Aimed at opposing the inculcation of class structure in schools, theories of Critical Pedagogy came into the fore devoted to promoting democratic values in the classroom. These values take form through student-centered, problem-based, and dialogue-focused classrooms. By focusing the classroom in these ways, students are taught to use their personal experiences to define and resolve social problems (i.e., Praxis). These classroom experiences of critical consciousness raising are imperative for stirring a sense of agency to go out into the world and enact change (Freire, 1970). However, reimagining change does by itself bring about change. Though critical consciousness raising in the classroom is imperative for setting the foundation for engaging in behavioral change, engaging in political activity (such as protest) is of the upmost importance (McAdam et al., 2001; Payne, 1995). These actions of political action create new critical social identities that foster further change (Holland et al., 1998).
Contemporary scientific applications of Critical Pedagogy theories have primarily focused on the work of Paulo Freire (Freire, 1970, 1973, 1998). This area of research has extended his work on Critical Consciousness (CC) to consist of three components: Critical Reflection (i.e., recognition and understanding of inequities and oppressive systems), Critical Motivation (i.e., perceptions of one’s capacity to affect change), and Critical Reflection (i.e., engagement in behaviors intended to create change and reduce inequality) (Watts, Diemer, &Voight, 2011). Although CC is distinct from these constructs, studies of sociopolitical development, empowerment, civic engagement, and transformative potential (Christens et al. 2016; Diemer, Rapa et al. 2016; Jemal 2017; Watts et al. 2011; Watts and Flanagan 2007) have been reviewed alongside studies of CC (Heberle, Rapa, & Farago, 2020). Finally, Freire’s work was originally conducted with adults, most scientific scholarship examines CC in children and adolescents, which is the focus of the current study.
Freire’s contributions, and the scientific applications following his contributions, builds upon decades of work conducted by critical theorists and neo-Marxist education scholars. For example, Michael Apple argues in Ideology and Curriculum that Capitalism is reproduced in schools through the formal school curriculum by way of top-down definitions of knowledge, and selective cultural traditions (Apple, 1979). Henry Giroux is also a prolific figure in the neo-Marxist study of schooling. Giroux advocates for similar objectives for schooling as Freire, however his notion of resistance stemming from participation in critical pedagogy assumes that knowledge of inequality translates to behavior directly (Giroux, 2001). While this seems reasonable to assume, recent scientific work suggests that political attitudes and behaviors may not follow those trajectories exactly (Christens et al., 2011; Diemer et al., 2016).
Scholars of culturally responsive pedagogy have also been foundational for educational theory and scholarship devoted to understanding how students navigate and resist oppression. For example, Geneva Gay emphasizes the importance for students to connect their lived experiences to the things they learn in the classroom, placing an emphasis on experiences with marginalization and discrimination (Gay, 1994, 2010). Gloria Ladson-Billings is also a prominent figure for scholarship on culturally responsive pedagogy. She advocates for an increased responsibility on teachers to support the development of critical consciousness for youth in the classroom (Ladson-Billings, 2009). Finally, scholars of sociopolitical development in adolescence, such as Roderick Watts, have been foundational for contemporary scholarship of these concepts and theories described (e.g., Watts & Abdul-Adil, 1998; Watts & Flanagan, 2007; Watts, Griffith, & Abdul-Adil, 1999; Watts, Williams, & Jagers, 2003).
CC has been linked to several antecedents and outcomes occurring both inside and outside of the school setting. For example, non-school related links include parent socialization (Diemer & Li, 2011), community engagement (Fegley, Angelique, & Cunningham, 2006; Fullam, 2017), occupational outcomes (Diemer & Blustein, 2006; Diemer, 2009; Diemer et al., 2010; Nicholas, Eastman-Mueller, & Barbich, 2019; Olle & Fouad, 2015; Rapa, Diemer, & Bañales, 2018), and voting behavior (Diemer, 2012; Diemer & Li, 2011; Diemer & Rapa, 2016). School-related effects have examined CC antecedents such as school climate (Diemer, Hsieh, & Pan, 2009; Pérez-Gualdrón & Helms, 2017; Seider et al., 2016; Seider et al., 2017), and CC outcomes such as academic functioning (Diemer, 2009; Deimer et al., 2010; Godfrey et al., 2019; Luginbuhl et al., 2016; McWhirther & McWhirther, 2016; Perez-Gualdron & Helms, 2017; Seider et al., 2016). While these studies are invaluable for developing our understanding of the role of schools in CC production, the role of the larger school context has yet to be examined. That is, the school-related effects literature looks only at characteristics of schools, and not the larger social landscape in which schools are situated.
