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Educational policy analysis archives


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Educational policy analysis archives
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Arizona State University
University of South Florida
Arizona State University
University of South Florida.
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Tempe, Ariz
Tampa, Fla
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Education -- Research -- Periodicals   ( lcsh )
non-fiction   ( marcgt )
serial   ( sobekcm )


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Includes EPAA commentary by Sherman Dorn.

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1 of 6 Education Policy Analysis Archives Volume 4 Number 15September 6, 1996ISSN 1068-2341A peer-reviewed scholarly electronic journal. Editor: Gene V Glass,Glass@ASU.EDU. College of Educ ation, Arizona State University,Tempe AZ 85287-2411 Copyright 1996, the EDUCATION POLICY ANALYSIS ARCHIVES.Permission is hereby granted to copy any a rticle provided that EDUCATION POLICY ANALYSIS ARCHIVES is credited and copies are not sold.A Review of Dorn's Creating the DropoutSherman Dorn. (1996) Creating the Dropout: An Institutional and Social H istory of School. Praeger. $55.00.Aimee Howley Marshall Let me recommend Sherman Dorn's new book, Creating the Dropout The book undertakes a scholarly trek through the rhetoric of school leaving, construing economic and political vagaries as the occasions for a manufactu red problem. At the end of the trip, the sympathetic reader is left wondering why he or she wasn't politically savvy enough back then to desert high school or, at the very least, to boycot t the graduation ceremony. Interesting as the historical journey proves, it so mehow evades theoretical mapping, and this is a major weakness in an otherwise well-craft ed effort. Throughout my reading, I kept taking side trips on my own to better situate Dorn' s aims and interpretations. These provide a contrapuntal low road to the high one that Dorn has us travel. Dorn begins his historical interpretation with a p aradox: As increasing numbers of teenagers attended and graduated from high school, increasing rhetorical attention was drawn to the "dropout". This attention, however, took variou s forms at first, which crystallized into a set of predictable, stereotypic assertions in the 1960s. B y the mid-1960s, in other words, graduation from high-school had become an age norm But was f ailure to graduate really a crisis, either for the individual or for society? Or was its significa nce, its status as a "crisis" manufactured? In Dorn's view, the "drop-out" was invented, not disco vered: ...dropping out in itself was not a primary concern of educators until the mid-twentieth century. Many of the issues we think of today as connecting with dropping out--the need to socialize children, the r esponse of schools to urban poverty, the economic promise of education, and the problems of children who have


2 of 6academic difficulties in school--have appeared freq uently without being part of an explicit discussion about dropping out. Only after 1960 did they become commonly identified as part of a specific problem called "dr opping out." Concerns about dependency, the belief in schools' ability to impro ve the poor, and the expectation that all teenagers should be in school gelled in th e dropout debate. Then educators struggled to respond to the "new" issue of dropping out. (p. 80) The invention of the dropout was, according to Dor n, a way for schools and the media to channel and thus contain more general concerns abou t the condition of cities. Unlike the structural conditions of poverty or the irrelevance of the school curriculum, the dropout could be blamed for his (the invented dropout was most often male) own circumstances. Furthermore, he could be assigned blame for the increasing unrest w ithin urban communities. In this manner, the effects of racism in the school and workplace, inad equate basic education, and unresponsive social services could be discounted. Schools and ot her government bodies could distance themselves, when the problems of the cities were at tributed to some combination of inadequate upbringing, cultural disadvantage, and personal der eliction. Dorn's explanation is compelling, and he supports it through a careful review of relevant professional literature about education as well as through an analysis of primary documents from three cities. Nevertheless, it is an interpretive c laim, and its positioning as interpretation is not well enough explored. Because he avoids theoretical and methodological issues, Dorn leaves the reader to discover (or allows the reader to ignore) the sources of and supports for his underlying theoretical premise-that discourse can invent soc ial reality. The tendency to draw this sort of conclusion has i ts own history, of course, and my first side trip was to find sources of this presumption. A cursory visit to the library catalog allowed me to identify an entire genre in historical and socia l science literature devoted to uncovering the social manufacture of certain real things that we a ll appear to take for granted, childhood, for example, (Aries, 1962), the "crisis of education" ( Berliner, 1995), giftedness (Margolin, 1994), madness (Szasz, 1974). The analyses differ, but the leitmotifs are the same: the social world is something of our own making, not everything is what it seems. This approach to analysis, for which we might as well blame Marx (the hidden worki ngs of the social relations of production) and Freud (the hidden psycho sexual motive) is itse lf an invention of discourse. Dorn, like the rest of us, is to some extent trapped in his own tr ap. In a world made of discourse, what truth claims can any discourse support? I found myself wi shing that Dorn had wrestled more thoroughly with this fundamental question of purpos e and method. It would be unfair, however, to accuse Dorn of ign oring the question completely. He did deal with it in the context of his analysis of the rhetoric of "dropping out", but he construed it narrowly as if to imply that his own discourse and its moorings in a particular literature were somehow immune. His framing of the question looked something like this: Why was the social construction of the dropout crisis irrational? To u nderstand what Dorn must mean by "rational," we can look at his answer: First, the perceived crisis was not in response to a real demographic trend; graduation became more, not less, prevalent in the middle twentieth century. Second, the perceived crisis did not lead to effective or e ven widespread policy changes. Third, the public debate over dropping out omitted issues and perspectives that a rational discussion should have included. (p. 99) This answer suggests that a "rational" social cons truction would correspond to "the facts", support improvements, and attend to all the relevan t issues. But isn't this asking too much of social construction? After all, the premise that so mething (the dropout, for instance) can be created out of the discourse surrounding it--in oth er words, can be interpreted into existence-


