Challenges of Urban Education and Efficacy of School Reform (Advances in Educational Administration)

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Second, board members too frequently try to micromanage large, complicated school organizations thereby abrogating the leadership and accountability of their own superintendent. Superintendent Turnover. Urban Indicator, As a result a new superintendent may function more as a temporary employee of a school board than as the educational leader of the district and the community. Administrators and teachers are reluctant to throw themselves into new initiatives that are not likely to remain in place long enough to show any results.

Constituencies governments, businesses, church groups, foundations, universities, etc. Principals as Managers and Leaders. The size and complexity of most urban schools inevitably lead to a focus on the principal as the manager or CEO of a major business enterprise. This emphasis has led to a transformation of the traditional principal role as an instructional leader.

Haberman, Few urban districts dismiss principals because of low student achievement unless the achievement falls low enough for the school to be taken over by the state or district and be reconstituted. The fact that most urban principals spend the preponderance of their time and energy on management issues demonstrates that they fully understand this reality. Government Oversight. Local and state government officials involve themselves more and more in educational policies that impact urban districts. This politicization of education produces an endless stream of regulations and funding mechanisms, which encourage or penalize the efforts of local urban districts.

Like an overmedicated patient the treatments frequently counteract one another or have unintended negative consequences. Central Office Bureaucracies. In the largest urban districts the number of employees other than teachers is approaching a ratio of almost ; that is, for every classroom teacher there are almost two others employed in the district ostensibly to perform services which would help these teachers.

Many teachers leaving urban districts cite paperwork and bureaucratic over regulation as among the most debilitating conditions they face. The self-serving nature of the district bureaucracy frequently impedes initiatives, which would decentralize decision making and transfer power to individual school staffs. McClafferty, Historically centralized systems are reluctant to change. Prodded by parents, community and business leaders, urban districts are gradually allowing more decentralized decision making at the school level.

In response to bureaucratic rigidities choices are proliferating within public systems. Examples include open enrollment plans, magnet and specialty schools, schools-within-schools, alternative schools, and public choice and charter schools. Urban parents also have increased options outside the public systems through private school voucher programs but these efforts account for less than one percent of enrollment in urban districts. Hill, School Staff Accountability. As public school options increase so do calls for accountability.

The most frequently tried accountability efforts in the last century have been attempts at merit pay for teachers based on student achievement test scores. Many of these trials have been funded by private foundations and several have been supported initially by local teachers unions. Thus far, however, there have been no successful models for holding either principals or teachers accountable based on achievement scores.

Ross, In some cases superintendents have clauses in their contracts stating that their tenure or salaries are dependent on improvements in student achievement. In these cases the state may mandate that a failing school be reconstituted and may grant the local district the authority to re-staff the school with a new principal and teaching staff. Crosby, The staff of a failing school is typically permitted to transfer to other schools in the district.

New Role for the District Office

This means that while an urban school district is being held accountable based on achievement data the individual staff members are not. Furthermore the concept of accountability is non-existent for curriculum specialists, hiring officials, or those who appoint principals, psychologists, safety aides or other school staff. Teacher Shortages. While all districts face occasional selected shortages of special education teachers, bilingual teachers, math or science teachers, the major impact of the current and continuing teacher shortage falls on the urban school districts. These are the teaching positions that many traditionally prepared teachers are unwilling to take.

This problem is confounded by the fact that many urban districts must lay off teachers to make up for budget deficits in a given year while they are simultaneously recruiting teachers to remedy their chronic shortages. Reid, In the states that prepare a majority of the teachers in traditional university based programs more than half of those who graduate and are certified never take teaching positions. She will teach within fifty miles of where she herself attended school.

The profile of teachers who succeed and stay in urban school districts differs in important respects. This successful pool also contains a substantially higher number of individuals who are African American, Latino and male. Typically, the teacher educators who serve as faculty in traditional university-based teacher preparation programs have had little or no teaching experience in urban school districts while those mentoring teachers in alternative licensure programs typically come from long, successful careers as teachers in urban districts.

State Licensure Laws. While traditional teacher preparation programs seek to attract more young people into the teaching profession, past experience suggests that many of these graduates will not seek employment in large urban school districts where most of the new hires will be needed.

