Book Review by Sapphire Ng
Sociology of Education: A Critical Reader
by Ryan W. Coughlan, Alan R. Sadovnik
Copyright March 2007
Paperback, 552 Pages
The book contains an excellent sequential compilation of articles featuring critical sociological research and studies. The book’s strength lies in the assemblage of the great diversity of pundit voices and inputs, bestowing indeed an elite learning experience for the reader.
The consistently amazing and eye-opening research in the book, along with mind-blowing syntheses and profound evaluations, makes the book an imperative read for sociology students, education practitioners, and aspiring educators. Noting the prominent fixture of the institution of education in our society, and its intimate intertwining with and tremendous impact on our lives, this book certainly merits a read by students of other disciplines.
The exceptional elucidation of research approaches, methodologies and related details in the book would prove exceptionally valuable for the aspiring student researcher and academic. Of course, the superior academic writing styles, the sophisticated use of language, and exquisite rendering of complex concepts and ideas qualify the book as a great reference and inspiration for the aspirant academic writer. Any other demographic striving to hone critical thinking skills will also benefit substantially from studying the arguments in the book.
Themes of stratification and inequality in the educational context are among the most profoundly and fascinatingly examined in the book. Inserted into the multi-angled discussion are issues such as the school choice provisions in No Child Left Behind; practices such as the encouragement of the “college-for-all” norm—that implicate drastically varying outcomes for students of different socioeconomic backgrounds—; and the implementation of tracking that potentially compounds the problem of inequality due to disparities in quality and quantity of instruction, variance in the degree to which lessons and teaching materials are engaging, and difference in teacher expectations and standards for student performance. Other no less interesting angles to which inequality is addressed include the examination of marketization, the inequity of students’ family and socioeconomic backgrounds, and the notion of self-fulfilling prophecies.
The book brims with intriguing assessments and explorations of a range of other multitudinous issues. In expounding the oppositional modalities of pedagogic practices, there was a distinctly mind-boggling, transformative, and unique use of metaphor; a pedagogic practice paralleled as a “cultural relay” along with associated lexicon of “transmitters” and “acquirers” as players in the pedagogic relation, and who are engaged in the “reproduction” of culture.
On the other hand, the distinguishing between and explication of visible versus invisible pedagogies is also strikingly illuminating. The clear elucidation of characteristics of the individual pedagogic practices—for example, the comparatively “relaxed rhythm” and “less specialized acquisitions” of invisible pedagogy, and the divergent autonomous, or knowledge, and market-oriented, or dependent, forms of visible pedagogies—gets exciting especially when the reader have the prized opportunity to insert oneself into the discourse, by associating the information furnished to prior personal classroom learning experiences.
A further sampling of intellectually-stimulating concepts explored include the opposing notions of neoliberalism versus neoconservatism—the neoconservatism ideological position for example, supports “mandatory national and statewide curricula, national and statewide testing, a ‘return’ to higher standards, a revivification of the ‘Western tradition,’ patriotism, and conservative variants of character education”—; theoretical perspectives of functionalism, conflict theory, and more in the sociology of education; and abstractions such as Basil Bernstein’s code theory.
Educational reformation is another salient matter covered in the text. Especially profound is the discussion of the significance and implications of poverty—“the unexamined 600-pound gorilla that most affects American education today”—on the effectuality of the institution of reform. Yet again, when it came to evaluation of America’s mathematics and science curricula reform, the data furnished in the book comparing the breadth and depth of various countries’ mathematics curricula is indeed eye opening and compelling.
Linked to the idea of the educational reform as a national strategy meant to counter challenges to national power, the book further plunges into elucidating more fascinating realms, namely the genealogy of the state system of mass schooling from its European roots, the associated social movement—rise of individualism—, political motivations and more that aided the rise of the institution.
Other fundamental educational issues the reader would have the opportunity to discover within the pages of the book comprise for example research evidence authoritatively distinguishing the relative effectiveness of single-sex schools versus coeducational schools in alleviating the achievement gap; the significance of the loose-coupling model and the nested layers approach in exploring the role of schools on student learning; the supposed phenomenon of teacher shortage in America through examination of factors such as teacher turnover rates; and labeling theory and the poignant particularities that define the secondary deviant.
The prospective reader ought to anticipate select articles in the book to be considerably more challenging to acquire and assimilate; one however should not be deterred by the heightened intellectual challenge and instead will have much to benefit from by persevering through the readings. Also and especially with the rather extensive references embedded in the book to established and existing literature in the discipline, the reader will be sure to receive a rather holistic exposure to the range of ideas and pertinent literature in the field.
Certain articles in the book however could have been more comprehensive, particularly when pertaining to the introduction of more specialized concepts. Offering the author of chapter 7 “Social Class and Pedagogic Practice” the benefit of the doubt, it could have been assumed that the reader is equipped with a decent background knowledge, understanding, or even an inkling of “behaviorist or neobehaviorist theories of instruction.” Such an assumption though in a critical reader of the sociology of education seems unwarranted, and the reader is left feeling rather perplexed especially in encountering such an abstraction embedded amongst already demanding ideas.
On the other hand, it appeared to be carelessness when certain acronyms were not explicitly elucidated, especially when the same entity was spelled out in the final chapter of the book but was not in a much earlier chapter. In chapter 14 “Nation versus Nation,” PISA was cited without much explanatory elucidation but in chapter 26, PISA was actually explicitly mentioned for what it stands for—the Program for International Student Assessment.
When it came to the acronym TIMSS in chapter 14 as well, the reader seemed to be expected to possess prior knowledge. Whilst the paragraph attributes the TIMSS and PISA as being “international tests,” the thoroughness of the book could have been improved should TIMSS be explicitly noted as being the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, and further accompanied with certain fundamental details relevant to aiding assimilation of the subsequent discussion.
Disclaimer: I am not affiliated to the publisher nor the author of the book. This book review is the result of my personal reading and honest opinion.