In this month’s Lead the Change Interview, Elise Castillo reflects on the possibilities and limitations of efforts to study, learn about and support educational change. Castillo, a former English teacher, is currently an Assistant Professor of Educational Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. Her work critically examines school choice and integration policies and their potential role in advancing racially equitable and democratic public education. The LtC series is produced by Alex Lamb and colleagues from the Educational Change Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association. A pdf of the fully formatted interview is available on the LtC website
Lead the Change: The 2022 AERA theme is Cultivating Equitable Education Systems for the 21st Century and charges researchers and practitioners with dismantling oppressive education systems and replacing them with anti-racist, equity, and justice-oriented systems. To achieve these goals, researchers must engage in new methodologies, cross-disciplinary thinking, global perspectives, and community partnerships to respond to the challenges of the 21st century including the COVID-19 Pandemic and systemic racism among other persistent inequities. Given the dire need for all of us to do more to dismantle oppressive systems and reimagine new ways of thinking and doing in our own institutions and education more broadly, what specific responsibility do educational change scholars have in this space? What steps are you taking to heed this call?
Elise Castillo: I believe that one of the most important responsibilities we have as educational change scholars is to continuously examine the strengths and limitations of our conceptual frameworks, methodological approaches, and positionalities as researchers. What do our frameworks, methods, and positionalities enable us to see, and what may they obscure? How might critically examining these aspects of our research help to more strongly orient our work around equity?
During my graduate training, I read two articles that deeply impacted my thinking: Michelle Young’s 1999 article, “Multifocal Educational Policy Research: Toward a Method for Enhancing Traditional Educational Policy Studies,” and David Tyack’s 1976 article, “Ways of Seeing: An Essay on the History of Compulsory Schooling.” In their articles, Young and Tyack each examine a topic using multiple theoretical frameworks. Young investigates a school’s parent involvement policies through traditional and critical frameworks and methods, and Tyack examines the history of compulsory schooling through the lenses of political, organizational, and economic frameworks. Each of them highlights how different methodological and conceptual tools shape what we see and how we make sense of it. Young, in particular, argues that a multifocal approach, or combining multiple conceptual frames, can broaden our view and help us to see what only one framework may obscure.
As a researcher, I refer often to each of these pieces in considering the strengths and limitations of my methodological and conceptual approaches. In particular, I try to be intentional about designing projects using approaches that enable me to see how policies can advance, but also undermine, equity, particularly for communities of color and other historically underserved communities.
In my recent work, that has meant employing Critical Policy Analysis (Diem & Young, 2015), Critical Race Theory (Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995), and theoretical and empirical literature from the politics of education (e.g., Ball, 2008; Lipman, 2011; Scott, 2011). These methodological tools enable me to examine the roles of race, politics, and power in shaping school choice and desegregation policy. And, as a qualitative researcher who often conducts interview-based research, I am continuously learning how best to engage with participants with empathy and integrity. One recent piece that has helped me think through these issues is Julissa Ventura and Stefanie Wong’s 2020 article, “Stepping Up and Stepping Back as Scholars of Color: Taking Care of Students and Ourselves in Troubling Times.” Here, Ventura and Wong discuss how they navigated their relationships with research participants, many of whom were from marginalized communities, around the time of the 2016 election, while also caring for their own well-being. I also love reading methodological appendices to books, and methods sections in papers, to learn about how other scholars, particularly women and scholars of color, navigate positionality and power.
LtC: Your recent work examines how progressive school choice efforts do and do not maintain their democratic and justice-oriented objectives in the larger neoliberal policy context. What are some of the major lessons the field of Educational Change can learn from your work and experience?
EC: One lesson I learned from my research is how important it is to situate policies and school reform efforts within their broader political and ideological contexts. Across my work, I specifically attend to the underlying context of market ideology, which privileges, among other things, individual advancement through competitive mechanisms, and has shaped education policy since at least the 1980s (Scott & Quinn, 2014).
For example, in studying New York City charter schools with racial and social justice missions, I found that even the most committed and mission-driven school leaders and educators, at times, compromise their equity and justice orientations to ensure their own organizational advancement and survival in a competitive market-based educational context (Castillo, 2020). Similarly, my research on school integration advocacy in New York City during Covid-19 with my collaborators Mira Debs and Molly Vollman Makris illustrates the challenge of advancing school integration within a political and policy context that has long privileged individualism and meritocracy. We found that, even amid the Covid-19 pandemic and nationwide racial justice demonstrations, which together prompted many public discussions about preserving the common good, ultimately, many stakeholders continue to view public schools as a mechanism for facilitating the private good, namely, individual advancement and mobility (Castillo et al., 2021; Labaree, 1997).
