As anyone who lives in one knows, democracy is not easy but wobbly, uncertain, and often trying. Inviting meaningful participation by all stakeholders in school communities complicates the problem of defining what to study and how to study it. Results created in communities of open inquiry not only evoke resistance but also invite it. For instance, in our experience, publicly asking questions about cherished practices (e.g., seniors being able to get 1st-year students to run errands for them) or about hitherto unexamined assumptions (e.g., the importance of boys being able to voice quick, witty putdowns of other boys) has led to small groups of teachers strongly protesting their school team’s work. And, study within institutions devoted to educating children under various kinds of time-constrained pressures create challenges for both doing the research well and sustaining action initiatives.
Ordinarily, university-based educational scholars have a line of research they determine and then search for schools that will allow them to do it. They conduct their studies, develop their inferences, and write about their results unfettered (and often uninformed) by the thoughts, feelings, or concerns of those they have studied (Carlone & Webb, 2006; Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1990). PAR completely changes that paradigm. Although the Center’s mission is gender focused and is committed to improving the possibilities for boys and girls within the intersectionalities of race, class, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, the actual topics we study are worked out collaboratively. This tends to raise two major kinds of issues. First, often we must overcome tensions over what is important to study. Second, because we are working in highly privileged settings, we sometimes find ourselves struggling against colluding with schools in their efforts to use the work for marketing purposes instead of for challenging accustomed modes of operation, which may disadvantage students who do not represent their “ideal” boy or girl.
Defining what to study
When we started the Center, our expectations for engagement were not specific. If the school was interested in us, and we the school, we took it on. This often led to misunderstandings that resulted in misalignments between our objectives and the school leader’s that made it difficult to apply PAR principles effectively. This in turn resulted in much later, harder negotiations. Now, when a new school wishes to join the Center, the executive director (Reichert) and research director (Kuriloff) spend a considerable period of time working with the school leader to understand our respective goals, to make sure he or she is in agreement with our principles and mission and then to help him or her define research objectives that both suit the leader’s goals and objectives and align with ours.
The school leader’s goals for joining the Center can vary greatly. For example, in one boys school, the leader was new and had a board mandate to get the lower and middle schools more connected to the high school located several miles away. He saw getting school-wide teams together to work on improving boys’ education as a way of uniting the separate divisions. In another school, the leader was under a board mandate to have the all-girls school forge closer ties with a neighboring all-boys school. Clearly, this objective was directly related to gendered work, although in the earlier example, the leader was using gendered work to serve a different agenda. In neither case, however, were the actual research projects specified in advance.
Defining the specific research problems tends to occupy a major part of our entry process and has proven vital to our ongoing relationships with schools. In the case of several of our schools, we have decided with faculty teams to do what we term a “gender audit.” This way of taking the pulse of the school involves both qualitative and quantitative methods. We meet with carefully selected groups of teachers and students and ask their beliefs about and experience of the school. We also survey both groups, using very detailed instruments taking in many domains of behavior, attitudes, and experiences relevant to their lives and the school’s mission. When raw results come in, the research teams sit down to analyze the data with Center staff members. The results of these audits can be challenging for schools and have always been illuminating.
For example, one school interested in boys’ character development discovered normative risk taking and peer hazing from student surveys and focus groups. After grappling with these findings to overcome some internal school resistance, Center staff and the school team were able to mobilize the team to deepen the school’s approach to its character education programming. Audit results led another school for boys to study friendship patterns in their lower school, race relations in their middle school, and boys’ opportunities for leadership in the upper school, questions neither the school leader nor we had anticipated when we started. In a girls school, audit data led the team away from the school leader’s question of how to connect the boys and girls schools more closely to focus on girls’ daily experiences more broadly and how girls’ identities develop in the context of the schools’ coordinate relationship with its brother school more specifically. In this case, there was tension around the nature and scope of the research questions, with the Center researchers calling for a more inclusive set of questions that would allow more inductive and organic findings and the school-based researchers wanting to stay with a more narrow set of questions focused exclusively on coordination. The Center staff believed that the preliminary data pointed to relational issues within the student body that went beyond coordination. Through a series of meetings and e-mail correspondences, the Center and school-based researchers agreed to study larger issues of identity and relationships with a secondary emphasis on the role of coordination in those areas.
The negotiation of the research questions in these two cases were emotionally trying in some ways while also showing the importance of critical dialogue that is collaborative and data based. The process highlights how this sort of exchange helped the researchers develop a more critical understanding of the macro- and microrelational influences and issues in both the boys’ and the girls’ lives. It also highlights how important it is to form a research relationship in which both parties can explore their questions and concerns openly and honestly.
In each of these cases, the process of discovering research questions though tense was relatively seamless and democratically achieved. The challenge for the Center, the broader coalition, and science more generally is that, because of the schools’ particular concerns, the audits in each school did not ask the same questions they asked in other schools as often as they might, thus preventing us from building up a consistent, cross-school database. Recently, we have been more successful in persuading schools to begin systematically gathering archival data about grades; test scores; academic, social, and sports awards; and the like. This only required us to develop a general template that school personnel can fill in while enabling us to examine the intersectional effects of race, class, and gender within schools as well as to make cross-school comparisons.
