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“They Sellin’ Us a Dream They Not Preparin’ Us for”: College Readiness, Dysconscious Racism, and Policy Failure in One Rural Black High School

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This conceptual analysis examines the implementation of a state-funded college and career readiness pilot program at a small, rural all-Black school in Illinois. Drawing from ethnographic data that dates from 2010, I offer a retrospective analysis on individual based intervention programming for college and career readiness. Concerned with how young Black high school students are constructed as problems in regards to increasing readiness, I trace policy failure through the theoretical lenses of deficit ideology (Valencia in The evolution of deficit thinking: educational thought and practice, Routledge, New York, 1997) and dysconscious racism (King in J Negro Educ 60(2):133–146, 1991). This analysis illuminates how racism ultimately undermines a-contextual efforts to increase readiness for college and career.

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  1. Throughout my ethnographic work I use the language of the participants. My intent is to capture participants’ speech as they express themselves. As a white and Mexican cis-woman engaging this research, and one who does not share the same dialect of the participants, it is important for me to note that Jon’s quote—like all language, is racially marked. Indeed, his speech marks him as Black in ways that my speech and vernacular do not. My positioning in relationship to Jon and his peers is racialized, and my efforts to capture his speech patterns as they are expressed are an intellectual and moral responsibility in ethnographic research. Drawing from Van Maanen (1988), my choices around representation are political: “the understanding of others’ culture is expressed (or constituted) only by the actions and words of its members and must be interpreted by, not given to, a fieldworker” (p. 3). Thus, I write students’ words in the sounds of their expressions, meaning that spelling may fall outside of ‘traditional’ academic English.

  2. Taken directly from the legislation, the CCR Pilot Program had five goals: (1) To diagnose college readiness by developing a system to align ACT scores to specific community college courses in developmental and freshman curriculums; (2) To reduce remediation by decreasing the need for remedial course work in mathematics, reading, and writing at the college level through (i) increasing the number of students enrolled in a college-prep core curriculum, (ii) assisting students in improving college readiness skills, and (iii) increasing successful student transitions into postsecondary education; (3) To align high school and college curriculums; (4) To provide resources and academic support to students to enrich the senior year of high school through remedial or advanced course work and other interventions and;

    (5) To develop an appropriate evaluation process to measure the effectiveness of readiness intervention strategies.

  3. Some scholars have criticized the reliability of college readiness benchmarks established by ACT (Conley 2010; Maruyama 2012). In 2005, ACT established College Readiness Benchmarks representing the ACT scores associated with a 50% chance of earning a B or higher grade in common first-year credit-bearing courses at a typical postsecondary institution (Allen and Sconing 2005). According to Allen (2013), students who meet benchmarks on the ACT are “associated with a 50% chance of earning a B or higher grade in typical first-year credit-bearing college courses. The benchmarks also correspond to an approximate 75% chance of earning a C or higher grade in these courses” (p. ii). Educational researcher Conley (2010) criticizes this estimate suggesting that such benchmarks are not necessarily a measure of content knowledge, but a gauge of probability (p. 26). He argues that the ACT was never designed to make probability distinctions and that the inclusion of college readiness benchmarks is both new, and a reflection of the need to be more precise about what it means to be college ready.

  4. I specifically mention Math because of the empirical research demonstrating a relationship among avoidance behavior (Chinn 2012), evaluative threat (Liew et al. 2014), stereotype threat (Smith, 2006), and perceived Math skills. The greater the perceived barriers, the less likely students are to pursue Math courses.

  5. Accommodations for students with disabilities in postsecondary education are available for students who can provide evidence of diagnostic testing as mandated by the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA). In 2010, Shawnee Community College offered assistance to students with disabilities who had appropriate documentation. These “reasonable accommodations” included note-takers, testing accommodations including test readers, tutoring and tape recorders, among other services (Shawnee Community College 2010). Interested students would need to meet with a Special Needs Counselor and bring their high school transcripts, current IEP’s, current diagnostic testing (within 3 years) and documented records concerning the disability to determine eligibility of services.


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I would like to thank Wanda Pillow and Catherine Fung for inspiration and guidance on early drafts of this essay. Appreciation always to Parthiban Muniandy, Stephanie Reider, Larry Parker, and Cris Mayo, who all remain influential in my ongoing thinking about college readiness. This essay is dedicated to everyone at CJSHS who shared just a bit of their world with me 10 years ago.

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Correspondence to Erin L. Castro.

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Castro, E.L. “They Sellin’ Us a Dream They Not Preparin’ Us for”: College Readiness, Dysconscious Racism, and Policy Failure in One Rural Black High School. Urban Rev 53, 617–640 (2021).

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