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"Boston Public" as Public Pedagogy: Implications for Teacher Preparation and School

Author(s): Linda C. Tillman and James Trier
Source: Peabody Journal of Education, Vol. 82, No. 1, The Media, Democracy and the
Politics of Education (2007), pp. 121-149
Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.
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Boston Public as Public Pedagogy:

Implications for Teacher Preparation and
School Leadership
Linda C. Tillman and James Trier
University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill

The media play a major role in the construction of popular cultural "texts,"
such as films and television programs. These media forms are conceptual
ized as "public pedagogies"?i.e., as texts that have great potential to teach
the public about a wide range of educational issues. This article focuses
attention on the representation of teachers and principals in the popular
television series Boston Public. Specifically, the authors provide two compli
mentary accounts of how the representations of teachers and principals can
be engaged through critical analyses or "readings." One account develops a
deconstructive reading of how Boston Public treats teacher preparation,
teacher competence, and principal leadership. The second account exam
ines how preservice teachers were engaged in multiple readings of the
program. The article concludes by suggesting that analyzing popular repre
sentations of teachers and educational leaders in film and television can
become one important strategy, among others, for developing critically
reflective educational leaders and teachers.

The general theme of this special issue concerns the role that the media
play in educational politics. This article connects to that theme by focus
ing on one important role that the media play in the production of cul
tural politics via popular culture "texts" such as films and television

Correspondence should be sent to Linda C. Tillman, University of North Carolina

Chapel Hill, CB#3500, Peabody Hall, Chapel Hill, NC 27599. E-mail:


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L. C. Tillman and J. Trier

programs. More specifically, this article contributes to the literature about

popular representations of educators and students in films and television
programs. A robust academic literature base exists that explores in detail
how educators and students have been represented in films and television
programs. Books on the subject include David Considine's (1985) The
Cinema of Adolescence; Mary Dalton's (2004) The Hollywood Curriculum;
Farber, Provenzo, and Holm's (1994) Schooling in the Light of Popular
Culture; Timothy Shary's (2002) Generation Multiplex: The Image of Youth in
Contemporary Cinema; and Robert Bulman's (2005) Hollywood Goes to High
School. There are also many articles and book chapters that have appeared
on the subject (e.g., Ayers, 1994; Bauer, 1998; Burbach & Figgins, 1993;
Cohen, 1999; Edelman, 1983; Freedman, 1999; Giroux, 1993, 2002;
Jagodzinski, 2003; Joyrich, 1995; Keroes, 1999; Long, 1996; Reed, 1989;
Robertson, 1995; Schwartz, 1960; Smith, 1999; Trier, 2003c).
This focus on popular culture texts is of crucial importance because
such representations function as what Henry Giroux has often referred to
as public pedagogies. For example, in his book Public Spaces, Private Lives,
Giroux (2003) used the phrase public pedagogies to politicize films and
other media (or "popular") culture texts in society. Giroux (2003), in a dis
cussion about films, articulated one of his central arguments about all
cultural texts, which is that they

work pedagogically to legitimate some meanings, invite particular

desires, and exclude others. Acknowledging the educational role of
such films requires that educators and others find ways to make the
political more pedagogical. One approach would be to develop a peda
gogy of disruption that would attempt to make students and others
more attentive to visual and popular culture as an important site of
political and pedagogical struggle. Such a pedagogy would raise ques
tions regarding how certain meanings under particular historical con
ditions become more legitimate as representations of the real than
others or how certain meanings take on the force of commonsense
assumptions and go relatively unchallenged in shaping a broader set of
discourses and social configurations, (pp. 78-79)

One way?and it is the main way?that educators have attempted to

focus attention on the cultural politics of popular representations of edu
cators and students is through producing deconstructions (textual analy
ses) of particular films and television programs. For example, Giroux's
(2002) book Breaking in to the Movies is a collection of essays that appeared
over a 25-year period in which he critically analyzed and deconstructed
many films, including films about educators, such as Dangerous Minds,


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Boston Public as Public Pedagogy

Dead Poets Society, and 187. Giroux explained that such essays can serve as
examples to other educators and students of how

to engage the ethical and practical task of analyzing critically how films
function as social practices that influence [students'] everyday lives and
position them within existing social, cultural, and institutional
machineries of power; how the historical and contemporary meanings
that films produce, align, reproduce, and interrupt broader sets of ideas,
discourses, and social configurations at work in the larger society, (p. 7)

Along with producing deconstructive readings, educators can also

engage students in collectively viewing and analyzing films, which is an
approach that Giroux has also taken. For example, Giroux (1993)
explained how he engaged a group of graduate students in viewing and
analyzing the film Dead Poets Society for the kind of pedagogy it repre
sented through the figure of Mr. Keating. Both Giroux and his students
wrote and shared their interpretations of the film, discussed the film in
seminars, engaged in academic readings, and dialectically constructed a
new view of Mr. Keating's pedagogy. One of Giroux's purposes in the
project had been to give students "the opportunity to analyze the plural
ity of meanings that informed the film" (p. 48).
In this article, we provide accounts of the two ways of engaging with
popular culture texts described through Giroux's examples. Whereas
most of the academic literature cited earlier takes Hollywood films as
objects of critique, we have conceptualized the television program Boston
Public as being an important public pedagogy to be analyzed?or
"read"?for the educational discourses that it constructs and circulates to
a wide national audience (others who have written about Boston Public
include Banks & Espisito, 2002; Freedman & Easley, 2004). In the first part
of the article, Tillman performs a deconstructive reading of Boston Public
(similar to the method Giroux used) from an oppositional location, engag
ing in an ideological critique of how the program represents the educa
tional policy issues of teacher preparation, teacher competence, and
principal leadership. In the second part of the article, Trier discusses how
he took up Boston Public as part of a teacher preparation course he taught,
using the program as a pedagogical text to involve students in multiple
readings of different episodes of the program.
Stuart Hall's (1980) conceptualization of preferred, negotiated, and
oppositional readings figures importantly in the analyses undertaken by
Tillman as well as by Trier's students. A brief explanation of this theory of
reading, as Hall articulated it in "Encoding/decoding," would go like
this: A preferred reading is one that a text continually works to achieve


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through its presences and absences (or silences). Viewers who share the
dominant ideologies encoded in a text are likely to see the text as the text
sees itself. A negotiated reading is one that recognizes the contradictory ele
ments in a text, that does not accept all the elements that fit a preferred
reading, that might read some elements in an oppositional way in part,
but that does not read in a totally oppositional way. An oppositional reading
is an activation of a text that rejects what a preferred reading accepts,
resulting in a reading that can indeed "read the signs" but refuses to
follow their direction. Such readings are attuned to the presences and
absences (silences) of a text and read from an oppositional ideological
ground. Examples of Hall's theory of reading can be readily found at the
Internet Movie Database Web site ( All one needs
to do is look at the user reviews of any given film to find reactions to the
very same film that are totally negative (oppositional), totally glowing
(preferred), and mixed (negotiated).
To frame these two complementary parts of the article, we first briefly
describe Boston Public so that readers unfamiliar with the program will
have some sense of it.

