“Wow, new york, just like I pictured it
Skyscrapers and everything
[Verse 5] Hey hey brother, hey come here slick
Hey you look, you look hip man
Hey you wanna make yourself five bucks man
You look hip
Run this across the street for me right quick
Okay, run this across the street for me
[Verse 6] What? Huh? I didn’t know!
Put your hands up you punk!
I’m just going across the street
Lay down, shut your mouth
Hell no, what did i do?
Okay, turn around, turn around, put your hands behind your back, let’s go, let’s go….
A jury of your peers having found you guilty, ten years.
– Living for The City, Stevie Wonder (1973)
I have read more than my share of books, blog posts, essays, social network comments, and tweets about public education. Some of them are by people who have done extensive research on how the history of public education differs from place to place. Unfortunately though, too many are from those who choose to ignore or are ignorant of the wide range of variables that affect both the students and the schools in socioeconomic and ethnically diverse areas regardless of geographic location.
Suburban districts tend to be less diverse than urban. Some are very homogeneous both socioeconomically and ethnically, but most are also more diverse than stereotypes note. If we also add special education needs as a factor, the results are even more uneven.
Most suburban commenters are aware of that, but many also look at other suburban districts through a lens colored based on where they live or grew up. But, since they live in suburban districts, they generally believe they have a better idea of the truths that exist in most suburban districts.
We can say exactly the same about rural districts. Here too there are some consistencies and variations. What happens, for example in “hyphenated” districts made up of two or more rural localities that may or may not be similar to each other?
Let’s face it. The real issues in education revolve around the urban poor. When you take poverty out of the equation when comparing American students to those of other countries taking the PISA exams, we are at the top. For example notes The National Association of Secondary School Principals, when you look at the number of US schools with < 10% of their students receiving free lunch (the poverty factor) the US overall average is 551, and betters #2 Finland by 15 points. When you look at the number of US schools with between 10 – 24.9% s of their students receiving free lunch, the US overall average is 527, and only behind Finland by 9 points.
The real problems exist in poverty schools. Those US schools with 50 -74.5% score 471. Those with a rate of >75% poverty scored 446, the second lowest of major nations. The shame is that as a result of the very real and very specific problems students and schools in those finite areas everyone in the nation has been subject to bad education policy.
Far too many people stereotype urban areas through the narrow lens of their own experiences. All sorts of euphemisms and misinformation are thrown around by people justifiable pissed off at those one size fits all policies. Experience means a lot in how we see “truths” and work to solve problems.
When I was raised in the Bronx as a poor white kid among Black and Puerto Rican schoolmates, friends, and neighbors, I didn’t know there was an “achievement gap” except between my abilities and how well my mother and teachers told me I should be doing.
When I taught in the Bronx, the only achievement gaps I sought to rectify were the individual needs of individual kids to achieve their potential. That was the only gap worth noting. Nothing brought greater satisfaction than to see a mislabeled Special Education student get AP credit for college. That is what I call closing the achievement gap. What made it easier for me, as that tall crazy white dude, was that I didn’t have to learn BS terms like “racial justice pedagogy” or better terms like cultural pedagogy, because I lived them.
The real need is to take this out of academia, and give new SUBURBAN white teachers a more meaningful urban experience. I used to not believe in telling workers where to live, but in this case, maybe its time to be that crazy white dude again and tell new white suburban bred teachers to live where they teach. That will cure them of that pedagogical psychobabble.
I based some of my book on the writings of sociologist Elijah Anderson’s Code of the Street where Anderson stresses the importance of the ability to code switch for both students and teachers to be successful in poor inner city schools. He states in an interview, “Like many black Americans who become upwardly mobile, I am capable of code switching, that is, speaking the language of the community and the language of the wider society. I guess that’s part of what it means to be an educated person regardless of what group you come from. Some who are brought up in strictly upper-middle-class situations are unable to code switch effectively, but I think most of us can.”
To me that is the key to success. Those who can will be successful as students or teachers.
On May 9th, Orlando Patterson of Harvard, author of The Cultural Matrix, wrote an essay in the NYT titled “The Real Problem With America’s Inner Cities.” In it he reflected on the unrest in Baltimore and how many people have attempted to define the problems regarding racism and police behavior.
I believe there is a parallel between those situations and in how people have stereotyped the problems in “urban” schools based on assumptions about “inner city” populations. As Patterson says, “First, we need a more realistic understanding of America’s inner cities. They are socially and culturally heterogeneous, and a great majority of residents are law-abiding, God-fearing and often socially conservative.”
“According to recent surveys, between 20 and 25 percent of their permanent residents are middle class; roughly 60 percent are solidly working class or working poor who labor incredibly hard, advocate fundamental American values and aspire to the American dream for their children. Their youth share their parents’ values, expend considerable social energy avoiding the violence around them and consume far fewer drugs than their white working- and middle-class counterparts, despite their disproportionate arrest and incarceration rates.”
I find that true in the urban districts and neighborhoods I have worked in and with.
The problem is that there is a “problem minority” made up of disconnected youth between 16-24. Most are on the street. Their gang/thug culture is real. Patterson interestingly compares it to the “wild west” culture where kids like Billy ran wild. There is a long tradition of this culture in the inner cities. (One Hundred fifty or so years ago, on the lower east side on NYC the gangs were Irish. One didn’t enter the area called 5 Points carelessly.)
There is however a larger majority of children who do not run with the gangs, or are working as hard as they can to escape the street culture, trying to follow Anderson’s concept of code switching. To survive where they live you must. To get ahead in our society you must. There are numerous studies that show that minority females are far more likely to succeed than males.
What must we do? First we have to stop thinking that one size fits all works even if policy is directed only at inner city schools like those in NYC, Baltimore, or Rochester, NY. These schools are also heterogeneous, if not racially, but in so many other factors ignored by policy makers, and I might add, well meaning commenters.
What Patterson says regarding violence is as true regarding education, “In regard to black youth, the government must begin the chemical detoxification of ghetto neighborhoods in light of the now well-documented relation between toxic exposure and [poor results in schools]. Further, there should be an immediate scaling up of the many federal and state programs for children and youth that have been shown to work: child care from the prenatal to pre-K stages, such as Head Start and the nurse-family partnership program; after-school programs to keep boys from the lure of the street and to provide educational enrichment as well as badly needed male role models; community-based programs [WISE] that focus on enhancing life skills and providing short-term, entry-level employment.”
I disagree with his additional view that this includes “ continued expansion of successful charter school systems.” After all he is a Haaaarvaad guy.
This quote is poignant and right on the money. “As one gang member told an interviewer working for the sociologist Deanna Wilkinson: “I grew up as looking for somebody to love me in the streets. You know, my mother was always working, my father used to be doing his thing. So I was by myself. I’m here looking for some love. I ain’t got nobody to give me love, so I went to the streets to find love.”
Teachers and public schools have and can continue to do that if we allow them and find non data driven, non standardized, non commonized, and non one sized fits all ways to improve rather than replace them.