Sometimes, the questions that arise from a team, either after studying an audit or through the results of community discussions, are uninteresting to us; yet we feel obliged to help study them because of our commitment to democratic process. For example, in one boys school, lower school teachers wanted to map their existing character education program so they could find continuities and discontinuities across the elementary grades and fill in the gaps. This program reflected a very traditional “virtues model” in which the school teaches its five virtues—loyalty, integrity, honesty, courage, and sportsmanship—by putting stripes representing them on boys’ jerseys, finding places in the curriculum to teach them, and otherwise (trying to) foster them when moral situations arise at recess, in sports, or in the lunchroom. The mapping was done and the curriculum enhanced but we were not able to persuade the team to study the curriculum’s impact or to think hard about how conventionally masculine those virtues are (e.g., they do not include kindness, gentleness, compassion, respect, or a host of other competing virtues).
Sometimes, too, a school’s administration is deeply threatened by a proposal emerging from a team. For example, in one of our coed schools, the leader wanted us to study how the girls were doing (there had been much work to improve the lives of boys at the school). After focus groups, the team learned that, while the boys described their social relationships with girls as very cordial and brotherly, the girls almost universally described them as hostile, silencing, and sexually oppressive. When the team and our staff proposed doing a broader audit of the girls’ experiences, school leaders precluded the team’s asking questions about students’ sexual experiences. Although this may have been a perfectly sensible political decision on the school’s part, it stifled the democratically agreed-upon decision about what to study and crimped the team’s scientific freedom. In response, the team is examining cross-gender social relationships and will still be able to discover much of what characterizes them, with the caveat that it will ignore a central way in which the girls have told us gender plays out negatively through sexuality. This issue brings us to the broader challenge we face trying to maintain a symbiotic rather than parasitic relationship with our schools.
The risks of collusion
School leaders have multiple reasons for wanting their schools to be members of CSBGL. They are genuinely curious and want to find answers to questions that they have developed through experience. For example, they may want to know why the attrition rate of 1st-year boys is higher than desired or what happens to students who perform poorly in lower grades or why girls dominate the honor roll. They may want to achieve board-mandated ends such as we have described—unifying two campuses or bringing a girls school and a boys school a into closer connection. They also may want to have their school known as a place that collaborates with a university to develop best practices through research. Parents who send their children to such schools often find this very appealing and some schools widely publicize both their affiliation and study results for marketing purposes.
But leaders are very proud of their schools and are their primary protectors. Data about delicate subjects can be perceived as threatening. We have already given the example of leaders who vetoed the study of girls’ sexuality for fear of negative reactions from the broader school community. Leaders also can be surprisingly open. For example, a study of race relations in one of our schools found a pervasive “culture of niceness” that silenced discussion of serious racial issues. The leader made it clear that his school should be identified because he believed it represented a fair description of the issues (Ottley, 2005, 2007).
Whatever their stance on delicate questions, leaders (and teachers) are usually deeply invested in their schools. They pride themselves on small class size, quality of instruction, capability of students, and college admissions lists. They appreciate that they serve very privileged institutions with a substantial majority of economically privileged students even as they work hard to make them more diverse. But often, schools’ historical purpose of reproducing privilege runs counter to helping students from poor, working-class, or minority backgrounds as well as helping girls feel fully welcomed. Schools originally designed to promote upper-class boys can normalize biased arrangements and make such problems opaque or even invisible. For example, in one school, the original boys’ dorms occupy the center of the campus, whereas the newer girls’ dorms are set more to its periphery. Although this geographic fact is not lost on girls and most faculty, it is viewed as normal and “the way things are” by boys and many powerful alumni.
A richer and more complicated example of the normalized impact of privilege can be seen in our work on bullying in one of our boys schools. Our research revealed that it was very widespread and ranged from teasing and verbal harassment to physical violence. In its milder forms, it was often condoned, sometimes supported, and sometimes even indulged in by teachers and administrators (Stoudt, 2006, 2008, 2009). This kind of teasing was characterized by explicitly racist, misogynistic, homophobic, classist, and anti-Semitic messages. For example, poorer boys were often derided by more affluent boys, who would taunt the poor or working-class students with claims that someday they would work for them. The students and teachers who conducted these studies discovered that some administrators, teachers, and students saw these verbal forms of bullying as ways of preparing boys for power by learning to establish dominance. More broadly, the systemic nature of the bullying reinforced and furthered the school’s reproduction of upper-class, hegemonic masculinity—a founding, though unacknowledged, principle of the school (Stoudt, 2008, 2009).
Studying these kinds of processes can subtly reinforce our schools’ and their students’ privilege by associating them with the central research function of a prestigious university. There are only a few ways this can be mitigated. The best solution is research that leads to basic changes in ways the school and its most privileged boys treat more marginal students. Although we have been able to help schools create some interventions, such as a peer-counseling program, that have demonstrated the ability to ameliorate the harshest aspects of the culture of the school, we have had more trouble addressing structural issues. Schools have resisted efforts to work with teachers on their collusive practices and addressing the broader question of “whose school is it” seems daunting indeed—it would require schools to change in basic and profound ways.
Our work on bullying does illustrate a less dramatic but not unimportant way we can mitigate collusion. By creating a safe space for both teacher and student researchers to explore hitherto taboo topics, they have gained a meta-understanding of their own embeddedness within the hegemonic practices of the school. In such cases, PAR has provided a way to co-construct a more complicated understanding of school violence, intergroup relationships, and hegemonic gender practices. Although this more complex understanding ideally would inform institutional change, in our less-than-ideal cases, it has nonetheless affected profoundly the ways in which students, teachers, and CSBGL researchers understood the nature of these normalized cultural practices.