Introducing Boston Public (to the Reader)

Boston Public was an hour-long television drama that was broadcast on

the Fox Network (and lives on in reruns and on DVDs).1 The pilot for the
program aired on October 23,2000, and during the next 4 years, 81 episodes
of the program were aired. In a typical episode, much of the action takes
place within Winslow High, an urban school in Boston, though the plot does
occasionally situate teachers, administrators, and students outside of school.
The main dramatic focus is on the principal, the vice principal, and a group
of teachers. Although many students appear in each episode, most of the
plots are concerned with the desires, thoughts, emotions, struggles,
successes, failures, misjudgments, challenges, and disappointments of the
teachers and administrators. During the 4 seasons of the program, many of
the teacher characters were replaced with new characters, but the principal
and vice principal characters remained constant. Boston Public won Black
Entertainment Television Network's Image Award after its first season, and
there was an almost equal casting of Black and White main characters (the
principal is Black, and the vice principal is White?both are male).

1Boston Public is intermittently rerun on the Women's Entertainment (WE) channel in the
United States, and Trier has seen it rerun on Canadian television (a discovery made while
attending the American Educational Research Association meeting in Montreal in 2005). All
81 episodes are regularly on auction on eBay, too.


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If one's introduction to Boston Public were to take the form of attending

only to the visual representations constructed in the episodes (by turning
off the volume), one feature of the program that would become readily
apparent is that much of the action in every episode takes place within the
school, and that the school's architecture is visually represented in a realis
tic fashion. The hallways, lockers, classrooms, administrative offices, main
office area, teachers' lounge, and other areas create the impression that the
program is being filmed within a real school (rather than on some sort of
Welcome Back, Kotter studio stage in front of an audience). One would also
discover that every episode is composed of scenes in which we see depicted
the everyday activities and events of schooling that all educators (as well as
the viewing public) would easily recognize. For example, we often see
teachers or principals meeting with parents; the school counselor meeting
with students; students engaged in practicing some extracurricular activity,
such as choir, orchestra, basketball, and soccer. Thus, many of the "core"
visual elements of Boston Public capture the everyday aspects of schooling
quite realistically and recognizably.
What happens when?to quote a school film title?one "pumps up the
volume" of the program? One main discovery is that there are no slow, dull
days at this television high school?slow, dull days don't translate into high
ratings?and the program has at times necessarily been unrealistic, "over
the top," and in some instances simply absurd. The main way this aspect of
the program has played itself out is in how, during every episode, many
crises of a violent, sexual, or life-and-death nature typically take place?
more crises in one school day than typically visit a "real" school during an
entire academic year. Another main discovery, however, is that the program
has dealt quite realistically with a plethora of important educational issues
that have also been addressed in academic literature on education, as well
as by the news media. For example, there have been episodes about budget
cuts, standardized testing, teacher certification (or alternative routes into
teaching), cheating on tests, gay-bashing among students, sexual relations
between teachers and students, bullying, violence in school, the use of
Ritalin, and literally dozens of other issues relevant to education. Because
the program deals with so many educational issues, it is a rich text that has
the potential to be taken up for a variety of critical pedagogical purposes.

Tillman: Education Meets Boston Public

According to Gause (2005), Boston Public "specifically speaks to the life

and culture of an inner city high school and plays out educational
policy in the media" (p. 336). Gause also noted that Boston Public is one of


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the numerous examples of the media's dominance in shaping school

culture. In this section, I (Tillman) provide a theoretical discussion of the
themes of teacher preparation, teacher competence, and principal leader
ship as they are represented in several episodes of the series Boston Public.
Whereas my colleague, James Trier, and I both use Boston Public as a peda
gogical text (in his case with preservice teachers), my discussion focuses
on (mis)representations of teacher preparation and, more specifically,
teacher competence. Further, my discussion of principal leadership
addresses the principal's role in facilitating teacher competence and thus
student achievement. Of importance, the manner in which these themes
are presented in popular culture can contribute to myths and misconcep
tions about teacher competence, principal leadership, and urban school
ing. Representations of teaching, learning, and leadership can also have
implications for the way in which educational policy is discussed and per
haps shaped at the local, state, and federal level. For example, Gause
noted that "angry parents have utilized popular culture and the media to
influence school board elections, city council appointments, and employ
ment decisions regarding principals at 'choice' and 'magnet' schools in
the southeastern part of the United States" (p. 336). In addition, Duncan
Andrade and Morrell (2005) argued for the recognition and inclusion of
popular culture in the literacy curriculum in urban schools. Thus, Boston
Public, as well as other forms of popular culture, contains themes and
messages that are relevant to urban schooling and at the same time attack
teachers, students, parents, and administrators, and particularly when
they are people of color.
For the purpose of this discussion, Boston Public serves as a medium for
investigating how popular culture presents particular educational and
societal issues in the urban context and how these presentations could
influence how viewers construct their meanings about these issues. The
episodes were analyzed using Hall's (1980) theory of oppositional read
ings of texts, which occur "when an individual's social location puts them
in direct opposition with the dominant ideology" (Banks & Esposito,
2002, p. 237). In my discussion I present no evidence to suggest that Boston
Public can or has directly influenced educational policy or public percep
tion with respect to teacher competence, principal leadership, or urban
schooling. Rather, my purpose is similar to Giroux's (2002), who wrote

I make no claims suggesting that there is a direct correlation between

what people see, hear, and read and how they act; between the repre
sentations they are exposed to and the actual events that shape their
lives. But I do argue that film as a form of civic engagement and public
pedagogy creates a climate that helps to shape individual behavior and


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public attitudes in multiple ways, whether consciously or uncon

sciously, (p. 11)

Using an oppositional reading of the episodes as a method of analysis,

I posit that the portrayals of teachers, students, parents, and administra
tors on the series Boston Public have the power to problematize the dis
course about what educational policies are needed to address the
challenges faced by these individuals who are key stakeholders in urban
schools like the fictional Winslow High School.

