources, cognitive skills, and metacogni-
cial relationships and becoming internalized by each tive strategies. All well-designed educational programs
student. introduce students to essential knowledge, skills, and
2. Identity scaffolding in the form of mentoring and learning strategies (the first three domains), but unless
teacher/student dialogues that help each student de- they enlist the active support of the students’ self-sys-
velop “success narratives” — one or more “possible tems, these components may never be seriously em-
selves” in which academic achievement plays a strong ployed. When a student at the self-system level evalu-
role in an attractive future. ates a given academic task as low in personal relevance
3. Long-term teacher/student relationships character- or probability of success, the result is that effort and
ized by mutual investment on the part of teachers, stu- commitment are withdrawn and invested elsewhere,
dents, and parents and yielding mutual understand- in a wide variety of compensatory activities.
ing, family support, and student effort. In reality, most of our attention in education is fo-
4. Symbolic visibility through distinctive group titles, cused on the first two of Marzano’s four domains:
logos, and identity markers, as well as shared experiences knowledge and cognitive skills. The current standards
that allow each student to take pride in being part of movement is built on the assumption that becoming
a select group and develop a strong sense of belong- clear about “what students should know and be able
ing, membership, and identification. to do” is the key to ending problems of low achieve-
5. Creation of cultural and social capital through ex- ment. Rarely can mainstream education reform widen
plicit attention to and fulfillment of the conventions the focus enough to include much emphasis on meta-
and bureaucratic requirements of K-16 schooling, in- cognitive strategies, let alone the self-system. As Mar-
cluding teacher expectations, course selections, regis- zano points out, instructional programs that address
tering for college-entrance exams, and applying for col- the self-system are rare and tend to be controversial,
lege. dealing inevitably with areas of belief, value, and pur-
6. Expanded student resources for academic success, such pose.8 But they are also neglected because of a predilec-
as note-taking instruction, study groups, and other strate- tion for technological solutions that has afflicted Amer-
gic approaches to learning that build on student strengths ican society for decades. Combined with the growing
and guard against self-destructive reactions to setbacks. specialization of academic fields, this has helped cre-
7. Analysis of political, economic, and social realities ate an educational culture marked by endless tinker-
that includes frank discussions of prejudice, discrimi- ing with the technologies of teaching and learning,
nation, racism, and stereotyping based on family in- while the self is pushed to the margin. Identity-sensi-
come, class, gender, ethnicity, and other group char- tive education has been a theoretical orphan, assembled
acteristics. by individuals or small groups of visionaries using sound
8. Creation of identity congruence with academic be- instincts and a great deal of trial and error.
havior by building students’ pride in ethnic and fam- But we now have enough examples of the educa-
ily heritage while opening doors to “code-switching” tional oasis phenomenon to know a lot about how and
and other strategies for dealing with sharply different why it works. It works by turning Marzano’s four-part


hierarchy of learning upside-down — or, more accu- torical and psychological reasons, tend to have more
rately, right side up. The first priority of identity-sen- difficulty identifying with the academic work that is
sitive education is the self — ensuring that the student essential to their future, we can consciously create aca-
self-system commits its energies wholeheartedly to the demic microcultures in which such students thrive.
educational project through an academic identity and And we don’t need to wait for the last vestiges of racism,
that it is immersed in a social and psychological environ- sexism, classism, or anti-intellectualism to disappear from
ment that bolsters that commitment. Strength at the our troubled society. We can begin to do it now.
level of self allows serious attention to metacognitive Since I started this article, yet another talented mi-
learning strategies: planning, goal-setting, self-monitor- nority student has failed algebra — for the second time.
ing, social processing, and help-seeking. Strength at this In isolation, Devon could have mastered all the materi-
strategic level, in turn, allows for the systematic de- al in the class and then some. But in the social context of
velopment of the knowledge and cognitive skills need- our high school, he was rarely able to focus more than
ed for academic success. Effective teaching is still crit- briefly on the substance of algebra, even with the added
ical at these last two levels, for successful learning pro- help of our new academy. His preexisting social identity
vides vital feedback and reinforcement for higher-level was constantly fighting, and mostly winning, the self-sys-
strategies and solidifies self-system commitments to tem battles for control. Devon’s academic self has not ex-
the educational project. But the student is no longer perienced the shame of failure, because it has never been
completely dependent on that teaching; he or she can “expressly chosen.” It remains a possible self, inviting us
increasingly adjust learning strategies to a wide range to keep trying.
of teaching styles.
Placing the self and student agency at the center of 1. Devon is not a real student but a composite portrait reflecting sever-
the educational process may seem uncomfortable to al I have worked with.
2. Laurence Steinberg, Beyond the Classroom (New York: Simon & Schuster,
many educators steeped in subject-matter standards 1996).
and the technologies of “curriculum delivery,” but at 3. For example, see Ray P. McDermott, “Achieving School Failure: An
some level most laypersons understand this hierarchy Anthropological Approach to Illiteracy and Social Stratification,” in
and “vote with their feet” for educational experiences George Spindler, ed., Education and Cultural Process (Prospect Heights,
Ill.: Waveland Press, 1987), pp. 172-209.
that offer sensitivity to self and identity. More and more
4. An exception is the admirable study of the AVID program by Hugh
parents are choosing private schools, charter schools, Mehan et al., Constructing School Success (New York: Cambridge Uni-
or small public schools that promise attention to indi- versity Press, 1996).
vidual personalities and a school culture that encour- 5. See Signithia Fordham, Blacked Out: Dilemmas of Race, Identity, and
ages identification with academic work. Large, imper- Success at Capital High (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).
6. See Mehan et al., op. cit.; and Deborah Meier, The Power of Their
sonal, bureaucratically organized schools face growing Ideas (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995).
pressure to create smaller “learning communities” in 7. Robert Marzano, A Theory-Based Meta-Analysis of Research on In-
the form of academies, families, or schools-within-schools. struction (Aurora, Colo.: Mid-Continent Regional Educational Labo-
The burgeoning small-schools movement may not have ratory, 1998).
an official theory as to why small schools tend to work 8. Ibid., p. 130. K

better than large ones, but its momentum is growing none-

Even more important, the nagging achievement gaps
between different ethnic and socioeconomic groups are
creating issues that simply won’t go away. Schools in
which black, Latino, and Native American students
consistently show worse academic outcomes than white
and Asian students will inevitably be perceived as places
of institutional racism, even if the educators who work
in them believe they are doing everything possible to
level the playing field. The only way out of this dilem-
ma is to cease trying to be “identity-blind” and start build-
ing identity-sensitive education. If we recognize that
students from specific minorities will, for complex his-

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