Finally, my work on middle-class, mostly second-generation Asian American families whose children attend magnet schools in metropolitan Hartford—schools that were created as a mechanism to advance desegregation—illustrates that most parents chose magnet schools not because they supported the political goal of desegregation, but rather, because they believed that diverse magnet schools would individually benefit their children, academically and socially (Castillo, 2022). In each of these examples, I see that efforts to advance racial equity, democracy, justice, and the public good are challenged by the ideology of the market, specifically its emphasis on individual advancement through competition.
“Many stakeholders continue to view public schools as a mechanism for facilitating the private good.”
LtC: In your study investigating desegregation in Hartford, Connecticut, you highlight the concerning invisibility of Asian American experiences and motivations in school choice conversations. How might your findings help scholars and practitioners think about and implement desegregation efforts in Hartford and beyond?
EC: The research on school choice, desegregation, and the intersection of the two issues, with some exceptions, often reinforces a binary between “students of color” and “white students,” and either makes no mention of Asian Americans, or, ambiguously groups them alongside white students. This pattern reflects the longstanding invisibility of Asian Americans broadly in education and social science research (Ocampo, 2018; Tseng, 2021). Additionally, the enduring model minority narrative, which positions Asian Americans as having overcome racism through hard work, implies that researchers and policymakers need not attend to the diverse experiences of Asian American students (Wu, 2015). I, too, have not explicitly attended to Asian American experiences in my own research until recently. Students, families, and other stakeholders who share my own racial and ethnic identity remained invisible as a topic worthy of inquiry to me as a researcher until late in my dissertation research, when, while observing a board meeting of a “diverse-by-design” charter school, I heard the principal casually remark on the challenge of recruiting Asian American students. This was a bit of a lightbulb moment for me as a school choice researcher: What schools were diverse Asian American students choosing, how and why were they making such choices, and what can their choices tell us about the possibilities for, and limitations to, advancing integration through school choice? And why haven’t school choice researchers explored these questions?
Upon completing my PhD in 2018, I have oriented my research agenda toward addressing these, and related, questions, in the contexts of metropolitan Hartford, Connecticut, and New York City. My research builds on the work of Stacey Lee (2006, 2009), OiYan Poon et al. (2019), and others, in highlighting the heterogeneity of Asian American identities and experiences with schools. Broadly, I find that Asian American students have varying levels of privilege in the school choice process, with important implications for school choice as a tool for facilitating desegregation (Castillo, 2022; Castillo & Debs, 2022).
“Efforts to advance racial equity, democracy, justice, and the public good are challenged by the ideology of the market.”
For example, some Asian American students are English learners; some are undocumented or from mixed-status families; and many hail from poor or working-class families. Given their limited resources and English fluency, some such families face barriers to navigating the array of school choice options, including selective public schools that “screen” students based on test scores and other factors. Interestingly, other such families invest their limited resources in test preparation to selective public schools, due to a perception that their children’s admission to such schools promises to lift their family out of poverty. We find that this perception partly explains the overrepresentation of Asian American students in New York City’s selective, or “specialized,” high schools (Castillo & Debs, 2022).
At the same time, numerous other Asian American students are from affluent families, speak English fluently, have parents who speak English fluently, and are U.S. citizens. These students and families often have more access to the information networks and resources needed to navigate the complex school choice process—including the resources necessary to move to suburban neighborhoods where the public schools are more highly resourced, as well as disproportionately white and affluent (Castillo, 2022).
As these examples illustrate, the heterogeneity of Asian American identities and experiences with school choice complicates the question of how Asian American students may benefit from, or are harmed by, an increasingly segregated school system. Better understanding the diversity of Asian American identities and schooling experiences is important for education researchers and policymakers, for two key reasons. First, as the 2020 Census results demonstrate, Asian Americans are the fastest growing immigrant group in the U.S. (Budiman & Ruiz, 2021). Thus, they will likely form a growing share of the public school population and profoundly shape the racial politics of school choice and desegregation policies in complex ways, raising new questions about how such policies may benefit or harm different segments of the diverse Asian American community. Second, the rise of anti-Asian violence and hate highlights the urgent need for us all to disrupt the longstanding invisibility of Asian Americans, pay attention to how diverse Asian Americans experience racism, and attend to the role schools can play in reinforcing or remedying such patterns.
