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Introduction to a Special Issue on Urban Education and Cultural Diversity

by Clifford Hill - 2003

This issue of the Record includes five articles that had their beginnings in presentations made at the OERI sponsored conference at the National Academy of Sciences in November, 2001.


The Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI) was established in 1985 to promote excellence and equity in education, and since its inception it has performed a dual role in funding research designed to improve educational practice and providing technical assistance to teachers and administrators in public education. To strengthen its capacity to carry out these activities, in 1997 OERI inaugurated a Visiting Scholars program that brings educational researchers to participate in its five institutes:

● National Institute on Student Achievement, Curriculum, and Assessment

● National Institute on the Education of At-Risk Students

● National Institute on Early Childhood Development and Education

● National Institute on Educational Governance, Finance, Policy-Making, and Management

● National Institute on Postsecondary Education, Libraries, and Lifelong Learning

The Visiting Scholars program seeks to strengthen relations between the academy and the government: Just as scholars need to be better informed about government policy in education, so those who shape and implement such policy need to stay informed about the educational research conducted within the academy. As visiting scholars learn more about OERI’s various programs, they are encouraged to present research that is relevant not only to the individual institute where they are housed but also to agencies and institutes throughout the U.S. Department of Education. When visiting scholars make research presentations, invitations are sent to those who work in departmental agencies and institutes, professional organizations (e.g., the National Education Association), and universities where OERI supports outreach programs for public education (e.g., Howard University).

During my own tenure as a visiting scholar at OERI, I was invited by such universities to make presentations about assessment issues that were emerging within the standards movement. It was gratifying that these presentations were often attended by teachers and administrators from public schools linked to the universities through the OERI-sponsored outreach program. One of the great strengths of OERI, as evidenced by the final article in this special issue, is the way in which it develops the capacity of classroom teachers not only to make use of educational research but also to do it themselves.


It was in this spirit of outreach that OERI sponsored a conference at the National Academy of Sciences in November, 2001, at which those who had served as visiting scholars were invited to address issues of urban education and cultural diversity. Although the conference was held at the height of the anthrax scare in the nation’s capital, it attracted people from different parts of the country. They brought with them a sense of urgency that the nation must do better in addressing its problems, and the conference was characterized by spirited exchanges on the challenges that our urban schools face. At the heart of these challenges is the extraordinary cultural and linguistic diversity in urban schools. In New York City, for example, more than half of the children in public schools come from a home where a language other than English is spoken.

This issue of the Record includes five articles that had their beginnings in presentations made at the conference. To provide a context for these articles, I have invited a longtime friend and colleague Edmund Gordon, who is a member of the OERI board of directors, to reflect on his many years of experience in dealing with issues of urban education and cultural diversity. In 1970 Ed founded the Institute for Urban and Minority Education (IUME) at Teachers College, Columbia University, and after a distinguished career of dealing with these issues as the Richard March Hoe Professor of Psychology and Education at Teachers College, as the John M. Musser Professor of Psychology at Yale University, as a Visiting Scholar at the College Board, and, more recently, as the Dean at Teachers College, he has returned to IUME to serve as its director.

Ed’s article, ‘‘Urban Education,’’ is adapted from the initial chapter of a forthcoming book, Teaching and Learning in Urban Societies, which is to be published jointly by Little, Brown and the College Board. Throughout the article, Ed brings a broad range of perspectives—historical, sociological, anthropological, and psychological—to bear on what he describes as urbanicity, a condition in which education in this country, and many other countries around the world, increasingly takes place. He points out that the abundant resources of our great cities are increasingly available to people, no matter where they live, and as educators we need to think about how best to harness these resources, one of the most basic of which is cultural diversity itself. Such diversity continuously opens up new ways of thinking that should be at the heart of what goes on in our classrooms.

Ed encourages educators to be sensitive to the range of cognitive and affective styles that are available to students identified as belonging to a particular ethnocultural group. As he reminds us, the current focus on cultural diversity often masks many other kinds of diversity that educators should be attentive to. After providing an overview of the limitations of traditional research on urban education, he introduces promising approaches that have the potential to transform what educators do in urban schools.

‘‘Urban Education: Challenges in Educating Culturally Diverse Children’’ is by Min Zhou, who was a visiting scholar in the National Institute on the Education of At-Risk Students in 1999–2000. Drawing on less-publicized results of Census 2000, she provides a probing characterization of culturally diverse populations within major cities throughout the nation. She points out, for example, that the levels of racial integration have remained relatively stable since the 1990 census. As of 2000, the typical Black student lives in a neighborhood that is 54% Black and 33.2% White, the typical Hispanic student lives in a neighborhood that is 42.1% Hispanic and 40% White, and the typical Asian student lives in a neighborhood that is 19.3% Asian and 58% White. As can be seen, the Black population remains the least integrated.

In the final section of the article, Min reports on a research project that she conducted in culturally diverse communities in Los Angeles. She points out, for example, that in the section of the city known as Koreatown only 20% of the residents are Korean, whereas the rest are mostly Latino. The Korean residents provide a range of supplementary educational systems that benefit only Korean children, many of whom come from other parts of Los Angeles. She concludes that an important factor in the greater success of Asian children in urban schools is the after-school activities that the community provides through a strategic use of both private and public resources.

‘‘Preparing Early Childhood Educators for Diverse Urban Settings’’ is by Diane Horm, who was a visiting scholar in the National Institute on Early Childhood Development and Education in 1997–1998. Diane reports on a project that she worked on while she was a visiting scholar: coediting a major publication for the U.S. Department of Education entitled New Teachers for a New Century: The Future of Early Childhood Professional Preparation (2000). Her article draws on the various parts of this publication that deal with preparing early childhood educators to work effectively with culturally diverse children in an urban setting. She is especially concerned that programs for preparing such educators be research based and hence identifies a number of relevant findings—for example, teacher attitudes are crucial in working effectively with culturally diverse children.

Diane also draws on her own professional experience as the director of the Early Childhood Education Program at the University of Rhode Island. Contrasting the program in Providence with the one in Kingston that prepares teachers to work in less-populated areas, she identifies strategies that are important for preparing teachers to work in early childhood education in an urban school—for example, infuse interdisciplinary perspectives with a focus on cultural diversity throughout the professional preparation program.

‘‘Changing Literacy’’ is by Deborah Brandt, who was a visiting scholar in the National Institute on Postsecondary Education, Libraries, and Lifelong Learning in 1997–1998. In this article, Deborah draws on the book Literacy in American Lives, which she completed while in residence at OERI. The book describes the ways in which economic forces throughout the 20th century have continuously reshaped the contexts in which literacy learning takes place and through which literacy skills are supported and rewarded. It is built around case studies that document the broad range of literacy sponsors that enter the lives of Americans in different times and places. She defines a sponsor as ‘‘any agent, local or distant, concrete or abstract, who enables, supports, teaches, models, recruits, regulates, suppresses or withholds literacy and gains advantage by it in some way.’’

In this article, Deborah shows how the changing status of literacy in the new economy raises ethical and educational challenges for schools in a democratic society. Turbulence in the nature of work and in the technologies used for reading and writing destabilize the traditional paths to literacy and devalue once serviceable levels of literate skill. Deborah looks at the literacy learning experiences of an autoworker turned union representative, a blind computer programmer, a bilingual autodidact, and a former Southern sharecropper raising children in a high-tech university town, exploring their access to sponsorship systems for literacy and their responses to economic and technological change.

‘‘Anthropology, Culture, and Research on Teaching and Learning: Applying What We Have Learned to Improve Practice’’ is based on a conference presentation by Michéle Foster, who was a visiting scholar at the National Institute on the Education of At-Risk Students in 1998–1999. This article, which is coauthored by her colleagues Jeffrey Lewis and Laura Onafowora, explores the vital role that cultural resources can play in supporting teaching and learning in the classroom. They begin by reviewing a range of studies that document various ways in which these resources have been used to teach not only language and literacy but also math and science. They then describe a current OERI-funded research project in which Michéle and her colleagues have established an after school program for elementary students that also serves as a pedagogical laboratory and a professional development community site. At the heart of the program are master teachers who have demonstrated that they can work effectively with culturally diverse students in urban classrooms. These teachers are teamed with novice teachers so that they can develop effective ways of drawing on cultural resources. The project is now at the end of its 1st year, and Michéle and her colleagues provide a progress report that documents the gains that the children, largely African American, and the novice teachers have made. The project illustrates how a vision of culturally based practice can be infused into a professional development program and how effective ways of teaching can be made explicit to teachers who will work with culturally diverse students in urban classrooms.

‘‘Integrating Digital Tools Into a Culturally Diverse Curriculum: An Assessment Model for the Pacesetter Program’’ is by Clifford Hill, who was a visiting scholar at the National Institute for Student Achievement, Curriculum, and Assessment in 1997–1998. I, too, report on a current OERI-funded research project: At Teachers College, Columbia University, my colleagues and I are building a digitally based assessment model for the Pacesetter Program, which was established by the College Board at urban schools throughout the nation to support the increasing number of culturally diverse students who are seeking admission to higher education.

The Pacesetter Program is committed to providing courses that are relevant both to the cultural worlds that these students come from and to the larger society that they must participate in. The Pacesetter English course, for example, is built around culturally diverse material in three domains: print literacy, film literacy, and media literacy. The digital assessment provides students an opportunity to interact not only with print but also media that incorporate sound and imagery. In addition to being more congruent with the curriculum, such assessment provides students an opportunity to use the digital tools that are increasingly important in school and the larger society.

This special issue ends with an article that shows the strategic way in which OERI supports classroom teachers through its outreach programs. In ‘‘What Counts As Teacher Research? Investigating the Scientific and Mathematical Ideas of Children From Culturally Diverse Backgrounds,’’ Cynthia Ballenger and Ann Rosebery report on teacher exchanges that took place at a conference jointly sponsored by OERI, the National Science Foundation, and the Spencer Foundation. This conference brought together experienced teacher researchers with novice teachers and provided them an opportunity to jointly explore their experiences in teaching science and math to children from culturally diverse backgrounds. Like good scientists, Cynthia and Ann imaginatively use the data that emerged from such joint exploration to address three basic questions:

1. What do experienced teacher researchers do when they look at data?

2. What role does their own learning within an academic discipline play in the research they do?

3. How do they use research literature to guide what they investigate? It is fitting to end this special issue on urban education and cultural diversity with attention to the research that teachers themselves do. As Cynthia and Ann point out, when teachers focus on understanding various ways of thinking that culturally diverse children bring to the classroom, they become better teachers not only of these children but of all children. Such focus forces teachers to reexamine what they themselves know, but, even more importantly, how they teach what they know, and this reflection on their own practice is crucial to their growth as teachers.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 105 Number 2, 2003, p. 183-188
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11538, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 2:19:32 PM

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