Mixed messages: Critical educational discourses and the cultural production of school change

Tricia Niesz, University of Pennsylvania


This dissertation is an ethnography that explores what happens when critical educational discourses influence a mainstream school. That is, it follows ideas from critical educational theory, which enter the school through educators and reform discourses, into classrooms, a youth program, and a school to illuminate how educators and youth make meaning from them. I use a cultural production framework to document the ways in which youth and educators appropriate these discourses of social critique and/or social justice in their production of new school practice. This study contributes to the existing critical ethnographic literature by foregrounding the breaks in hegemony that many critical educational ethnographies neglect. Exploring these breaks, as well as the complexity of the cultural production of educational practice associated with them, constitutes a significant contribution of this study. The study is based upon eighteen months of ethnographic fieldwork at an urban public middle school in Philadelphia, in which I conducted participant observation, interviewed participants individually and in focus groups, and collected documents. The findings of this study center on the mixed educational messages that result from the interface of diverse educational discourses, subjectivities, and social context. At Cavner, critical educational practice, which I define as educational practice that—at some level of explicitness—purports to be counterhegemonic and engage youth in action or critique around themes of social justice and their role in the social world, influenced the school through practitioners' grassroots work, which was linked to their subjectivities and participation in social and/or educational movements. This work was complicated, however, by the high-stakes school reform environment and the school's construction of an image of a “good school.” For youth, explicit curricular discourses of social critique, social justice, and democratic participation were in competition with hidden curricular practices that privileged some students at the expense of others, as well as broader social discourses that stigmatized urban poverty. Both educators and youth engaged their social agency and appropriated from the fields of contested educational discourses and practices in complicated and often surprising ways. Their appropriations and productions of new cultural discourses and practices have important implications for promoting social justice through schooling.

Subject Area

Educational sociology|Cultural anthropology

Recommended Citation

Niesz, Tricia, "Mixed messages: Critical educational discourses and the cultural production of school change" (2003). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3087444.