“The rise of anti-Asian violence and hate highlights the urgent need for us all to disrupt the longstanding invisibility of Asian Americans.”
LtC: Educational Change expects those engaged in and with schools, schooling, and school systems to spearhead deep and often difficult transformation. How might those in the field of Educational Change best support these individuals and groups through these processes?
EC: At Trinity College, I teach undergraduate classes on education policy and school reform, with a focus on issues of racial and socioeconomic inequity in urban contexts. This can sometimes be challenging because the majority of students at Trinity whom I teach did not personally attend urban public schools, and in fact, many attended private or suburban public schools in majority-white and affluent communities. Nevertheless, particularly among students whom I have had the good fortune of teaching over multiple semesters, I am proud to say that I have seen a deep transformation in their thinking. I believe that one of the most important things that has supported my students’ transformation was the opportunity to build relationships with public school students, educators, and other educational stakeholders in Hartford.
Whereas Trinity is a predominantly white and privileged campus, Hartford, its urban locale, is home to communities that are predominantly poor, working-class, and of color. Like many urban colleges, Trinity has long had a complicated relationship with the city of Hartford and its residents (Baldwin, 2021). To address this ongoing issue, over the years, Trinity students and faculty, alongside Hartford community members, have worked to foster meaningful and mutually beneficial connections between the campus and the surrounding community. Inspired by my colleagues who have long been doing this work, I have endeavored to incorporate community-engaged learning components in my Educational Studies courses, where my students have the opportunity to learn from and with Hartford students and educators.
Although reading about and discussing issues of educational inequity and change are often productive experiences, these issues become much more tangible and urgent for my students when they can observe them playing out in the lives of our Hartford neighbors. Moreover, I believe that the process of building relationships with students and educators in Hartford is key to pushing my students to question the many deficit narratives that prevail about urban public schools and, in turn, develop greater empathy and understanding.
Therefore, across several of my classes, I incorporate small research projects and other assignments wherein students engage with students or educators in the community. I also endeavor to design such projects so that they are mutually beneficial for our community partners, such as by sharing the findings from students’ research projects and inviting their feedback. I have to shout-out my colleagues in Trinity’s Educational Studies Program and the Center for Hartford Engagement and Research for initiating and sustaining our partnerships with local public schools and other community stakeholders, and, in turn, making such relationship-building opportunities possible for our students.
“Educational change does not happen when our work lives only within academic spaces.”
LtC: Where do you perceive the field of Educational Change is going? What excites you about Educational Change now and in the future?
EC: It is often easy to feel that the future looks bleak. These are incredibly tough times for teachers, students, and others who care about educational equity. State legislatures are imposing restrictions on teaching about race, gender identity, and sexuality; undermining the safety and well-being of gender-expansive students; and doing little to protect students and educators—especially the most vulnerable—from the persistence of Covid-19.
Yet, in the face of these challenges, I am inspired by those who refuse to lose sight of the possibility for change. For example, in early May 2022, following many years of advocacy among students, educators, and other stakeholders, my current home state of Connecticut passed legislation requiring the incorporation of Asian American and Pacific Islander Studies in its state K–12 curriculum framework beginning in 2025–2026. This bill follows the passage of a similar bill requiring that public high schools in Connecticut offer courses in Black and Latinx Studies, which will be implemented beginning in Fall 2022. I believe that these bills signal growing recognition that a white-centric curriculum teaches an incomplete story, and that all students benefit from a curriculum that more strongly centers the experiences of people of color.
I am also excited about the many ways that Educational Change researchers are engaging and collaborating with those beyond the academy. I am inspired by scholars who are working alongside practitioners, policymakers, and other stakeholders to imagine what a more equitable and just school system looks like, and to enact such visions. For example, I am excited by the expansion of research-practice partnerships among university-based education researchers and public schools and districts. In addition, I see a growing effort among scholars to translate research findings to the broader public in an accessible and engaging manner. For instance, I am a member of the Connecticut chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network, which has recently partnered with a local news publication, The Connecticut Mirror, to feature op-ed essays authored by scholars on state-level policy issues. I know that AERA’s Division L and others have engaged in similar initiatives to train scholars in effective op-ed writing. Educational change does not happen when our work lives only within academic spaces, and I am excited about the growing numbers of ways scholars are sharing their work with stakeholders and partnering with communities to advance meaningful change.
