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  • Reframing Problems in Secondary Education:Alternative Perspectives, New Insights, and Possibilities for Action
  • Mark W. Ellis, Maria Grant, and Laura Haniford

There is little disagreement that secondary education in the United States can and must be improved, with much attention given to analyses of outcomes ranging from dropout rates to academic achievement to international measures of literacy (e.g., National Center for Education Statistics, 2005). The perspectives offered by the authors of the manuscripts in this guest edited issue of The High School Journal call into question the way in which problems in secondary education are defined or framed (Cuban, 2001).

The Power of Reframing

Larry Cuban (2001) considers a problem to be "a situation in which a gap exists between what is and what ought to be" (p. 4). Typically in the field of education, the gaps that are examined arise from fixed vantage points—in essence, the same perspectives that framed problems in education 30 or more years ago are still used today. Perhaps this explains why veteran teachers often dismiss the latest trends in education; why a teacher who has spent 25 years in the classroom might shrug her shoulders when hearing about the latest "best practice," seeing its similarity to other prior attempts to reform the work she does. As one veteran teacher put it, "I've removed myself from the conversations regarding old ideas like block scheduling. This is the same tactic we tried 20 years ago, and we abandoned it then" (personal conversation, 2006). Often missing from these perspectives—both teachers' and administrators'—is a full examination of how the problems themselves have come to be identified. Exacerbating this concern is the realization that these historical perspectives tend to frame problems in ways that blame student characteristics and backgrounds for poor performance while ignoring factors such as opportunities to learn and access to information (Diversity in Mathematics Education Center for Learning and Teaching, 2007; Oakes, Wells, Jones, & Datnow, 1997).

Kathleen Collins' (2003) narrative case study of a 5th grade African American student she calls "Jay" offers an example of the power that lies within the framing of problems in education. Resulting from 18 months of work with Jay both in and out of the classroom, Collins finds that [End Page 1] "despite invitations to consider evidence of several of his positive performances in and out of school, Laura [Jay's teacher] still responded to Jay as though he were less than capable" (p. xiii). The teacher held a perspective that framed Jay's behavior—which included calling out answers and communicating with peers while doing an assignment—as outside the norm, indicative of a learning disability, and presumed his family offered poor support for his education. However, from a standpoint informed by interactions with Jay and those around him in and out of school, Collins finds him struggling to be viewed as competent within school, demonstrating competence in community-based contexts, and supported by a large network of family and community members. One common teacher perspective would target Jay as the source of his own academic problems. In contrast, Collins reframes the problem and finds that in actuality, it is the result of the way in which those in authority in school "pathologized Jay's family structure, his cultural way of being" (p. 194). Reframing the problem from this alternative perspective makes it clear that Jay's teacher's judgment of him as learning disabled and the resultant academic segregation imposed by school policies are potentially misguided and limiting. The solutions arising from Collins' understanding of Jay's struggles in school focus more on making the academic climate more receptive to Jay's cultural patterns of interaction and more attuned to his strengths in communication, collaboration, and the authoring of narratives.

In this example, given traditional power dynamics in schools and classrooms, it is the teacher's framing of the problem that will likely dominate. As a result, we believe that a clear mandate exists for those involved in educational decision-making to examine problems in different ways. Educational stakeholders must work to reframe the way in which problems are defined such that a broader range of possible solutions, some of which have been...


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