The Art of Critical Pedagogy

Possibilities for Moving from Theory to Practice in Urban Schools

by Jeffrey M.R. Duncan-Andrade (Author) Ernest Morrell (Author)
Textbook X, 225 Pages
Series: Counterpoints, Volume 285


This book furthers the discussion concerning critical pedagogy and its practical applications for urban contexts. It addresses two looming, yet under-explored questions that have emerged with the ascendancy of critical pedagogy in the educational discourse: (1) What does critical pedagogy look like in work with urban youth? and (2) How can a systematic investigation of critical work enacted in urban contexts simultaneously draw upon and push the core tenets of critical pedagogy? Addressing the tensions inherent in enacting critical pedagogy – between working to disrupt and to successfully navigate oppressive institutionalized structures, and between the practice of critical pedagogy and the current standards-driven climate – The Art of Critical Pedagogy seeks to generate authentic internal and external dialogues among educators in search of texts that offer guidance for teaching for a more socially just world.

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Authors
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • 1 The Challenges and Opportunities of Urban Education
  • 2 Contemporary Developers of Critical Pedagogy
  • 3 Critical Pedagogy in an Urban High School English Classroom
  • 4 What a Coach Can Teach a Teacher
  • 5 Critical Pedagogy in a College Access Program for Students of Color With assistance from Anthony Collatos
  • 6 Youth Participatory Action Research as Critical Pedagogy
  • 7 Pan-ethnic Studies
  • 8 Critical Pedagogy in an Age of Standards
  • 9 Toward a Grounded Theory of Praxis
  • References
  • Index


There has been much discussion concerning critical pedagogy and its practical applications to urban contexts in the generation following the publication of such seminal works as Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970), Henry Giroux’s Theory and Resistance in Education: Toward a Pedagogy for the Opposition (1983/2001), and Peter McLaren’s Life in Schools: An Introduction to Critical Pedagogy and the Foundations of Education (1994/2003b). While honoring the tremendous contributions that each of these works has made to educational theory and practice, this book addresses two looming, yet underexplored, questions that have emerged with the ascendancy of critical pedagogy in the educational discourse:

What does critical pedagogy look like in work with urban youth, specifically in the context of urban schooling in the United States?

How can a systematic investigation of critical work enacted in urban contexts simultaneously draw upon and extend the core tenets of critical pedagogy?

The book reports from a theoretically informed, inquiry-based practice that is a direct response to Freire’s (1997) call for critical and reflective journaling of the pedagogical process. It is a systematic analysis of our theoretically inspired practice in urban education; that is, we have developed a text that challenges and reconsiders critical theories of teaching in urban contexts through the examination of actual practices with urban youth. This book addresses several tensions inherent in enacting a critical practice in traditional institutionalized settings, such as between the efforts to disrupt oppressive structures and to navigate oppressive structures successfully. It also addresses tensions surrounding the role of the urban teacher in critical pedagogy and the tensions of enacting critical pedagogies within the current, standards-driven climate. As authors, we do not claim to resolve these tensions, yet by naming and exploring them we seek to generate authentic internal and external dialogues among educators who mine the educational discourse in search of texts that offer guidance for teaching for a more socially just world.


The Challenges and Opportunities of Urban Education

We begin this chapter by articulating some key ideological and structural dilemmas in urban education that result in a lack of funding, high dropout rates, excessive teacher attrition, and low standardized test scores. Rather than taking a defeatist tone, we address these dilemmas in order to situate critical pedagogy as a viable force for confronting them. We conclude the chapter with an outline of the remaining chapters in the book.

Let us begin by rethinking the position that urban schools are failing. Given the overwhelming body of evidence that reveals decades of funding and structural inequalities between schools in high- and low-income communities (Akom, 2003; Anyon, 1997; Darling-Hammond, 1998; Kozol, 1991, 2005; Noguera, 2003; Oakes, 1985), it is illogical to compare schools across these communities and then decry urban schools as failures. When one set of schools is given the resources necessary to succeed and another group of schools is not, we have predetermined winners and losers. In this scenario, failure is not actually the result of failing. This is the paradox facing urban school reformers. On the one hand, urban schools are producing academic failure at alarming rates; at the same time, they are doing this inside a systematic structural design that essentially predetermines their failure. This is where the urban school reform rhetoric has missed the mark. It has presumed that urban schools are broken. Urban schools are not broken; they are doing exactly what they are designed to do.