Baldwin, D. L. (2021). In the shadow of the ivory tower: How universities are plundering our cities. Bold Type Books.
Ball, S. J. (2008). New philanthropy, new networks and new governance in education. Political Studies, 56(4), 747–765. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9248.2008.00722.x
Budiman, A., & Ruiz, N. G. (2021, April 29). Key facts about Asian Americans, a diverse and growing population. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/04/29/key-facts-about-asian-americans/
Castillo, E. (2020). A neoliberal grammar of schooling? How a progressive charter school moved toward market values. American Journal of Education, 126(4), 519–547. https://doi.org/10.1086/709513
Castillo, E. (2022). ‘More of the diversity aspect and less of the desegregation aspect’: Asian Americans and desegregation in metropolitan Hartford. Race Ethnicity and Education, 1–19. https://doi.org/10.1080/13613324.2022.2033196
Castillo, E., & Debs, M. (2022, April). Remedying invisibility: Asian American perspectives on school integration policy and advocacy in NYC. Paper accepted to Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Diego, CA.
Castillo, E., Makris, M. V., & Debs, M. (2021). Integration versus meritocracy? Competing educational goals during the COVID-19 pandemic. AERA Open, 7, 233285842110657. https://doi.org/10.1177/23328584211065716
Diem, S., & Young, M. D. (2015). Considering critical turns in research on educational leadership and policy. International Journal of Educational Management, 29(7), 838–850. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJEM-05-2015-0060
Labaree, D. F. (1997). Public goods, private goods: The American struggle over educational goals. American Educational Research Journal, 34(1), 39–81. https://doi.org/10.2307/1163342
Ladson-Billings, G., & Tate, W. F. (1995). Toward a critical race theory of education. Teachers College Record, 97(1), 47–68. http://www.unco.edu/cebs/diversity/pdfs/towardacrteduca.pdf
Lee, S. J. (2006). Additional complexities: Social class, ethnicity, generation, and gender in Asian American student experiences. Race Ethnicity and Education, 9(1), 17–28. https://doi.org/10.1080/13613320500490630Lee, S. J. (2009). Unraveling the “model minority” stereotype: Listening to Asian American youth (2nd ed.). Teachers College Press.
Lipman, P. (2011). The new political economy of urban education: Neoliberalism, race, and the right to the city. Routledge.
Ocampo, A. C. (2018). Stop forgetting Asian Americans. Contexts, 17(4), 76–76. https://doi.org/10.1177/1536504218812877
Poon, O. A., Segoshi, M. S., Tang, L., Surla, K. L., Nguyen, C., & Squire, D. D. (2019). Asian Americans, affirmative action, and the political economy of racism: A multidimensional model of raceclass frames. Harvard Educational Review, 89(2), 201–226. https://doi.org/10.17763/1943-5045-89.2.201
Scott, J. (2011). Market-driven education reform and the racial politics of advocacy. Peabody Journal of Education, 86(5), 580–599. https://doi.org/10.1080/0161956X.2011.616445
Scott, J., & Quinn, R. (2014). The politics of education in the post-Brown era: Race, markets, and the struggle for equitable schooling. Educational Administration Quarterly, 50(5), 749–763. http://eaq.sagepub.com/content/50/5/749.short
Tseng, V. (2021, March 31). Meeting this moment (part II): Unpacking anti-Asian racism. William T. Grant Foundation. http://wtgrantfoundation.org/meeting-this-moment-part-ii-unpacking-anti-asian-racism
Tyack, D. (1976). Ways of seeing: An essay on the history of compulsory schooling. Harvard Educational Review, 46(3), 355–389. https://doi.org/10.17763/haer.46.3.v73405527200106v
Ventura, J., & Wong, J.-H. S. (2020). Stepping up and stepping back as scholars of color: Taking care of students and ourselves in troubling times. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 33(2), 174–182. https://doi.org/10.1080/09518398.2019.1681541
Wu, E. D. (2015). The color of success: Asian Americans and the origins of the model minority. Princeton University Press.Young, M. D. (1999). Multifocal educational policy research: Toward a method for enhancing traditional educational policy studies. American Educational Research Journal, 36(4), 677–714. https://doi.org/10.3102/00028312036004677