Learning to Succeed: The Challenges and Possibilities of Educational Achievement for All By George Dei


In 1994 Ernst and Statzner targeted academic and educational researchers in their discussion of alternative schooling to enhance the academic achievement of minority youth. They called for the "imperative need for redirecting social science research from the often hopeless and stereotypical study of educational failure to the heartening exploration of new and creative ways of meeting the needs of minority teachers, students, and their families" (p. 205). Since then, researchers have been increasingly heeding this advice by focusing on innovative and inclusive school practices that foster successful academic and social outcomes for all students, particularly for racial and ethnic minorities.

George J. Sefa Dei brings his extensive research experience in the Euro-American school system to this book, in which the reader is invited share in the dialogue about the links between the accounts of ‘high academic achieving students and their successes’. Stories are presented about their world views and their everyday experiences of what it means to be a student, to be engaged and to succeed in school. Through these discussions, the book shows how the different accounts of students reflect their everyday identities and social realities. The reality of learners is reflected in how they make sense of the world, including through interactions with peers, educators and others they encounter in their educational journey. While research interviews show that some students uncritically embrace dominant notions of success, a number of those marginalized by the school system and society at large understand the subtext of their world, which creates a position of power and allows the subaltern voice of difference to fuel educational change.

In working on ‘educational success’ using student narratives, the study’s focus concern is not on reproducing a conventional research agenda using research to simply to “generate knowledge about a group of students” (i.e., understanding the academic experiences of successful students) or seeing these students as “objects of knowledge”). Instead, this book showcases an action-oriented research agenda that focuses of students’ discourses of success’, ‘failures’, ‘resistance’ and alternative visions of educational success so as to transform the current school system. The study emphasizes working with ‘successful students’ to learn from their own perspectives about “success’ (e.g., how they define and achieve academic success) and the alternatives to dominant conceptions of success in ways that help us to rethink conventional schooling.

This book argues that a critical analysis and understanding of academic achievement must be contextual, and be able to point to the uniqueness and connectedness of students’ experiences. Our discursive analysis can never lose sight of race and social difference as powerful explanatory variables in understanding the educational experiences of diverse youth in the Euro-American schooling system. This book goes beyond the symphony of race and power to examine the intersections of social difference: social class, gender, sexuality, ability, language, religion, and so forth, in coming to know about students’ excellence and failures. It appears that even the much touted successful students who excel, can be disengaged, and there are significant race, class, gender and class disparities in such successes as well. This book brings to the forefront the need to bring a complex reading to our understandings of student success, across lines of difference and as well, over time, in order to understand the processes of student disengagement. Further, this study argues that we must conceive of [dis]engagement as a dialogical process wrapped up in the relationship between agency and structure. This implies that a student cannot disengage alone. The agentive capacity to do so cannot be divorced from the sometimes clandestine structural imperatives to reject formal education.