Schug To assist in meeting this urban district need, new kinds of recruiting and training programs are being established to attract older, more experienced and more diverse candidates into the teaching profession. States differ widely in their response to these new programs. Fordham Foundation, Forty-three states have passed alternative licensure laws which permit the hiring of college graduates who were not trained in traditional programs of teacher preparation. Feistritzer, Funding for Districts and Classrooms. Students in urban school districts often have substantially less annual per student support than they need.

The level of support in urban districts, however, generally exceeds the per pupil expenditures in small towns and rural areas. Many argue, therefore, that in total there is no shortage of funds for urban schools especially when categorical aids and grants are considered. The overall problem of inadequate funding is often exacerbated after the urban school district receives its funds and distributes the monies from the central office levels to the individual schools.

Too often too many funds are expended to maintain central office functions leaving too little to cover the direct costs of instruction and equipment in specific school buildings. In addition, many urban districts are characterized by buildings that are outmoded, even unsafe, creating conditions which make learning problematic. New York City, for example, has over buildings still heated by coal. New school board members and superintendents often believe they must set their personal stamps on the district through new initiatives. It is common for urban districts to claim they are aware of and experimenting with the latest curricula in reading, math, science, etc.

Schuttloffel, In addition, administrators are pressured to try out new programs against drugs, violence, gangs, smoking, sex, etc. This proliferation of programs and projects results in so many new initiatives being tried simultaneously it is not possible to know which initiative caused what results. Furthermore, not enough time is devoted to the program to give it sufficient time to demonstrate intended results. The problem is compounded by the fact that many of these new initiatives are not systematically or carefully evaluated. Veteran teachers, when confronted with the latest initiative from the school board or administration, typically become passive resistors.

Van Dunk, Narrowing Curriculum and Lowering Expectations. As presented in state and local district philosophy and mission statements the list of what the American people generally expect from their public schools is impressive. A typical list is likely to include the following goals for students: basic skills; motivated life long learners; positive self concept; humane, democratic values; active citizens; success in higher education and in the world of work; effective functioning in a culturally diverse society and a global economy; technological competence; development of individual talents; maintenance of physical and emotional health; appreciation and participation in the arts.

In many suburban and small town schools the parents, community and professional school educators maintain a broad general vision about the goals that 13 years of full time schooling is supposed to accomplish. Narrowing down the curriculum is particularly evident among the burgeoning populations of students labeled as special or exceptional. The urban districts have disproportionately large and wildly accelerating numbers of students labeled with some form of disability.

Well intentioned but sometimes misapplied state and federal initiatives for special education students encourage the labeling of increasing numbers of students as learning disabled, cognitively disabled or having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Thus it is common in urban middle schools to find many students doing well academically who have been labeled as disabled in primary grades and who will carry these labels throughout the remainder of their school careers. Teacher expectations are likely to be very modest for such children; testing may be waived.

Some low-income parents may be enticed to agree to have their children labeled exceptional because of financial grants. Recent efforts at inclusion for exceptional students in regular classrooms are aimed at breaking the cycle of low expectations and isolation. In urban districts, however, inclusion mandates are most frequently followed in the primary grades but seldom at the high school level.

Cohen, The disproportionate number of children of color, particularly males, labeled exceptional further exacerbates this problem. Achievement and Testing. There are four curricula operating in schools. The first is the broadest. It is the written mission of the school district. The second curriculum is what the teachers actually teach. The third operative curriculum is what the students actually learn which is considerably less than what the district claims or what the teachers teach. The fourth curriculum is what is tested for and this is the narrowest of the four.

The tested for curriculum frequently supports the narrowing and lowering of expectations. Done carefully, such assessment measures the performance of successive cohorts of students against an annual rate of improvement local or state that is sufficient to achieve whatever curriculum goals have been set. Education Commission of the States , For the most part, aligning the goals, curriculum, instruction and testing is yet to be accomplished. Educators at all levels are being called upon to focus time, thought and resources on the poorest performing schools and the persistent cultural and racial gaps between high and low performing students.

Research on Urban School Practices. The research literature in teaching, learning and best practice is robust. We know how children learn, best practices for teachers and what makes specific urban schools successful.

Why education reform keeps failing students

Schools reflect not only general American norms and values but also their local cultures. In recent years the plethora of federal and state laws and local administrative mandates is testimony to the fact that education is also a flourishing political activity. It seems clear that schools reflect culture more than research, or even logic and theory.

