Thursday, June 6, 2013

Urban Education: The messages, myths, and realities

“[Urban schools] tend to be places governed by an overarching sense of futility and pessimism; where colleagues may distrust their supervisors and perhaps one another; where there can be a certain harshness in the way children and parents are dealt with; where many children seem to be disengage much of the time, but not necessarily more so than the teachers; where the levels of human capital are at their lowest; where instruction is uncoordinated and uninspiring; where there are too few resources, and those few are often badly use; where the curriculum is narrow, boring, and frequently changing; where teachers have profound skepticism about “program”; where there is a general feeling of instability—personnel come and go, students come and go, programs come and go—all of it presided over by a dysfunctional bureaucracy” (Payne, 2008, p. 23).
This quote comes from Charles Payne's (2008) book So much reform, so little change: The persistence of failure in urban schools.  In no way is he blaming any one particular player in this scenario, least of all the students or their families, but his analysis is supremely useful in that it presents the complicated and complex situation that is "the urban school."  

This past semester, as I went through a course called "Foundations of Urban Education," I was  struggling to put my finger on the solution for urban education.  This is not only slightly naïve, given that I have never taught in a public school, but it also reveals that I have bought into the prevalent ideology that there is a panacea for our educational system.   

I held off posting anything from the course on my blog because I wanted to be able to offer the answer.  But I’m starting to see that’s precisely the point—there is no one-size-fits-all solution.  And typically, any attempt at the next big solution creates more issues than it resolved. As a society, we have a long way to go before we have sufficiently delved into understanding the problems before we start passing more legislation.  

If the problems are complex, then the answers cannot be simplistic. 

This kind of post is fraught with other potential pitfalls. This “problem” of urban education, or education in “at risk” schools, is weighty and controversial at the same time. Works like Payne's help to deconstruct some of the biased messages that are promoted by the media and politicians regarding students in urban schools.  As we examine the factors that maintain socioeconomic and racial inequalities, it should become more difficult to “blame the victim” or oversimplify the issues. 

However, Payne paints a fairly grim picture of urban education.  And as he does, I can’t help thinking about some of my friends who teach in various schools around the metropolitan area who talk about the very kinds of problems that he discusses.  In any case, it seems that I cannot completely discredit what he says.  And therein I see at least one very sticky problem—how can I write about some of the realities in some urban schools, without perpetuating stereotypes? 

For example, I hear people complain about St. Louis Public School District, asking, "Where does all that money go?" implying that "those people" are just wasting time and money, that "they" are incompetent or corrupt.  I now see, however, there could be layers of bureaucracy, accompanied by flagging morale among faculty and staff, which leads to institutional failure.  In this kind of environment, people with strong personalities can take over and contribute to a culture of fear and mistrust. In this downward spin, efficient management goes out the window and the people inside just focus on day-to-day survival. In addition (and this is not frequently cited by the media) schools that serve communities living in poverty need more money than schools in affluent areas to begin with. 

So, again, the situation is far more complicated that anyone knows.

I am convinced that there is some hope in the idea of creating authentic community in schools as a way of breaking the cycle of social reproduction and truly caring for the needs of others.  I also believe that the more we find out what the real problems are--not the problems we think exist or the problems that the media emphasizes--the more we will be able to come up with real, grass-roots solutions.


Payne, C. M. (2008). So much reform, so little change: The persistence of failure in urban schools. Harvard Education Press. 

What are some of the messages you have heard about urban schools?  Are these messages based in reality?  How do you know? 

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