School & District Management Opinion

Urban Mythbusters

By Nina Zolt — January 11, 2005 6 min read
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Many opinion makers continue to repeat a set of negative assumptions about some of our most vulnerable students—children in urban public schools.

Now and then, I encounter another one of those stories we’ve come to call “urban legends.” These days, they usually arrive by e-mail, but they sound a lot like the tales we once told around the campfire, playing on our fears of the unknown: the darkness, the woods, our computers, life in the big, wicked city.

Passing along urban legends is mostly harmless. I feel more strongly when the misinformation has the power to make or break a child’s future and undermine our democracy. Yet many opinion makers continue to repeat a set of negative assumptions about some of our most vulnerable students—children in urban public schools. Taken together, these stories paint a bleak picture of the future of public schools: districts abandoned by their communities, underprepared teachers unwilling or unable to improve, and students who start out so far behind that the best they can hope for is mediocrity.

Those of us who live in Washington, D.C., have heard more than enough negative stories about our city’s public schools—especially those that serve our poorest neighborhoods. However, since 1998, I have been fortunate to see quite a different side of the story as I worked with our local administrators, principals, teachers, and students to collaborate on a new literacy program that excites students and teachers about learning.

That program is In2Books, a nonprofit initiative that uses the Internet to connect adult pen pals with some 6,000 2nd through 5th grade students in almost 70 District of Columbia public schools. Students correspond with pen pals about carefully selected books they both read. Their pen-pal correspondence exposes students to ideas, professions, and experiences outside the boundaries of their everyday world. At the same time, students participate in a related literacy-rich curriculum in their classroom, built around the research-based practices of some of the nation’s leading educators and rooted in reading and writing about books. The program also brings together thousands of volunteers, teachers, and community leaders as partners for local public schools. (“Entrepreneurs’ Literacy Program Takes Off in D.C. Schools,” Jan. 5, 2005.)

Implementing this program in city classrooms over the years has given me an intimate view of what really happens in urban schools. In the process, it has challenged some beliefs about urban schools that have existed for much too long. In the interest of focusing on the “real issues,” I’d like to expose those beliefs for the “urban myths” they really are, once and for all.

Myth No. 1: The community doesn’t care about urban schools.

To the contrary, our experience tells us that quite a lot of people care. Many people donate money to help our program reach more children. And each year, thousands of working adults sign up to be pen pals—more than 3,000 for the 2004-05 school year, including hundreds of employees from partnering organizations such as Verizon, America Online, and AARP. These volunteers see themselves as mentors/role models to the children, sharing their views of a wider world and providing encouragement to learn and explore. Volunteers start out wanting to “give something back,” but invariably find that they receive much more in return. Wrote one adult pen pal: “Exchanging letters helps someone I’ve never even met see where books can lead: to conversation and connection, to ideas and imagination, to hopes and horizons.”

Many of our pen pals tell us that their experience also has inspired interest in their local public schools. Similarly, local businesses, foundations, and individuals provide generous financial support and in-kind contributions. Since 1997, In2Books has funneled many millions of dollars of private-sector support into the District of Columbia public schools.

Myth No. 2: Teachers in urban public schools are unable or unwilling to learn new skills.

It’s true that many teachers report feeling frustrated when increased accountability is unmatched by the institutional support needed to achieve and sustain improvement. Given the demands on their time and the challenges of working in some of our city’s neediest schools, however, teachers participating in our program have shown a remarkable thirst to learn new things, and to expand and enrich the experiences of their students.

This year, more than 300 teachers in In2Books classrooms will voluntarily commit themselves to 21 hours of intensive professional development in six three-hour sessions throughout the school year. We’ve been delighted by their response to these sessions: They come from all over the city—by car, subway, taxi, bus, and in all kinds of weather—to take advantage of the learning opportunities. Records show that the vast majority of teachers who participate in the program return for additional professional development in subsequent years, and surveys tell us that most teachers return to the program because they believe it makes them more effective instructors.

Myth No. 3: To raise student achievement, urban teachers need to stick to the script.

Again, our experience suggests the opposite. The more scripted instruction children experience, the more they need additional opportunities to read and write for authentic purposes. The 21st century’s essential skills are reading closely, thinking critically, and communicating orally and in writing; therefore, students need to see their teacher modeling these skills, not reading from a script. To become curious learners, students need engaging books and the opportunity to explore ideas deeply and widely. When we visit classrooms, we see the excitement when children open letters addressed to them—often the first letters they have received in their lives. We see students who rarely get recognized consider questions about themselves and the books: What do you do after school? What kinds of books do you like to read? Why do you think the character chose not to fight back? And we see children who hesitate to speak up in class learn to confidently construct answers based on their own experiences, tastes, and opinions.

Does this kind of self-expression deserve a place in classrooms that struggle to provide the essentials of learning? We believe it does. Corresponding with a pen pal invites students to think critically about books, to share their opinions, to develop ideas, to ask and answer questions, and to construct meaningful and expressive letters. Children become enthusiastic readers and writers at an early age—surely a benchmark of success.

And yes, this type of instruction also produces better student work and standardized-test scores. An independent evaluation by the University of Illinois at Chicago showed that, on the reading portion of the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition, administered in 2004, a sample of over 2,000 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grade In2Books students significantly outperformed district students not in the program.

Like many things that “everybody knows,” myths about urban schools are easy to accept, even when they seem to contradict what we’d like to believe.

I’d like to promote a different story—one in which we all work together to create a more hopeful vision of what an urban public school district is—and can be. Where teachers are encouraged to keep learning and are given the instructional support and resources to make their classrooms literacy-rich environments. A place where children are encouraged to find their own voices, research their own ideas, and communicate their thoughts back to people who pay attention and discuss the ideas orally and in writing. Where caring adults make personal connections to young people they otherwise might never have encountered.

That is a story we all can feel good about sharing.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2005 edition of Education Week as Urban Mythbusters


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