Teachers as policy-makers: Navigating cultural politics and learning in a school for new immigrant youth at a time of reform
Christine Malsbary

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship

Award Year



Vassar College

Primary Discipline

Second Language Learning/Bilingual Education
In the spring of 2014, a group of high school teachers in Brooklyn held a press conference. They announced that they would no longer administer one of the high-stakes tests required by the city’s education department. The test, they stated, had been designed without the city’s immigrant, emergent bilingual students in mind, providing little to no information about their students’ learning or their instructional effectiveness as teachers. The teachers called the experience of administering the test “traumatic” for both themselves and their students, and noted that half of their students’ parents and guardians wanted their children to opt out of testing.Amidst over-generalized conceptions of education policy reform as necessary and good, this long-term ethnographic study aims to provide nuanced and richly textured understandings of policy in the context of the daily life of students and teachers. Building on emerging anthropology of policy research, this study shifts the focus of policy research from policy texts and district, state and federal level policy-makers, to the ways in which teachers are policy-makers. It is hypothesized that teachers of immigrant, bilingual students will (a) navigate, adapt and resist formal, top-down education policy during daily activity to fit their unique student population and (b) set their own policies formally and tacitly according to their deeply held principles and beliefs. I call this process “teacher policy-making”, and seek to understand what policies teachers’ create, which policies they value– and why. At this school studied, teachers are policy-makers in a context of heightened cultural and linguistic diversity. Hence, a second purpose of the study is to understand how formal, official policy– which has tended to be standardized towards the goal of “common” principles — are differentiated and made salient by teachers for immigrant and emergent bilingual youth.
About Christine Malsbary
Christine Brigid Malsbary is an anthropologist of education (Ph.D. UCLA, 2012) whose work is concerned with educational equity in contexts of new immigrant urban diversity. A former public high school teacher, writer and photographer, Malsbary began her academic career as an assistant professor at the University of Hawai’i Manoa. She is currently a visiting professor at Vassar College. In her dissertation work (2009-2011) and a short curriculum study (2013), Malsbary documented immigrant, emergent bilingual youths’ sociocultural integration (e.g., belonging) and learning in classrooms that are culturally and linguistically pluralist. Recent publications forInternational Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education and Anthropology & Education Quarterly discuss how youths’ “transcultural repertoires of practices” and translanguaging are enacted across diverse ethnolinguistic affiliations and cultural identities, leading to transnational learning and social life. In a second line of research, Malsbary considers how education policy shapes restrictive, racialized schooling environments that obscure the fascinating transnational work youth do.Malsbary’s work carries implications for public reform with goals of pluralist, multilingual, racially-just outcomes. She has received research support from such foundations as the Fulbright-Hays and the Association of American University Women. For the Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship, Malsbary will conduct long-term ethnography on the ways in which teachers negotiate, adapt, and resist policy reform in highly diverse immigrant, multilingual schools in New York City.

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