This argument is not meant to excuse the academic failure in many urban schools. Instead, it is meant to shake up and radicalize the business-asusual approach to improving urban schools by shifting the blame from the victims of an unjust system onto the fiscal, political, and ideological policies that deliberately undercut and demean urban schools. It challenges the rhetoric of “fixing failure” that has driven countless reform measures aimed at improving the achievement of the country’s most disenfranchised youth, particularly poor non-white youth. These efforts have produced some individual success stories, sometimes improvement across an entire school, but none of these reforms has produced systemic change in urban schools. Instead, while one school improves, another school that serves a remarkably similar group becomes worse. This virtual zero-sum game—the ebb and flow ← 1 | 2 of failure in schools serving poor communities around the country—is tolerated for two reasons. It is important that we analyze these reasons if we are to move toward a set of structures and critical educational practices in urban schools that give young people a reason to invest in the education their schools offer, an education that challenges and transforms social, economic, political, and educational injustices through critical pedagogies that are ideologically, culturally, and locally relevant.

The Politics of Failure

Perpetual urban school failure is tolerated because deep down our nation subscribes to the belief that someone has to fail in school. In fact, this quasi-Darwinian belief system is built into most schools through the existence of a largely unchallenged pedagogical system of grading and testing that by its very design guarantees failure for some. For some time, this system for perpetuating unequal educational outcomes has been justified by racist and classist pseudo-scientific theories, sometimes referred to as deficit models (Hull, Rose, Fraser, & Castellano, 1991; Valencia & Solórzano, 1997). These models reached the height of their popularity in the early 1960s, but they have a historical trail that stretches back for as long as educational and intellectual potential have been discussed and measured. The contemporary version of these theories suggests that educational failure is the result of cultural deficiency on the part of the student, the family, and the community—de facto, educational attainment is attributed to cultural superiority or assimilation into culturally superior ways (D’Souza, 1995; Herrnstein & Murray, 1994; Ogbu, 1990). The most notable recent resurgence of the theory of cultural deficiency came with the publication of The Bell Curve (Herrnstein & Murray, 1994), whose authors suggest that blacks and Latinas/os are intellectually inferior to whites. Although the theories posited in the book have been thoroughly refuted, the book was a national bestseller.

The Economics of Failure

The second reason educational failure of poor and non-white children is tolerated is rooted in economics. The general public acknowledges, sometimes explicitly and sometimes tacitly, that schools are this country’s de facto socioeconomic sorting mechanism. Under this logic, schools are the primary place where economic futures are cast and people are sorted into their roles in society (Anyon, 1981; Carnoy & Levin, 1985; Finn, 1999). In short, some peo ← 2 | 3 → ple must fill the least desirable places in society, and it is important that they feel they deserve to be in those positions or, at the very least, that there is a formal mechanism to justify their place there (Bowles & Gintis, 1976; MacLeod, 1987).

In effect, the high-stakes nature of this sorting process plays itself out like a rigged game of Monopoly. Let us draw this simile out to explain the role of school in socioeconomic reproduction. Monopoly is a board game where each player begins at the same place (“Go”) on the board with the same amount of Monopoly money to work toward economic domination over the other players. The goal of the game is to combine strategy and luck to move around the game board building your individual wealth through the acquisition of property and rent from other players. Like Monopoly, the rhetoric of school-based meritocracy suggests that everyone starts at “Go” with equal chances to move around the board and capitalize on the opportunities that abound. However, a relatively simple comparison of the rhetoric of educational meritocracy with the reality of schools across communities suggests that this game is rigged to create an unfair competition. Whereas the outcomes in Monopoly are largely random, heavily influenced by the roll of the dice, educational outcomes are much more predictable. In the game of education, groups with high levels of social, political, and economic capital move around the same game board as the rest of the population, supposedly competing under the same set of rules, but they afford themselves a supplemental bankroll that guarantees an unfair competition, one that for centuries has produced the same unequal outcomes in schools and in the larger society.

To a large degree, the public discourse recognizes but leaves unchallenged the fact that wealthier communities have better educational opportunities. However, this public discourse remains largely dismissive of the nefarious impact of this rigged game on poor communities by standing behind the rhetoric of opportunity and the myth of meritocracy. The few exceptional students who combine fortitude and fortune to succeed in underresourced urban schools play an important role in this myth making. The time-honored tradition of publicizing rags-to-riches stories (Horatio Alger narratives) confirms for the public that opportunity exists for anyone who wants it bad enough. This is, of course, untrue. The stratified nature of our current society creates a social pyramid that has no room at the top for the masses. This structure requires people to be sorted, and schools are the mechanism used to resolve this messy social conundrum, which was previously accomplished through overtly racist and classist social policies (for his ← 3 | 4 → torical analyses of such policies, see Acuña, 2003; Loewen, 1995; Zinn, 1995). The fact that opportunity exists (currently defined as all children having access to public schools) helps maintain the rhetoric of a democratic and meritocratic society where competition churns the cream to the top, ultimately benefiting society as a whole by rewarding the most deserving. And it just so happens that the overwhelming majority of those who benefit most from this sorting process are those who look, talk, think, and act most like those who already have power. And it just so happens that the overwhelming majority of those who benefit least from this sorting process are those who come from different backgrounds and communities than those who already have power. This is not by chance, and it is not democratic. It is inequality by design, it is well documented, and schools play a central role in the perpetuation of this rigged social lottery (Fischer et al., 1996).

