This article provides an overview of the critical issues in urban education. The article describes the significant characteristics of and challenges facing urban learners, urban teachers, and urban schools. In spite of the challenges, some urban schools have succeeded, and this article explores the major factors that have led to their success. These factors include targeted curricula and instructional programs, academic and relational engagement with students and their families, and the creation of a positive learning environment. However, this overview also explores the tremendous difficulties that many urban schools face, such as large student populations, inadequate facilities, lack of funding, and very diverse students and teachers. Urban teachers also must overcome many obstacles in order to succeed. Some of the challenges they face include insufficient teaching resources, substantial administrative responsibilities, and learning to work in an unfamiliar environment. In spite of these difficulties, urban students and teachers can learn to work together to create a meaningful urban education experience. Some of the distinguishing characteristics of successful urban education are the ability to overcome cultural differences, effective classroom management, and a safe and secure school campus. The following sections describe these concepts in more detail.
Keywords Assessment; At Risk; Benchmarks; Diversity; English as a Second Language; Inclusion; Literacy; No Child Left Behind Act of 2001; Title I Programs
As cities across the United States swell with populations that boast increasing inner-city populations and families with histories that can be traced to countries around the world, schools are facing ever greater challenges in meeting the needs of the young people from these diverse communities. Some of the students from these families speak little, if any, English. Other students live in dire poverty. Still others face routine violence in their communities. These young people come to schools with tremendous needs that extend beyond their academic development. In spite of these difficulties, many urban students and teachers have learned to cope with the challenges they face and have succeeded. Likewise, some urban schools offer a meaningful education to their students and are an asset to their communities. However, the reality is still stark for many urban schools. Facing inadequate funding and resources, these schools struggle to provide a solid education that will prepare students to thrive in the world of business and secondary education. The following sections explore the factors that are present in the successes and challenges that are a reality in urban education.
Urban learners are diverse, and thus urban education must strive to meet the needs of these challenging yet dynamic students. Urban learners include students from every racial, ethnic, linguistic, and socioeconomic background. However, with the expansion of the suburbs and private education options, urban schools reflect the populations of their communities. Urban communities are increasingly being made up of minority groups such as African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, or Native Americans, and these young people disproportionately populate urban schools. As a result, many public urban schools consist largely of minority and/or lower-income students, whereas public suburban and private schools are predominately white and middle income. In addition, urban learners are more likely to be from lower socioeconomic groups and to present special learning needs or learning difficulties. Although this emerging division has presented challenges for urban students, teachers, and schools, urban education is still a critical concern for many families, educators, and communities. Thus, urban education is by definition complex, consisting of a diverse group of individuals, many of whom are working together to make their schools a better place for everyone.
Although many urban students desire a good education and a successful school, many urban learners struggle with poor academic achievement. As a result, many urban students drop out of high school before graduating. There are many reasons for this—pregnancies, unstable homes, the necessity to enter the workforce, or the lack of volition and community support. Only about 60 percent of the students in urban areas graduated from high school in 2005, and many of those who do manage to graduate are ill-prepared for higher education or the workplace (Swanson, 2009; Schulte, 2004). In some of the largest cities, the statistics are even grimmer, where less than one-half of the black male students in urban schools graduate (Sege, 2006; Noguera, 2012).
One challenge facing many urban students is their disproportionate placement in special education classes. Many urban children come to school ill prepared for the structure of the classroom or the demands of schoolwork and homework. Likewise, urban teachers often have insufficient training in understanding how to meet the many needs of urban students, including needs that go beyond those typically provided in a classroom setting. For instance, some urban students need assistance with developing basic language and social skills or may lack sufficient academic skills for their grade level because they were simply passed in classes where they may not have actually mastered the material. These children frequently fall further and further behind until they are likely to qualify for special education. Although special education is ostensibly intended to help students make progress, it often results in students losing the experience of interacting with their peers in the general education classroom and being challenged to keep up academically with fellow students.
In addition to lower graduation rates and a higher presence in special education classes, urban students are more likely to experience school violence and disciplinary problems. Urban and minority learners are at much greater risk for office referrals, suspensions, and expulsions than nonminority students. There are many reasons for this. One reason may be that urban students practice behaviors in their homes or communities that do not translate well to the structure of school classrooms and thus have difficulty adapting to the academic environment. Urban students may also experience less support from their families and communities to attend or complete school and may even be the first person in their family to approach high school graduation. However, when students become disconnected from their classes and peers due to disciplinary problems, they lose valuable opportunities to learn both academic and social skills. Furthermore, repeated suspensions or disciplinary actions can have the psychological effect of communicating to students that they are not wanted, further disenfranchising them from the support and structure of their classes and peers.
Minority males, particularly African American males, are the most vulnerable segment of the school population for poor school outcomes due to disciplinary problems. The reasons for this are not entirely clear. The roots of this problem are likely a combination of developmental, attitudinal, and instructional factors. It is clear, however, that many young students in urban schools struggle to meet the minimum academic benchmarks for their grade level and feel a sense of failure, thus increasing their likelihood of dropping out of school and perpetuating the statistics of lower academic achievement among urban learners. The reasons for lower academic achievement among urban students are multifaceted, with no segment of society completely to blame. Nurturing urban students to excellence takes continual commitment from many different sources—parents, teachers, schools, businesses, mentors, relatives, and even local and national community leaders and resources.
