A subject like urban school reform tempts one to leap immediately into cases and strategies, problems and solutions. It is fortifying to recall James Joyce's counsel that “The longest way around is the shortest way home.” In any critical discussion it is dangerous to leave unexamined the bedrock terms, the words so common we barely know they are there. The danger is that we may proceed as if we all understand the same thing when we hear or read such terms when, in fact, our understandings may be quite different. Urban is such a word.
To clarify the concept, I will explore four defining aspects of urban-ness in public education: definitions, images and perceptions, statistical and demographic profiles, and beliefs, including the belief that urban schools are connected to the larger, mainstream story of American education.
The dictionary on my desk, almost thirty years old, provides some idea of how much our conceptions of urban have changed from the 1970s to the present. Two definitions of urban it gives are: “characteristic of the city as distinguished from the country” and “in U. S. census use, designating or of an incorporated or unincorporated place with at least 2,500 inhabitants.” 1
Most people today would consider a community with 2,500 inhabitants a small town. More importantly, city versus country is an opposition that grows less useful as traditional rural life in the United States becomes more and more threatened. The urban/rural dichotomy that characterized the first half of the twentieth century increasingly gave way, in the post-war decades,