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Everybody’s Talking About Equity, but Nobody Knows the Meaning of the Word.

A title aptly pulled, by Dr. Ronald Ferguson, from lyrics to Mose Allison’s Everybody’s Crying Mercy.

This particular talk was structured as three mini-talks followed by some panel discussion all linked to a convening of graduates from Harvard’s Urban Superintendents Program. Each of the speakers is a graduate of the program and a current urban superintendent. A full video of the talk can be found on the Harvard Askwith Forum website.

The speakers included Dr. Jennifer Cheatham from Madison Metropolitan School District in Wisconsin, Dr. Joseph Davis from Ferguson-Florissant School District in Missouri, and Dr. Steven Zrike the receiver for Holyoke Public Schools in Massachusetts. Each superintendent in turn outlined their perspective on equity and a description of the work they’re doing to improve equitable experiences for each and every student in their respective districts. The three then convened as a panel to address audience questions.

Madison Metropolitan:
Superintendent Cheatham began by directly linking equity to excellence. Cheatham presented a claim that in order to understand equity we must first develop a common understanding of academic excellence for students, educators, schools, and administration. Once  we define that standard of excellence, equity work then becomes the task of ensuring that each and every person in the system receives what they need to attain excellence. When framed this way, equity can be focused on ensuring success in a tangible way.

In Madison, Cheatham is particularly focused on leveraging discipline disparities by limiting punitive measures and establishing a system of restorative justice in their place. This is a strong example of one way that central administration can lead through explicit policies and her initial results appear very promising.

I resonated strongly with Cheatham’s emphasis on setting a clear focus for equity work based on a foundation of shared vision. Too often I’ve experienced equity work being displaced or put on a back burner because the work is hard or abstract. By establishing a very clear shared vision of the work, participants are increasingly able to engage. Additionally, Cheatham emphasized the importance of a sustained focus citing that work for educational equity requires dedication and it can’t simply be one of a laundry list of initiatives. Everything that schools do must attack disparities in order to make movement.

Ferguson-Florissant:
Superintendent Davis from Ferguson-Florissant School District began by naming what everyone was wondering. He sought out the Ferguson-Florissant superintendency specifically because of the political issues that arose after Michael Brown was killed. Davis focused largely on his transition out of his previous district and into Ferguson-Florissant making sure to note the importance of smooth transition to ensure continuity.

Davis emphasized the importance of taking time to listen to a wide range of stakeholders in an effort to understand the existing issues before making sweeping change. That being said, Davis made clear the importance of taking action and his office is focusing on adjusting policies that create roadblocks to equity and growing leadership capacity for tackling issues of equity.

Davis’ definition of equity was very clear and concise saying that it is: “about where we put our resources, [how we] identify needs, and provide to those in need.”

Holyoke:
Dr. Zrike is in a somewhat different situation given that he is a state receiver of a “Level 5” turnaround school district. As such Zrike has the opportunity to move very quickly with a unique degree of freedom. Despite this unique freedom, Zrike also mentioned the importance of listening to the community and cautioned against moving to quickly.

In his remarks Zrike agreed that equity and excellence are inextricably linked to one another, yet he emphasized that it is impossible to fire your way to excellence. As such he is taking responsibility for the current staff and the community with the explicit goal of making Holyoke’s schools the first choice for all members of the community.

As an example of the institutional inequities, Zrike cited that while the district is 80% Latino and 20% white, preparations are already underway (in October) for the St. Patrick’s day parade, while there are no systematic preparations for Latino heritage month.

Like the other two superintendents, Zrike has a clear vision that equity means something specific. In this case he defined it as “all kids engaged in cognitively challenging work,” and it is the school district’s responsibility to ensure that the cognitively challenging work is taking place.

Conclusion:
There was a consistent message across all three superintendents that the work of equity is extremely challenging because it involves a distribution of resources and in order to sustain the work strong, courageous, and confident leadership is required. That being said, all three superintendents also cited that in order to effectively address issues of race and racism, school districts need to bring in experts. Davis was the most direct saying that while he has a set of life experiences as a black man, that does not necessarily make him an expert on dismantling racist institutions. He needs additional expertise for that and the other two superintendents immediately echoed his thoughts.

