Research in Urban Educational Settings: Lessons Learned and Implications for Future Practice
reviewed by Mark Conley - October 05, 2012
Title: Research in Urban Educational Settings: Lessons Learned and Implications for Future Practice
Author(s): Kimberly A. Scott & Wanda
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1617352063, Pages: 224, Year: 2011
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Anyone who has worked in the academy and in urban schools and communities for the past three decades as I have can find a great deal of reason to feel a lack of hope. University-based research proposals relying on urban demographics with no intent of ever helping urban children and beginning teacher placement patterns that favor the privileged have often unleashed a well-reasoned and sometimes cathartic backlash from urban schools in the form of increasingly limited research access and greater control within urban systems over teacher training. The long-dying or perhaps dead-on-arrival landscape of University and school collaboration coincides with ongoing marginalization of those inside the academy who work in and advocate for urban schools. It is rare indeed to see a glimmer of hope, given this longstanding pattern, and yet that is exactly what Research in Urban Educational Settings sets out to do.
Carol Lees forward sets the tone, describing how hierarchies of research have sidelined paradigms like critical race theory, multiculturalism and activist traditions within research in urban settings. While it would be tempting given the context and history to climb the existing research hierarchies or start a new one, Lee sets the bar higher, arguing that the book invites deep and humble reflection on stereotypes and deficit assumptions that many of us bring to our work in these urban settings. No one is left off the hook in spirit or action or in trying to help. The fix for this state of affairs, if it exists, lies in reaching across disciplinary and community boundaries, engaging in self-reflection and forming collaborative relationships. In their introduction, the editors, Kimberly Scott and Wanda Blanchett, elaborate on this sentiment by saying that their intent is not to give voice, which smacks of the patriarchal traditions that got us to this sorry state. Rather, their goal is to provide space for multiple voices to be heard.
The book is divided into three sections. The first section, titled Transitions, is intended to critique the past while demonstrating how researchers can cross various cultural divides. A recurring theme in this section concerns the academic practice of treating race, social class and gender as constructs rather than lived experiences. The root of this phenomenon, according to the chapter authors, lies in the tendency for educators to spend a lot of time in urban schools while continuing to carry their unexamined mainstream values into their work. While the authors promote anti-oppressive, anti-racist and activist agendas for urban schooling, they also concede that these agendas, if not social justice, will not succeed as long as academics continue to treat peoples lives as lifeless constructs.
Another theme in this section concerns ways in which myths about urban schools are perpetuated by mainstream media, research and researchers. Mainstream media, according to the authors, is faulted for the paucity of narratives representing voices of people of color. Researchers exacerbate this problem by asking questions that privilege mainstream values. A common battleground concerns retention policies in urban schools, where insider urban educators often focus on the ongoing need for skill development while outsiders and policy analysts emphasize punishment through retention in grade. Despite data that conclusively shows that greater retention leads to greater school failure, the divide continues to be characterized as between education and social promotion. In a particularly caustic chapter, Beverly Cross criticizes the motivation from the academy for self-promotion and aggrandizement literally on the backs of children and families who are struggling and failing.
The solutions offered in this section are straightforward but far from simple. For example, the authors recommend greater attention to providing spaces for narrative from voices of people of color to provide more hopeful images of success in urban schools. But this can be easily overwhelmed by the drumbeat of bad news from researchers and state education department officials stemming from myopic emphasis on demographics and bubble sheet assessments. At the very least, researchers and especially White mainstream researchers can self-critique and build awareness of their own privilege and power as they try to do good in urban school settings.
The second section called Lessons Learned provides specific examples for how researchers have designed research in culturally responsive ways in urban schools. The section starts with a rich description of mathematics curricula adapted with a social justice point of view and examples responsive to the urban community context. The aim of the curriculum is to place practitioner research at the center so that insider points of view shape research and practice. The examples provide an impressive counterpoint to the belief that math and science are impregnable with regard to cultural responsiveness.
Other chapters demonstrate ways in which curricula and research can be designed to invite children and families in, rather than excluding them in historically bound ways. Relationship building with participants is given priority, replacing the lip service required by institutional review boards. Of particular note is the chapter about ways in which special education research has taken an almost surgical, instrumental character. The authors posit instead research and practice that is inclusive of children and their families and the diversities that characterize their lives.
The final section is called Negotiations and Collaborations. This section offers specific accounts and recommendations for researchers aiming to gain insider status in urban settings. An important issue in this section concerns ways in which researchers can shift from the deficit model so prevalent in urban education research to one in which researchers give back to urban schools and communities. The dilemmas in taking this journey, however, are many. First, there is the longstanding dilemma in the academy in defining and rewarding what it means to provide service to the community. On the other hand, committing scholarship to service raises the potential for researchers to gain more cultural knowledge, critique their own perspectives and make well-grounded contributions. One solution to this gap between dilemma and potential is for researchers to adopt greater reflexivity and introspection for their own work. While this does not erase the reward structure concretized in the academy, it does increase the likelihood that resulting research can be better grounded in urban schools and communities than is currently the case.
A compelling chapter describes the clash that comes from identity, social status and gender as the author travels between White middle-class curricula as a teacher to serving as a leader in Black schools to adopting the role of a Black assistant professor. In this chapter, the academy is assailed as a parasite, using urban schools for data mining through a lens that is solidly White and middle class. Throughout this writers journey, she reports ways in which her experience as a Black educator are devalued and replaced with the values of the mainstream academy. The book ends with a chapter that posits hope but not without some daunting challenges. The authors propose the idea that research sites are not places where researchers come and go. Rather, they are communities where researchers come to live and belong. While the authors describe all manner of constraints in the academy that inhibit this vision, they promote this view as a way for researchers to finally become insiders or at least inhabit spaces where many voices and narratives are valued.
In reading and reviewing this book, I was struck by how ponderous and thoughtful the chapters are. In contrast, I thought about the urban educators I know who do not have the same benefit of nearly timeless reflection offered by the academy. This brought me back to another difference between academy and community, the luxury of reflection, not addressed in the text. But to recommend the text, it also brought me squarely back to the times when I have been asked to help in an urban school. For me, these occasions are always fraught with urgency and trepidation. The urgency comes from an awareness of the needs of urban schools and communities compared with the all too frequent willingness of surrounding communities and universities to manipulate them or write them off. The trepidation comes from awareness that I too have benefited from privilege and power bequeathed upon me by my social status and roles in society and the academy. As I read through the text, I found myself reliving many of those decisions, as well as reflecting anew about what it might take to finally create spaces for all voices to be heard, and all children to succeed.