Educational Opportunity in an Urban American High School

A Cultural Analysis

By Patrick James McQuillan

Subjects: Education
Paperback : 9780791435007, 243 pages, November 1997
Hardcover : 9780791434994, 243 pages, November 1997

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Table of contents

1. Educational Opportunity Through the Lens of American Culture
2. Winning the Battle and Losing the War: A Look at One Russell High Classroom
3. Low Cultural and Social Capital, Continued
4. One Student's World at Russell High: A (School) Day in the Life of Rafael Jackson
5. Reform that Reproduced: The 1992 Committee
6. Respectability Lost: An Historical Perspective on Russell High School
7. Affirming the Myth of Educational Opportunity
8. Eastown: A City Divided
9. So What?
Appendix: Methodological Reflections

Focusing on issues of equity and opportunity in one urban high school, the book reveals how prominent American cultural values--in particular, students', teachers', and administrators' conceptions of educational opportunity--undermined the education that students received.


This five-year ethnographic study examines issues of educational opportunity at Russell High, a multiethnic school in the city of Eastown. Focusing on the beliefs and values of students, teachers, and administrators, this study reveals how prevailing cultural beliefs, the collective nature of the student population, and the structure of the school system worked in concert, albeit unintentionally, to foster inequality. To make such an argument, this study draws on American cultural conceptions of individualism and adolescence--exploring how these beliefs were manifested in classrooms, in the efforts of two reform initiatives, in a protest-turned-riot by African American students in spring 1969, in school assemblies, and in local media--and thereby reveals how and why Russell students experienced educational opportunity in similar ways, for similar reasons, and with similar outcomes. Beyond exploring the cultural taken-for-granted at Russell High, this study considers the implications of such understanding for promoting educational opportunity more equitably.

Patrick James McQuillan is Assistant Professor in the School of Education, University of Colorado. His previous work includes Reform and Resistance in Schools and Classrooms: An Ethnographic View of the Coalition of Essential Schools.


"A chilling account of the force of inertia American schools can mount in the face of reform. I dare anyone to sit down and read this book through without having to come up for air and a long walk. Educational Opportunity in an Urban American High School is a timely contribution to the analysis of historical, attitudinal, and social resistance to meaningful change in classroom life. " -- Shirley Brice Heath, Stanford University

"In a way rarely found in the literature, this book contains fine grained description of one urban high school, and, at the same time, places that school in the context of American culture. Anyone interested in educational reform and the impact of implicit and explicit characteristics of our culture will find this book both engrossing and instructive. " -- Seymour Sarason, Yale University

"McQuillan's documentation and analysis of a high school reform effort is thorough, intriguing and revealing. He attends carefully to the influence of American culture on urban society, and he thereby gives an important critique to policies which largely ignore the objects of schooling--the students themselves. He shows how even the best-intentioned reform effort stumbles when it takes too little account of the attitudes and expectations of adolescents. " -- Theodore R. Sizer, Chairman, Coalition of Essential Schools