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The Q&A: Keffrelyn Brown

In this week’s Q&A, we interview Keffrelyn Brown, an associate professor in the curriculum and instruction department at the University of Texas at Austin.

Keffrelyn Brown is an associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Texas at Aust…

With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here is this week's subject:

Keffrelyn Brown is an associate professor in the curriculum and instruction department at the University of Texas at Austin. A former teacher and school administrator, Brown’s research focuses on multicultural teacher education and the role of race in teaching and curriculum.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Trib+Edu: Could you tell me a bit about your recent research projects?

Keffrelyn Brown: I just completed a book that looks at some research that I started many years ago around risk. I look at the concept, or the construct, of educational risk, and the label and category of the at-risk student. In doing that, I try to get a sense of, what does that mean — what does educational risk and the category and label of at-risk student mean in the context of education? I look at federal policies from 1965 to present; in-service teachers, and those are teachers who are currently working as teachers in classrooms; and pre-service teachers, those are people who are preparing to become teachers. I examined what those three different spaces understand about risk and the at-risk student.

Trib+Edu: Could you highlight the most interesting or important findings?

Brown: Some of the key findings that came out of that work was that risk plays a vital role in the way that federal policies, pre-service teachers and in-service teachers think about education and think about the work of educating students. Risk matters. It’s an important construct that teachers, both pre-service and in-service teachers as well as policy, sort of invoke to presumably meet students’ needs. If you can figure out what the risk is and who has the risk or who faces the risk, we can better provide services for them.

But at the same time, we know that risk discourse itself is laden with racialized meanings, classed meanings, gendered meanings, and often gets deployed in deficit and problematic ways so that some students are just presumed to be at risk by virtue of their identities.

And so you’ve got, on the one hand, the belief that risk is vitally important and something that we need to engage in order to meet students’ needs in a more effective way, while also understanding that historically the term and the construct itself has been used in inequitable ways. That showed up in my study.

In some cases, teachers were aware that the deployment of the term itself did carry some problems. But primarily it was pre-service teachers that understood that, and so the pre-service teachers were the only group within the study that questioned the use of the term “at-risk.” They worried that by using that term, they themselves might be engaging in problematic discourse. They weren’t sure sometimes if a student really was at-risk or if the risk was really more about how they were viewing the student.

They sometimes got into a conundrum. I called it an ontological dilemma. They weren’t exactly sure if it was really risk or if it was just them. And they struggled with that in ways that the in-service teachers did not struggle. The in-service teachers were pretty clear on the basis of their experience as teachers, the years that they had had in classrooms working with students, that they could clearly identify when a student was at-risk, and they didn’t question that.

That was another really interesting finding. I wasn’t able to sort of substantiate why that was the case. I have a sneaking suspicion that teacher education programs are more likely now to have pre-service teachers question the use of the term “at-risk,” especially if it’s being used in a way that is fundamentally operating from a biased perspective, either around race or around socioeconomic status or around gender.

Students hear that perhaps more now than 20 years ago when some more veteran teachers may have gone through teacher education. I don’t know if that’s the case; I imagine for the pre-service teachers in my study, that was likely the case, because they came out of a program where they had actively been guided through a process of questioning the use of that term and using that term in ways that were deficit-oriented.

A few other things that I did with that study: I tried to address the question of whether we should even use the term risk at all. Should we operate within that construct? One of the things that I try to point out in the book is that there is a distinction between the actual construct of risk — the belief that there is something called risk that we should be concerned about, in this case in education and schooling — and then the actual deployment of a term and category of at-risk student.

What I argue is that the term itself is laden with problems. But that term is just one of many that has been deployed since the turn of the 20th century to describe children who fundamentally are positioned as against the norm — somehow they are not of the norm. At-risk is just the most recent [term], but we have many other terms that have come before it. So I argue that there is not a need to change the term, because to get rid of the term we’ll just get another one in its place.

I actually think that the fundamental notion of risk — as a sort of viable term, a viable construct, rather, to understand how schooling operates and how we should operate within schooling, that some people really are at risk for things — is a much deeper idea that we’re not going to get rid of anytime soon. It’s a part of a sort of a Western way of looking at the world — of trying to calculate whether something is going to be a problem potentially or not, which is all risk is.

I advance in the book how we might reorient the way that we think about risk so that we can use it potentially in a more equitable way.

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