Additionally, each of them expressed a sense of urgency to the work citing local and national issues and the importance of taking direct action. Many districts talk in bold, yet vague, terms about pushing for educational equity and it was encouraging to see three superintendents cite specific examples of work they are doing in order to bring more equity to their respective districts. Cheatham cited the implementation of new restorative justice processes, Davis discussed moving high quality teachers to the neediest schools, and Zrike described programming to re-engage students who have dropped out of schools. Each of these items represents a specific action directly focused on developing a more equitable student experience. Each superintendent is relatively new to their position and I look forward to seeing their progress and sustained focus over time.

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“Let us begin by rethinking the position that urban schools are failing.”

(Not failing? Are these guys nuts? How can they possibly think that urban schools are successful?)

“On the one hand, urban schools are producing academic failure at alarming rates; at the same time, they are doing this inside a systematic structural design that essentially predetermines their failure. This is where the urban school reform rhetoric has missed the mark. It has presumed that urban schools are broken. Urban schools aren’t broken; they are doing exactly what they are designed to do.” (Duncan-Andrade and Morrell, 2008, p. 1)

art_of_critical_pedagogy_coverSo begins Jeffery Duncan-Andrade and Ernest Morrell’s book, The Art of Critical Pedagogy: Possibilities for Moving from Theory to Practice in Urban Schools. From this powerful opening their position is clear. Urban schools exist within a system of structural oppression and inequity, however, instead of telling the story we all know so well of failing students, underfunded schools, and frustrated adults, Duncan-Andrade and Morrell counter that narrative by providing examples of hope and success in the face of structural oppression. As the title suggests, Duncan-Andrade and Morrell examine how by using a combination of high quality pedagogy and critical theory (deemed critical pedagogy) we can change the dominant narrative and provide a humanizing education to urban youth.

The authors intentionally write directly to the practicing teacher yet acknowledging that while they “have written this text to appeal to practicing teachers as well as teacher educators, [they] recognize that it remains a text that will primarily be accessed by teacher educators and university-based scholars.” The authors also acknowledge the challenge  of writing texts that are theoretically sophisticated and immediately applicable for teachers. With The Art of Critical Pedagogy I think they got close to that mark. The text is definitely theoretically sophisticated and even if it is not immediately applicable to a teachers’ context, there is enough hear that a group of colleagues could draw the appropriate links from the structures Duncan-Andrade and Morrell present to their own curricula. A key component of this text’s accessibility is chapter 2 in which the authors provide a phenomenal summary of key components of critical pedagogy theory. Each pedagogue is presented with enough depth and enough clarity that the distinctions are easily understandable. Chapter 2 alone could be used very effectively as a primer on critical pedagogy before going on to read Freire, Darder, Giroux, or any of the others mentioned in more detail.

The authors place themselves firmly in Paulo Freire’s footsteps stating their book: “reports from a theoretically informed, inquiry-based practice that is a direct response to Freire’s (1997) call for critical and reflective journaling of the pedagogical process.” (preface) In doing this, Duncan-Andrade and Morrell solidify their theoretical roots while engaging in praxis to turn theory into practice. This is what makes The Art of Critical Pedagogy unique. This combined role of researcher and practitioner positions the authors to uniquely straddle academia and urban schools, allowing them to bring academia to the schools and to bring the schools to academia. The authors live and model the reality that they envision for their students.

Beyond the strong theoretical foundation, The Art of Critical Pedagogy is essentially an example of praxis and the heart of the book (chapters 3-6) comprises a series of case examples where the authors used critical pedagogy in order to improve academic outcomes for urban youth in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. Each case example has unique characteristics, but in each case the authors are able to actualize their theory by combining access to the traditional academic curriculum while also helping students access culturally relevant content and skills. This allows students success by mainstream values (defined as white and middle class) while maintaining their cultural identities. This is the key of critical pedagogy, students see multiple forms of success and do not have to choose between them.

