In response to postings addressing education in urban schools, I received an email questioning the position I had taken. Essentially, the respondant thought the posts served to denigrate the education that students receive in urban public schools. Undoubtedly, statistics support that students in many urban schools perform more poorly compared to those in suburban schools, but it is the myriad reasons for underperformance that must be considered.
Matthew Yglesias writes that measuring the performance of urban and suburban students is akin to comparing apples and oranges. In his article, he argues that instead of using data comparing school systems, we should compare student performance based on socio-economic factors given that urban school districts “contain a higher-than-average number of poor kids, and poor kids tend to do worse than middle class kids” on standardized tests, resulting in low test scores for many big city schools. Similarly, the blog Openeducation.net, edited by Tom Hanson, provides a detailed analysis of Yglesias’s article, asserting that data can be skewed (“statistics versus facts”), maintaining that “urban schools are deserving of far more credit that they receive.”
Yglesias and Hanson make compelling arguments, though they do not go far enough. For years, research has indicated that socioeconomics are a significant factor in educating. Cultural Psychologist Jerome Bruner, in The Culture of Education, explores “the impact of poverty, racism, and alienation on the mental life and growth of [children],” (xiii) explaining that “effective education is always in jeopardy either in the culture at large or with constituencies more dedicated to maintaining a status quo than to fostering flexibility,” (15).
Yes, facts reveal a disparity in student performance based on class, but we need to ask ourselves not only why this is the case (there is a political function for maintaining an underclass, as I’ve addressed before), but also why the situation is allowed to continue when there are current school models that demonstrate success with working class and poor students. The obvious reason here is financial — it costs money to implement and it is evident that the federal government would rather mandate (NCLB) than fund solutions. In “Fostering Educational Resilience in Inner-City Schools,” (1997) a study by Margaret C. Wang, Geneva D. Haertel, and Herbert J. Walberg concludes that any reasonable solution for inner-city schools should “implement an inclusive approach to respond to student diversity … and family-school-community partnerships.” Bruner agrees with such an approach, noting that “…the school can never be considered as culturally ‘free standing.’ What it teaches, what modes of thought and what ‘speech registers’ it actually cultivates in its pupils, cannot be isolated from how the school is situated in the lives and culture of its students,” (28).
But we must not confuse our role. While some, like Ruby Payne, attempt to address issues that affect many urban areas — like poverty, education, health care, justice, and community sustainability — changes that she proposes assume a deficit model, placing blame, as is the American way, not on social and political systems, but on the very marginalized students she claims to want to help. Arguments such as hers do not stand, particularly when it’s impossible to pull yourself up by your bootstraps when you have no boots. Real change, systemic changes of the type needed, is difficult.
And change is always risky because of the unknowns associated with it. Likewise, as Bruner points out, “Education is risky, for it fuels the sense of possibility. But a failure to equip minds with the skills for understanding and feeling and acting in the cultural world is not simply scoring a pedagogical zero. It risks creating alienation, defiance, and practical incompetence. And all of these undermine the viability of a culture,” (42-23).
In 21st century America, there is an ever-widening gap between the haves and the have nots, and a steady decrease in the middle class. Where we should be moving toward an enlightened society — and many in power give lip service to this goal — our policies are moving us backward and are becoming more reminiscent of feudalism than progressivism. The question is how long will the average American tolerate this New Serfdom before taking action?
Bruner, Jerome. The Culture of Education. Cambridge, Massachussetts: Harvard University Press, 1996.
“Urban Schools Deserving of Far More Credit than They Receive.” Tom Hanson, ed. OpenEducation.net. 10 July 2008. <http://www.openeducation.net/2008/07/10/urban-schools-deserving-of-far-more-credit-than-they-receive/>. Accessed 15 July 2008.
Wang, Margaret C., Geneva D. Haertel, and Herbert J. Walberg. “Fostering Educational Resilience in Inner-City Schools.” LSS Publication Series No. 4. 1997. <http://www.temple.edu/lss/htmlpublications/publications/pubs97-4.htm#future>. Accessed 16 July 2008.
Yglesias, Matthew. “The Truth About Urban Schools.” TheAtlantic.com. 23 June 2008. <http://matthewyglesias.theatlantic.com/archives/2008/06/the_truth_about_urban_schools.php>. Accessed 16 July 2008.