Challenges of Urban Education and Efficacy of School Reform

Hunt Jr. It is ironic that those seeking to transform failed urban school districts are frequently expected to prove beforehand that their advocacies are research based while those who stonewall change rely on a rationale of laws, funding mechanisms, school organization and practices which reflect culture and tradition, unsupported by a research knowledge base. One example lies in what has been described as the pedagogy of poverty Haberman, Teaching in many urban schools consists of ritualized teacher acts, which seldom engage students in meaningful learning that is connected to their lives.

Such teaching includes giving directions and information; making assignments; monitoring seatwork; testing and grading; settling disputes and punishing noncompliance. While such activities are part of teaching, the research literature is clear that more is needed if schools are to reach diverse groups of students with widely varied backgrounds, interests and experiences.

Smith, Allowing these limited teaching practices to become the typical ones in the urban districts serving diverse student populations of low income students not only dumbs down the content of the curriculum but also narrows the pedagogy by which it is offered. Taken together, these formidable urban challenges demand the best of educational practices if children are to succeed. While there are no fully successful urban districts every district has individual schools which are effective.

Indeed there are examples of outstanding schools in some of the poorest performing urban districts. This anomaly of how individual schools can be successful in the midst of chaos and failure has been sufficiently documented to enable us to state with some certainty the characteristics that account for their effectiveness. The correlates of the effective school literature are as follows: a clearly stated mission; a safe climate for learning; high expectations for students, teachers and administrators; high student time on task; administrators who are instructional leaders; frequent monitoring of student progress; and positive home-school relations.

Taylor, These and other necessary conditions are demonstrated in urban schools in the following ways: First, such schools have outstanding principals who serve as leaders rather than building managers. These individuals are instructional leaders with a deep understanding of the teaching and learning process. Mitchell, Second, there is a critical mass of star teachers or teachers on their way to becoming stars. These are individuals who believe the students and their families are the clients.

They believe that student effort rather than ability accounts for success in school and their teaching reflects their ability to generate student effort. These teachers not only know the content of what they teach as well as best practice, but also have effective relationship skills that connect them with students.

The ideology and behaviors of star teachers has been well documented. Haberman, While there are numerous exceptions star urban teachers tend to be people who are more mature with more varied life experience than college youth. They are often people of color who have attended urban schools themselves. Many have experienced poverty first hand. It is also increasingly likely that they did not go through traditional teacher training. There is a unity of purpose that grows out of everyone who is involved with the school believing, sharing and contributing to this common vision.

Fourth, there is a deep and growing knowledge of how computers and information systems can be used in classrooms and for all school activities. To learn more, view our Privacy Policy.

Urban Education: The State of Urban Schooling at the Start of the 21st Century

Log In Sign Up. Kristine Massey. Kathlene Holmes Campbell. Massey, MA Amber S. Warrington, MA Kathlene A. Holmes, MEd The University of Texas at Austin This paper is designed to provide insights into both the ever-shifting nature—as well as the trajectory of—urban education in the United States. We provide a brief historical synopsis, a contextualization of how education in urban settings is commonly constructed through popular discourses, and a discussion of how the definitions and perceptions of urban schools influence research and policy measures.

Lastly, this paper offers a brief exploration of recent movements and complications concerning urban education reform.

Publication Date:

Introduction: What Counts as Urban? As urban areas expand and demographics continue to shift at rapid rates, there has been a renewed interest in what counts as "urban" in education. While, in some cases, the distinction might be clear, urban schools are often classified as urban "because of the characteristics associated with the school and the people in them, not only based on the larger social context of where the schools and districts are located" Milner, , p.


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What's more, schools that are classified as urban, regardless of their physical location, are often interpreted and portrayed negatively Milner, ; Noguera, ; Watson, Correspondingly, urban students are often described as unmotivated and unwilling to learn, with parents who are uninterested and uninvolved Watson, Some scholars and organizations have refocused attention on the characteristics of urban schools and define them in terms of physical location and the city's population NCES, or, at the very least, stress the importance of clarifying what is meant by urban Milner, Additional scholars have contended that to define urban education by geographic location alone, without taking into account the racial and ethnic diversity that is representative of many larger cities, is to ignore the fact that the very demographics of urban areas result in large populations of African American and Latino children who are not receiving an adequate education Delpit, ; Kenny, ; Milner, While the historical sections of this paper highlight the developments over time of education systems through a location-based focus on events in densely populated cities, we also wish to trouble this geographic interpretation and contend that urban education has also been a loaded term used as a "code word" for poor, low-performing African American and Latino populations and their teachers Watson, ; Jackson, In the s and s, diverse racial, ethnic, religious, and immigrant populations flooded American cities.