In addition to helping their students find success while maintaining their own identities, Duncan-Andrade and Morrell see to actively refute the narrative of the failing urban high school student. Throughout the text the authors describe intentionally teaching students to reflect on and understand the structures that act on them, explicitly teaching their students critical theory using Freire, Gramsci, and Solorzano & Delgado-Bernal with “underachieving” high school students. These readings alone would be a refutation of the narrative of failure and apathy that dominates discussions of urban youth.

Another example of how Duncan-Andrade and Morrell look to challenge dominant narratives, increase their students academic skills, and help them maintain their cultural identity is through the use of content relevant to urban youth culture. Thanks to voices like Chris Emdin and his #HipHopEd discussions, it is increasingly less controversial to use hip-hop in the classroom, however, Duncan-Andrade and Morrell situate hip-hop directly next to traditional poetry texts. In doing so they allowed the students to draw comparisons between the texts thus helping close the distance between the students’ culture and the culture of power; without abandoning either. Comparative analysis of Shakespeare, John Donne, The Fugees, and Tupac promotes border crossing and tolerance by “helping students arrive at an implicit understanding of what they have in common with those they have been taught to perceive as different.” (p. 52) By helping their students create connections to the traditional canon through hip-hop, Duncan-Andrade and Morrell provide them with authentic reasons to understand the work which will help them find academic success.

Duncan-Andrade and Morrell could have stopped with their class linking hip-hop and poetry. It had great success. However, they went beyond this by accessing students through sports and their local communities. Most compelling to me is the chapter on engaging students in participatory action research for social change through the Doc Ur Block project. All too often the standard narrative is that research is academically challenging and low performing students need to master the basics before they can do this more challenging work. Duncan-Andrade and Morrell explicitly refute this by engaging students as primary researchers. If our work is to develop a humanizing pedagogy that helps marginalized and oppressed people become knowledge producers (Freire), how better to do it than by putting them front and center in the research process? Instead of their traditional status as research subjects, the authors asked their students to be researchers. This is the same basic premise as gifted education looking for students to “own their learning” and create authentic intellectual work. By structuring the research project within students’ community Duncan-Andrade and Morrell engaged their students in very high levels of academic work in which they conducted community surveys, facilitated class discussions, and presented their work to authentic communities of their classmates, graduate students, practicing teachers, and community members.

Duncan-Andrade and Morrell’s claim is the same one John Dewey wrote one hundred years prior in 1907: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that must we want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy.” Our most disenfranchised students need the most work with engagement. Remedial drills will not make up the gap. All of Duncan-Andrade and Morrell’s structures are paralleled by the Buck Institute’s structure for “Gold Standard Project Based Learning,” a structure often cited for increasing challenge for academically gifted students. Struggling students in urban schools are equally deserving of an academically rigorous, relevant, and authentic school environment.

The authors do not pretend that their work is a panacea to the challenges of urban education. In none of the cases did they fully redefine the schools they taught in. They do, however, have a proof of concept that needs to be taken to scale. Much like Freire’s request for additional work documenting critical pedagogy in action, Duncan-Andrade and Morrell make an explicit call for more work in the area with more writing on the practical components of conducting critical pedagogy that humanizes the oppressed. I wish I’d had this book during my second year of teaching. I had a group of students that I struggled to reach and I think the critical pedagogy described by Duncan-Andrade and Morrell would have served them well. I was experimenting at the edges, asking students to write their own poetry and including examples from hip-hop, but I did not have an awareness of the need to actively empower students and intentionally teach them about the hidden curriculum of schools. I used the techniques as a hook for engagement, but I did not go beyond that into more fundamental learning. Current school systems do not make critical pedagogy easy to implement, but the authors have proved it can be done.  Through collegial support and active coaching currently practicing teachers can make the necessary changes in order to support their students.