Yes We Can! Improving Urban Schools Through Innovative Education Reform
reviewed by Rachel Pereira - September 28, 2012
Title: Yes We Can! Improving Urban Schools Through Innovative Education Reform
Author(s): Leanne L. Howell, Chance W. Lewis, Norvella Carter (eds.)
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1617356352, Pages: 230, Year: 2011
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Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.
Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954)
While most citizens in this country would agree that education is the great equalizer, the pathway to achieve equality of educational opportunities among all students has been a source of great division and discontent. Although we Americans have come short of mandating education as a Constitutional right, the notion of providing school aged children with a free and public educational program is one that has been secured by states for over a century.1 Nevertheless, persistent achievement gaps between white and minority students have been at the helm of the debate regarding educational equity for many years.2 This lack of access to high quality educational opportunities has had a profound effect on the ability of poor and minority students to enter the global workforce. In order for the United States to maintain our position as a great global market competitor, the responsibility of providing high quality educational programs for all students is a national imperative. As stated by Michael Fullen in Moral Imperative of School Leadership (2003), Everyone ultimately has a stake in the caliber of schools, and education is everyones business. (p.14). This imperative is even more pressing for minority and impoverished students; their graduation rates have been found to be much lower than the national average.3
In the compilation of essays organized in the text Yes We Can! Improving Urban Schools Through Innovative Education Reform, editors Leanne Howell, Chance Lewis, and Norvella Carter explore the theme of providing high quality educational opportunities and programs to marginalized students in urban areas. The editors sought not only to reinvigorate readers into believing that hope to educate those students which are on the lowest end of our social strata is alive, but also to produce a body of work that critically examines current practices in select schools that serve these students and offers practical implications of such practices for all involved in the systems. The book focuses on the critical purpose of creating positive school cultures that embrace the unwavering belief in the ability of all children to achieve academic success. The various authors in this text rest their philosophies in the notion that it is unfair to assume that quantitative differences in student achievement are merely the result of individual students abilities and efforts or lack thereof. Rather, the authors seek to provide real world strategies that can be replicated to create cultures that create positive academic environments. All of the programs highlighted acknowledge that there are many different barriers to academic achievement that students have to overcome that are outside of their individual control, including socioeconomic factors, community structures, and parental decisions. The educators highlighted throughout the text work tirelessly to fill the educational gaps that exist for their disenfranchised students.
There are many different programs emphasized throughout this text that seek to confront many of the challenges that students of color, particularly African American students, face in their personal lives that hinder their educational progress. While it is agreed that education is viewed as the best route for social mobility, the authors offer that for minority young people in urban communities, this route is not often easily accessible. Different approaches are highlighted, including single-gender classrooms and their effect on African American boys, and Montessori classrooms. Many studies included in the text focus on various topics including the effect of parent perceptions of teacher support and the influence on the achievement outcomes of urban African American students, the effects of media influences and identity formation on African American male students, the need to report NAEP Achievement Test results of African American girls, the influences of mathematics achievement on African American students, and the influence of mental health service delivery in urban schools.4 There are many themes that reverberated throughout many of the essays, including the need to provide African American students with culturally sensitive and relevant curriculum, having high expectations for students, increasing character and self-esteem for students, providing opportunities for students to participate in community service, and ensuring that schools and classrooms are welcoming environments for students with curricular materials that hold their interests while allowing them to learn.
Certainly, these themes are important tenets to consider when teaching students who live in communities that are economically challenged and where citizens suffer from many social ills. For too long, educators have given lip service to the notion of creating schools where every child can learn. The schools and districts highlighted in this text demonstrate real examples of schools where children actually do learn at high levels. Nevertheless, the authors of the text do not explain how they are able to focus on the very important social issues for student personal growth against the backdrop of an educational reform era that focuses on standardized test score results.5 Many of the essays focus on the use of increased professional development for teachers, raising expectations for children, engaging school board advocacy and increasing service learning, however, it is unclear what if any challenges the highlighted schools and districts may have experienced with sustaining or increasing standardized test score achievement.6 Although educator intentions make an enormous difference in outcomes for children, schools nevertheless are judged based on student outcomes. Additionally, while the book correctly emphasizes the critical role of teacher expectations on student achievement, the authors do not explore the challenges of recruiting high quality teachers who are capable of this work, nor do they explore the challenges that may exist with removing teachers from schools who do not support the renewed expectations for children.
