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Perspectives on Urban Schools - Part 1 - Introduction


by Linda Powell - November 21, 2000

(Editorís Note: This is a transcript of the lecture delivered. The text is not revised.)

Gary Natriello:

I think we will begin this evening. This begins another new section of the course, the section on urban and minority education issues. And we are delighted to have with us Linda Powell who is here from the Department of Organization and Leadership who will have…welcome.

Linda Powell:

Thank you, Dr. Natriello. Now do I have to talk into this mike? Am I fine. Good evening everybody. As Dr. Natriello mentioned, I'm Linda Powell. I teach courses on group dynamics and leadership here at the College in the Department of Organization and Leadership, and I am delighted to be invited tonight to the policy course. I should mention that I have been invited every year for the last couple of years, and this is always a good night for me. It gets me out of ed admin into a different conversation and a lively one I hope.

So I want to start by just asking have you heard any crazy stories about me? I have kind of a lively rep and I just wondered if anybody has heard any of them, any of those stories? So you are too new to have heard the stories. Anybody else? If you had heard such a story, would you share it now? This is what Milton ... the psychoanalyst use to call a double bond question. You have to do it in order to answer the question

Well one of the things that I am famous for here is I teach courses that are psychoanalytically oriented about understanding organizations. So part of what I would like to do tonight is co-create with you a lecture about my work. So since 1989 I've been involved in changing or transforming public education so I could say a lot of things. But if you are willing we are going to work together tonight to sort out what would be most useful to you to hear about those last 11 years of work.

So help me first of all know who is in the room. How many people here went to an urban public school? Fabulous, thank you. How many of you teach or are administrators or other staff in an urban public school? Or have been in your experience? That's great. Thank you very much. How many of you have children in an urban public school? So does anybody have thoughts about why those statistics fall out the way they do?

Student:

Because all Hispanic kids are urban ... know what goes on there?

Linda Powell:

And what goes on so that none of us who have a choice would send our kids to an urban public school? For the record you came out like every class I had ever spoken to at TC. Lots of us went there, none of us send our kids there. But what's up with that?

Student:

Can you clarify that by asking how many people actually have children in this room?

Linda Powell:

Thank you. How many people have school aged kids? How many people have school aged kids they care about? Counting the kids you care about, how many of you would send them to an urban public school?

Student:

I just moved here from Indianapolis, Indiana. I lived you know downtown. I taught in the suburbs. Even the fact that I lived down there blew everyone away that I taught was in the suburbs, and it irritated me and my husband, and I frequently talked about you know if we were to stay here we should send our kids to these schools. We should support them. We should do for them what needs to be done, not blow it off because it's a bad place to be. So I have to you know defend myself by saying that if it's not supported it's never going to get better.

Linda Powell:

But you do consider it a defended position?

Student:

Oh, no, I guess I'm sitting in the front so I didn't see if anybody else raised their hand but,

Linda Powell:

Let me say it another way. We are agreed that your position would be an unusual one and that the more typical among say your friends would be who would send a kid that they cared about to a school that we know.

Student:

Right.

Linda Powell:

Which is not to say that some of us might not do the risky thing.

Student:

Right.

Linda Powell:

Thank you. Please.

Student:

This is nothing to do with anything...

Linda Powell:

... I got to tell you, this is going to wear, it's going to take me a while to get use to. Please.

Student:

Let me pre-empt this by just throwing out a random comment. First of all I would agree with my classmate. I think urban schools have a lot to offer and secondly I think it's interesting how we all associate that urban has a pejorative connotation in this room.

Linda Powell:

This is not just for you, but how do you understand that? How do you make sense of that as a thing that happens, as a phenomenon that when we start talking about urban schools the big response is not anybody I had a choice about. Not anybody I cared deeply about. Please, go.

Student:

I'm not going to try to answer a question. Hopefully I will answer her question with my comment being the only parent here, and I actually brought my two boys to school. I chose to send them to a private school only because I moved from California and I have never lived in the city ever. I went to what they would call a bario school in the suburbs and so my kids went to, we lived at Chino Hills which was middle class, suburban life, completely different than what they are experiencing here even at a Catholic school in terms of the type of children they are going to school with. And but that choice was purely made on the basis of not knowing where to send them, not knowing the type of curriculum that they would be exposed to, the type of quality of teachers, etc., and so what I wanted to do was get acclimated and see what was out there.