The contemporary study of CC follows on the heels of decades of critical theorists and education researchers aimed at reimagining the classroom in ways that benefit the oppressed. While Freire’s work is one case in this tradition, the scientific operationalization of the concepts developed in his work allows researchers to better understand the various factors that impede or bolster CC’s development. The operationalization of CC has produced a reflection component, a motivational component, and an action component, all oriented toward combatting inequality and oppression. Following the operationalization and measurement of CC (Diemer et al., 2017; Rapa et al., 2020), scholars have examined both school-related, and non-school related factors. Among the school-related factors, only factors at the individual level have been considered, and no research to date has examined the school-level factors that influence CC development directly, or indirectly via individual-level factors. One indirect factor that may be impacted by the school setting is classroom climate.
Critical Consciousness and Classroom Climate
Most often classroom climate has been conceptualized as the degree to which teachers promote open dialogue of social and political issues with students. However, other studies have operationalized classroom climate as the interpersonal relationships between students and teachers (Perez-Gualdron & Helms, 2017), principal support for students’ sociopolitical development (Diemer, Hsieh, & Pan, 2009), and the pedagogical model used in a school (Seider et al., 2016, 2017). Nonetheless, across these varying definitions, both qualitative and quantitative research demonstrate positive effects on CC-development.
Qualitative work has found that teachers who engage in classroom discussion with Mexican American students about social justice and issues related to oppression promoted students’ CC development (Cervantes-Soon, 2012). Among 17-year-old activists’ identity development, work has demonstrated the importance of critical discussion with mentors, including mentors and teachers at school, in the development of CC (Fullam, 2017). Thematic analysis identified three primary school practices that CC development in low-SES high school aged adolescents of color: 1. Teaching material related to social justice (i.e., history, politics/government, civics, etc.), 2. Connecting social justice material to real-world examples, and 3. Classroom discussion of fellow classmates (Clark & Seider, 2017).
Quantitative work reports evidence supporting similar links, with some exceptions (Diemer, Hsieh, & Pan, 2009; Seider et al., 2017). Cross-sectional work done by Diemer & Li (2011) found that the sociopolitical support of teachers had a small association with the sociopolitical control of youth. Similarly, Godfrey & Grayman (2014) found that an open classroom environment predicted school efficacy, critical political efficacy, and greater engagement in community service among students of color. Longitudinal evidence from Perez-Gualdron & Helms (2017) found that a school relational climate was related to social justice orientation among Latinx youth from 8th to 12th grade. Seider et al. (2016) found that over a one-year period, adolescents attending “progressive” schools improved their critical reflection skills more than students attending “no excuses” schools. Rapa et al. (2020) find that classroom climate is related to the reflection, motivation, and action dimensions of CC. Finally, Bowers et al. (2021) found that mentoring relationship quality is related to critical reflection and hopeful future expectations for Black youth but not Latinx youth.
The literature on classroom climate and CC-development is consistent despite varying definitions of classroom climate, and distinct yet conceptually overlapping outcome variables. In general, climates where students are encouraged to participate in discussions where they learn about, and provide tangible examples of their experience with, oppression, leads to an increased awareness of these issues. In some cases, this awareness also contributes to motivation and actions to combat these inequalities. These studies provide early preliminary support for Freire’s work, for these classroom climates are a core tenet of his and other critical pedagogy theories. What is left unclear however, is how these climates may differ as a function of the school in which they are situated. One school setting that may be relevant are those found in college preparatory schools.
College Preparatory Schools
College Preparatory schools, or “Prep” schools, have long been considered conduits for elite college enrollment, preparing privileged youth for life at exclusive colleges (Cookson & Persell, 1985). As College enrollment has expanded in recent decades, not all students in Prep schools attend elite colleges (Kahn, 2011), but these preparatory schools still nonetheless continue to provide an exclusionary advantage to the privileged (Farmer-Hinton, 2011). Life in college prep schools provide a unique advantage to students through the use of diverse and rigorous curricula (Koh & Kenway, 2016), highly credentialed faculty (Farmer-Hamilton, 2011), comprehensive counselor services (Perna, 2005), and supportive school and classroom climates (Holland & Farmer-Hinton, 2009). These components of prep schools reveal intentional acculturation efforts designed to position students for selective college admissions and occupational trajectories (Gatzambide-Fernandez, 2009; Kahn, 2011; McDonough, 1997; Peshkin, 2001; Weis et al., 2014). Finally, although elements of college prep schools are imitated by public schools with the intention of providing advantages to less-privileged students, the advantageous outcomes are generally confined only to those attending prep schools in their entirety (Weis et al., 2014). This is because much of the advantages of schooling occur well before the postsecondary context, and because college prep schools bestow cultural capital necessary for exclusionary privilege accumulation (Cipollone & Stich, 2017).
