Record: Linda Renzulli, “Educational Transformations and Why Sociology Should Care” in Social Currents 1, no. 2 (2014): 149-156. [Available Here]
Summary: Renzulli, a professor of sociology at the University of Georgia, here lays out two claims. First, she believes that public education in the United States is experiencing two contradictory trends at once—centralization and standardization of curriculum, assessment, and accountability in public schools on one hand and growing local control and autonomy among alternative forms of public education like charter schools and vouchers on the other. Second, she is concerned that sociologists of education have not dealt sufficiently with these trends. Homeschooling comes into play in this analysis as an example of privatizing trends and as a pool of customers for virtual charter schools.
Renzulli begins with a brief and cursory literature review whose goal is to convince sociologists of education that their discipline has attended so much to inequities within the school system that they have missed the broader political changes that have been swirling around them that are transforming the institutions and organization of schooling in the United States. The change she is most interested in here is that toward decentralization, which she associates with “neo-liberalism,” defined as a philosophy that “presses for free trade, markets, privatization, and deregulation.” (p. 150) The two examples of neo-liberalism in action she discusses here are charter schools and homeschooling. For her, homeschooling represents “an avenue by which families distance themselves from a public good and toward a personal good.” (p. 151) When schools have something homeschoolers want, like sports teams or free computers via virtual charters, they are interested, but they otherwise want nothing to do with public education.
In addition to her brief treatment of homeschooling, Renzulli summarizes scholarship finding at best mixed results for charter schools. She also discusses the standardization trend as embodied at both the federal and state level through such initiatives as No Child Left Behind and the Common Core. Her point with all of this, again, is to awaken sociologists of education to the profoundly transformative implications of trends like this. She especially would like to see sociologists partner with political scientists to insert a political dimension of analysis into their works.
Appraisal: Not being a card-carrying sociologist of education I am not equipped to evaluate the degree to which Renzulli has accurately characterized the state of her field. While there are many books and articles coming out all the time about the very topics she is urging sociologists to take up, perhaps it is true that none of them are being written by sociologists of education. Here, for example, are a few books I’ve used in the past few years in my own educational foundations course that do exactly what Renzulli is calling for in this article: Lareau and Goyette, eds., Choosing Homes, Choosing Schools, Carter and Welner, eds., Closing the Opportunity Gap: What America Must Do to Give Every Child an Even Chance, Duncan and Murnane, eds, Whither Opportunity?: Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children’s Life Chances, and Richard Rothstein’s classic 2004 Class And Schools: Using Social, Economic, And Educational Reform To Close The Black-White Achievement Gap.
As for homeschooling, I agree completely that it is part of the neo-liberal or libertarian ethos of our times. That is not all it is, but in terms of its location in debates about public education, that is a fair characterization. I might note that the first really good book written on homeschooling was by sociologist Mitchell Stevens. If Renzulli’s article inspires other sociologists to engage the phenomenon I would be delighted.
Milton Gaither, Messiah College