Linda Powell:

And as the only parent who raised their hand, we appreciate that.

Student:

And I don't know, it's not, it doesn't really answer your question, but I don't necessarily view urban schools as derogatory. I think that we have a lot of talented teachers in the urban school.

Linda Powell:

Let me press my question. And this is the way the mic is going to get in the way. Hold on a second. Here is my question. What is that slightly visceral response we have when you saw urban and minority education on the syllabus? You thought it might be lively, interesting, something different. What is that visceral reaction about? One, two, please?

Student:

My experience with urban schools, ... been with... of American for two years at 166 and Sheridan Avenue and it was a horrible place to be. It was dangerous. I was hired on the first day of school, didn't know if I was going to teach Kindergarten or 6th Grade, never was given a curriculum, had no idea what I was doing, and the administrator said to shut your door and do the best you can. And that's my and so when you talk about urban, what does that ... I mean that, I mean I think in a way people are afraid to say urban is bad because .. what is going on. But I mean my experience and other people I know and ... is horrible.

Linda Powell:

So we have at least two fears about it. One that we'll be perceived as making a blanket statement that doesn't include the fabulous teachers and the hard working principals. So on the one hand we don't want to stereotype in the face of some mixed data. And the other thing is it's perceived as being a racist observation. So our fears of opening up race in a conversation, which for the most part this culture doesn't do a very good job with. We could all agree to that, so out of that we now have code words that are called urban and minority. So I mean I appreciate your raising that. Did you want to add more to that?

Student:

Completely in the vein of what I was thinking about. It was in one of our readings. Basically the author said what is happening in this country then instead of just saying education for children of color, we are saying urban education. Even though, and just the idea of something urban or something urbane being thought of as you know interesting and hip and happening, but when you say, when you connect it to education, it's something that oh horrible and you don't want to go there. And it's dangerous, and it's crazy, and it is. I've taught in an urban school, and it is crazy, there is no support, there is changes every two seconds, and you can't predict anything. But I think the problem is that we just say instead of calling a spade a spade, we just say oh, it's a tough phrase. I speak Spanish originally.

Linda Powell:

I got it. We all know that metaphor, and it's a hard thing. It's hard.

Student:

Well calling something for what it actually is, we just say oh it's just urban education.

Linda Powell:

So what we are clear about is that this is a risky and dangerous conversation to have. So we have code languages, which prevent us from speaking directly about things. And one of the questions for you as people who are interested in policy is what does that indirection do for our intervention. So we'll be thinking about that all evening.

Let me shift gears a little bit. I'm starting to get a sense of who you are. Tell me, we are sort of halfway through the semester, tell me what I need to know about you tonight as a class to help me figure out what to talk about. Who are you? What have you learned on Monday night? What have been your interesting moments, controversies, places where you fell asleep, difficulties. Give me some sense of where I'm coming in in the semester.

Student:

Well personally this is like my ... waiting since the beginning of school to get to this topic and I read ... like three weeks ago and this is my thing so anything you have to say about it and in regards to policy, in regards to what is going on now, what's working, what's not working you know what we can do because I'm just ready to go in there and rip stuff up so I can get my kids educated the way they deserve to be educated. So that's what I want to know.

Linda Powell:

So let's hold onto your sense of urgency. One of the first things that goes is a sense of urgency and outrage. That is one of the first casualties of studying this topic. We get complacent and so thank you. Do we have another? What else do I need to know about you as a class and about, I know at least one of your colleagues have looked forward...

Student:

I have too, very much. I think also that every issue that we have talked about has had urban minority education interspersed within it, although this is the first time we are directly talking about it head on. That with the standards, with testing, with finance, this is always a big part of every issue. So I think it's really of course anything you would talk about would be appropriate because we've been talking about it, just not directly.

Linda Powell:

So I think we are turning again and again to this idea, this notion of what's direct and indirect and what in our culture can you actually talk about. You can talk about standards. It's harder to talk about how those standards may have differential impact to different groups of students. What else do I need to know? What, what has happened until tonight? This side of the room is very quiet. I that because the mic is over there and you don't want to make ... can just throw the mic. What else?

Student:

Have already done ... interested in the introduction between race, class, power and education and looking at issues of equity in the education system just in terms of contacts. I also ... I currently work for the organization and so that's where I'm coming from and also have been ... section of race, class power and education.