As can be imagined, the public systems prevalent in rural areas could not meet the needs of the sheer number of people in urban environments. Throughout the rest of the century, educational reformers throughout large urban areas implemented various reorganizations. Furthermore, superintendents sought to decentralize schools and apply a factory model in an effort to bureaucratize the education system. An example of this was the creation of high schools—which solidified the pyramid-like structure of secondary education familiar today, but used tax dollars from the poor to fund high schools that were mostly accessible to rich students whose parents had the option of choosing to keep their children in school rather than placing them in the workforce.

It was not until the s that high schools became institutions available to the masses became what would eventually be a widely accepted American educational structure Tyack, As the school system in urban areas was restructured and re-envisioned, there was also an increased interest in the perceived purpose of schooling. Some were resistant to the ways in which education was evolving because they questioned their standardized, mechanical nature. In his study of schools in 36 cities in , Joseph Mayer Rice critiqued the inordinate amount of recitation and memorization in schools and commented on the ways in which students were taught to value facts and recitations over analyzing and synthesizing material Rice, For example, implementation of the IQ test in the early and midth century was of particular interest to administrators in urban school systems, who regarded the IQ test as a means of classifying and sorting students.

Although IQ testing had passionate supporters, many educators were skeptical of the test from the beginning, and the implementation of the test in large urban districts such as Los Angeles, California, Raftery, , ultimately led to tracking for millions of diverse students Tyack, That is not to say that there were no successful aspects of this new American education system.

Perceptions of teaching had also changed. The s also saw stronger levels of community control over education p. Each shift in the demographics and populations in urban areas was accompanied by eventual shifts in the perception and structure of urban education. A consistent theme, however, seems to be the enduring concern for meeting the needs of concentrated, diverse populations of students. Framing Urban Education Beginning in the s, residential shifts caused by White flight and laws concerning desegregation again changed the racial and economic dynamics of urban schools, leaving schools to address the challenges of meeting the needs of a majority minority population.

Simultaneously, perceptions of urban education began to shift. Importantly, urban schools systems, historically, have had times of greater resources, were known to offer wide varieties of curriculum and training not available in suburban and rural schools, and were not always portrayed so negatively Rury, In less than a century, perspectives on urban education have shifted from positive images to negative associations of underperformance, as White flight, racism, and deficit perspectives, emerge as core components in framing urban education in the 21st century.

White Flight and Racism Over the past 50 years, urban environments in the United States have experienced a significant loss of middle-class and White families. Desegregation Studies Staff, Urban environments have been disproportionately affected by the aforementioned institutional changes. Rather than address the institutional structures perpetuating the status quo, there has instead been an overemphasis on a traditional, scripted curriculum.

Consequently, urban education continues to be positioned as the antithesis of learning and is blamed for the demise of American public education. This conveniently subverts the focus on race because it fails to acknowledge the economic and societal inequities that produce systemic problems, such as increased dropout rates and high teacher turnover. Such deficit perspectives Delpit, make it possible—or at least, in terms of the status quo, preferable—for stakeholders to omit discussions of racial and institutional inequities King, , despite the fact that minority students are concentrated in urban schools, leaving them to address the impact race and racism have on education with little to no support.

Accountability and Evaluation in Urban Schools National and state policy-makers have created systems of accountability with the hope that such systems will create incentives for instructional improvement and lead to greater educational equity among districts with disparate resources. As discussed, however, normalized deficit viewpoints impact how policy is formed and how schools respond to and enact accountability policies, leading to increased inequities among schools and districts. As a result, the most vulnerable students populations have an increased risk of receiving the most prescriptive and narrowed versions of curriculum and instruction.

Policy-makers have subsequently turned to teacher evaluations to increase instructional quality. In this manner, accountability policies have exacerbated deficit perspectives of urban education by creating a culture of fear by using teacher evaluations to either reward or sanction teachers rather than directly focus on improving teaching and learning. Disparities in pay and working conditions, coupled with the pressures of accountability and high- stakes testing, lure teachers and administrators with more professional training and experience to more affluent districts where pressure is lower.