The "Anybody Can Do It" View of the Teaching Profession

I have to take a course and I get an emergency certification thing, the

crisis being the teacher shortage.
(Ronnie Cook, new provisionally certified
teacher on Boston Public)

An oppositional reading of a text occurs when an individual's social

location (e.g., race, class, gender, or disability) causes him or her to dis
agree with a dominant ideology. My oppositional reading of Boston Public
is based on my multiple social locations?being a university professor
(specializing in educational leadership), having experience in the urban
high school context as a teacher and member of the administrative team,
and being an African American. Thus, my oppositional reading of Boston
Public (the text) incorporates issues related to teaching, learning, leader
ship, and race. My oppositional reading of the text also results from the
ways in which Boston Public appears to trivialize the complexities of edu
cation, particularly in large urban school districts with majority African
American or other minority student populations. My analysis of the text
takes into consideration that, as Trier (2003c) noted,

the meanings one makes of a text can be radically different from some
one else's, and [that] the difference in the readings lies less in the text
and more in who is reading it, as well as when and under what circum
stances and with whom they are reading it. (p. 129)

Boston Public is an example of a popular television show about school

ing that is "couched in dominant ideologies of racism, classism, hetero
sexism, and patriarchy" (Banks & Esposito, 2002, p. 236). According to
Banks and Esposito, the text of Boston Public reinforces stereotypes about
urban schooling and White teachers as great White hopes who know


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what is best for all students, but particularly African American and
low-income students. A careful reading-viewing of the text of Boston
Public reveals that teachers are placed in distinct categories: African
American teachers are cruel, uncaring, and mentally unbalanced (Ms.
Hendricks) or sultry yet compassionate and caring (Ms. Sudor). Although
the depictions of these teachers are reinforced in almost every episode, the
viewer knows very little about their professional training or their compe
tence as teachers. On the other hand, a teacher like Ms. Davis, a White
teacher with blonde hair, is frequently described as "elegant" by the prin
cipal and is generally thought to be a Michelle Pfeiffer-like figure2 in
terms of her dedication to all students, but particularly students of color
and low-income students. These students seem to have problems that
only a Michelle Pfeiffer-type White teacher can solve. As is the case with
the African American teachers, the viewer knows very little about Ms.
Davis's competence as a teacher, but it is generally assumed by
the administration, teachers, students, parents, and staff that she is an
excellent teacher.
Enter another Michelle Pfeiffer type, Ms. Ronnie Cook, who made the
statement opening this section. Ronnie Cook, an attorney, was the guest
speaker in a class at Winslow High. During her presentation to the class, a
fight breaks out between two male students?an African American and a
Latino. After the fight, the teacher, Mr. Senate, tells Ronnie that teaching is
"really getting to him." She is sympathetic and suggests that he "get some
help." It is not clear exactly what kind of help Mr. Senate should seek, as
Ms. Cook has no background in counseling, teaching, learning, or class
room management; nevertheless, it is expected that her suggestion would
seem reasonable to the viewer. Later that evening, Ms. Cook tells her
boyfriend the guest teaching experience changed her and she is consider
ing changing careers and becoming a teacher. Surprised, he asks her
"Don't you have to take some courses to teach?" and questions why she
wants to be a "minimum wage babysitter." Because he is very concerned
about her sudden, irrational decision, he also tells her, "Anybody can
teach. Why don't you just wait until you are no longer capable of practic
ing law?" Undeterred and confident that she is making the right decision,
Ronnie responds, "I felt more alive" as a guest teacher. When he asks her
if "they just let you teach without any training," she tells him that she has
to "take a course" and she will "get an emergency certification thing?the
crisis being the teacher shortage." Having now made her decision, and

2Pfeiffer played the teacher Louise Johnson in the blockbuster school film Dangerous


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convinced that she can "save" the poor, disadvantaged, troubled students
at Winslow High, she goes to the principal, Mr. Harper, and announces,
"I want to be a teacher" (apparently no application process is necessary).
Her announcement is accompanied by the appropriate serious, mournful
music. The viewer senses that something profound has happened or is
about to happen at Winslow High.
Without giving Ms. Cook's request any serious thought (he simply
agrees to hire her), Principal Harper assigns her to a "remedial class."
Despite Mr. Senate's warning that he is "throwing her to the wolves,"
Principal Harper rationalizes that he is putting the new teacher "in a place
where her inexperience won't be a factor" and because "parents won't
care?they will be happy to keep their kids out of juvenile detention." He
adds that if he puts this untrained, uncertified, inexperienced teacher in a
regular class, the parents of those students will complain. Besides, he
believes she is "tough" and can handle the job. The education of the reme
dial students is now entrusted to the uncertified, inexperienced Ms. Cook,
who begins her teaching career the next day.
Many of the teachers at Winslow High are angered over the principal's
decision to hire the inexperienced Ronnie Cook. A veteran teacher com
plains, "It's bad enough to face societal and parental disrespect, but when
it comes from the administration, at some point we have to respond."
According to some teachers, the hiring of an uncertified, inexperienced
individual as a teacher reinforced the perception that anyone could "walk
in off the street and be an educator." Principal Harper is aware of the
teachers' concerns about this issue and fears there will be an organized
protest of some sort. While discussing the situation with his assistant
principal, Mr. Guber, he states, "I sure hope she can teach, because the
teachers are grumbling again."
As the semester progresses, Ms. Cook becomes the resident expert on
many issues. For example, in one episode she counsels parents about
whether their son should or should not take Ritalin and whether the
family should seek psychological counseling. Of interest, the parents
actually listen to Ronnie, take her advice, and thank her for helping them
to make critical decisions about their son's future. The viewer is led to
believe that parents are less intelligent than the teacher, have no idea
where to go for assistance, and have no power. Apparently because of the
presence and wisdom of Ronnie Cook, there is now a sense of hope at
Winslow High. This episode ends with the African American students
and teachers singing a feel-good song, "Wake Up Everybody." In many of
the Boston Public episodes African American students at Winslow High
are portrayed as disadvantaged underachievers and the competence of
the African American teachers at the school is questionable. However, the