3 of 6-suggests the presence, and in a logical sense, nec essity, of multiple interpretations. If the facts manifested themselves apart from interpretation, we wouldn't need or, for that matter, even be able to tolerate discourse that subverted the selfevident "truth." But facts, particularly about human enterprises, d o not come to us that way. Nor do our interpretations, however earnest, require ameliorat ive action. Furthermore, interpretation, by its very nature, includes some and excludes other persp ectives. In consideration of these features of interpretation, Dorn's invocation of the "rational" sounds antiquated and hollow. Rather than basing his claims on the impossible distinction bet ween "rational" and "irrational" interpretations, Dorn would have been better served by examining the dynamics of conflict within the discourse itself. And to a certain exten t--for example in his comparison of the Philadelphia school systems' claims about dropouts and the competing claims of a civil rights organization in West Philadelphia--he did. Neverthe less, this stance does not permeate the entire work. And, in my view, it should. The most important side trip for me, then, involve d reconstructing Dorn's argument in view of the assumption that the "dropout crisis"--b y virtue of the fact that it could be nothing other than a social construct--was rational accordi ng to some logic. Finding the logic behind the construct became the purpose of my divagation. This low road came curiously close to the path that Dorn took in the final chapter of the book. Bu t the divergences were also telling. For Dorn, the dropout stereotype was important bec ause of what it hid, not because of what it revealed. That is, by focusing on the dropo ut, educators and policy makers were able to shield themselves from direct confrontation with th e inequities of schooling, the vagaries of the labor market, the paradoxes of credentialism, and t he fear of dependency. This interpretation suggests that the particular construction of dropou ts was intentional, rather than endemic. Educators, on this view, could have constructed mat ters otherwise. The "dropout" then hid from educators and the public an improved (liberal) pros pect for education that might otherwise have been visible to them. In a broad sense, according t o this interpretation, social construction is taken to be willful --the result of managed discour se, not of conflict over discourse. The alternative reading, however, takes social cons truction to be the product of conflict whose sources arise outside of the discourse itself On this view, social constructions embody material interests, and the conflicts over discursi ve representations of the social world implicate disputes over the way that material interests are t ranslated into strategies of language. From this vantage, improvement has no absolute referent, and the truth of a claim depends on how it is contextualized, by whom, and toward what ends. This interpretation assumes that the position one takes on a question (for example, the question of dropouts) is not primarily voluntary, but constitutes an embodiment of one's material interes ts or alignments. Further, it posits that the truth of a claim is a matter internal to a position or constellation of interests, not susceptible to resolution across positions. With respect to dropouts, the alternative reading presents two (or more) opposing sets of interests, reasoned in ways to establish internal c oherence, but essentially incommensurable. One set of interests seeks to perpetuate social inequit ies, whether in the name of merit (e.g., recommending higher standards for degree attainment ) or in the name of recuperation (e.g., calling for lower dropout rates). Providing more so cial goods to those who have historically been deprived constitutes another set of interests. And curiously, this set of interests may also be represented by the invocation to increase high scho ol graduation rates of certain groups and to improve the quality of the high school curriculum. Failing to give a thorough accounting of the confl icts implicit in the discourse on dropouts, Dorn ultimately provides a simplified and rootless interpretation. One of his concluding remarks demonstrates how this failing le ads to a kind of incoherence. The way we have rationalized our expectation of gra duation, with the stereotype of


