26 SES 12 B, Leading High-Needs Schools And Schools In Challenging Circumstances
Like many nation states in Europe, U.S. schools are experiencing an increase in racial and cultural diversity due to internal demographic shifts and global population migrations. This increased diversity brings new education challenges and opportunities for nation states, schools, and leaders thereof. Many scholars refer to schools with changing demographics and related challenges of poverty as “high-needs”, including most recently scholars from the International School Leadership Development Network (ISLDN), (e.g.Gurr, Drysdale & Duke, 2014; Pashiardis, Braukmann & Kafa, 2018); however, the definition of “high needs” tends to rely on demographic descriptions or percentages of populations, socioeconomic status, and other numerical descriptors more than social theory. Pierre Bourdieu is one of the most influential theorists of the 21stcentury whose work has had a significant impact on social theory, culture, and education. Most education researchers are familiar with Bourdieu’s work to problematize the role of schools in reproducing social and cultural inequalities, and this paper extends Bourdieu’s thinking tools – habitus, capital, field, and practice – to problematize leadership in high-needs schools.
More specifically, this proposal posits two objectives as follows: 1) to re-examine the concept of ‘high-needs’ schools and leadership thereof; and 2) using this concept and Bourdieu’s thinking tools, revisit an empirical ISLDN case of leadership from a high-needs rural elementary school located in the southeastern United States.
The ISLDN project is closely related to an earlier and long-standing network, the International Successful School Principalship Project (ISSPP). Across much of this literature, scholars focused on leadership in “high needs” or challenging school contexts.Closely related, the ISLDN was developed as a joint initiative of the British Educational Leadership, Management, and Administration Society (BELMAS) and the University Council for Educational Administration (UCEA). Studies in ISLDN examine leadership practices in high-needs schools. Many other scholars have studied leadership in high needs schools, including the effective schools’ studies from the 1970s through the 1990s in the U.S. (e.g. Edmonds, 1979; Murphy & Hallinger, 1985; Purkey & Smith, 1993), and studies of leadership in challenging schools in the U.K. (Harris, 2002). Across this literature, scholars have studied relationships between leaders and school organizations as these are situated within so-called high-needs contexts, but the concepts of high needs context and leadership within these school contexts are undertheorized from the standpoint of social theory. We see Bourdieu’s work as a way to enhance and deepen understandings developed from this literature.
Bourdieu’ social theory seeks to develop a dialectical relationship between structure and individual agency. When applied to educational leadership, Bourdieu’s work allows educational leadership researchers to examine the work of school principals within contextual constraints. A few researchers (Lingard & Christie, 2003; Thomson, 2017) have theorized leadership from a Bourdieuian perspective, and we extend their work here to further explain social practice of leadership in schools.
Bourdieu developed a set of intellectual tools he described as “thinking tools” - habitus, culture, field, and practice (Wacquant, 1989; Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992). Bourdieu (1984) developed a formula to understand and explain the social practice: [(habitus)(capital)] + field = practice (p.101). Bourdieu’s thinking tools are very useful for theorizing habitus, cultural capital and public spaces, and, recently, a few scholars have applied Bourdieu’s theories to educational leadership. (Lingard & Christie, 2003; Eacott, 2010), argue Bourdieu’s work can help educational leadership researchers examine individual agency of the school leader within the contextual constraints. This formula should be used as an explanatory tool not a solution to social practice. The formula also shows the need for us to understand practice we must examine habitus and capital within the various fields.
Bourdieu argues that knowledge was formed in fields which shape and influence meaning therefore as researchers we must engage in epistemological critique of all knowledge (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992). In this case Bourdieu is asking researchers to question the creation of knowledge; therefore, we must re-examine the concept of ‘high-needs’ schools. In other words, reflexivity is central to Bourdieu’s work. For Bourdieu, reflexivity is an absolutely central concern because it is essential for researchers to interrogate themselves to understand the symbolic power of knowledge and its use in advancing particular interests and uses. Reflexivity is also important for good and rigorous research; as educational leadership researchers we are dealing with experiences where “meaning” is of essence; social concepts such as ‘high-needs’ schools exist because of the “meaning” attached to test scores and other accountability measures. Therefore, researchers must make meaning of these concepts and also be aware (to the extent possible) of the bias entailed in looking at the world from one's own perspective. We will utilize Bourdieu’s methodological approach when we revisit the empirical ISLDN case described in this paper. Bourdieu outlined the principles of his methodology (Bourdieu, 1989; 1992): a) the researcher must analyze the position of the field in relation to the field of power, b) the mapping of the positioning of agents (teachers, principal, superintendent, school board member) within the field, c) an analysis of the habitus or dispositions of these agents within the field.
Bourdieu’s thinking tools will help us understand practices in ‘high-needs’ schools in terms of the social spaces, and positions and relations of agents. This paper will draw on examples from an ISLDN empirical study to illustrate how the thinking tools can help us understand practice in these high-needs schools: [(habitus)(capital)] + field = practice. Bourdieu argues that the thinking tools cannot be used separately (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992); they help us to understand practice, and particularly to uncover the workings of power and inequality in particular social spaces. However, Wacquant (1992) reminds us that “an invitation to think with Bourdieu is of necessity an invitation to think beyond Bourdieu, and against him whenever required.” (p.xiv). In other words, we must also problematize the use of Bourdieu’s methodology in understanding practice in schools.
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