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ending scene appears to suggest that because African Americans can sing,
their vocal talents can solve issues related to teacher competence and how
it can affect student achievement.
Several issues are relevant to Principal Harper's decision to hire the
uncertified, inexperienced Ronnie Cook. First, as Ms. Cook correctly
points out, there is a teacher shortage in public education. As I noted
elsewhere (Tillman, 2005), many students in urban schools have less
access to teachers who are certified in critical subject matter areas such as
math, science, and bilingual education. Thus, although school districts
are expected to produce high test scores, many students in urban schools
are less likely to be exposed to instruction that prepares them to succeed
in an era of high-stakes testing that drives school reform efforts.
Many states have begun to address the teacher shortage by imple
menting alternative teacher education training and certification
programs (e.g., Pathways to Teaching, Teach for America, North
Carolina's lateral entry program). Although these programs vary in
scope and program and licensure requirements, they share a common
purpose: They are targeted to address teacher shortages in key subject
matter areas and teacher shortages in districts that are considered hard to
staff. The term alternatively certified teacher can be ambiguous (Miller,
McKenna, & McKenna, 1998) and may include individuals who have
been issued provisional, emergency licenses to teach in an area of high
need but who have no specific content area training. In addition, these
teachers may also be graduates from disciplines such as the arts and
sciences who have completed the major requirements, in addition to a
fast track teacher preparation program. Other teachers may be identified
as alternatively certified if they meet certain competency requirements,
such as passing licensure exams or completing on-the-job training
through field-based experiences. Although alternative certification
programs have added more teachers to understaffed and hard-to-staff
schools, such programs have also been found to provide minimal train
ing in a condensed format that offers little support for and fails to pre
pare alternatively certified teachers to remain in the profession
(Darling-Hammond & Sykes, 2003). Darling-Hammond and Sykes noted
that such programs add to the "revolving door of ill-prepared teachers
who cycle through classrooms of disadvantaged schools, wasting district
resources and valuable learning time for their students" (p. 4). In an
analysis of national data, Darling-Hammond and Sykes found that indi
viduals who begin their careers without student teaching leave the
profession at "rates twice as high as those who have had such
practice teaching" (p. 5). Further, in a discussion of the teacher shortage,
Darling-Hammond (2005) noted,


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Unfortunately, policymakers have nearly always been willing to fill

vacancies by lowering standards so that people who have had little or
no preparation for teaching can be hired, especially if their clients are
"minority" and low-income students. Although this practice is often
excused by the presumption that virtually anyone can figure out how
to teach, a number of reviews of research have concluded that fully pre
pared and certified teachers are more highly rated and more successful
with students than teachers without full preparation, (p. 207)

Darling-Hammond added that studies have shown that teachers who

enter the classroom without being fully prepared or credentialed are

less able to plan and redirect instruction to meet students' needs (and
less aware of the need to do so), less skilled in implementing
instruction, less able to anticipate students' knowledge and potential
difficulties and less likely to see it as their job to do so, often blaming
students if their teaching is not successful, (p. 208)

Second, the issues of teacher assignment and ability tracking are relevant
to Principal Harper's decision. The net effect of Principal Harper's decision
to hire Ronnie Cook is the maintenance of an inequitable system of teacher
assignment that marginalizes low-income and minority students' opportu
nities for academic success. Principal Harper's decision also promoted an
ideology that suggests students should be placed in categories: those
students who are presumed to have the social and cultural capital (and pre
sumed intelligence) should be taught by highly qualified teachers; con
versely, those students who do not have the social and cultural capital (or
the intelligence) should be placed in remedial classes, taught by uncertified
teachers, counseled out of advanced placement classes, and encouraged to
pursue only a vocational-technical track of study.
Collectively the issues of teacher competence, teaching as a demeaning
profession, the challenges of the urban school context, educating minority
and low-income students, and questionable district and school policies
leave the viewer (citizens and policymakers) with both questions and con
clusions. The viewer may ask-conclude: To whom have we entrusted the
education of our children? Are the teachers certified? Are the teachers
competent? Have they received the appropriate training? No principal
would really place an uncertified, inexperienced individual in a class
room, would he or she? Boston Public presents a particular view of teacher
preparation and teacher competency and redefines it as an "anybody can
do it profession" even while Darling-Hammond (2005) noted that a key
element in student achievement is a competent teacher.


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Although I am not suggesting that all alternatively certified teachers fit

the Ronnie Cook scenario, it is the case that given the increased reliance
on alternative certification programs, it is possible that more classrooms
will be staffed with teachers who "take a course," receive a "certification
thing," and subsequently do not provide students with the social, emo
tional, and academic support they need to participate in school and soci
ety. Given that the teacher shortage will inevitably lead to hiring more
alternatively certified teachers, it is imperative that policies be adopted
and implemented that allow school officials to provide these individuals
the necessary teacher education training and the appropriate forms of
support that will help them to succeed and remain in the profession.

The (Mis)Representation of Principal Leadership

I am putting her in a place where her inexperience won't be a factor,

since I am in charge here.
(Mr. Harper, the principal on Boston Public)

In the preceding quote Principal Harper appears to be exercising his

authority with respect to the assignment of the uncertified teacher, Ronnie
Cook, to one of the remedial classes at Winslow High. Principal Harper
justifies his actions by assuring a teacher who questions his decision that
"parents won't care." This is one of the many decisions Harper is faced
with as principal of Winslow High School. African American principals
are primarily employed in the urban context (National Center for Educa
tional Statistics, 2004), where there are a myriad of challenges including
student underachievement, poverty, underfunding, and a shortage of cer
tified teachers (Gates, Ringel, Santibanez, Ross, & Chung, 2003). In addi
tion, principals who lead in the urban high school context rarely have
time to fulfill their roles as instructional supervisors or to participate in
curriculum coordination (Mertz & McNeely, 1998). Rather, they typically
adopt bureaucrat-administrator3 roles that focus on more indirect goals
of schooling such as verbal interactions with faculty, staff, students, and
parents; returning phone calls; settling disputes; patrolling the halls; and

3Lomotey (1993) referred to the four components of principal leadership as

bureaucrat-administrator role identity. The bureaucrat-administrator has the ability to (a)
develop goals, (b) harness the energy of the staff, (c) facilitate communication, and (d) be
involved in instructional management. The primary goal of a principal who assumes a
bureaucrat-administrator role identity is schooling?facilitating the movement of students
from grade to grade.


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performing a variety of managerial tasks. Yet, it is imperative that principals

