Urban Education: A Model for Leadership and Policy

Urban Education: A Model for Leadership and Policy

Urban Education: A Model for Leadership and Policy

Urban Education: A Model for Leadership and Policy


Many factors complicate the education of urban students. Among them have been issues related to population density; racial, ethnic, cultural, and linguistic diversity; poverty; racism (individual and institutional); and funding levels. Although urban educators have been addressing these issues for decades, placing them under the umbrella of "urban education" and treating them as a specific area of practice and inquiry is relatively recent. Despite the wide adoption of the term a consensus about its meaning exists at only the broadest of levels. In short, urban education remains an ill-defined concept.

This comprehensive volume addresses this definitional challenge and provides a 3-part conceptual model in which the achievement of equity for all -- regardless of race, gender, or ethnicity - is an ideal that is central to urban education. The model also posits that effective urban education requires attention to the three central issues that confronts all education systems (a) accountability of individuals and the institutions in which they work, (b) leadership, which occurs in multiple ways and at multiple levels, and (c) learning, which is the raison d'être of education. Just as a three-legged stool would fall if any one leg were weak or missing, each of these areas is essential to effective urban education and affects the others.


McEachin and Brewer (Chapter 6, this volume) document that the majority of the U.S. population now lives in urban areas. In fact, this has become true world-wide and the proportion of those living in cities continues to grow (Cohen, 2003). Urbanization, though, is a relatively recent historical development. As a result, the very concept of “urban education” only really has begun to evolve over the past half century.

This is usefully illustrated in Figure 1.1, which draws from Google data. Its project of scanning over 5.2 million books has permitted scholars to track the rise and fall of interest in a topic across more than 200 years (see http://ngrams.googlelabs.com) by examining the proportion of times it is mentioned. Authors first began to use the term “urban education” in books at about the turn of the last century, but infrequently so until roughly 1960. Since then, interest in the topic has grown consistently, in a roughly linear upward manner, as indicated by the line we added; this, despite the upward spike in the 1970s (see Figure 1.1). Whereas Rury (Chapter 2, this volume) provides a more elaborated history, the Google data provide a reminder of how new the topic really is.

Urbanization has created a demand for educators who are able to provide urban students with a quality and equitable education. But a number of issues can complicate the work of those educators, including high levels both of population density and diversity (racial, ethnic, cultural, and linguistic), poverty, institutional racism, social segmentation and socioeconomic inequalities, unequal distribution of qualified teachers, and problematic funding levels. To make matters more complicated, these issues typically exist in some combination and with important interaction effects.

Although urban centers tend to be associated with negative factors, they can also offer a wealth of cultural, social, and economic resources, presenting unique opportunities as well as challenges for educators. Among the educational resources available to educators in urban settings are often business and intellectual centers, including universities and the university faculty to whom educators can turn for their expertise. It is important to note, in fact, that in some parts of the world, urban education is superior to what is available in other areas.

Nevertheless, the complicating issues we mentioned above help to locate much of urban education in the category of a “wicked problem.” This concept, developed by Rittel and Webber (1973) and later elaborated by others (e.g., Conklin, 2006; Horn & Weber, 2007), has been usefully applied to social problems, particularly some economic and political issues; lately, it has been used with respect to global warming (Lazarus, 2009).

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