Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Annenberg Institute Article

"The Promise of Urban Schools," published by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, strikes both an optimistic and pessimistic chord on urban education.  On the one hand, the article outlines the immense capacity urban schools retain for positive social--and, more importantly, educational--change.  "Urban schools," say the authors, "can be models of participatory democracy and centers where adults act together to nurture the efficacy of all students" because of their unique store of "cultural, racial, and ethnic diversity."  In this way, urban schools actually exist as possibly the best microcosms of larger American society.  This characteristic of urban environments, however, is not without its drawbacks.  Just as large-scale America is fraught with inequality, inefficiency, and downright ineffectiveness, so too are urban schools.  Perhaps the most disheartening facet of this article is the fact that it has to be written at all.  Urban schools are largely failing their students for what seem to be the precise reasons in which the great hope for urban schools exist.  There seems to be a paradoxical relationship, then, between the promise and the success of education in urban environments.  Can urban schools undergo educational reformation whilst retaining--hopefully in the same degree--the very characteristics that make them worth reformation in the first place?

The people at the Annenberg Institute think so, and they outline five areas where they see a need for reform as well as subsequent strategies for reform in those areas.  But I remain skeptical.  To be clear, I do not disagree with the reforms recommended by the Annenberg Institute authors, but I am not convinced that their study goes deep enough.  The Annenberg article remains too much at the superficial level, identifying the problems of urban education as well as the possibilities, and, although the authors do provide strategies for implementing reform, these strategies, too, strike me as too basic or simple.  For example, the authors note the importance of equity and justice in urban schooling and state, "School policies and practices must implement principles of equitable and just access, opportunity, and outcome so that every student develops her or his potential."  Later, the authors say, "Educators...must demonstrate their commitment by providing innovative, effective, and caring ways to engage all students in meaningful and successful learning."  These, to me, are unarguable points.  It seems obvious that these characteristics and approaches would be needed (not just) in urban schools.  The better question, I think, is what is an innovative or effective or caring way to engage an urban school student?  What is an equitable policy and how does it differ from current policies?  Answers to questions like these are crucial to any urban educator, and, while the Annenberg Institute has done an effective job of identifying the ideal characteristics of an urban school, I don't believe that it has offered sufficient examples of how that ideal state might be achieved, especially in a practice that seeks to resolve the paradox mentioned above.

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