in the urban high school context understand and respond to the need for
qualified and committed teachers, the imperative for building positive
relationships with parents, and internal and external factors that affect the
school culture. In addition, conveying a commitment to equity and excel
lence for all students is particularly important in the predominantly
African American urban school context because the teaching force remains
predominantly White, and cross-race student-teacher interactions can be
a critical factor in promoting student self-esteem and student success.
In many of the Boston Public episodes, Principal Harper is portrayed as
an indecisive leader who, among other things, is tolerant of teachers who
make racist comments about students and other teachers and who is
unsure of his own roles and responsibilities. Principal Harper (like some
of the teachers at Winslow) uses profanity; is easily frustrated by students,
teachers, and parents; and is often seen with a worried look on his face or
holding his head in his hands in despair. Thus, his character is usually
portrayed as ineffective. Rather than serving as an example of a Black
leader who adopts an ethnohumanist role identity4 (Tillman, 2004) or a
socially just leader who "interrogates the policies and procedures that
shape schools" (Dantley & Tillman, 2005), Harper is seen as a principal
who is being led by others in the particular context of Winslow High. For
example, he is aware that teachers are concerned about the hiring of an
uncertified teacher but avoids directly addressing their concerns. Rather
he retreats to his office and hopes that Ms. Cook can actually teach and
this particular problem will just go away. In another example, an African
American parent confronts Harper on several occasions challenging his
leadership style and decision making. Instead of attempting to work with
the parent (who is also portrayed as mentally unstable), he again retreats
to his office. It is the assistant principal, Mr. Guber, who stands up to the
African American parent, much to the delight of students who cheer
when he orders her out of the building. Principal Harper's skills relative
to building relationships with key stakeholders such as teachers and
parents are questionable. In another example, when Ronnie Cook is sud
denly promoted to assistant principal (against his wishes), Principal
Harper is at a loss to explain to his faculty (or himself) why she was pro
moted. Even while he is aware that Ms. Cook lacks the experience and the
credentials to be a teacher or assistant principal, there appears to be no
thought on his part how her inexperience might be detrimental to
According to Lomotey (1993), a leader who adopts an ethnohumanist role identity man
ifests the qualities of commitment to students, compassion for students and their families,
and confidence in the intellectual ability of students. The primary goal of a principal who
assumes an ethnohumanist role identity is education?meeting a set of cultural goals.


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students and the already fragile school culture at Winslow High.

Seemingly, this dilemma is resolved when Ms. Cook participates in
Principal Harper's defense in a manslaughter case against him and he is
cleared of all charges. He tells her, "I owe you my life." The mournful
music once again signals that something profound has happened at
Winslow High.
Traditional leadership theory describes principals as instructional lead
ers who coordinate curriculum; monitor student progress by assessing and
using test data; facilitate teacher competence by providing staff develop
ment, resources, and other forms of support; and establish a climate that is
conducive to student success (Hallinger & Heck, 1996). Witziers, Bosker,
and Kriiger (2003) noted that literature on school leadership suggests that
principals who are effective instructional leaders positively affect school cli
mate and student achievement. Principal Harper is portrayed as an ineffec
tive instructional leader, which contributes to negative stereotypes about
the leadership capacity of African American principals in urban schools. In
the Boston Public world, the urban high school context is chaotic, drugs and
violence are common, parents are uninformed and powerless, teachers are
incompetent, students are out of control, and sorting and tracking is the
norm. Teachers (and others) believe that in the words of Mr. Hanson, a
White teacher, "This isn't like a real school." In the case of Principal Harper,
his effectiveness is constantly being questioned by teachers, students, and
parents. Although he often makes threats, exercising a form of bureaucratic
leadership, he rarely follows through with any concrete decisions. For
example, he threatens to fire Ms. Hendricks if she does not take her medi
cine (the viewer is not sure how this affects her teaching); he threatens to
fire Mr. Hanson for using Randall Kennedy's (2002) book, Nigger: The
Strange Career of the Troublesome Word, in class; and he mildly threatens other
teachers for making racist comments and humiliating students in class.
However, this is television, and none of the teachers are fired (or even coun
seled), and no decisions about their behavior (and how their behaviors
affect students) are made. The Winslow High version of "principal as
instructional leader" is, in many of the episodes, contradictory to leader
ship theory and practice.
One of the implications of the (mis)representations of principal leader
ship on Boston Public is the possibility that the viewing audience may
internalize these images and come to believe that they are the reality in
every large, urban high school. Educational observers and policymakers
have criticized principal preparation programs, and numerous reports
have identified problems with the content, scope, focus, and relevance of
leadership training. A recurring theme in the critiques is how these issues
can affect the leadership practice of principals (Gates et al., 2003; Hale &


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Moorman, 2003; Levine, 2005). Some of the challenges identified in these

reports with respect to principal leadership are strangely familiar in many
episodes of Boston Public and include a safe and orderly school cli
mate; the recruitment, hiring, and retention of highly qualified teachers;
the absence of a vision, mission, and goals for the school; and student
In the next section, James Trier discusses how he engaged preservice
teachers in using Boston Public as a pedagogical text. His discussion
reveals the ways that preservice teachers did and did not liken their own
experiences to Boston Public. In addition, the findings are illustrative of
how Boston Public as a text can be read in multiple ways.

Trier: Taking Up Boston Public With Preservice Teachers

As has been demonstrated thus far, Boston Public can be ideologically

critiqued through an oppositional reading for the purposes of challenging
the meanings of how the program represents important issues in educa
tion, such as teacher competence and educational leadership. The pro
gram can also, however, be treated quite differently, as a text that has the
potential to engage future educators (both future teachers and adminis
trators) in exploring a wide range of educational issues, and it is to this
discussion that the article now turns.
A central aspect of my teaching and research practices has involved tak
ing up popular culture texts (films, television programs, music) for various
purposes with preservice teachers. The popular culture form that I have
used most extensively has been film, a practice also engaged in by others
in higher education (e.g., Brunner, 1994; Freedman, 1999; Giroux, 1993;
Mitchell & Weber, 1999; Paul, 2001; Robertson, 1995). The specific genre of
films that I have mainly designed projects around is one I call school films.
I define a school film as a film that is in some way?even incidentally?
about an educator or a student. This broad definition has allowed me to
include over 100 films in what might be called the school film genre.
Examples of recent school films are School of Rock and Elephant. Some well
known school films are Dead Poets Society, Mr. Holland's Opus, and
Dangerous Minds. Examples of lesser known ones are Zebrahead, Why Shoot
the Teacher?, and Not One Less. And examples of relatively obscure ones are
Elementary School, Zero for Conduct, and Tito and Me. I have designed many
critical projects around school films (Trier, 2001a, 2001b, 2002,2003a, 2003b,
2003c, 2004, 2005), and my reasons for taking up school films with preser
vice teachers include the following: to introduce concepts that are new to
students, to challenge students to reconsider certain assumptions they


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hold, and to engage students in analyzing important issues related to the

profession of teaching. In projects similar to those involving school films, I
have also taken up the television program Boston Public as a pedagogical
text with preservice teachers.

