ABC’s breakout hit “Abbott Elementary” is a mockumentary-style show about a group of teachers working at a diverse, urban elementary school in Philadelphia, Pa.
The show garnered multiple Emmy, Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe awards during its first two seasons, used some of its marketing funds to buy school supplies for teachers and inspired a clothing line at J.C. Penny.
But how does the show contribute to conversations about public schools and urban education?
This is one of the questions that Assistant Professor Casey Wong and Jennifer Esposito, chair of the Department of Educational Policy Studies, asked in an essay published in Departures in Critical Qualitative Research.
Wong and Esposito note that “Abbott Elementary” offers a compelling look at a fictional urban school and allows viewers to learn more about the difficulties and triumphs that such schools experience during the academic year.
“The show is a complicated satire that addresses racial and economic disparities, institutional and societal failures, while showcasing passion, hope, dedication and resilience of a small group of educators,” they wrote. “The show positions the viewer as not just viewer, but as learner and researcher, who then has a responsibility to do something with what they’ve learned.”
Their essay focuses on the pilot episode of “Abbott Elementary,” where the audience is introduced to a predominately Black student body with mostly Black teachers who are working hard to teach and support their students. The episode’s writing invites the audience to see issues of poverty and the school’s material conditions as some of the main challenges the teachers and students face, rather than an inherent failing of the Black students themselves.
The show portrays young second grade teacher Janine Teagues as a “savior” who works incredibly hard to overcome these issues. As a Black woman, Teagues is set apart from the White, female teachers who are often portrayed in this role in other movies and TV shows set in educational settings. And “Abbott Elementary” gives the impression that Teagues and her colleagues will continue to fight for their students, no matter what challenges come their way.
Wong and Esposito also offer a few “loving critiques” of the show in their essay. For example, the only other staff members that the audience meets are the principal and a school custodian. Without bringing more teacher aides and support staff to the forefront, the viewers don’t see how these staff members play a crucial role in a school’s day-to-day operations.
The teachers and principal also don’t invite students and families to help them with problem solving. And the pilot reinforces the idea that schools just need more money to improve – and need to hire and retain Black, female teachers to keep things running until things get better. This approach doesn’t encourage viewers to think about the larger societal forces that led to the school’s challenges in the first place.
Despite these critiques, Wong and Esposito argue that researchers can use shows like “Abbott Elementary” as a jumping-off point for discussions about urban education.
“Viewing popular culture with the same recognition that we do other forms of interpretive research allows us to truly investigate the power it has to shape minds and, thus, policies,” they wrote. “We urge critical qualitative researchers to enter conversations about the power of popular culture and, most especially, to recognize ‘Abbott Elementary’ as an ethnographic examination of life in schools.”
About the Researchers
Department of Educational Policy Studies
Casey Wong is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Policy Studies and his interdisciplinary research examines justice in educational theory, policy and practice. This involves critically questioning how compulsory state-sanctioned schooling has continued to be constructed as the “great equalizer,” and accordingly, education research as a benevolent contributor to this material and ideological project of education. His educational work has involved partnering and working directly with county offices of education, school districts, teacher preparation programs, schools and educational institutions within the U.S. and internationally to develop curriculum and instruction that address systemic injustices. As a crucial part of this work, Wong has been learning, teaching, practicing and researching restorative and transformative justice with the youth organizers of Youth United for Community Action. He co-edited the book, “Freedom Moves: Hip Hop Knowledges, Pedagogies and Futures,” which was published by the University of California Press earlier this year.
Department of Educational Policy Studies
Jennifer Esposito is chair of the Department of Educational Policy Studies and a Distinguished University Professor of research, measurement and statistics. Her research can be divided into two strands of inquiry: 1). How do race, class, gender and/or sexuality impact a person’s experiences within education, broadly conceived? 2). How are marginalized groups represented in popular culture and what are the impacts of those representations? She is the author of two books and more than 50 articles and book chapters. Most recently, her book, “Introduction to Intersectional Qualitative Research” (co-authored with Venus Evans Winters) was published by Sage in 2021, and “Intersectional Analysis of Popular Culture Texts: Clarity in the Matrix” (co-authored with Erica Edwards) was published by Routledge in 2020. The latter won the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry (ICQI) 2021 Book Award. Her research has been published in journals such as Qualitative Inquiry, International Journal of Qualitative Research in Education, International Review of Qualitative Research, Urban Education and Urban Review.
Wong, C., and Esposito, J. “‘It’s a Calling. You Answered.’: Abbott Elementary and Viewing Audience as Ethnographer of Education.” Departures in Critical Qualitative Research, 1 September 2023; 12 (3): 48–71. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/dcqr.2023.12.3.48.