The high proportion of underprepared teachers, together with the lack of teacher retention in urban settings, has greatly affected the quality of the education students in urban schools receive.


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The unique challenges of urban schools present a variety of opportunities for innovations that attempt to increase equity and achievement for students and bring about change. These reforms target multiple levels, from curriculum and teacher certification, to administration and school culture, to the charter movement and broader educational policy reforms. In other words, reform movements in education alone cannot be successful without an understanding and consideration of other economic policies and, when implemented, are often too weak to promote substantial change Lipman, Furthermore, as Pedro Noguera has explained, it is essentially counterintuitive to initiate any reform measures without ensuring that the basic physical and emotional needs of students have been addressed.

Importantly, reform movements in education cannot be effective without addressing the amount of underprepared teachers in schools hard-to-staff urban schools. Teacher certification programs within several universities are looking to improve teacher retention by changing the ways teachers are prepared by explicitly focusing on urban environments and giving teachers the support they need to succeed and remain in schools with underserved student populations.

Many school leaders and administrators have also recognized that involving parents and community members in school reform efforts is more effective than working alone.

How to Manage Urban School Districts

Ishimaru and Warren studied community organizations that increase communication between parents from low-income, urban neighborhoods and teachers and administrators, holding schools accountable for implementing reform. Business leaders have also contributed to educational reform by providing access to resources, financing reform programs, and sharing corporate strategies with school decision-makers.

Mitra and Frick described how two Rust Belt cities used collaboration among local business leaders, administrators, and teachers to improve the failing economic system of both the cities and the schools. Fueled by competition through privatization of education, additional trends that have spread nationwide—but have frequently targeted urban areas—are charter schools Lipman, , privatization, and school choice Apple, There are several camps defending the pros and cons of the charter and school choice movements.

Consequently, charters are able to have greater authority over hiring practices and immediately fund specific projects, potentially stimulating innovation and achievement. Many charter schools are outperforming public schools, but there are also charter schools that are not performing as well and are even shut down. Even successful charter schools are faced with the dilemma of extending small-scale successes beyond the school level. In terms of urban education, however, as in the case of New Orleans, for example, charter schools have led to the displacement of students of color Buras, ; Lipman, Additionally, school choice and accompanying voucher programs that are designed, at least in theory, to allow parents to subsidize their tax money and apply it to tuition at a private school, do not tend to function in such a manner.

In This Article

Moreover, it reiterates the importance for urban school reform measures—and urban education policies in general—to consider the potential implications for students who have already been marginalized within the education system. These conversations are filled with complexities and tensions, but as history has shown us, urban demographics will undoubtedly continue to shift, and so too will urban education as scholars, policy-makers, and educators continue to search for ways to expose and eradicate inequities and improve urban schools.

Her research interests include the disproportionalities in discipline rates for underrepresented groups, cultural literacy practices, and college readiness. Kathlene A. Holmes is a former kindergarten teacher, professional development consultant, community college professor, and state college administrator. Holmes is particularly passionate toward initiatives embedding multimodal and culturally relevant practices in social studies and literacy education. Holmes is currently a PhD student in Curriculum and Instruction.

Amber S. Warrington is a doctoral student in Language and Literacy Studies within the Department of Curriculum and Instruction.


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  7. She has worked previously as a public school teacher at the secondary level and as a writing instructor at the university level. Her research interests include urban teacher education, writing instruction, and democratic writing assessment. References Achinstein, B. Are we creating separate and unequal tracks of teachers? The effects of state policy, local conditions, and teacher characteristics on new teacher socialization. American Educational Research Journal, 41, Amrein-Beardsley, A. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 20 12 , Anyon, J.

    Radical possibilities: Public policy, urban education, and a new social movement. New York: Routledge. Buras, K. Race, charter schools, and conscious capitalism: On the spatial politics of Whiteness as property and the unconscionable assault on Black New Orleans. Harvard Educational Review. Boyd, D. The narrowing gap in New York City teacher qualifications and its implications for student achievement in high- poverty schools. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 27, Cuban, L. How teachers taught: Constancy and change in American classrooms New York: Teachers College Press.

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