Linda Powell:

Great. So far these are all things I can talk about so far, truth in advertising. Please?

Student:

And I would just throw in that mix, policy. Because given that, let's just take as a given that there is institutional racism in this society, and I don't see it disappearing ever. Although I consider myself an optimist, I just, I don't and so working within that context what can policy makers do.

Linda Powell:

Great. And what have you done this semester with issues about which you don't agree as a class? Because not everybody agrees that institutional racism is a fact of our daily life and will be forever. Right? We probably have a range of opinions about that. What have you done with the things you disagree about? Had a high stakes testing discussion or a finance discussion and you didn't disagree? I don't believe you. Please? Hold your thoughts? But just tell me if you can in a word what has happened to your disagreement for conflict as a group?

Student:

... semester ...

Linda Powell

Got it, that's helpful. So they may not surface here. Which does give us some metaphor for public policy. Right? We don't talk about it. It doesn't necessarily make public fora but they go into other, more individualized settings. Please. Somebody. Thank you. This is helping me understand sort of what is possible tonight.

Student:

I was going to say I think a lot of our group discussions, following up on what you said, talked about, you know, we talk about finance and we talk about, I mean there was quite a bit of consensus in here about what needs to be done with finances, we're kind of a self selected group, and we read self selected readings, and we kind of were looking in a certain direction, and it sort of broke down most of the big discussion nights to how can you ever get people, generic policy, you know policy makers to do for other people's children what they would do for their own. And I think that's just come up again and again in conversations and in the discussions, and I would love to hear your thoughts of that, kind of given the American political culture.

Linda Powell:

David Hornbeck, who is the former superintendent in Philadelphia, recently said publically that maybe the hardest thing we have to face is that the political system no longer works for poor children. And it's not about blame. It's not about anybody being wrong, but that it's our continuing struggle to make a system work that frankly is not designed to work for poor children. He is therefore arguing for a shift from our efforts, not that we wouldn't do policy initiatives but that we would think more about school reform for urban kids as a social justice question, and we should be thinking about starting what he called the new civil rights movement for kids to focus on school reform. But that's, I mean, the most hopeless, least optimistic thing is that we give up on policy and we think of policy only as a lever.

Student:

What was that name?

Linda Powell:

David Hornbeck. I'll come back to him. For those of you who have not seen the Merrow Report, called the "Toughest Job in America", it features David Hornbeck, and it follows what the life of an urban superintendent really is. And it focuses on David's work. And Brian I will get you a reading resource, if you keep track of all the things I mention, I'm delighted to get you a list. Last thought about this. I am getting a sense of, thank you, what you guys have been up to.

Student:

I just have a very general and very brief comment, and I can't speak for the entire classe, just speaking personally. I know that at the end of a lot of our meetings I have been left with this feeling of general hopelessness about the situation of urban education as it is in the U.S. So I don't really know where I'm going with that. But maybe you can speak to some optimistic reform possibilities or something like that.

Linda Powell:

Tell me if you would or someone else tell me about this feeling of hopelessness as contrasted to what I said about holding onto our sense of urgency and rage and need to make a difference. Please?

Student:

Well for one I think first and foremost it stems from where the research is coming from and who is actually backing the research, which is thereby affecting the policy, which is thereby affecting what is going on in the classroom and what's going on with the kids. So because the information that is being used to draw on what our answers are going to be are so already polluted, it makes the outcome polluted and so I don't know how that would change because that is kind of like a fundamental fact of how policy is created in this country. So I don't know.

Linda Powell:

Polluted is a great word. I'm going to talk then, thanks to you, I'm going to talk about a study that I did that was deeply polluted, but I'll offer it for your own thinking. I'm getting a sense of what I'm going to talk about tonight. Please.

Student:

I was going to say I was notified by ... in terms of .. education services ... under resource urban schools that are highly ... urban schools that have high minority populations that are ... in local communities and not ... as a context if you wouldn't mind just kind of defining how you were going to use terms.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 21, 2000
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10655, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 7:10:47 PM

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About the Author
  • Linda Powell
    Teachers College
    E-mail Author
    Linda Powell is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Education. Her research includes group relations theory, urban school reform efforts, and professional development and graduate education for educators.
 
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