Urban Education Essay

In the United States, almost one third of all school-age children attend schools in large urban districts. It is in these urban schools where the diversity of cultures and languages is highest and where students fail to thrive. Thus, urban education is often viewed as a problem, or a set of problems, to be solved. However, it is helpful to see urban education as a manifestation of our cultural and social arrangements for education. Schools require much of parents, including that they know and accept the assumptions on which schooling works. Schools require people to accept that they are to be assimilated and acculturated if they are to succeed in schools. As Valenzuela demonstrates in his 1999 book Subtractive Schooling, middle-class families often experience schooling as “additive,” adding knowledge and skills to that which they already have, whereas poor families often experience schooling as “subtractive,” taking away cultural beliefs, languages, and knowledges that are part of their lives, experiences, and cultures.

Urban education, like schooling in general, is about maintaining the dominant culture. When education came to be seen as a community responsibility, it was because the powerful in those communities were concerned about “dissolute” families—those who were not living the way the powerful wished. In small rural communities that were relatively homogeneous, this often meant those who were not church going, or who drank or engaged in adultery, and so on. In the United States, immigration has been a constant force, and often the “dissolute” families were those who had a different religious or cultural heritage. Thus, education from the beginning was in the middle of cultural politics. Moreover, as Scott has argued, domination can create the social practices that the dominant use to justify the domination. Thus, difference is both across cultures and created by structures of power. This is nowhere more evident than in U.S. cities. The early urban centers were small by today’s standards and were mostly defined as commercial transportation centers. New York and Boston, for example, were originally ports for export of raw materials to Europe and the import of finished goods into the colonies, a pattern that was a central issue in the American Revolution. The Industrial Revolution spawned urbanization and large plants required large workforces. The Industrial Revolution also outstripped the available workforce in the United States, and in order to keep a labor surplus, which would help suppress wages, industrialists pressed for more open immigration. Thus, urbanization, industrialization, and immigration have been intertwined processes, which over time have led to the view that urban education is all about problems.

Indeed, the basic structure of public education was formed in urban centers dealing with immigration in the mid to late nineteenth century. As Katz showed in his 1971 study, the early private schools were being affected by immigration. These schools were being pressed to respond to the wishes of immigrant groups. Particularly threatening to the Protestant ruling elite was a massive influx of Catholics. These leaders saw that the Catholics paying tuition to these private schools had the potential of changing these schools so that they served the immigrant religions, cultures, and languages. This led to the formation of public schools that were under the control of the Protestant elites and that in many ways represented Protestant values. In part, public schools were seen as part of the mission to convert immigrants to Protestantism and, where this did not occur, to imbue them more implicitly with Protestant values. These same values were cloaked in notions of nationalism and patriotism, in which the newly organized urban public schools were seen as instrumental.

The origins of public urban schools set the precedent that the public schools were to be seen as instruments of public policy and in service of the government and elite interests. A second example of this can be seen in the turbulent 1950s and 1960s in the United States. African Americans had been essentially ghettoized in urban centers through patterns of residential segregation created in part by the racist policies of banks and mortgage companies. Of course, in the South, segregation by race was de jure—codified in law. As the civil rights movement gained momentum, it was clear that dramatic action needed to take place if patterns of segregation were to be changed. The nonviolent protests were filmed by the relatively new television media and showed the violence perpetrated by the police in response to them. In the North and West, urban riots captured the attention of the nation so much that President Lyndon Johnson created the Kerner Commission to investigate the riots. The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders noted in a 1968 report that riots were often precipitated by police actions, that 90 percent of those killed at the hands of authorities were Black civilians, and that the rioters clearly seemed to want to be included in the social system and to have the material benefits enjoyed by other Americans. Instead of rejecting American society, it is clear that they were wanting to find a place for themselves in American culture.

The Commission concluded that integration was the best way to improve urban children’s education and proposed a massive program for improving urban schools. In the years that followed, federal legislation did begin to address the improvements, but in doing so also solidified the image of urban schools as poverty schools. With court-ordered school desegregation, Whites left urban areas and urban schools in such massive numbers that a new term was coined: White flight. Thus, urban areas and urban schools came to be increasingly populated by the poor and those of colors other than White.