Introducing Boston Public to Secondary Preservice Teachers

Each preservice teacher enters the Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT)

program with a bachelor's degree in a particular discipline, and most of
the students have never taught. The particular cohort I discuss here was
an English cohort, composed almost exclusively of 20 young, White
female students who had attended either rural or suburban public schools
all of their lives. Most of these students had just received their bachelor's
degree a month before the MAT program began in the summer. Among
my main purposes with preservice teachers is to engage them, both before
and after their student teaching experience, in critically reflecting on a
wide range of issues concerning race, class, gender, social justice, equity,
and the politics that structure and shape the everyday experiences of
teachers. Toward this end, I designed a two-phase project involving
Boston Public. The first phase took place during the fall semester when
preservice teachers were taking courses and observing 1 full day each
week at their assigned school placements, where they would eventually
be student teaching for a 12-week period during the spring semester. The
second phase took place near the end of the spring semester, after they
finished their student teaching experience.
At the beginning of the fall semester, I explained that Boston Public
would become a key text (among others) in the course, and that we would
begin viewing the program when the new season began. Students were to
view the weekly episodes over a 2-month period, write a critically reflec
tive essay in response to each episode, and come prepared to discuss each
episode during the following seminar. As the air date of the season open
ing episode neared, I introduced Boston Public by first showing a "video
compilation" of scenes spliced together from different seasons (for more
on videocompilations, see Trier, 2003c). Next, I directed students to the
program's official Web site to become familiar with the main characters,
plots of past episodes, and issues and themes taken up in the program.
Students then analyzed selected key print readings to prepare for viewing
one particular episode that I showed during the seminar just before the
season opening episode.
In assigning the print readings, I wanted to convey that in asking
students to respond to Boston Public as a text, I was not asking them to


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produce some (mythical) "correct" reading that they thought the text
necessitated. I wanted to show that, as Tillman noted, the meanings one
makes of a text can be radically different from someone else's, and that the
difference in the readings lies less in the text and more in who is reading
it, as well as when and under what circumstances and with whom they
are reading it. I wanted to encourage students to read the text in a way
that would accommodate contradictions, negotiations, and fluidity. To
convey this, I had students read Hall's (1980) "Encoding/decoding" to
introduce them to the theory of preferred, negotiated, and oppositional
ways of reading (see the introduction for a definition of these ways of
reading). I also assigned selected readings of Fiske's work (1987, 1989a,
1989b), and I emphasized Fiske's explanation that television is essentially
characterized by its polysemy, or its multiplicity of meanings. Fiske (1987)
explained that a television program

provides a potential of meanings which may be realized, or made into

actually experienced meanings, by socially situated viewers in the
process of reading. This polysemic potential is neither boundless nor
structureless: the text delineates the terrain within which meanings may
be made and proffers some meanings more vigorously than others.

Fiske also added that "the polysemy of the text is necessary if it is to be

popular amongst viewers who occupy a variety of situations within a
social structure" (pp. 15-16).
Having laid some groundwork for taking up Boston Public, I next
showed an especially provocative episode of the program. The episode
covers an incident in the class of a White teacher named Danny Hanson.
In the episode, Danny engages his students (consisting of both White and
Black students) in an exploration of the "n" word during a series of
classes that involve reading academic texts, viewing media texts, and dis
cussing the many controversies surrounding the word. When a Black
female teacher hears of what Danny is doing, she angrily informs
Principal Harper, who gradually manages to put an end to Danny's explo
ration of the topic by ordering him not to continue?he threatens to fire
Danny if he continues. Danny resists being ordered not to deal with the
topic of the "n" word, but in the end, Stephen himself takes over the
teaching of the topic in Danny's class.
Rather than discussing the episode immediately after showing it in
seminar, I asked students to take time to think about their reactions and
then e-mail me a one-page, single-spaced essay of their reactions. During
the next seminar, we discussed their reactions to the episode. The sub
stance of what students articulated is captured well in what they wrote in


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their essays, so I rely here on some representative examples to convey the

multiple readings students expressed during the seminar.
A few students read the episode in a preferred way, finding little, if
anything, to criticize about it, as in this example:

This show does an excellent job of showing all the controversies

involved in teaching about the "n" word. It provides a perfect balance
in its presentation, and I found myself agreeing first with the principal
and then with Danny, the teacher.

Most students' articulated more negotiated readings, as in this example:

I really liked how the episode gets into the intricacies of the contro
versy?who has the power and authority to teach this issue ....
However, I thought the classroom discussions between the teacher and
students pretty false. Real classroom discussions don't unfold so seam
lessly. It felt like an after school special.

One student's reading was clearly oppositional:

I am appalled at this show's treatment of the subject. I can't get over the
TV-land gloss it liberally applies to some very important things in the
world of public education and the fight for racial equality, and I think
the show ultimately does a big disservice to all public school teachers,
and perhaps to anyone who is involved in any race-or-class-related
struggles in the USA.

It is crucial to state here that during the seminar discussion of this

episode, students were open to engaging with one another's interpreta
tions of the actions of the teachers, the principal, and the students, as
well as with the way the episode represented such a relevant, challeng
ing issue. The students asked one another clarifying questions, engaged
in dialogue about various specific scenes, and maintained a tone and
style of conversation that revealed that they did not believe there was
any one "correct" meaning to activate from this television text. In effect,
the students enacted the theory of reading articulated in Hall's (1980)
essay. Throughout the period in which students viewed the televised
episodes of the program (the second half of the fall semester), they con
tinued to write critically reflective essays and engage in seminar dis
cussions in a dialogic, open manner.


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Viewing Boston Public Over a Period of Many Weeks

The next phase of the project began in midsemester and involved view
ing, writing essays about, and discussing the episodes of Boston Public
that were broadcast by the end of the semester. Seminar discussions were
engaging and productive because the preservice teachers were able to
articulate opinions, express anxieties, ask questions, agree or disagree
with one another, and so on through taking up Boston Public. Though it
would be unfeasible to attempt to render here the richness, range, and tex
ture of those discussions by summarizing them, I can instead present
selected examples of students' readings of particular scenes or storylines.
Each example represents a different way of reading the program, and
what is quoted contains details about episodes' plots and storylines.
One main way that students read the program was to articulate a scene
or story line with something they were experiencing firsthand as part of
their practicum situation in schools. For example, one female preservice
teacher took up a story line about a new, young male teacher's experience
of being on overly friendly terms with his students, which became prob
lematic. The preservice teacher wrote

In the past few weeks of my practicum, I have been concerned about

what I interpret as students' attempts to form alliances with me against
my cooperating teacher by voicing some of their complaints about him
to me. Being privy to this information puts me in a very uncomfortable
position .... In terms of boundaries, the students seem to be crossing a
line that I am unsure they would cross with other, permanent faculty
members; their comments suggest that they may not see me as a
teacher figure since they are openly voicing their criticism of another
teacher in front of me.

