The Paradox of Urban School Education


Urban education is a discourse.  In an effort to describe it, I realize my own limitations and the essential paradox underlying this task.  This is because references to urban education stem from an imagination of what “urban” represents, and are conceptions that are historically charged and often times de-contextualized in nature. As Pedro Noguera in City Schools and the American Dream (2003) notes, the language surrounding urban schools becomes “reduced to a search for blame.”  Educators must deconstruct the notions that continually brand education and students in urban contexts as inherently flawed.  Rather than describe urban education by its supposed “problems,” I feel that individuals must be conscious and critical of the language and attitudes prescribed onto these communities of learners and teachers.   Education in an urban context is not a monolith, and experiences within these wide-ranges of schools and areas must be discussed in relation to a variety of present and on-going factors.   Specifically, I feel that it is useful to direct understanding through a study of the social, economic, cultural, and political states of urban communities. Fundamentally, the term “urban” must be demystified and re-appropriated; individuals must look to genuine experiences of students, and acknowledge how static and constraining views of “urban-ness” continue to generate inequity and injustices across these communities.

Fundamentally, the term ‘urban’ must be demystified and re-appropriated...

At this point in my career, I appreciate and welcome discussions on the importance of considering urban education and urban communities on a continuum.   I agree that there is no specific definition for what these entities represent.  However, historically and presently, there is a specific system of classification guiding and transferring understanding of what constitutes as “urban.”  To be explicit, population density, socio-economic status (SES), academic/professional standing, race and linguistic features of a community are among the factors worthy of further study.  At the same time, these are only some of many factors that reveal the inherent complexity surrounding urban education.

Noguera says that increasingly, “urban education” has attained a specific connotation relative to biases of race and socioeconomic status.   I think we may classify a school as “urban” based on a combination of factors, specifically population density, low SES, and racial/ethnic diversity.  I find each of these factors relevant because population density defines the kind of physical space and structure of neighborhoods in a given community, while low socio-economic status is telling of the lifestyles and struggles that individuals experience within a given community.  Racial and ethnic diversity speak to the makeup and needs (linguistic, religious, cultural, etc) belonging to groups of people.  Noguera (2003) notes that it is impossible to ignore how the three resonate with each other; densely populated, low-income, and minority communities have historically been marginalized and their needs not met.  There are many implications to school quality in reflection of these factors.  Noguera says that the “external conditions [of urban contexts] affect the ability of schools to serve the needs of children” (2003).    For instance, schools may arguably have less focused attention, inadequate facilities to address large populations, or less accessible resources (i.e. teacher training to work in culturally responsive ways) for diverse bodies of students.  What I find most disheartening is the sense that urban schools are expected to be terrible places for students to learn and thrive, and  moreover, the perception students in urban districts are “at-risk” and dangerous.

Urban education is a social construct

In a sense, realizing that “urban education” is a social construct, is the essential challenge of working within these communities. I feel that within the various layers of education (roughly, the national, administrative, interpersonal levels), agents (educators, policy-makers, researchers) should acknowledge that “urban” has attained pejorative and ideological connotation concerning race.   As mentioned by William Ayers and Patricia Ford in City Kids, City Teachers, the presence of students of diverse backgrounds “is seen as an encumberance […] an obstruction, a handicap, and a burden.”   Personally, in my own experiences at the high-school level, my teachers often spoke to undermine my intelligence. As the only student of color, I felt that their cultural biases and assumptions spilled into expectations that I misbehave or that I would pull our classes behind.

At the outset of my career, I was skeptical of whether there is only one definition for urban education.  Six years later, I think my doubt is still rightfully founded.  Urban education is not even solely based on academic success or achievement.  In fact, I think an effort to continue to define it keeps educators from focusing on efforts to improve those schools and address the inequities within these districts.   An urban school could very well be a high achieving institution in Manhattan, NY, by virtue of that a school is located in an urban setting.  I think that point is useful in demonstrating the paradox of defining “urban education.”

I am frustrated by how static the language is in relation to urban education, but I am impressed and moved by the stories of students and teachers within these districts.  I have been thoroughly enjoying the readings on the teachers’ reflections of developing student-centered and contextualized lessons for their classrooms.  I think that their work really allows individuals participating in this conversation on urban education to realize that the students and teachers should not be scapegoats for issues associated to the larger context.  

I am in a reflective mood, and am hopeful to hear of positive experiences.  Awhile back, a friend of mine suggested that I read Spectacular Things Along the Way, and I felt impressed by so much of the conscientiousness demonstrated by Schultz.   I specifically appreciated his comment of allowing his students “to determine what was a worthwhile project” (2008). In contextualizing his lessons around students’ identities and experiences, he promoted an environment that showed he cared and respected the opinions of his students.  This correlates with Ayers and Fords contention that students in urban schools must be known as “learners… three-dimensional human-beings, as fellow creatures.”  As noted by Noguera (2003), too often students in contexts of urban schools become marginalized by educators’ lowered expectations.  He states that many reforms for urban schools do not consider students as “fundamentally educable and capable of learning at high levels.”  I find this to be extraordinarily problematic, and based off our recent classroom discussions, I am impressed and gracious to hear the voices of students who persisted despite their surrounding circumstances.

I am very interested in this topic of deconstructing “urban education.” I think that it is important to expose the myths concerning the communities to which “urban” refers.  At the same time, I am left with a few questions.  Is it possible to acknowledge the problems of the term “urban education,” but also to work with it to be more representative of student and community populations?  How can we simultaneously deconstruct and re-appropriate a notion that inherently undermines our students? Is it possible for educators, policy-makers, and researchers to agree on common language?   

Sarah Hussain holds a bachelor’s degree in Comparative Literature and Middle Eastern Studies from Rutgers University.  She earned her masters’ degrees in English as a Second Language and Special Education from Rutgers Graduate School of Education.  She has been a high school teacher of English Language Learners and students with exceptionalities in New Jersey for the past 6 years.

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