4 of 6the high school dropout, has focused on the most su perficial aspects of education-providing or maintaining the worth of credentials a nd preventing dependency and criminality. The social construction of the dropout problem has thus continued our national obsession with education either as a panac ea for social problems or as the last bulwark against urban chaos. (p. 132) What's wrong here is that Dorn imagines himself abl e to speak from some vantage external to social construction and, in a way, to discourse itself. If "we" are obsessed with a particular construction of education, how has Dorn managed to escape? If he hasn't escaped, how can he make the distinction between what is really "ration al" and what is arbitrarily "rationalized?" That this failing is subtle--some might say invisi ble or even manufactured--is testimony to Dorn's overall rigor and good will. He offers up a careful history in an effort to improve our outlook. The claim that his analysis of rhetoric mi ght have opened onto a wider view of what discourse embeds and reveals is hardly a condemnati on. One last tangent took me back to the library for a brief and seemingly irrelevant, though surprisingly instructive, inquiry into the context of Dorn's title. I found him, and, for better or worse, he finds himself in the company of: Creating the American Presidency, Creating the Best Impression, Creating the Big Game, Creating the Bill of Rights, Creating the Cap acity for Attachment, Creating the Caring Congregation, Creating the Child, Creati ng the Child-centered Classroom, Creating the Cold War University, Creati ng the College of the Sea, Creating the Commonwealth, Creating the Competitive Edge through Human Resource Planning, Creating the Computer, Creating the Conditions for School Improvement, Creating the Constitution, Creating th e Corporate Future, Creating the Country, Creating the Countryside, Creating the Couple, Creating the Empire of Reason, Creating the Entangling Alliance, Creating the Ergonomically Sound Workplace, Creating the European Community, Creatin g the Evangelizing Parish, Creating the Federal City, Creating the Federal Jud icial System, Creating the Future, Creating the Future for South Dakota, Creat ing the Future of Health Care Education, Creating the Future Today, Creating the Future--Agendas for Tomorrow, Creating the Global Company, Creating the High Performance International Petrol, Creating the High Performance Team, Creating the Human Environment, Creating the Inclusive Preschool, Crea ting the Kingdom of Ends, Creating the Language of Thought, Creating the Libr ary Identity, Creating the Literature Portfolio, Creating the Look, Creating t he Medical Marketplace, Creating the Modern South, Creating the Multi-age C lassroom, Creating the Nation in Provincial France, Creating the National Pastime Creating the New American Hospital, Creating the New Local Government, Creati ng the New Wealth, Creating the Nonsexist Classroom, Creating the North America n Landscape, Creating the Old Testament, Creating the Opportunity, Creating t he Palestinian State, Creating the Peaceable School, Creating the People's Univers ity, Creating the Perfect Database, Creating the Perfect House Dog, Creating the Post-communist Order, Creating the Quality School, Creating the Resilient Organization, Creating the School, Creating the Second Cold War, Creating the Service Culture, Creating the Source through Folkloristic Fieldwork, Creating the Story, Creating the Successful Business Plan, Creating the Teachable Moment, Creat ing the Team, Creating the Technical Report, Creating the Technopolis, Creatin g the Thoughtful Classroom, Creating the Total Quality Effective School, Creati ng the Unipart Calendar, Creating the Virtual Store, Creating the Welfare St ate, Creating the West, Creating the Work you Love, Creating the World, Creating the Writing Portfolio, and


5 of 6 Creating the 21st Century Through Innovation. Where exactly to locate Dorn's historical analysis among this crowd of persuaders, unpackers, and bandwagoneers is your decision. But despite a certain theoretical inattentiveness, he still occupies, in my view, a piece of the high ground.ReferencesAries, P. (1962). Centuries of childhood: A social history of family life. New York : Vintage Books.Berliner, D.C., Biddle, B.J. (1995). The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, fraud, and the atta ck on America's public schools. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, Margolin, L. (1994). Goodness personified: The emergence of gifted chil dren. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.Szasz, T.S. (1974). The myth of mental illness: Foundations of a theory of personal conduct (rev. ed.). New York, Harper & Row.Copyright 1996 by the Education Policy Analysis ArchivesEPAA can be accessed either by visiting one of its seve ral archived forms or by subscribing to the LISTSERV known as EPAA at (To sub scribe, send an email letter to whose sole contents are SUB EPAA y our-name.) As articles are published by the Archives they are sent immediately to the EPAA subscribers and simultaneously archived in three forms. Articles are archived on EPAA as individual files under the name of the author a nd the Volume and article number. For example, the article by Stephen Kemmis in Volume 1, Number 1 of the Archives can be retrieved by sending an e-mail letter to LISTSERV@a and making the single line in the letter rea d GET KEMMIS V1N1 F=MAIL. For a table of contents of the entire ARCHIVES, send the following e-mail message to INDEX EPAA F=MAIL, tha t is, send an e-mail letter and make its single line read INDEX EPAA F=MAIL.The World Wide Web address for the Education Policy Analysis Archives is Policy Analysis Archives are "gophered" in the directory Campus-Wide Inform ation at the gopher server INFO.ASU.EDU.To receive a publication guide for submitting artic les, see the EPAA World Wide Web site or send an e-mail letter to and include the single l ine GET EPAA PUBGUIDE F=MAIL. It will be sent to you by return e-mail. General questions about ap propriateness of topics or particular articles may be addressed to the Editor, Gene V Glass, Glass@asu.ed u or reach him at College of Education, Arizona Sta te University, Tempe, AZ 85287-2411. (602-965-2692)Editorial Board Greg John