Many of the essays also underscore the need to involve parents in the educational achievement of students. In particular, it is emphasized that parents should be encouraged to discuss academics with their children at home. While the essays include many practical implications for the practice of including parents to invigorate student achievement, it remains unclear how such involvements were practically implemented given the realities of obstacles that urban parents experience. Additionally, lacking in most of the essays is the role of politics (federal, state and local) in urban education. Although one essay focuses on the role of local school boards in supporting school improvements, the other essays are veritably silent on the role of politics in the urban neighborhoods that are served. It is doubtful that any effective school reform efforts can be fulfilled without taking into account the role of politics in urban environments.7 Lastly, conspicuously missing in this conversation about urban school reform is a reflection on equitable school funding and the effects of segregation.8
This collection of essays presents a very thorough overview and analysis of many of the important personal needs that urban students encounter. The tone of the essays is uplifting and provides hope for urban educators who may be weary and doubt that the work is worthwhile and that students will be enriched as a result of their efforts. There is much to be admired in this book. The authors of the essays set out to help readers understand many of the intangible obstacles that urban students encounter, that the years of study at schools of education may never teach educators to handle. The book does more than stress the importance of culture, but also presents the practical implications of making changes that influence existing assumptions, beliefs, and expectations. The contribution of this text is critical, and particularly relevant since research has confirmed the significant power of collective school expectations on student achievement.9 While none of the essays purport to offer the silver bullet that will cause immediate transformation for all students, they do advise educators on how they can positively influence assumptions and expectations that have the effect of creating new norms for schools, families, and students.
1. See http://www.right-to-education.org/sites/r2e.gn.apc.org/files/B6f%20Primer.pdf, Swedish International Development Corporation indicating that the United States is one of the few countries in the world to not constitutionally guarantee the right to a free and public education.
2. See Jencks, C. & Phillips, M. (1998). The black-white test score gap: An introduction. Washington, DC: Brookings Institute.
3. See Levin, H. (2006). Equity by the numbers. Phi Delta Kappan, 13, 53-65 (Levin confirmed in this study that African American and Latino students graduate from high school at a rate slightly above 50% whereas the national graduation rate is 70%).
4. These themes are all very relevant to the academic functioning of urban students. For example, studies have concluded that children who grow up in impoverished homes are significantly more likely to develop mental illness than children who grown up in homes with incomes above the national poverty line. See Hudson. C. (2005) Socioeconomic status and mental illness. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 75(1), 14-17.
5. The 2001 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Act colloquially known as No Child Left Behind ushered in an era of school reform that required that all students in public schools perform at proficient levels on state assessments.
6. Throughout the text, the authors do mention increased achievement score data for the students who participate in their programs. However, there is little information regarding any difficulty or obstacles that may or may not have existed as the students increased their achievement. For example, while many of the authors indicate the need to expose students to culturally relevant curriculum, it is unclear how these important curricular changes may have worked in tandem with achievement test preparation. Additionally, little to no information was offered to explain how teachers ensured the quality of the culturally relevant curriculum, or if there were any administrative concerns with making changes to school board approved curriculum.
7. See Cuban, L., and Tyack, D., Tinkering towards utopia, (1995). In this text, the authors review the history of educational reform in the United States and postulate that in spite of many years of political effort to reform education, very little changed during the last century.
8. See Allen, J. (2007) Inequality in funding of public education raises justice issues; Quality often depends on where students live. National Catholic Reporter, 2, 3.
9. See Kennedy, M. (2005). Inside teaching: How classroom life undermines reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; See also Sanders, W., & Rivers, J. (1996). Cumulative and residual effects of teachers on future student academic achievement. Knoxville: University of Tennessee.