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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Overlooked: Students in Urban Schools

By Michael Albertson — October 19, 2012 5 min read
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Today’s guest blog is written by from former N.Y.C teacher and present Columbia Doctoral Candidate Michael Albertson. Mike previously wrote Urban Education: Issues and the Future for Finding Common Ground.

Students of all backgrounds face a variety of challenges during their years of formal education. Environment is a large factor -- that is, rural, suburban, urban -- and each present unique conditions. However, the problems faced by students in urban schools are the most glaring. While cities serve both culturally and economically diverse populations of students, too often this diversity is not reflected in the student bodies of these schools.

In New York City, the efforts by Mayor Bloomberg to promote school choice -- the goal being for all students to receive a quality education -- has only furthered segregation in the public schools (Daily News, 8/23/12). School choice only exists for those with means -- that is, the financial freedom to choose the best school for their children (often, not public). Even highly-educated, middle-class families must spend a great deal of time and resources hoping that their child might win a highly-coveted seat in one of the few public honors high schools. For low-income families, the choice is often between the lesser of two struggling schools (Since these disparities exist, urban school is defined below).

There are many policies that have been developed and implemented by many different parties (politicians, professors, school leaders) in an attempt to assist these struggling schools. Most have been ineffective because they failed to address the nuanced problems that these students face on a daily basis. Too frequently these struggles are reduced to dangerously inaccurate conclusions: “These students do not care about education” or “Teachers in these schools must be really bad.”

Drawing on prior research and philosophy, as well as my own lived experiences -- that is, attending elementary and secondary school in a middle-class rural setting and teaching for nine years in a large, urban high school -- here are four aspects of the struggles faced by students and their teachers in urban schools that often go unmentioned in public discourse:

1. Disconnect between life at school and life at home
Educationalist John Dewey (1916) wrote in depth about the disconnect between educational and social settings. He argued that education was primarily a social endeavor -- teachers should take students’ social and home living situations into consideration when planning instruction. During our current era of standardized testing and assigning grades to schools, such situations become nearly impossible. Tests do not measure disparities in income or prior educational opportunities. For middle/high-income families, weekend trips to a local museum provide supplemental knowledge to the instruction they receive in school. On the other hand, many of my high school students had never even traveled from Queens to Manhattan to visit one of the dozens of museums at their disposal. Such experiences are simply not a reality.

2. Language
The gap in vocabulary between affluent students and low-income students is not a new revelation. However, The New York Times recently published a piece that presented this problem in a new and startling light: “Children of professionals [are], on average, exposed to approximately 1,500 more words hourly than children growing up in poverty” (10/5/12). Amidst such disparity, it is unconscionable that students from low-income families are facing the conditions created in our schools by a data-driven agenda. Without an age-appropriate working vocabulary, simple tasks such as comprehending directions given by a teacher can be an overwhelming challenge.

3. Hesitancy to Trust Adults
When I was growing up, my peers and I entered the classroom with the understanding that the teacher was to be respected, even if we did not personally care for them. This tenet was never questioned. Those who have never taught in an urban school may not be aware that such a social contract as this does not exist for many students. While there are always students who are respectful and cooperative, many are guarded against adults, especially during the first few weeks. Teachers, who often grew up in different settings from their students, cannot expect that their willingness to work with students will be automatically reciprocated. Trust must be earned. If it is not established, or worse -- if it is betrayed -- it is possible that a student will “shut down” for the rest of the year. James Baldwin (1963) wrote a definitive account of this lack of common experience between teachers and students in his Talk to Teachers. Baldwin’s prose is so spot-on; it is a must-read.

4. They Know and See What Society Thinks of Them on a Daily Basis
This comes full-circle to the point of disconnect: in school, students are taught that all people in this country are equal. But on the street, many are stopped by the police under New York City’s Stop and Frisk policy -- the haunting new look of legal discrimination. They are told that if they work hard they can achieve their dreams, yet college costs too much for their family, or their parents do not know where to acquire information about financial aid. They are told that they deserve a great education, but wonder why they are one of fifty students in a class. The city misses garbage day in the Bronx and Queens while the tourist-filled streets of Midtown Manhattan are spotless.

For decades Jonathan Kozol has been one of the most visible, tireless voices in bringing to light the issues facing the youth of America’s urban centers. His fight is the necessary fight: the well-being of children is at the core of his life’s work. The national debate has moved so far away from this that no apology we can muster up will ever be enough for our students. What we need now are the strong voices of students, parents, and educators to take the reigns and re-calibrate our moral compass in the educational reform debate.

Michael Albertson is a first-year doctoral candidate of Music and Music Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. He taught music at Flushing High School in Queens from 2003-2012. Follow Mike on Twitter.

Bellafante, Ginia (2012). Before a test, a poverty of words. The New York Times. 5 October,
2012. Accessed 15 October, 2012. Web.
Brick, Michael (2012). When we all went to school together. The New York Daily News.
23 August, 2012. Accessed 15 October, 2012. Web.
Dewey, John (1916). Democracy and education. Kindle e-book digital copy.

Urban schools are defined by Michael as:
• Have rosters of several thousand, with over 30 student per class
• Have a majority of students that qualify for free or reduced-fee lunch
• Contain an ethnically-diverse student body (usually, but not always, a high English Language Learner population)
• Are public

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.