Another way of reading was to identify strongly with a character,

agreeing with the character's actions and decisions, or sympathizing with
the character's particular circumstances. For example, one preservice
teacher focused on an episode in which a new, young female teacher
named Miss Woods was nearly attacked by a student named Thomas. He
had started a fight in her class, and though the principal had warned her
that Thomas was dangerous, Miss Woods kept trying to reach him. In one
scene, she is alone with Thomas, and the only thing that prevents him
from carrying through with his attack of her is that the principal happens
to enter the classroom and intervenes. Of this situation, the preservice
teacher wrote


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The new teacher faced issues that are very relevant to me as a young
woman teacher. She is extremely idealistic, much like we are in the MAT
program. We are encouraged to try to reach every student, even those
who seem unreachable. Miss Woods was trying to do that. She was
breaking through the rough exterior of Thomas and giving him a chance.
She gave him a chance to prove that he could be a good student, even
after his racial slurs [to a Black student during class], sleeping in class
and constant disrespect. Miss Woods wanted Thomas to stay in school
and continue to work hard but he would not cooperate. Thomas
attacked Miss Woods. I understand that this could happen in a school
that I will teach in. I will not try to put myself into a situation where this
could happen, but Miss Woods also tried not to put herself into a danger
ous situation, but it found her. She froze. How would I react?

One more way of reading was to make a connection between some

aspect of an episode with some academic article or book chapter. For
example, one student referred to Cameron McCarthy's (1998) article
"Educating the American Popular: Suburban Resentment and the
Representation of the Inner City in Contemporary Film and Television"
(an assigned reading in the course) to make an observation about Boston

McCarthy states that television and movies put out "the most
poignantly sordid fantasies of inner-city degeneracy and moral
decrepitude" [p. 32] but they "sing" what he calls "lullabies" to its
white audience about how pure and safe suburbs are in relation to
inner cities. I think Boston Public does a little of both. At times, with the
stabbing of the teacher and the students pulling guns in school, it feeds
the stereotype of the inner city school. At other times, however, the
characters are complex, the plot is serious and pertinent, such as in
dealing with standardized testing, teacher shortages, poor funding, etc.
So the show is part lullaby and part "sordid fantasy" [a phrase
McCarthy uses in his article].

These are merely a handful of representative examples of the different

ways that preservice teachers read Boston Public. As each suggests, the
students articulated many keen insights; made connections between mul
tiple texts; and took up the program to express their opinions, anxieties,
questions, and understandings about a range of educational issues.
As I mentioned earlier, the fall seminar discussions were greatly
enriched by taking up Boston Public as a serious text. During the spring
semester, however, the program was not a required text because the


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students were student teaching, we met only once a month for seminar,
and when we met for seminar, the primary focus of our discussions was
on what had been happening to students during their student teaching.
This "absence" of Boston Public as a required text during the student
teaching period, however, created a situation in which I would be able to
discover if taking up the program in the fall had had any lasting effect on
the preservice teachers during their student teaching in the spring.

Revisiting Boston Public After Student Teaching

After the preservice teachers finished their student teaching, we met

daily during a 2-week course near the end of the spring semester. The
main purposes of this course were to guide the preservice teachers
through the final stages of the process of writing their MAT portfolios and
to engage them in critically reflecting about their student teaching experi
ence. One such critically reflective activity called for students to explain
whether or not they felt that taking up Boston Public during the fall semes
ter had been worthwhile, and if so, why (and if not, why not).
I asked students to write a critically reflective essay by a certain seminar
date, and we discussed what they wrote during that seminar.
Nearly all of the preservice teachers expressed that taking up Boston
Public had been worthwhile. One recurring reason was that it engaged them
in thinking about potential situations that they had actually ended up being
in during their student teaching. For example, in nearly all the episodes that
aired during the fall semester, two young lst-year male teachers, just a few
years older than many of their students, deal with how to find a balance
between being, on the one hand, friendly and approachable to their students
while also being, on the other hand, an authority figure whom the students
respect and see as their teacher. Many preservice teachers referred to this
particular plotline as being very relevant to their own experiences during
student teaching. In the words of one preservice teacher

many times during my student teaching I thought of Zack and Colin

[the two Boston Public teachers] because like them I had a lot of
students who really wanted to be my friend, which was great but I
needed to maintain a distance. ... I remember thinking in the fall [when
watching Zack and Colin on Boston Public], "That's going to happen to
me, so I better figure out how I'm going to handle it...." I think seeing
this situation played out in the show really caused me to develop some
strategies that I might not otherwise have. It was a vicarious kind of
experience, and I think I was better prepared because of it.


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Some students had become so hooked on the program that they had
continued to view it during their student teaching. A recurring theme in
these students' essays was that it was common for students to see
reflected in a given week's plotline issues, scenarios, and character dilem
mas that (to quote from one student's essay) "sometimes mirrored what
had just happened during student teaching, or that had been close to
what happened." One student put it this way:

Week after week there would be something in an episode that was like
my own experience and made me think more about my own situation.
Students with crushes on their teacher (it happened with me), teachers
finding out information about students through journal writing and
having to report it (it happened to my cooperating teacher), students
plagiarizing work from the internet (I caught on to a few of these).
Sometimes the issues were very serious, sometimes less so, but still rel
evant .... Overall, the show became (and remains) as important [a
"text"] as what I read in my [education] courses or on my own about
teaching and education.

Another interesting approach that a few students took in discussing

Boston Public was to revisit the essays they had written in the fall and discuss
whether or not their opinions, impressions, and analyses of the program still
held true in light of their student teaching experiences. What I discovered
through analyzing these essays was that in each case, the students still
agreed with most of what they had expressed, but they also found elements
that they disagreed with. One representative example is that of a student
who explained that one theme that surfaced in her fall essays was that (quot
ing her) "the program, though unrealistic at times, did reflect the drama that
often takes place in schools." She elaborated in this way:

My main impression of the program [in the fall] was that it showed the
more dramatic side to schooling. In the episodes we watched, there
were teen pregnancies, fights between students, confidential talks
between teachers, angry parents, teachers depressed because they
weren't being respected, and alot more. I anticipated that during my
[student] teaching I would see these kinds of things, and the fact is that
I did. Three girls were pregnant in my classes. I had students getting
into shoving matches in the hallway that I had to break up .... I read
student journal entries that contained as much drama as the plots in
Boston Public, such as the student who wrote that she drank every
weekend and often blacked out and didn't always remember what
happened to her .... So I would say Boston Public reflects a lot of what


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really does go on in schools .... For me, having watched and analyzed
the program made me think about and anticipate things in a "heads
up" way. That was very positive.

Of course, a few students explained that Boston Public had little impact
on their development as teachers, either during the fall or the spring semes
ters. For example, one particular student had expressed during the fall (in
essays and during seminar discussions) that the program, "because it is a
television drama, naturally misrepresents what it is supposed to be about."
And after student teaching, she wrote the following:

No offense [aimed at me, the one who assigned the "text"], but I pretty
much had a negative reaction to every episode of the show. This could
be because I don't really watch much TV. It could be because I think
television is controlled by corporations and so profit-making is the
bottom line.

