Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Urban Schools - Day Camps or Custodial Centers?

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Urban Schools - Day Camps or Custodial Centers?

Article excerpt

Mr. Haberman would encourage those engaged in reconstruction and reform of urban schools to devote some effort to reconsidering their assumptions about what a school is and what the participants do there.

LANGUAGE IS NOT an innocent reflection of how we think. The terms we use control our perceptions, shape our understanding, and lead us to particular proposals for improvement. We can see only as far as our language allows us to see.

In common usage, the places children and youths who live in urban poverty are required to attend for 180 days each year are "schools." We call them schools because the people who pay for them, work in them, and send their children to them assume them to be schools. It is certainly true that teaching and learning do occur there - for part of the day, for some of those involved. But using a part-time activity as the defining term for the institution would also support calling these places cafeterias, recreation centers, or community centers because eating, playing, and socializing also occur there for part of each day. Indeed, in many urban "schools," more time is actually spent on these other activities than on teaching and learning.

Whether a place is really a school also depends on its stated purpose and its actual functioning. Of course, we must determine whether that stated purpose derives from an assumption of what these places should be or from the perceived purposes of those who inhabit them and who actually determine what takes place in them. Clearly, our urban schools are schools by legal definition. But equally clearly, in terms of what they do, they are not.

These places are not schools any more than they are nutrition centers, playgrounds, or youth clubs. I would extend the argument further and add that the licensed professional staff members who work in these places are not "teachers," that the children and youths in attendance are not "students," and that the groups of youngsters gathered together in separate rooms are not "classes." The unexamined assumption that the common usage of these terms carries universal meaning across all settings is a major obstacle to our understanding of what is really happening in "schools" that serve urban children and youths in poverty.

Analysts and researchers have written a great deal about and studied closely the failures of urban education. They have been misled - and in turn have misled others - into believing that the failure of urban "schools" has known causes and solutions. Essentially, more money, better teachers, better parenting, smaller classes, stronger principals, more testing, computer-assisted instruction, charter schools, and vouchers for parents will supposedly close the gap between children in urban poverty and their more advantaged counterparts.

Those who study urban "schools" seriously and those who merely report about them are equally handicapped. They assume that the common terms they use are informing their explanations when in fact the terms themselves prevent us from seeing events that are obvious and recurrent. The terms lock us into concepts that lead us to misinterpret the real world of urban education. For all of us - including social scientists, educators, and the public - reality exists primarily in our mind's eye. We are led to see by the terms that build our concepts, and the concepts are assumed to have universal meaning applicable to all settings. It is a process that inevitably lets us see a limited set of events in narrow ways and blinds us to other events that may be more powerful explanations of reality. Any one way of seeing leads to one way of knowing. Particular language sets up each way of seeing by limiting the categories we have chosen. Consider the following study.

I play a tape of samba music in my office. I then look out of my window and conduct a study of how well the people across campus are dancing to the music on my tape. I fill out rating scales that assess their grace, rhythm, and creativity. …

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