View Urban Schools in Local Context, Researchers Urge

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It will take more than changes in curriculum, instruction, and assessment to close the achievement gap between students in urban schools and their counterparts in suburbia.

Researchers offered that message here during a conference May 5 sponsored by the Urban Education National Network, a collaboration of federal education-research laboratories. The network was formed in 1993 to synthesize and focus knowledge about improving urban education so that schools can put it to better use.

The conference, which drew about 200 educators, researchers, and policymakers, featured researchers who offered their own prescriptions for rescuing urban education. But the answers, they cautioned, are complex.

"For those of you who have come seeking simplistic answers, you will be sorely disappointed," said Belinda Williams, the network's co-chairwoman. "We have no packaged curriculum or box of ditto papers for you to take home."

Rather, the problems of urban schools must be viewed in the context of the larger communities in which they are embedded, said Margaret C. Wang, the director of the National Center on Education and the Inner Cities at Temple University.

Reflecting their communities, schools in inner cities are often racially segregated, with members of minority groups in low-achieving schools. And, within those schools, students may be segregated again in remedial and special-education programs.

To address that problem, Ms. Wang called on schools to build ties to students' homes and communities and to end educational practices that tend to segregate and stigmatize children.

Cultures in Sync

If teachers knew more about the homes and cultures of immigrant and minority students, they might be more sensitive to the inevitable cultural conflicts that arise in urban classrooms, said Patricia M. Greenfield, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles.

"How many people know how embarrassing it is for an immigrant child to stand out from his peers by introducing himself?" she asked. "At the same time, immigrants need to know more about the culture of the school."

"What I am suggesting is that some kind of cultural exchange take place," she added.

Susan Melnick, a researcher for the National Center on Teacher Learning at Michigan State University, said too many prospective and experienced teachers know little about urban students' culture--in part because teacher-educators also know little about cultures different from their own.

Moreover, she said, students may not be achieving in urban schools because their teachers do not set high expectations for them.

Floraline I. Stevens, a Los Angeles evaluation consultant who now works with the National Science Foundation, said educators must pay attention to whether urban students have the same opportunities suburban students have to learn curricular material.

The factors to watch include: the amount of time teachers spend teaching the material and the depth of coverage, whether there is an emphasis on lower- or higher-order thinking skills, and teachers' own grasp of the material.

Applying the Advice

Educators and policymakers must also look at teachers' work environments, said Karen Seashore Louis, an associate dean of the University of Minnesota's school of education.

"We know from a long line of research that teachers' experiences and work lives are directly related to practices in classrooms," she said. What teachers need are strong bonds with colleagues in their schools, caring relationships with students, and a feeling of engagement with their students' achievement and with the subject matter they teach, she said.

But some educators at the conference said they were already familiar with the researchers' advice. They wanted to know how to make the called-for changes and how to get help from outside their schools.

"We just need the money," said Norma J. Smith, the principal of Dickey Hill Elementary School in Baltimore. "We know what to do."

"But it's good to hear somebody verify through research what the rest of us are saying," she added. "Sometimes when you say these things in your own district people think you are crazy."

Vol. 14, Issue 34

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