Students in urban schools tend to have stereotypes attached to them. Rather than see these students as individual learners, many urban kids and their schools are often thrown into the "lost cause" category. Problems like deteriorating buildings and overcrowding often become too overwhelming for reformers.
In a 2009 article in the Harvard Political Review, writers Tiffany Wen and Jyoti Jasrasaria discuss the "myths of urban education." The article points out that many people are quick to label urban schools as lost causes without actually investigating individual issues or how they can be resolved. The authors also shed light on the juxtaposition of the basic American ideal that anyone from anywhere can make it big with some hard work and the reality of urban schools. If urban students are truly not at a disadvantage, per the American dream, then why do they graduate from high school at a rate of nearly 20 percent lower than their suburban counterparts?
Overcrowding as enemy
In an Education Week guest blog post, urban music teacher Mike Albertson said that "overcrowded classrooms are one of the most common qualities of urban schools." He went on to say that the students themselves are not the actual problem in urban schools but that the overcrowded conditions are to blame for many perceived behavior issues and academic disengagement. More likely, it is a combination of high student-to-teacher ratios and behavior problems.
Studies have found a correlation between overcrowding and lower math and reading scores. Teachers also cite overcrowding as a definite contributor to student behavior problems. Too many kids in classrooms means too little individual instruction. It also means that academic time is spent dealing with issues that distract from education. Overcrowding is only one problem that contributes to urban student disadvantages but one that deserves the spotlight.
Bridging the Urban-Suburban Gap
As with all aspects of K-12 improvement, finding the answers to higher achievement for urban students is a complicated process. I believe that technology can work to teacher and student advantages though. The implications of mobile technology in K-12 classrooms are still being realized but one thing is certain: more individualized learning is now possible. In cases where overcrowding is detrimental to learning experiences, mobile technology can serve as a placeholder teacher in terms of directing students and keeping them engaged in learning when the physical teacher is unavailable.
More student guidance is also necessary. Statistics tell us that not only do urban students more often come from tumultuous home lives, but they are often punished more harshly for the same infractions than suburban peers. Over 68 percent of all incarcerated adult American men do not have a high school diploma.
Removal from school, while potentially the easiest short term solution, feeds the school-to-prison cycle that is built primarily in urban schools. Mentorship programs would go a long way toward directing urban students toward higher academic engagement and graduation rates. Many colleges have implemented mentorship programs for at-risk students, like first-generation college students, so why can't K-12 schools do the same?
With budget cuts a perennial complaint, though, more money for K-12 mentorship initiatives is unlikely. The bottom line is that urban students need more individual attention in order for their academic outlooks to improve. Technology has the potential to reach a wider number of students but the human connection is what will have a lasting positive impact on urban students.
What is the key to urban school improvement?