Finding Their Place in the Community: Urban Education outside the Classroom

Article excerpt

In the spring of 2005, the Bush administration announced that guidelines for following the mandates of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) had been made less restrictive. More of this "loosening" will follow, albeit quietly, lest the public discover the delusional qualities that went into the original version of the bill. Nevertheless, NCLB has had a huge impact on the public education endeavor in the United States, solidifying the ascendancy of the nation's "standards and testing" movement. This movement has placed a special burden on early childhood education--for it is widely believed that academic careers are made or broken in the early grades, when a child either learns to read well, poorly, or not at all.

Accompanying this burden has been a barrage of testing; millions of teacher-hours spent mapping the curriculum (or aligning it to teach what standardized tests measure), and an exponential growth in the number of hours spent examining, then operationalizing, a huge range of remediation packages in both traditional and online formats. Teachers, especially those who teach young children, are being pressed to work much harder in the interest of producing higher test scores. The assumption that reading and language arts are central to success in the other school subjects has led to a dramatic re-ordering of instructional time--so much so that art, music, and social science are often banished from primary grades.

This way of doing business in the nation's schools has gathered so much force that it has become a kind of heresy to ask for evidence that might substantiate some connection between high test scores and a happy, productive, adult life. Yet consider the connection between low test scores and an unhappy life. How many individuals turn to crime because a succession of poor test scores leads them to believe they cannot succeed in school, and thus cannot pursue legitimate career choices? You could also ask if urban students, who often have the most ground to make up in many areas, including on test scores, benefit from the testing preoccupation. What might benefit such students?

Fortunately, at the margins of what constitutes current practice, another movement, albeit a fledgling one, is gaining momentum. This movement goes by various names: place-based education, place-conscious education, community studies, community-oriented curriculum, etc. It comes with a small but growing body of scholarship to recommend it (Dolce & Morales-Vasquez, 2003; Gruenewald, 2003; Noddings, 1996; Orr, 1994; Smith, 2002; Theobald & Curtiss, 2000), which falls, roughly, into two types of arguments. The first is based on currently ascendant views related to how people learn and the variety of ways they can be intelligent. The second is based on an alignment between education and the full range of life experiences congruent with the human condition. We will briefly examine each in turn.

Constructivism and Place-Based Learning

The near century-long hegemony of behavioral learning theory gradually gave way to new ideas during the 1970s and '80s. Fascinated by the workings of computers, researchers advanced "information processing" models and heralded them as the successors to what, by contrast, seemed to be simplistic stimulus-response learning models. But as time went on and learning theorists were introduced to the work of Lev Vygotsky--an examination that sparked a re-consideration of Jean Piaget and John Dewey--learning theory took yet another turn. The ideas that emerged and coalesced in research circles after Vygotsky was "discovered" gradually came to be called "constructivism," a word that captures the central notion that learning at the level of understanding is a constructive process involving new information, old information, cultural assumptions, and a cultural context (Fosnot, 1996). Constructivists argue that individuals learn through a kind of cognitive negotiation that accommodates all of these factors. …