Creating Change in the Large Urban Public Schools of the United States

By Heyman, Ernest L.; Vigil, Peter | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview
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Creating Change in the Large Urban Public Schools of the United States

Heyman, Ernest L., Vigil, Peter, Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


The United States prides itself on providing an opportunity for the poor to improve their circumstances by taking advantage of a public education. However, over the last several decades minority groups, particularly Hispanic, Native-, and African-American, which make up a disproportionately large part of the poor, have had a difficult time taking advantage of this educational opportunity (1). In spite of policy efforts as broad ranging as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), more than fifty-years since Brown v. Board of Education, and a nationwide reconsideration of educational equity, the major tension points and associated problems have pretty much remained the same: low test scores, high dropout and absentee rates, high suspension rates, and problems related to prejudice (2). While federal legislation such as NCLB undoubtedly influences the direction and decisions of policy makers at the state level, for many stakeholders the issues often stall at the local level. Administrators and boards of education have the responsibility to see that the appropriate policies are in place and the needed changes are made. Across the U.S. large urban school districts are experimenting with policies and procedures aimed at improving educational opportunity and accountability. Many urban school boards have tried a variety of research-driven approaches in attempting to solve the unique and persistent challenges to urban education, which have variously emphasized improved achievement, grade reconfiguration, charter schools, and most recently in Denver, releasing individual schools from certain contract provisions (3). Some of these approaches have been tried multiple times, and often with great intensity. These solutions have, by and large, just not worked. The various boards may be faulted for trying to solve the problems by taking the wrong approach, but they cannot be blamed for lack of effort. Over the last thirty years, the problems of the large urban school districts, such as Denver and Detroit, have essentially remained the same. The answers are simply not that easy to come by. There are no simplistic answers, and the frustration level of everyone remains high.

The premise of this paper is that solutions to the above problems reside in the identification of the changes that must be made by each of the major stakeholders. Taking responsibility for solving these problems means each stakeholder must say, "What can we do differently to move the district's students toward success, once and for all?" Below, several key issues are identified for consideration. First, we begin by identifying four principal assumptions.

1. Minority students in large urban school districts are just as capable and have the same potential as students from any other school district.

2. Teachers in the urban schools are as well trained and as competent as the teachers from other school districts.

3. Minority parents and the various community groups care deeply about the education of their children.

4. Racism and prejudice continue to exist and take a painful toll in the large urban public schools.

Numbers two and four present a question of possible incongruity. Could school personnel be both competent and racist? This question will be discussed below. Number two contends that school personnel are competent, but that does not mean that they cannot improve, and that is precisely what will be addressed in the conclusion.

A review of the literature concerning urban school problems revealed issues involving each of the major stakeholders. The following sections identify specific concerns requiring examination and change. The first stakeholder to be reviewed will be the teachers.

The Teachers. Public school instructors are often blamed for the failure of the large urban public schools, and frequently their capabilities are brought into question. In an attempt to improve teacher performance, new tougher teacher licensure requirements have been mandated by statute (Colorado Senate Bill 99-154).

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