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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

Urban Education: Issues and the Future

By Michael Albertson — September 30, 2011 6 min read
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Today’s guest blog is written By Michael Albertson. Michael is a music teacher in large high school in New York City

Educators in urban settings deal with unique challenges not necessarily faced by their colleagues in less-populated areas. This is not to say that working in a city school is more “noble"; all teachers face difficult situations and work to provide their students with the best possible education. However, it is likely that teachers in urban areas will have large classes comprised of a diverse group of students. It is the responsibility of these educators to create classrooms that allow every child to succeed despite differences in language or formal education.

Overcrowded and Underfunded
The effects of the current economic conditions this country faces are all too evident in our schools. For example, a recent survey by the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) in New York City found that there are currently 2,443 less classroom teachers than there were last year (Callici). According to the same study, the result has been approximately 7,000 overcrowded classrooms city-wide, affecting nearly 256,000 students. This is unacceptable; our students deserve much better.

Teachers, counselors and administrators also face unfair burdens and are trying to make the most of these less-than-ideal conditions. One major problem that is often overlooked is the task of trying to program (high school) students for the classes that they need to graduate. It is not unlike assembling a very large jigsaw puzzle: how does one get 3,000 pieces (students) into all of the correct classes in an over-crowded space, while adhering to the union contract as well as accommodating the requests of concerned parents? Solving this problem involves juggling student schedules many times--it is not unusual for the changes to continue through October!

Working with Diverse Learners
Being exposed to a wide variety of cultures is one of the most rewarding parts of teaching in a city; however, there are also inherent challenges. Elizabeth Ann McAnally (2006) wisely points out, “Teachers in urban classrooms should not ever assume that students know what behavior is expected of them. Urban students come from very diverse backgrounds, with diverse levels of educational experiences” (104). Keeping this in mind, how do urban educators create an emotionally and intellectually safe space for students amidst the chaos of schedule changes?

I have found that, more than anything, my students expect me to be consistent and fair. I have witnessed students who completely shut down if I acted in a manner that they perceived as being unfair. In the same vein, it is important to be authentic--students can tell a phony from a mile away, and they will not be afraid to “call you out” in front of the class. The latter point is especially important to me as a high school music teacher. Due to lack of funding and student relocation resulting from school choice , many of my students arrive as ninth graders having never played a musical instrument.

I enjoy having the opportunity to expose my students to this new experience, but most of the literature for beginning instrumentalists is aimed at young children (I hope the problem of authenticity is apparent to the reader.) In response I have created many materials and found songs that allow my students to develop as beginning instrumentalists without insulting their intelligence. The students are appreciative; they are playing music that is enjoyable at an age-appropriate level. Once trust is established, a teacher can take the class in any direction.

Another significant challenge in an urban setting is working in a multi-lingual classroom. My school is located in Queens County--we have students from any country you can think of, and seemingly as many languages to compliment. This is a unique challenge in that literally every activity and set of directions needs to be carefully constructed with English Language Learners (ELLs) in mind. While these students are constantly working towards expanding their vocabularies, it is easy for teachers to forget that colloquialisms and catch-phrases can be great sources of confusion. In addition to reinforcing writing and reading skills, it is important for teachers to provide a variety of activities that allow students to demonstrate the knowledge they have acquired. A student who struggles with writing may be able to verbally communicate an answer when given the chance, or perform a song on piano with great ease, in the case of a music class.

Moving Forward: Shared Responsibility
In her case study examining the experiences of six New York City urban educators, Janice Smith (2006) notes that, “It may surprise those who view urban students as difficult to work with that it is the students who motivate these teachers to keep working in urban schools” (59). I believe that many of my colleagues would concur. However, when faced with the daily stresses of these challenging conditions, it may be easy for educators to blame students for academic unpreparedness or unawareness of school-appropriate behavior.

I submit that most academic or behavioral underperformance by students is merely a symptom of other problems--the students themselves are not the problem. Overcrowded classrooms are one of the most common qualities of urban schools. With so many students under their care, teachers cannot dedicate the individual attention to each student that they deserve. In older grades this contributes to struggling students “slipping through the cracks": sitting unnoticed in class, becoming apathetic to school work, roaming the halls, or dropping out altogether. It is the professional and moral responsibility of all adults involved--teachers, aides, parents, administrators and politicians--to provide students with an environment that is conducive to learning.

Teacher training programs, too, are responsible, but often go unmentioned in the public discourse on education reform. Are colleges preparing students for possible careers in urban schools, or are these future educators being encouraged to work in high-performing, high-paying districts? These institutions may consider service hours for students in both urban and rural/suburban districts as well as requiring a longer sequence in foreign language (DeWitt). All students deserve great teachers--especially students in urban areas who often face enormous personal and educational challenges that are out of their control. It is urgent for our country--educationally and ethically--that teacher preparation programs reflect on these issues.

Click here to read Mike Albertson’s blog entitled Urban Education and Beyond.

Callici, Dorothy. UFT Survey Finds Nearly 7,000 Oversize Classes as School Year
Opens. United Federation of Teachers, 23 September 2011. 29 September

DeWitt, Peter. Can Pre-service Teachers Meet the Demands of the Teaching Profession? Finding Common Ground. Education Week. 29 September 2011.

McAnally, Elizabeth Ann. “Motivating Urban Music Students.” Teaching Music in the
Urban Classroom. Ed. Carol Frierson-Campbell. Lanham, Rowman & Littlefield,
2006. 99-108.

Ravitch, Diane. The Death and Life of the Great American School System. New York:
Basic Books, 2010.

Smith, Janice. “The Challenges of Urban Teaching: Young Music Educators at Work.”
Teaching Music in the Urban Classroom. Ed. Carol Frierson-Campbell. Lanham,
Rowman & Littlefield, 2006. 57-74.

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.