“You can't save them all”: The moral economy of teacher work in a “failing” inner-city high school

Charles Aiden Downey, University of Pennsylvania


Despite waves of school reform initiatives, many inner-city school systems continue to fail to meet the academic and personal needs of their predominantly poor and minority students. While educational research has chronicled the difficult and near impossible situations school failure foists on teachers, little research focuses on how teachers in failing schools carve out a sense of purpose and success. This dissertation explores how teachers fashion and enact moral orders in the fundamentally immoral situations presented to them by massive school failure. This three-year ethnographic study focuses on twelve teachers who staff the vocational program at a comprehensive public high school located in a large northeastern city in the United States, a school that by all indicators is failing its largely low-income, African-American student body. The research involved extensive observations of teachers, both in and out of their classrooms, with particular attention to teachers' extracurricular interactions. I also conducted formal and informal interviews with the teachers to gain insight into how teachers made sense of their work in the context of school failure. This dissertation suggests teachers developed informal policies that embodied and enacted their moral orders. In particular, school failure pushed teachers to create and utilize extracurricular spaces to do the work they believe impossible in the classroom setting. Teachers worked with individual students during breaks and after school in an attempt to “make a difference” in their lives, to ultimately “save” them from the bleak futures teachers believed awaited those who attended failing schools. The research further argues that teachers' stories about students serve as tools to forge a moral order and sense of purpose for the teachers. The dissertation challenges the classroom focus of much of educational research by illuminating the critical work teachers do when they are not teaching. By focusing on teachers' extracurricular practices this study offers an alternative understanding of how teachers develop and enact moral missions beyond the scope and purview of the formal institution. As such, the study recasts school “policy” as a local and situated accomplishment of those working in rather than on school failure.

Subject Area

Educational sociology|Secondary education

Recommended Citation

Downey, Charles Aiden, "“You can't save them all”: The moral economy of teacher work in a “failing” inner-city high school" (2007). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3260898.