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NEPC Talks Education: Discussing Teacher Dissent in Neoliberal Times

BOULDER, CO (December 17, 2020) – In this month’s episode of the NEPC Talks Education podcast, NEPC Researcher Christopher Saldaña interviews Dr. Terrenda White, a professor and sociologist of education in the School of Education at the University of Colorado Boulder. White’s research focuses on market-based education reforms in urban communities, and its cultural and pedagogical impact on teacher dispositions, teacher professional autonomy and identity, and the development of inclusive classroom practices. Professor White is the author of several peer-reviewed publications and the co-author of Twenty-First-Century Jim Crow Schools: The Impact of Charters on Public Education.

Saldaña and White discuss her work on a conceptual framework for understanding diversity in teacher activism during neoliberal times. Using the terms “teacher publics,” “counter-publics,” and “alternative publics,” White explains that teacher groups can vary in how they engage in and advocate for educational change. For example, she offers the Chicago Teacher Union (CTU) and the organization Teach for America (TFA) as two examples of this phenomenon. Both groups are “teacher publics,” but CTU’s approach to educational change is rooted in engaging teachers and community in challenging policies that contribute to educational inequity. Alternatively, TFA advocates for educational change in ways that bypass community engagement to instead leverage connections to philanthropic organizations, powerful business leaders, and influential political leaders. White explains that distinguishing between how teachers participate in the process of educational change opens an opportunity for educational stakeholders to consider which groups are increasing the democratic aspects of public education.

According to White, neoliberal policies can and have had a pernicious effect on certain teacher groups. For instance, she explains that neoliberal policies have had a negative effect on the professional experiences of Black women teachers. White notes that these teachers have demonstrated their effectiveness in supporting and creating culturally responsive and anti-racist classroom environments. Nonetheless, because they often teach in large urban communities and schools, they disproportionately teach in schools that have been shaped by neoliberal educational reforms, such as school closures, school competition, and test-based teacher accountability. As a result, Black female teachers are more likely to face restrictions on their teaching autonomy and teach in classrooms that are inadequately resourced. These circumstances, she argues, lead to Black women leaving the profession.

White recommends that policymakers consider the effect of neoliberal policies on teachers, and in particular, Black women teachers. Doing so, she argues, will begin to address the racist and deficit-oriented practices that limit the educational opportunity of students. She also recommends that this process of educational assessment and change be undergirded by a “counter-public” approach, a movement that catalyzes both teachers and community members to challenge policies that threaten and diminish educational equity.

A new NEPC Talks Education podcast episode, hosted by Christopher Saldaña, will be released each month from September through May. 

Don’t worry if you miss a month. All episodes are archived on the NEPC website and can be found here.

NEPC podcast episodes are also available on Apple PodcastsSpotify, and Stitcher, under the title NEPC Talks Education. Subscribe and follow!

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC), a university research center housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education, produces and disseminates high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. Visit us at: