THE BLOG
10/15/2014 10:09 am ET Updated Dec 15, 2014

Teacher Prep and Better Resources: How to Reach Urban Students

David Hill via Getty Images

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. As always, before we can implement change, we need to fully understand the problem.

Are urban schools lost causes?

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. Issues such as overcrowding, poor discipline practices and budget cuts are continually pervasive in urban schools.

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.

Are we too quick to remove students?

Removal from school as a disciplinary measure, while potentially the easiest short-term solution, feeds the school-to-prison cycle that is built primarily in urban schools. Instead, 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.

Do we need better teacher prep for urban students?

In my book The Call to Teach: An Introduction to Teaching I explore the "real world" of teaching, particularly how new educators are ill-prepared to face the challenges of teaching in urban settings. Traditional university programs for K-12 educators do not adequately prepare students for what awaits them in the urban schools of America where the achievement gap and dropout rates are highest.

In the face of these obstacles, strong teaching in America's urban schools is the key to overcoming dropout and achievement gap issues. Recruiting teachers with urban backgrounds -- and then rewarding them is one strategy. In addition, urban student teachers should be required to spend at least a few hours in an urban classroom, in addition to their other teaching assignments.

Seeing urban challenges firsthand must be part of every educator's path to a degree, even if he or she never teaches full time in such a classroom. With the right guidance, urban K-12 students can rise above their circumstances to be stand-outs in academics. They may even return the favor as teachers themselves one day. For urban teachers, and therefore students, to succeed they need more support and encouragement from their industry, government and society as a whole.

What do you think? What other issues do urban students face that make their situations uniquely challenging?