On One Hand

May 15, 2010

Six Steps to Improve Urban Education

Filed under: policy,social justice — ononehand @ 1:11 pm

We’ve heard from teachers and policy advocates about what doesn’t fix the achievement gap in public schools. Programs designed to fire teachers who have low-scoring students is an example of a wrong approach to education. I’m sure you’ve heard teachers unions saying it’s because teachers are already doing all the work they can, which – whether or not that is the case – is probably not the politically effective argument. The real reason I think these policies are counter-productive is that they create animosity between teachers and low-performing students who drag scores down, and discourages teachers from working in the very schools that are hardest to recruit in. In other words, it stigmatizes troubled schools and, in particularly, troubled students.

But teachers and progressive education advocates are never going to get this political funk off their backs until they can capture the narrative and lay out some alternatives. We all agree that something should be done. Here’s what I think is needed:

1) Recruit more minority teachers.

People who know what it’s like to be part of a minority group in America are intrinsically better prepared to connect with and understand students who know what it’s like to be a part of a minority group in America. Teachers of color and teachers who grew up in tough urban environments are most likely to apply criticism and praise in the right way to encourage students to take the path that they themselves took, to react positively towards challenging situations in which a student’s behavior is part of her or his culture, and to become good role models that the students can identify with. Teachers of color model success for students of color whereas an all-white teaching staff creates the image that white people are successful community builders who people of color are subjugated to. Having teachers from minority communities gives students hope that they, too can be successful, and that the path society generally sets for them – telling them that college and well-paying jobs are out of reach – can be changed if they focus on school.

A school with a student body that is primarily of color should be taught by a faculty that is primarily of color, and teachers of color should have a strong voice in explaining to their white colleagues how charged racial or cultural situations should be dealt with.

2) Reduce class size.

No teacher, no matter how skilled or brilliant, is going to be at her or his best in a class of 40 students. Dicipline issues will take up more class time than learning, and students who are diciplined in this way will become uninvested from school. Lecturing to a class of kids who are at different levels of ability is hard, and content always suffers; the best way to compensate is when teachers are able to answer individual questions and spend 1-on-1 time with students during work time. But 1-on-1 time is more or less impossible when class sizes are huge; there shouldn’t be more than 25 students in a classroom at at time under most circumstances, and the ideal is probably closer to 17 students. What this ultimately comes down to is funding, because increasing class size is unavoidable when schools have to cut positions.

4) Make education a community effort.

Schools should not be seen as places where kids disappear in for 8 hours a day after they wake up, and educators should not see the community as a place that students disappear to for 16 hours after the bell rings. Schools and communities need to be intrinsically connected to improve student achievement.

Again, this reflects on the need to recruit more minority teachers. An all-white teaching staff is often uncomfortable around or even adversarial to parents of color, who the teachers may blame for their students’ poverty or juge critically when they do not understand the community’s culture. Students are savier than they may seem, and pick up on animosity teachers have for the community, which further informs them that they don’t have much of a future as members of their race.

There should be thorough coordination between a school and the community, and local businesses, colleges, city councils and politicians need to play a direct role in educationg students. Legislators and community leaders should regularly put politics aside and take time to have non-political talks with students. Local scientists should visit classrooms. Businesses should encourage students to work with them in paid internships. Colleges should send tutors to work with younger students and writers and artists should be involved. The community should provide the manpower and interest, but the facilitators of this kind of activity will have to come from inside the school.

5) Increase the number of nurses, psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers in schools.

A lot of students in tough school districts spend more of their thoughts unpacking traumatic or challenging life situations than they do learning. How is a student who is homeless or living out of a car supposed to get homework done, or even care about homework? How is a student who has been subjugated to racism or homophobia in school supposed to feel good about going there again and again each day? How is a student with diabetes, epilepsy or any other potentially serious condition without regular access to health care that parents can afford supposed to get through the day where physical symptoms are interfering with work? How is a student with ADHD or depression supposed to deal when she or he is not getting professional help?

Students in challenging situations need to be allowed more time with school psychologists and counselors, and schools should provide these services to carefully monitor student achievement, and to be willing to investigate further and solve problems when disconnects show up. Someone in the school needs to know how to get a kid on Medicaid. Someone in the school needs to be able to talk to the parents about supplying medications. Someone in the school needs to be able to create a safe space for students to talk about their lives and ensure students are socially and psychologically healthy, so that class time can be spent on learning rather than other issues.

6) Ban junk foods from cafeterias.

Schools that provide free lunches are often relied on to give their kids nutrition that their parents are unable to afford, or to have time to prepare when they’re working multiple jobss. That being the case, it’s tragic when schools respond by providing salty fried potatoes with oil-based cheese sauce every day for lunch because it is the cheapest food they can get that the kids will eat.

It is known that the healthiness in childhood sets the tone for healthiness in adulthood, and sugar and junk food can have measurable negative effects on behavior and concentration. Of course, kids are going to order what tastes good, and it is often junk food that tastes the best, and it takes a while for kids (and adults) to adjust their tastes to prefer healthy foods – so junk food shouldn’t even be an option. Schools should outright ban sugars and chips, and should instead provide only whole wheat bread for sandwiches, non-sugar cereals, sauces that are not loaded with oil or white flour, fresh fruits and vegetables, cooked fruits and vegetables, and other whole meals.

This, again, comes down to funding, since it is slightly more expensive to provide this kind of food. But good health is the foundation for good behavior and productivity.



  1. Although I completely agree with your animosity argument, I think some of your solutions aren’t entirely supported by the research. A big picture question is what is the outcome that you want to improve? How will we know if students are doing better? But on your suggestions, here are a few thoughts:

    1-Own-race teachers seem to matter: http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1162/003465304323023750
    The problem there is that the only way to have every student have an own-race teacher is to segregate and follow some ‘separate but equal’ model, but that’s both unpleasant and unconstitutional.

    2-Here’s some info on class sizes: turns out there is little actual evidence supporting that they make a huge difference.

    3- 🙂

    4-No question, but how do you make this happen?

    5-Haven’t these increased dramatically in the last 30 years with no change in student scores?

    6-Although the relationship between diet quality and student outcomes is clear, it’s hard to go from that relationship to a causal one. Families that care about their kids’ diets and their schools’ diets more probably care about children more in a million other ways. That said, I think better food and less junk food is an improvement in itself, independently of whether it improves student performance.

    Comment by Rey Hernandez — October 11, 2011 @ 1:32 pm | Reply

    • It’s not right to segregate teachers and students by race, but it DOES mean that the educational system automatically privileges white students since the teachers are predominantly white. I think there’s a strong moral case, there, that students of color should be entitled to a diverse faculty that represents them in some way – so I think that means an affirmative action program that ensures there are non-white teachers in most schools, at least in schools where the majority of students are not white!

      I can’t imagine that class sizes make no difference. Of course teaching typically means a classroom has its collective attention focused on 1 teacher, but when it comes to the students with disabilities or attention problems who do not get the same benefit from the teacher, 1-on-1 support has to be more important. So by whatever means you get those kids individualized attention, that’s how you help them succeed.

      Comment by ononehand — December 19, 2011 @ 7:51 pm | Reply

  2. Im going to have to argue as a teacher I can help a lot more kids for longer if I only have 25 as opposed to 40 …. the research may not suggest it but that is very true… I can carry 20 kids to the finish line maybe 25 with a pay raise but 40 is an act of god…

    Comment by West Shaw — October 28, 2015 @ 2:25 pm | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: