Exploring the Nuances of Urban School Reform

School reform is a considerable task in and of itself. When thinking about low-income and urban schools, however, there are even more intricacies to sift through. Find out how urban school reform is special and what we need to do specifically to address it.

Why is there no progress when we desperately need it?

With skyrocketing costs, budget crises, inconsistent curricula, poor standardized testing scores, and poor morale among teachers, administrators, and students, the need for sustainable and pervasive educational change is greater now than ever before. The numbers of questions related to the quality of the U.S. educational system from multiple sectors of society is at an all-time high. Many American parents have seen reports that American schools rank well below schools in countries such as China and Japan, or have heard President Obama declare a “dropout crisis” in the USA. An abundance of news reports and discouraging case studies has created panic among education stakeholders, who want to know why American school systems are failing. However, many insist on playing the “blame game,” which in most cases is counterproductive.

Many Americans believe that only a small percentage of leaders understand the complexities of the school system, and that individuals who do understand the intricacies of the system use their knowledge to justify the mediocre performance of our teachers and students. The American school system is the best-financed system in the world, but is one of the lowest performing. The American school system as a whole has an appalling performance record.

For children living in urban environments, the story is even more alarming. Students from low socioeconomic backgrounds are often educated in dilapidated schools where too many educators lack the credentials and skills necessary to perform their duties adequately. High student-to-teacher ratios are found in most urban schools, and these schools often lack the resources to deal with the diverse challenges they face, including unruly student behavior. Education has been called the great equalizer, but for students living in poverty-stricken urban areas it is little more than a babysitting service and a place to get a hot meal.

Many question whether the No Child Left Behind Act has contributed to achieving academic success. Although NCLB was well intentioned, it has not lived up to the hopes of government or schools. In the eyes of some, NCLB has actually contributed to subpar academics becoming even worse.  If American educators and school personnel do not make a concerted effort to develop effective measures to hold schools accountable for the education of all of our children, then the education crisis will continue.

There is an exception to every rule: some urban school systems are providing a quality education. Unfortunately, however, only a small number of school systems meet the state and federal government student performance requirements. For underperforming urban school systems, the problem usually lies with the inability to sustain existing reform efforts and initiatives. Mayors and school superintendents in these areas often concoct grandiose reform plans that are merely political devices meant to beguile voters into believing they genuinely care about educational reform. The idea that politicians create school reform to gain popularity and votes is sad and sobering. It is discouraging to realize that our children’s futures might be used as a political device to win elections.

Politicians are not the only people at fault for the shoddy education American children are receiving, but no one will take responsibility for subpar educational environments. If administrators were asked who was at fault, they might point to a lack of parental involvement and too few quality teachers. If teachers were asked who was at fault they might also cite a lack of parental involvement and ineffective administration. If parents were asked who was at fault they might blame teachers and school administrators. Society in general seems to conclude that the lack of quality teachers, effective administration, and parental involvement are all factors contributing to educational failure.

Whatever the reason, Americans have become the laughing stock of the free world when it comes to K-12 education. The solution, of course, is for the country to unite and work together to carry the responsibility of enriching and continuing America’s future via educational excellence without playing the “blame game.”

So how do we begin?

Each day 8,000 American students drop out of high school. Over the course of a year, that amounts to 3 million total students who give up on the American right to education through 12th grade and decide they will be better off without a high school diploma. Within those numbers are even more telling statistics that show students of color and from low socio-economic brackets are dropping out in much greater numbers than their white middle- and high-class peers.

In my work, I’ve explored the “real world” of teaching, particularly how new educators are ill-prepared to face the challenges of teaching in urban settings. Traditional university programs for K-12 educators do not adequately prepare students for what awaits them in the urban schools of America where the achievement gap and dropout rates are highest. So how can this problem be remedied? In three ways, as a start:

Target urban backgrounds. Teachers with connections to urban locations and educations are prime candidates to return to these schools and make a difference. Universities are not doing enough to find these qualified future educators and then place them on specific tracks for career success at urban schools. There needs to be greater customization when it comes to college learning for future educators who understand firsthand the challenges that urban students face – and then job placement programs need to be built around the same concept.

Require urban student teaching. All educators-in-training should spend at least a few hours in an urban classroom, in addition to their other teaching assignments. Seeing urban challenges firsthand must be part of every educator’s path to a degree, even if he or she never teaches full time in such a classroom. I believe this would not only raise awareness of issues that tend to plague urban schools (like overcrowding and the impact of poverty on student performance) but may also inspire future teachers to want to teach in those settings. College programs must expose teacher-students to real-world urban settings in order to make progress past the social and academic issues that bring urban K-12 students down.

Reward urban teachers. The test-heavy culture of American K-12 classrooms puts urban teachers at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to resources and even lifelong salaries. If a teacher whose students score well on standardized tests is rewarded with more money and access to more learning materials, where does that leave the poor-performing educators? Instead of funneling more funds and learning help to teachers with student groups that are likely to do well, despite the teacher, urban teachers should be receiving the support. At the very least, the funding and attention should be evenly split. In almost every case, failing urban students and schools should never be blamed on the teacher. That mentality is what scares away many future educators who may otherwise have given urban teaching a try. There is too much pressure to perform and that leads to many urban teachers leaving their posts after the first year, or not even looking for those jobs in the first place.

Strong teaching in America’s urban schools is the key to overcoming dropout and achievement gap issues. With the right guidance, urban K-12 students can rise above their circumstances to be stand-outs in academics. They may even return the favor as teachers themselves one day. For urban teachers to succeed, however, they need more support and encouragement from their industry, government and society as a whole.

The REAL problems in urban education

Let’s look deeper into the problems associated with urban schools.

Students in urban schools tend to have stereotypes attached to them. Rather than see these students as individual learners, many urban kids and their schools are often thrown into the “lost cause” category. Problems like deteriorating buildings and overcrowding often become too overwhelming for reformers.

In a 2009 article in the Harvard Political Review, writers Tiffany Wen and Jyoti Jasrasaria discuss the “myths of urban education.”  The article points out that many people are quick to label urban schools as lost causes without actually investigating individual issues or how they can be resolved. The authors also shed light on the juxtaposition of the basic American ideal that anyone from anywhere can make it big with some hard work and the reality of urban schools. If urban students are truly not at a disadvantage, per the American dream, then why do they graduate from high school at a rate of nearly 20 percent lower than their suburban counterparts?

Because overcrowding is the enemy

In an Education Week guest blog post, urban music teacher Mike Albertson said that “overcrowded classrooms are one of the most common qualities of urban schools.”

He went on to say that the students themselves are not the actual problem in urban schools but that the overcrowded conditions are to blame for many perceived behavior issues and academic disengagement. More likely, it is a combination of high student-to-teacher ratios and behavior problems.

Studies have found a correlation between overcrowding and lower math and reading scores. Teachers also cite overcrowding as a definite contributor to student behavior problems. Too many kids in classrooms means too little individual instruction. It also means that academic time is spent dealing with issues that distract from education. Overcrowding is only one problem that contributes to urban student disadvantages but one that deserves the spotlight.

Are we too quick to remove students?

Statistics tell us that not only do urban students more often come from tumultuous home lives, but they are often punished more harshly for the same infractions than suburban peers. Over 68 percent of all incarcerated adult American men do not have a high school diploma.

Removal from school as a disciplinary measure, while potentially the easiest short-term solution, feeds the school-to-prison cycle that is built primarily in urban schools. Instead, mentorship programs would go a long way toward directing urban students toward higher academic engagement and graduation rates. Many colleges have implemented mentorship programs for at-risk students, like first-generation college students, so why can’t K-12 schools do the same?

Urban schools don’t have enough money

With budget cuts a perennial complaint, though, more money for K-12 mentorship initiatives is unlikely. The bottom line is that urban students need more individual attention in order for their academic outlooks to improve. Technology has the potential to reach a wider number of students but the human connection is what will have a lasting positive impact on urban students.

The implications of mobile technology in K-12 classrooms are still being realized but one thing is certain: more individualized learning is now possible. In cases where overcrowding is detrimental to learning experiences, mobile technology can serve as a placeholder teacher in terms of directing students and keeping them engaged in learning when the physical teacher is unavailable.

Mentorship programs would go a long way toward directing urban students toward higher academic engagement and graduation rates. Many colleges have implemented mentorship programs for at-risk students, like first-generation college students, so why can’t K-12 schools do the same?

What actually works when it comes to school reform?

Although diverse school models exist, a fundamental question remains—how are we to know whether or not a school model is effective, and how can effectiveness be judged? A number of research studies focus on characteristics of effective schools. However, there is debate over which attributes should be considered when describing successful schools.

According to some researchers, student performance should be the primary indicator of a successful school. It makes sense, really, since the sole purpose of schools is educating their students. Other researchers propose that students’ social characteristics, such as personal growth should be included when determining effective schools. Another issue with school effectiveness research is that findings are predominantly based on research conducted in elementary schools or unique school settings in the inner city.  Consequently, it is suggested that these findings cannot be generalized to all schools.

In truth, there is no one factor that can accurately determine the effectiveness of K-12 schools. Instead, it is a multi-faceted conversation and one that evolves with each generation of students. As suggested above, the context of schooling will impact factors that contribute to effectiveness in specific schools. At the same time, there are attributes and factors that contribute to effectiveness across schooling contexts. By understanding an array of effectiveness attributes we are able to observe which attributes exist at a particular school and which, if adopted might facilitate effectiveness, given a particular school context.

Common elements of success

A 2008 study describes five common characteristics that make up an effective school; these characteristics, and the theory behind them has also been described as the five-factor theory.

  • The first factor is quality leadership.  In other words, students perform better where the principal provides strong leadership.  Effective leaders are visible, able to successfully convey the school’s goals and visions, collaborate with teachers to enhance their skills, and are involved in the discovery of and solutions to problems.
  • The second factor is having high expectations of students, as well as teachers.  High expectations of students have repeatedly been shown to have a positive impact on students’ performance. More attention should be paid to high expectations of teachers. In other words, teachers who are expected to teach at high levels of effectiveness are able to reach the level of expectations, particularly when teacher evaluations and teacher professional development is geared toward improving instructional quality.
  • The third characteristic of a successful school is the ongoing screening of student performance and development.  Schools should use assessment data to compare their students with others from across the country. Effective use of assessment data allows schools to identify problematic areas of learning at the classroom and school levels, so that solutions can be generated as to how to best address the problems.
  • The fourth characteristic of a successful school is the existence of goals and direction.  Administration should actively construct goals and then effectively communicate them to appropriate individuals (i.e., students, teachers, community-at-large).  School principals must also be open and willing to incorporate innovation into goals for school processes and practices. It is important to invite input from all stakeholders in the process of developing school goals. Student performance has been shown to improve in schools where all in the school community work toward goals that are communicated and shared among all in the learning environment.
  • The fifth and final factor of a successful school is the extent to which the school is secure and organized. For maximum learning to occur, students need to feel secure.  Respect is a quality that is promoted and is a fundamental aspect of a safe school.  There are also a number of trained staff and programs, such as social workers, who work with problem students before situations get out of hand.

Other elements of student success

Apart from the five factors of a successful school already mentioned, the size of the school seems to be a school effectiveness factor.  Research has found that the smaller the school, the better students perform, especially in the case of older students.  This is the rationale behind the concept of schools-within-schools. Students in smaller learning environments feel more connected to their peers and teachers, pass classes more often, and have a higher probability of going to college.

A number of school districts view preschool education as a factor that will influence overall effectiveness across all schools located within the district. Evidence suggests that children with preschool experiences fare better academically and socially as they enter kindergarten and beyond. Experiences in literacy and numeracy among early learners not only prepares preschoolers for a kindergarten curriculum that has heightened expectations of prior knowledge, but also helps identify early learners who will need additional support to ensure they are able to have positive learning experiences later on.

Additional factors that influence effective schools include time to learn, teacher quality, and school and parental trust. Research supports the commonsensical view that the more time a student spends learning, and the more efficiently that time is used, the higher their achievement.   Schools that find creative ways to extend time on learning will likely be more effective. Schools with high quality teachers also tend to be more effective. Schools able to hire teachers from high quality teacher education programs increase the possibility of being an effective school.

School effectiveness can also be influenced by the frequency, relevancy, and quality of the teacher professional development offered by the school and/or school district. Trust and parental participation are also features of a successful school.  Trust between all parties of the school community is vital for enhancing the school’s effectiveness because it supports the prospect that parents and teachers believe in the motives and actions of each other.  Parental participation is also important because it sends the message to students that the adults in their lives—both teachers and parents—believe in the importance of education and are willing to make time to support students’ educational experiences and efforts.

So there is no simple solution for labeling the effectiveness of a particular school – but it should certainly go beyond assessments alone.

Who’s in charge?

As we’re still working with an ever-growing achievement gap, it’s worth considering who should be the key players in reforming our lowest-performing schools. School districts need to take some of the lead in this. Let’s look at why:

  1. School districts have the power to emerge from bureaucracy and make a true difference.

There are many questions and critical issues facing schools as districts evolve from their bureaucratic roots. These questions include the roles that should be kept at the district level, those that should be eliminated, or those that should be passed on to others. Districts also have to look at new functions they may wish to take on and the capabilities needed to assume these functions. At least initially, they will need to determine whether decisions should be made at district level, school level, or elsewhere.

  1. Districts have the power to reach out.

There is also support for districts to take action to discover common interests between schools and the community, through ongoing outreach. Districts need to find ways for people to meet and discuss how to further common interests and work on them cooperatively in order to break down barriers. This type of outreach empowers families and communities, making them useful assets to school systems. Building relationships within the education system and holding open conversations are excellent ways to foster engagement.

  1. Districts are familiar with the unique challenges of their schools.

In the United States, there are low levels of achievement among students from low-income backgrounds and students of color. This is in contrast to the fact that students in educationally supportive states and those from advantaged backgrounds easily rival students from across the world. To put this into context, nine year-olds from White, advantaged backgrounds read as well as thirteen-year-old Black and Hispanic students. In addition, even though funding has increased, it has done so unequally and the achievement gap has grown.

Typically, schools that serve a large number of “minority” students face big issues, which put them at a disadvantage when compared to other schools. They have to deal with lower budgets, larger classes, and often less qualified teachers and school leaders. The effect of this has been to create an “educational debt” that negatively affects the students in these communities. Major efforts are needed to address this issue. Recruiting great teachers is important, but it is not the whole answer. Systemic elements are needed to support the work of talented educators. It is not the people who are at fault: it is the system that needs an overhaul.

As Ted Sizer once put it, “The people are better than the system.” We have come a long way in understanding how to create more effective school leaders and build a national commitment to educational leadership. However, we are not there yet. We need leadership to forge all of the various elements of school reform today into well-functioning systems that make sense for those working hard to achieve results for students.

Smoke and mirror solutions

In theory, parents and educators would do anything to keep students safe, whether those students are pre-Kindergartners or wrapping up a college career. Nothing is too outlandish or over-the-top when it comes to protecting our kids and young adults. Metal detectors, security cameras, more police presence in school hallways, gated campuses – they all work toward the end goal of sheltering students and their educators and protecting the most vulnerable of our citizens.

Emotions aside though – how much does school security really increase actual safety? And do school security efforts actually hinder the learning experience? It sounds good to taut the virtues of tighter policies on school campuses but is it all just empty rhetoric?

Recently the University of Kentucky came under fire from the American Civil Liberties Union for plans to install 2,000 security cameras on campus. Representatives at UK say the move is a response to the increasing randomness of school violence at all levels of the learning process and a way to better ensure student safety. The ACLU says it is a blatant violation of privacy.

I say it is money wasted because all the security cameras in the world would not have prevented the largest school tragedies of recent history, from Sandy Hook Elementary to the Virginia Tech massacre. Security cameras and other monitoring devices give us a false feeling of security and an actionable course when there are no answers to pointless questions.

While extreme, UK’s camera monitoring plans are in sync with what is happening in K-12 schools across the nation. In the 2009 – 2010 school year, 84 percent of high schools had security cameras for safety monitoring. Over half of all middle and elementary schools had them too, with 73 and 51 percent respectively. Despite this, the National Center for Education Statistics reports that the percentage of high schools with controlled access to school buildings during normal hours is lower than that of middle and elementary students. Though not expressly stated in these findings, it would seem that in the case of high schools, cameras are more of a way to catch rule-breakers after the fact than a way to prevent violence and other criminal activities.