If school achievement were an accurate measure of intellect, achievement patterns would more closely mirror the random distribution of intellect that genetic scientists report in human populations (Gould, 1996; Zuberi, 2003). Instead, the results of schools are quite predictable. This is true largely because the nation’s poorest young people are the most likely to be denied access to a quality education and then to be blamed (implicitly and explicitly) for their academic “failure.” The predictability of these trends results in an almost permanent underclass. With remarkable consistency, schools serving low-income, non-white children disproportionately produce the citizens who will spend most of their adult lives in the least desirable and least mobile socioeconomic positions (prison, low-ranking military positions, and service labor). There is little to no social outrage over these conditions, which have been likened to a system of “academic apartheid” (Akom, 2003) and referred to as a “crisis of civil rights” (Harvard Civil Rights Project, 2005). In the end, schools produce very little mobility for the communities most in need and are the stamp of justification on one’s position in the labor force and society.

Embracing the Truth: Urban Schools Are Not Failing

On the one hand, this analysis of the role of public schools can lead to the conclusion that urban public schools are bankrupt institutions. To the degree that we continue to operate within the paradigm that urban schools are failing, this is an accurate conclusion. It makes sense that a school system designed to justify social and economic stratification would least serve the ← 4 | 5 → population with the greatest needs and the smallest amount of social, political, and economic capital to meet those needs. If urban schools have been decried for decades as “factories for failure” (Rist, 1973), then their production of failures means they are in fact successful at producing the results they are designed to produce. To the degree that we continue to misname this problem by calling schools designed to fail “failing schools” we will continue to chase our tails.

We could cite a litany of research data and evidentiary claims to support the arguments that school is a rigged game, but what would be the point? How long must we continue to argue over common sense? Poverty and the gap between the haves and the have-nots is the enemy of every nation. We must not be distracted from this point. Our nation’s least desirable stations (prison, military, low-semi-skilled labor) are overwhelmingly and disproportionately occupied by residents emerging from our poorest communities. The only difference between this nation and those that openly support a social caste system is the de facto nature through which we achieve these outcomes. At some point we must come to grips with the fact that we are not a nation of opportunity for all but a nation built upon grand narratives of opportunity for all. It is no accident that for centuries our non-white and poor communities have been disproportionately represented among our perpetually poor and poorly educated. It is no accident that those born into poverty overwhelmingly remain in poverty and those born into wealth overwhelmingly remain wealthy and that the gap between these two groups is at an all-time high. The predictability of this inequality is not borne from a system of meritocracy but from a system of oligarchy. We must address this structural reality if we are ever to develop a system of education that is meaningful for economically disenfranchised communities.

Beyond the Dollars and Cents of Urban School Reform


X, 225
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (October)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2008. X, 225 pp.

Biographical notes

Jeffrey M.R. Duncan-Andrade (Author) Ernest Morrell (Author)

The Authors: Jeffrey M.R. Duncan-Andrade is Assistant Professor of Raza Studies and Education Administration and Interdisciplinary Studies, and Co-Director of the Educational Equity Initiative at San Francisco State University’s Cesar Chavez Institute (http://cci.sfsu.edu/taxonomy/term/28). In addition to these duties, he teaches a 12th grade English Literature class at Oasis Community High School in Oakland, CA, where he continues his research into the uses of critical pedagogy in urban schools. Before joining the faculty at SFSU, Duncan-Andrade taught English and coached in the Oakland public schools for ten years, and completed his doctoral studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Duncan-Andrade’s research interests and publications span the areas of urban schooling and curriculum change, urban teacher development and retention, critical pedagogy, and cultural and ethnic studies. He has authored numerous journal articles and book chapters on the conditions of urban education, urban teacher support and development, and effective pedagogy in urban settings. He is currently completing a second book on the core competencies of highly effective urban educators. Ernest Morrell is Associate Professor in Urban Schooling and Associate Director for Youth Research at the Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access (IDEA) at the University of California at Los Angeles. For more than a decade he has worked with adolescents, drawing on their involvement with popular culture to promote academic literacy development. Morrell is also interested in the applications of critical pedagogy in urban education and working with teens as critical researchers. The author of three other books, Linking Literacy and Popular Culture: Finding Connections for Lifelong Learning (2004), Becoming Critical-Researchers: Literacy and Empowerment for Urban Youth (Peter Lang, 2004), and Critical Literacy and Urban Youth: Pedagogies of Access, Dissent, and Liberation (2007), Morrell received his Ph.D. in language, literacy, and culture from the University of California at Berkeley.


Title: The Art of Critical Pedagogy