This study investigated how secondary teachers in suburban schools enact the critical conditions for equity and diversity in college access (Oakes, Mendoza, & Silver, 2004), taking into account technical, political, and cultural dimensions of reform (Oakes, 1992). The inquiry focused on how teachers facilitate access to a culture of college-going and to institutional supports within the context of a college-preparatory program. Teachers’ everyday interactions with their students served as an entry point to probe the relationship between school context factors and teachers’ sensemaking of their own actions on behalf of students. Participants in this qualitative study included ten teachers in four suburban Southern California high schools. Teachers sat for two semi-structured interviews each and provided a total of nearly 60 stories describing their everyday interactions with students.
Using theory of action (Argyris & Schön, 1978), sensemaking (Weick, Sutcliffe, & Obstfeld, 2005) and the technical, political, and cultural domains of school reform (Oakes, 1992) as lenses to guide analysis, three key findings emerged. First, from teachers’ perspectives, the degree of perceived campus-wide support for the college-prep program stems in part from the relationship between schoolwide and reform demographics. Next, teachers responded to the degree of perceived campus-wide support for the college-prep program by reconsidering the definition of its targeted student. This process has implications for equity and diversity in college access. Finally, teachers across contexts recognized and responded to institutional constraints in strategic ways, both in marshaling support for their programs and in helping their students access critical resources.
Teachers’ stories pointed to a paradox inherent in trying to ensure equity in college access on higher-income suburban campuses: underrepresented students attending such schools might have even less access to college-going resources and institutional supports than they would attending lower-income schools. Indeed, higher income suburban schools that enroll relatively few low-income and underrepresented students may face daunting cultural constraints to ensuring equitable access to college, as requisite institutional shifts necessarily challenge long-held beliefs and practices of those with power. However, such constraints can be overcome with careful attention and strategic responses to the complex political and cultural dynamics on campus.