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Repairing Urban Education

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Note to readers: This post originally appeared on ASCD's SmartBlog on Education.

As another school year gets under way, our country has the opportunity to repair urban education in a substantive, strategic and sustainable way -- using proven, and common sense, approaches that are based on investing in teachers and engaging our children and families.

Most people, I think, would agree that urban districts in particular face remarkable challenges, not the least of which is the need to overcome poverty, racism and segregation while promoting human values, such as equality and respect. I won't deny the magnitude -- or the necessity -- of this assignment.

What I do question are intractable assumptions that the private sector is the answer and charter schools are the saviors that will rescue our urban students from certain failure. A singular focus on charters as the one and only solution would be regrettable. It misses the point and the opportunity.

We can transform urban education in this country, but only through a broader, more strategic approach that is based on investing in the professional development of the estimated 3.2 million educators already in our public schools, and providing intensive programs beginning in preschool that engage children and families, regardless of background. Not only could that approach be transformative, but there also is data to show it works.

Teacher quality is the single most important in-school factor related to student achievement.

In a significant contribution to the field, Darling-Hammond and Bransford, say, "... a number of studies have found teacher expertise (as measured by certification status and test scores, education, and experience levels) to be a significant determination of student outcomes. These and other studies have suggested that much of the difference in school achievement found between more and less advantaged students is due to the effects of substantially different school opportunities, in particular great disparate access to high-quality teachers and teaching."

And while teachers are most critical to success, other factors also play an important role in learning, according to Darling-Hammond and Bransford. School culture -- "ways schools are organized for instruction, what curriculum they offer to whom, what teachers are assigned to which students, how families are involved, and whether and how teachers are encouraged to collaborate all matter for the quality of opportunity different students receive" -- makes an enormous difference.

Classrooms must become the places where schoolchildren are engaged by powerful ideas and supported by school partnerships, community stakeholders and, of course, the home. It's not the pipe dream many imagine. "TC Today" recently reported on work under way in Union City, N.J., which has a large body of Hispanic students -- one-fourth are undocumented immigrants and nearly all its students are eligible for free or reduced-priced school lunches -- and is experiencing noteworthy success, including a 90% high-school graduation rate (that's 15% higher than the national average).

The story of how Union City has succeeded is one that any educator will understand. The "well-proven ideas" include:

  • Two years of full-day preschool for all students
  • A bilingual program for younger kids that grounds them in Spanish and transitions them to English
  • "Port-of-entry" classes for older, non-English-speaking children that immerses them in Spanish and English as a second language before bringing them into mainstream English literature courses by their senior year
  • Low-stakes assessments are used "to pinpoint places where students and teachers need help"
  • An intensive parent-engagement program that distributes materials in Spanish and employs Spanish-speaking community liaisons"

Investing in teachers and successful programs and structures is a strategy that can pay rich dividends for educators, students and communities.

Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement. As a nationally recognized expert in culturally-relevant teaching, Cooper champions for improved educational opportunities for children of color. He can be reached at e_cooper@nuatc.org.