In spite of the many challenges facing urban students, urban schools and educational programs can flourish and succeed. Urban education can be a positive and effective influence in the lives of urban students even though many urban learners come from poverty and lack many of the conditions typically considered fundamental to academic performance, such as stable homes and family support. In short, urban children can learn, regardless of family background, and urban schools can be effective through appropriate expectations, solid leadership, targeted instructional practices and positive learning environments, and relationships with families and community resources. The following sections describe these factors in greater detail.
Urban schools that succeed do so because the teachers and staff recognize and work in conjunction with the unique educational needs of their students. Thus, although suburban schools across town may use instructional strategies and resources that are mainstream and typical of similar schools, effective urban schools assess the educational needs of their students to determine their strengths and weaknesses and then identify instructional strategies and allocate resources according to this assessment. For instance, teachers may include resources in their curriculum and lesson plans that contain materials and references that are familiar to urban students. Or, teachers may take time to reteach lower-level skills that students should have already mastered.
Additionally, teachers use specific resources to target areas of weakness in their students and then teach intensively toward the goal of student mastery rather than completion of the material. This means that teachers continue to present material in various ways until the students master it instead of moving past material simply because of time constraints or because the material has been covered at least once. Teachers determine mastery through progressive monitoring. This means that these teachers use daily and weekly assessments to determine whether students have gained sufficient mastery of the material, such that it is appropriate to move forward with the presentation of new material.
The relationship between academic engagement and academic achievement is direct and immediate. Students who are more engaged with the material they are studying are more likely to master and retain the material. Effective urban teachers are skilled in designing and implementing lessons that keep students responding academically to the lessons so that they have a firm grasp on the information they receive and ultimately internalize the material. In addition, students who are academically engaged in the material they are learning maintain high expectations regarding their ability to learn and master future lessons that will be built on the information they are learning. High expectations are essential for good teaching and learning. Thus, urban schools succeed when teachers are encouraged to set academic and social goals for their classrooms as well as for individual students. By specifying academic goals, teachers have a clear sense of what they are trying to accomplish during the school year, and the students have an understanding of what will be expected of them. In addition, these expectations need to be continually communicated and monitored so that both teachers and students are invested in working toward their implementation and accomplishment.
In addition to being engaged in the academics covered in the classroom, teachers in successful urban schools tend to be more engaged in their students' families. Although many urban learners come from blended or single-parent families, most of these students have some family unit that can play an important role in facilitating the educational process. Many of these impoverished families may have fewer resources or diminished time to commit to the educational process but do understand the importance of education and are willing to support that process to the extent that they can. Urban schools that incorporate families in the educational process—through stronger parent-teacher communication, parent involvement in sports and academic programs, or other means—are more likely to succeed. This is because students are better able to absorb and retain information and lessons when the educational process is reinforced or valued at home.
Establishing a Positive Learning Environment
Many poor urban students have special gifts and talents that may remain dormant or undeveloped without being identified and nurtured. Successful urban schools create an environment that values both education and the unique abilities of individual students. Since many urban students do not have enrichment or extracurricular options in their homes or communities, it is important that urban schools aggressively attempt to cultivate the innate abilities of these students. Enrichment interventions should not be dismissed or cut due to fiscal or other reasons. Instead, urban schools that thrive do so because of their focus on affirming and motivating students and continually stressing the worth of education, commitment to valuing each individual and honoring the successes and unique achievements of their students.
Urban students, even those who are efficient or adequate learners, require continuous and rigorous instruction. Thus, urban teachers must implement special strategies to meet the educational needs of their students and the demands of teaching in the urban environment. For instance, urban teachers must work to develop both the academic levels as well as the social skills of their students. These teachers must also find ways to affirm and encourage students daily, while stressing the value of school, education, and academic achievement. Urban teachers must also set clear and attainable objectives that they stress to students so that students have a solid understanding of what is expected of them and how to achieve these expectations. Finally, urban teachers must develop ways to cope with behavioral disruptions in ways that encourage offenders to curtail the negative behavior and remain engaged in the classroom activities while creating minimal disruptions to the education of other students in the classroom. This may include fostering stronger relationships with the families of students, creating a system of daily or weekly rewards for positive behavior and academic progress, or building a more meaningful relationship with the disruptive student so that school seems less impersonal to them.
Challenges Facing Urban Schools
Urban school systems have unique traits that create special problems and challenges for teachers, administrators, parents, and students. These challenges include the fact that many urban schools are overpopulated so that teachers and teaching resources are strained, inadequate funding, and the diversity and disenfranchisement of students and their families from mainstream social services, discourse, and privileges. The following sections will explain these challenges in greater detail.
Size of Urban Schools
Urban schools are often unwieldy, in terms of...
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