In my written response to this student's essay, I replied that there was

certainly "no offense" taken on my part concerning what she had written
about Boston Public. I explained that my goal had not been to convince
students that the program was worthwhile to take up, but rather that I
wished to discover if it might be, and if so, in what ways it might be.
From what the preservice teachers wrote and discussed about having
taken up Boston Public as a pedagogical text, it was clear that most of the
students enjoyed the project and thought it had been quite productive and
worthwhile. The project enabled me to do with this television program what
I have done with school films in other projects. I was able (a) to encourage
students to open up their conceptualization of what a "text" is?more than
only something in print (Fiske, 1987); (b) to encourage students to articulate
the assumptions, beliefs, and knowledge that they held about a range of
issues related to education; (c) to read texts in preferred, negotiated, and
oppositional ways (Hall, 1980); and (d) to activate readings of texts that
attend to their contradictory elements. On the whole, the project was quite
productive in my effort to engage preservice teachers in being critically
reflective about many important issues and situations that they in fact
encountered during their student teaching experience.

Conclusion and Integration

In this article, we have developed examples of two ways of engaging

with popular culture texts, ways introduced and illustrated through


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Giroux's (1993,2002) examples. Now what we wish to do is offer our own

"preferred reading" of the article. We see our article as having the poten
tial to be taken up within the contexts of an educational leadership prepa
ration course and a teacher preparation course. In other words, just as the
television program Boston Public became an important pedagogical text in
Trier's work with preservice teachers, this article itself has the same
potential to be taken up as a key text within a leadership preparation
course. Another way of putting this is that we imagine that this article
could become part of what Kathleen Brown (2004) called critically reflec
tive strategies in the preparation of educational leaders.
In her article "Leadership for Social Justice and Equity: Weaving a
Transformative Framework and Pedagogy," Brown (2004) argued that the
main goal of educational leadership preparation programs should be to
develop "critically reflective" administrators who will have the capacities
"for both critical inquiry and self-reflection" (p. 91). Brown defined these
two main capacities in this way:

Critical inquiry involves the conscious consideration of the moral and

ethical implications and consequences of schooling practices on
students. Self-reflection adds the dimension of deep examination of
personal assumptions, values, and beliefs. Critical reflection merges
the two terms and involves the examination of personal and profes
sional belief systems, as well as the deliberate consideration of the
ethical implications and effect[s] of such practices, (p. 91)

In her theorization of how educational leadership preparation programs

can engage students in critically reflective experiences as part of their course
work, Brown proposed "a practical, process-oriented model" (p. 79) based
on an "alternative pedagogy" (p. 84) that involves students in a variety of
critically reflective "strategies." The specific strategies that Brown discussed
are (a) writing cultural autobiographies, (b) conducting life histories of older
adults' educational experiences, (c) participating in prejudice reduction
workshops, (d) keeping reflective analysis journals, (e) doing cross-cultural
interviews, (f) taking educational plunges (by visiting an "educational set
ting" that is unlike any a student has experienced before), (g) participating
on diversity panels, and (h) designing activist action plans. Brown explained
that these strategies have the collective potential to bring about "transforma
tive learning" in students through "a process of critical self-reflection" that
can stimulate students to challenge their "basic assumptions of the world"
(p. 89) and, in particular, of the world of educational leadership.
Of course, Brown (2004) did not argue that these are the only strategies
that can accomplish such transformative learning, and we suggest that


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another strategy that can be added to Brown's strategies is that of awareness

of the need for media literacy by focusing attention on popular representa
tions of educators. Our article could be assigned for the purpose of introduc
ing students both to the popular "terrain" of representations of educators as
well as to ways of engaging with such representations. In other words, we
see our article as having the potential to become a key text in a critically
reflective strategy of engaging future educators in analyzing the assump
tions, beliefs, and knowledge about a wide range of educational issues
through engagement with popular representations of educators.

Policy Implications

Marshall and Gerstl-Pepin (2005) noted that policy and politics work in
concert; that is, policy decisions are often made in the context of complex
struggles for power. Although educators may conceptualize policy as ratio
nal and well-intentioned, certain policies can also be harmful to students,
parents, teachers, and administrators. Thus, Marshall and Gerstl-Pepin cau
tioned that "analyzing policy entails focusing more on the content of policy,
asking questions about the type or content of policy and how and whether
it is working as intended" (p. 5). In a discussion about the current state of
teacher education, Cochran-Smith (2005) noted that

new teacher education is being constructed as a public policy problem. As

a policy problem the goal is to determine which of its broad parameters
that can be controlled by policymakers is most likely to enhance teacher
quality and thus have a positive impact on desired school outcomes, (p. 4)

Cochran-Smith added that

the central thesis or theory of reform behind the construction of teacher

education as a policy problem is consistent: The implementation of
appropriate policies regarding teacher education will solve the teacher
supply problem and enhance the quality of the teachers being prepared
for the nation's schools, thus leading to desired school outcomes,
especially pupils' learning, (p. 6)

From a policy perspective, several related questions about teacher

preparation, teacher competency, and principal leadership are worth con
sidering. First, how can teachers and principals be held accountable for
student success if they are not well trained, content certified, and able to
teach and lead effectively? Although it is important that teachers and


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L. C. Tillman and J. Trier

principals be held accountable for their own performance as well as the

performance of students, it seems unlikely that these individuals will be
able to meet the standards of accountability imposed on them if they enter
teaching or leadership without a core set of skills and dispositions that
enable them to teach or lead effectively. Second, what are the long-term
implications of educational policies that mandate school reform (which is
very much dependent on standardized tests) if students are not exposed
to competent, content-certified teachers and principals who have an
understanding of curriculum and instruction? Implementing policies that
require students to learn a set of skills and perform at a certain level on
standardized tests will be difficult to achieve if students are not exposed
to teachers and principals who have the knowledge and skills to support
student success. Finally, what can we realistically require of students if
teachers and principals who lack the necessary preparation hold the key
to student success? Policies that fail to provide teachers and principals
with the appropriate forms of support and thus place the burden of
achieving success on the student are at best punitive and place students at
a disadvantage as they move from grade to grade. Although we believe
these three questions are fundamental to discussions about the most
appropriate educational policies in an era of school reform, other ques
tions are also important and might include the following: What kinds of
training are needed for teachers and principals? Does the urban school
context require teacher and principal preparation that is context specific?
What are the roles and responsibilities of the school principal? How
should effective leadership be defined? What factors affect the leadership
capacity of principals in urban schools? These and other questions are
important to the implementation of policies that affect the education of all
students in all educational contexts. However, they may be particularly
important in the urban school context where the academic success of
students is more likely to be dependent on and affected by teacher prepa
ration, teacher competence, and principal leadership.


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