6 of 6Andrew Coulson Alan Davis Sherman Dorn Mark E. Thomas F. Alison I. Arlen Gullickson Ernest R. Aimee Craig B. Howley u56e3@wvnvm.bitnet William Richard M. Jaeger Benjamin Thomas Dewayne Mary P. Les Susan Bobbitt Anne L. Hugh G. Richard C. Anthony G. Rud Dennis Jay Robert Robert T.


1 of 2 Contributed Commentary on Volume 4 Number 15: Howley A Review of Dorn's Creating the Dropout 6 September 1996 Sherman Aimee Howley's review of my book Creating the Dropout focuses on my social constructivist perspective on dropping out. She say s, quite accurately, that I have not placed myself in the now burgeoning literature on deconstr uction except by my own analysis. I plead no contest, with one caveat: Howley's claim that I am avoiding theoretical writing refers to deconstruction methodology, not my discussion of dr opping out itself. Howley does not discuss that in as much detail, and I trust her recommendat ion to read the book implies I have done THAT job at least adequately. The following, then, is a personal gloss on decons truction and the social construction of dropping out. Howley's most pointed criticism (at least to me) i s noting that my description of the dropout literature of the 1960s as "irrational" imp lies the existence of some rational description. Again, I agree that that phrasing is a bit crude. I would be more accurate in saying that Daniel Schreiber and others promoting the idea of a "dropo ut problem" implied they were being rational and, by their own standards, were inconsistent in t hat claim. Howley also asserts that I have tried to place mys elf outside the social construction of issues by implying some best construction of droppi ng out, especially in the final chapter where I suggest that viewing dropping out as an issue of in equities as an alternative. I make no explicit claim of being objective, nor do I think of myself as such. What I find as a legitimate use of deconstruction -and of my book -is in pointing out alternatives to the dominant social construction of an issue. The larger argument of th e book, stated on page four, is that we have chosen the wrong way of viewing dropping out. Faced with two options, I prefer seeing education as a right of citizenship, not primarily as a tool of socialization. Stating my preference among historical options -and staking a claim to the EXISTENCE of those options -is not tantamount to claiming objectivity. It is claiming that we have the will to choose a particular social construction among feasible options. Here, Howley and I part company on the value of de construction. If the social construction of issues is not at least partly voluntary (and what else would you call it when the Ford Foundation subsidizes a deliberate campaign to call attention to a "dropout problem"?), then what is the point of deconstruction? I know that Ho wley would not suggest that we wallow in the despair of being pawns in a giant chess game beyond our imagining. Yet, in the review, she implies that the social construction of issues is d ominated by social and material conflicts beyond the agency of individuals involved in creating that social construction. I disagree. Philadelphia civil rights workers knew well their disagreements with a public school system that systematically discounted the aspirations and abili ties of African-American children. The


2 of 2Children's Defense Fund was deliberately criticizin g how Southern schools had responded to desegregation when it labeled as "pushout" the thou sands of African-American students suspended in newly-integrated schools. They were si lenced, relatively speaking, but they were not ignorant, and neither should we be of their exi stence. I also disagree with Howley's implication that we all need to label ourselves at some point when we deconstruct. Deconstruction as a methodolog y will succeed only when we no longer have to apologize, genuflect, and label our work "T HIS IS DISCOURSE ON DISCOURSE" as we do so. Howley's own recognition of what I have d one suggests that my more narrow discussion of the literature on social construction in the introduction, as well as the entire book, was sufficient for her to pigeonhole part of my met hodology. If others are able to deconstruct me, and I can only disagree with them as far as I do wi th Howley, then I'll stand by my book as a legitimate use of deconstruction.

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Educational policy analysis archives.
n Vol. 4, no. 15 (September 06, 1996).
Tempe, Ariz. :
b Arizona State University ;
Tampa, Fla. :
University of South Florida.
c September 06, 1996
Includes EPAA commentary by Sherman Dorn.
Review of Dorn's Creating the dropout / Aimee Howley.
x Research
v Periodicals.
2 710
Arizona State University.
University of South Florida.
1 773
t Education Policy Analysis Archives (EPAA)
4 856