Inequalities continue to persist not only in access to college prep schools (Cipollone & Stich, 2017), but in access to college prep coursework imitated by public schools as well. Since the late 1980’s, public high schools around the U.S. have gained more access Advanced Placement (Geiser & Santlices, 2004; Kolluri, 2018) and more recently, International Baccalaureate courses (Donaldson, 2017). However, this improved access to rigorous coursework has not translated to an increase in baccalaureate degree completions, or even college admissions (Evans, 2019; Snyder et al., 2016). Moreover, these college prep courses are overwhelmingly participated by white, high SES students (Price, 2021), and is legitimized through practices such as curricular tracking (Gamoran 1987; Gamoran et al. 1997; Long, Conger, and Iatarola 2012; Oakes 2005). Therefore, the imitation of prep school coursework leads to stratification practices in public schools that further perpetuate inequalities and fail to deliver beneficial outcomes to public school students as compared to college prep school students, thus showcasing the relatively high degree of privilege posessed by students able to gain access to college prep schools.
College preparatory schools provide students with a learning environment conductive for subsequent academic and occupational trajectories though the use of rigorous curriculum, expert faculty, and supportive climates. Despite efforts to equalize access, inequalities persist both in access to college prep schools, and to college prep courses taught in public schools, in a manner benefiting the privileged. While the academic and occupational benefits stemming from these environments are clear, what is less clear is how these environments may foster agency to combat the systems that benefit these privileged students. While no research has examined the role of the school environment on these feelings of agency, research has recently examined how this agency develops for privileged students in general.
Critical Consciousness for Privileged Students
The focus for Freire and others was to specifically focus on improving the conditions of historically marginalized and oppressed groups. However, other scholars argue that researchers should consider how CC develops for privileged students, given the reciprocal nature between privilege and oppression (Godfrey & Burson, 2018; Jemal, 2017). Additionally, these scholars argue that establishing CC as a construct for privileged students would educate them, not about their oppression, but about the oppressive systems by which their privilege is maintained (Diemer et al., 2016). However, the outcomes for privileged students that develop CC remain only theorized, despite the numerous calls for its study. Some scholars suggest that the outcomes stemming from the critical analysis of inequality for privileged students are less clear than for marginalized students (Diemer et al., 2019; Watts et al., 2011), while parents and teachers indicate a level of concern that engaging these privileged students in the critical analysis of their privilege will lead to feelings of guilt among these youth (Bigler & Wright, 2014; Watts et al., 2011). Others argue that, while critical analysis by privileged youth may create feelings of discomfort, this critical analysis may lead these students to strive for greater inclusivity and understanding of others (Ohito, 2016), and feelings of empathy toward marginalized youth (Trawalter & Richeston 2008).
The body of literature devoted to understanding CC in privileged groups is in its infancy. In one study, Diemer et al. (2019) found that White students reported greater critical analysis of inequality than did students of color, and that high-SES students reported greater critical analysis of inequality than did lower-SES students. In another study, Patterson et al (2021) found that, within a sample of predominantly White students in a rural school district, school connection and positive relationships with teachers were positively related to critical agency, and that indicators of school climate variables were generally untreated to critical action. These studies of CC are consistent with prior work that finds that privileged and affluent youth are more likely to make structural attributions to inequality than are their less privileged peers (Flanagan & Tucker, 1999).
The literature concerned with how CC develops for privileged students is in its infancy. Early research suggests that it does in fact develop for these students, although the implications of this remain unclear and only theorized. Some argue that it will produce feelings of guilt, while others argue it will have a positive impact on students and those around them as well. Nonetheless, while these studies suggest that CC develops for privileged students, they do not provide any explanations for how it develops. This gap in knowledge is a key contribution of this paper, for it will elucidate one mechanic (out of a number of theoretically plausible mechanics) by which CC may develop for privileged students—classroom climate.
The research concerning the role of Classroom Climate on CC-development is robust, however it has yet to consider the role of the larger school context that influences these climates. Additionally, privilege’s relationship with CC-development is early on in its development and has not yet considered how privilege and the school context interact as it pertains to CC-development, directly or indirectly. College Prep schools are documented as having more supportive classroom climates, so examining the intersection of College Prep enrollment, privilege, and classroom climate as it relates to CC, is a productive endeavor. Therefore, the current paper will test for structural model between privilege (i.e., race and class), College Prep enrollment, classroom climate, and two dimensions of Critical Consciousness: Critical Reflection and Critical Motivation.