A third major development in urban education is still playing out today. The recent school era, which began with the National Commission on Excellence in Education’s report in the early 1980s titled A Nation at Risk, was a backlash to the efforts to use educational policy to advance educational equity. In this backlash, educational excellence and equity were seen as polar opposites. A Nation at Risk argued that a failing economy was due to education accepting mediocrity (that is, equity) as the goal and called for efforts at school reform to promote excellence. From this have flowed efforts to reform schools and school districts; establish standards; and, more recently, require accountability in the form of high-stakes testing. In many ways, this reform era has been about the reassertion of control over urban schools by the state and federal governments. This undercuts local control of schools by the citizens whose children attend them. Many scholars on the Left feel that in urban areas, school reform is as much about disenfranchising urban residents as it is about improving the quality of education in local schools. This view maintains that current reforms are actually more about privatizing education than anything else. Through mechanisms such as charter schools and vouchers, privatization is seen as a use of public funds for private gains. That these critics see privatization as an abdication of public responsibility for urban education seems clear.

Miller and Woock wrote in their 1970 text Social Foundations of Urban Education that the turbulent urban school relations and the “desperate efforts” to make inner-city schools work was only one aspect of a much larger urban crisis. Besides education, urban ills included rising crime, inadequate police forces, civil disruptions, and inadequate funding, not to mention outdated school buildings, pollution, and lack of effective transit systems. What is clear is that the urban “crisis” is not that at all. A crisis implies a dramatic coming together of forces at a point in time that must be acted upon. Yet in this case, the crisis is of long standing. Miller and Woock date it back to the 1950s, but it could easily be dated back to the turn of the twentieth century as well. Furthermore, the crisis is usually perceived by pundits, politicians, and the public as emerging from forces within the cities. However, Castells argued in 1977 that the crisis results from forces around the cities, including metropolitanization, suburbanization, and social-political fragmentation. More recently, we could add deindustrialization. What is important here is that the problems of cities and of urban education are the result of the exodus of political power; people (especially those in the middle and upper classes); financial and social institutions; work; and capital (tax bases, income, etc.) from the cities. That is to say, the problems associated with urban education and the urban crisis can be solved only by addressing developments outside of the city. Policies and programs within the city and about city schools cannot then solve these problems.

The fact that the problems of urban education are derivative of things gone elsewhere only means that reform limited to the city will have little effect. It does not mean that the problems are any less real or salient. It does mean that it is necessary to rethink how one approaches understanding and improving urban education. The traditional efforts to reform urban education have involved development of remedial and compensatory education programs, improved student behavior and discipline, dropout reduction programs, improved preparation of teachers, desegregation (where possible), decentralization of decision making, fostering of parent and community involvement, equalizing of school finances, provision of increased social services through the schools, and local school reform efforts. As above, the current efforts at systemic (districtwide) reform and standards and accountability policy are linked in two key ways. First, they emerge because it seems clear that the traditional efforts have not resulted in enduring improvements. Consistent with the neoconservative logic, the result has been to mandate standards and accountability and let the schools figure out how best to achieve the desired results. Second, accountability and systemic reform are both centralization efforts that are based on a mistrust of local school efforts, educators, and local communities.

Considerable debate exists on the effectiveness of current reforms for urban education. Many reforms are seen as being more coercive than constructive. As Miron documents, efforts at reform in cities are pushed by an entrepreneurial coalition that seeks to link urban education more tightly to the needs of business for an undereducated and thus low-paid working class for the services economy. It is likely that reform efforts will not be effective unless broader issues about the economy, social class, race, and privilege are addressed. Whatever the case, it is clear that in years to come, this will be a potentially hotly contested area.


  1. Castells, M. (1977). The urban question. Cambridge: MIT Press.
  2. Katz, M. (1971). Class, bureaucracy and schools. New York: Praeger.
  3. McNeil, L. (1988). Contradictions of control. Phi Delta Kappan, 69, 478–485.
  4. Miller, H., & Woock, R. (1970). Social foundations of urban education. Hinsdale, IL: Dryden.
  5. Miron, L. (1996). The social construction of urban schooling. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton.
  6. National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. (1968). Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. New York: Bantam.
  7. National Commission on Excellence in Education. (1983). A nation at risk: The imperative for educational reform. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.
  8. Scott, J. (1990). Domination and the arts of resistance. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  9. Valenzuela, A. (1999). Subtractive schooling: U.S.-Mexican youth and the politics of caring. Albany: State University of New York Press.

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