Students are not the only ones who are the subjects of safeguards like surveillance cameras.  Teachers, administrators and other staff are also vital when it comes to putting school safety into place – and in the case of teachers, they are on the front lines of what is going on with students. Limited access to K-12 campuses is meant to protect outsiders from harming the many people who are supposed to be there. But what about student-versus-student violence, or student-versus-teacher physical altercations? In 2011, 12 percent of high schoolers reported being in a physical fight at school that year. Nearly 6 percent reported carrying a weapon, like a gun or knife, onto school property in the month preceding the survey. By the time a security camera picks up on the fact that a student has a knife or gun, is there really any timely way to prevent the inevitable?

Given the fact that state spending per student is lower than at the start of the recession, how much should schools shell out in the way of security costs? Perhaps the best investment we can make to safeguard our students and educators is in personal vigilance. Perhaps less reliance on so-called safety measures would lead to higher alertness.

What role should school security play on K-12 campuses, and should it be a financial priority?

Doing things the right way

In 2014, two school districts were awarded The Broad Prize for Urban Education. The annual award is given to large, urban districts that demonstrate strong overall student performance and success in reducing achievement gaps among low-income and minority students.

Orange County Public Schools in Florida and Gwinnett County Public Schools in Georgia were awarded this prize. The $1 million prize is split evenly between the districts and the money will fund college scholarships for high school seniors.

According to Bruce Reed, president of The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation who sponsors the competition, the two districts share comparable demographics: both are diverse and among the largest districts in their county in terms of enrollment.

Chief executive officer and superintendent of Gwinnett County Public Schools J. Alvin Wilbanks attributes the district’s success to effective education. Gwinnett County has focused on leadership development and providing teachers helpful information related to attendance and student achievement, to improve their instruction.

The districts high school seniors also have the highest SAT participation rate among eligible districts for The Broad Prize.

First-time finalist and winner Orange County in Florida has made remarkable gains in student achievement in recent years. The district has focused on centralizing curriculums and programs throughout the district so that educators spend less time getting new students up to speed, which often actually slows them down, says superintendent Barbara Jenkins.

The Broad Foundation tells us that the district has narrowed income and minority achievement gaps, improved college readiness and raised achievement among low-income middle school students.

The Broad Prize is a great award for public schools that work diligently to improve their student and teacher success. I hope that other schools strive to follow in the footsteps of Orange County and Gwinnett County Public Schools so we can narrow the achievement gaps in the US.

A world where education works for everybody

Bad news is everywhere in the press these days, especially when it comes to education. Yet our schools are actually doing pretty well if you look below the surface. There is a rising trend in student test scores within the largest urban school districts. In addition, the Department of Education reports that graduation rates have hit an all-time high of 82 percent of students graduating on time.

Perhaps the best news of all is recent research that says this: Integrated education, in which teachers and students hail from varied socioeconomic and racial backgrounds, works. Students who were bussed into suburban schools made three times the progress in math and reading when compared to similar students who were not part of the desegregation program, within the Minneapolis Public school system. Using culturally responsive plans, Eden Prairie district in Minnesota is one such desegregated school system that has reduced the achievement gap by nearly 60 percent. Several urban school districts in New York City, San Francisco, Minnesota and Connecticut have seen up to two standard deviations of improvement for their elementary grade students in desegregated classrooms.

Integrated districts that entourage their educators via continued professional development are thriving at unparalleled levels. Data is showing that achievement directly correlates to the level of diversity present within schools. Community development and partnerships all work to enhance these school districts’ success.

With educating teachers on emerging best practices from neuroscience research, focusing on diverse cultures as strengths and altering current beliefs regarding student’s abilities, we can further education equality. Integration of schools adds to the overall growth of teachers and students alike and is a better reflection of what the workplace will look like for our students.


The bottom line? Urban schools—and the students within their walls—are not a lost cause. Start thinking of these schools as assets, just like the higher-performing ones. Invest in them, and see urban and American education improve dramatically.





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