ROCHESTER — The United States has built up an “education debt” over many decades of underserving urban students by providing them with fewer resources than are allocated to their suburban counterparts — who are largely non-minorities — and shutting them out of the political process, a national education researcher recently told a Rochester audience.
As a result of this “debt,” urban schools continue to be plagued by high drop-out rates, low graduation rates, decreased government funding, poor scores on standardized tests and lower academic expectations, Gloria Ladson-Billings said during a spring lecture at the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education
Yet she said that the idea that educators must close an “achievement gap” for students in urban schools unfairly places the burden of these struggles on the shoulders of city students and parents and fails to account for the funding, economic and health gaps that contribute to students’ struggles.
“We have accumulated this problem as a result of centuries of neglect and outright denial of education for entire groups of students,” said Ladson-Billings, the Kellner Family Professor of Urban Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and former president of the American Educational Research Association. “We have consistently underfunded schools in those communities who most need education.”
David Hursh, an associate professor at the Warner School, agreed.
“She’s trying to say that society is at risk” if this problem continues, he said. “We need to do something to deal with the whole societal problem: a lack of decent jobs, lack of health care, lack of housing. We need to be reminded that is also part of resolving the problem of urban schools.”
The problem is compounded by urban schools’ need to provide bilingual education for an increasing number of students. In the Rochester City School District, such programs primarily are geared toward Latinos, but the population of students who require bilingual services is increasing in diversity.
“Rising numbers of immigrants, other demographic trends and the demands of an increasingly global economy make it clear that we can no longer afford to ignore the pressing needs of those students … who are struggling with reading, writing and oral discourse in a new language,” said Diana Hernández, supervising director of the district’s bilingual, English as a Second Language and Hispanic services.
A cultural-deficit theory was put forth in the 1950s and 1960s to explain the poor academic performance of students in urban schools, Ladson-Billings said. While this theory is no longer espoused, some educators continue to hold onto that line of thinking, she added. She listed several other often-heard explanations for student failure, explaining that they are unfounded: Parents don’t care; these children don’t have enough experiences or exposure; these children aren’t ready for school; these families don’t value education and are coming from a “culture of poverty.”
Ladson-Billings said that the “culture of poverty” comment troubles her most because she has studied anthropology and the word “culture” is completely misused in this context.
“Poverty is not a culture,” she said. “It is a condition produced by the economic, social and political arrangements of a society. Poverty is linked to the values of a society. When we think it is acceptable for people to work and not make a living wage, we contribute to the creation of poverty.”
Based on the economic circumstances of urban families, teachers are misled into believing that they should not place high academic expectations on students and that “the primary purpose of school is to bring order to their lives,” Ladson-Billings said.
For Latino students in Rochester, the educational disparities stem from extreme poverty, health-related issues, families’ lack of formal education and a high mobility rate, Hernández added. Rochester has one of the highest child-poverty rates in the country, Hursh noted.
In addition, Hernández added that some students themselves become parents during their school years or must take on jobs to help support their families.
Adults are failing an entire generation, especially in the Puerto Rican community, said Henry Padron, a third-grade bilingual teacher at James P.B. Duffy School No. 12.
“We have permitted the digression of gains achieved during the middle of the 20th century to be co-opted into the ‘me generation,’ where a loss of the collective will has left a void in leadership and community activism that is heading us in the wrong direction,” he said.
Arkee Allen, a former Irondequoit High School teacher who left that suburban district to teach eighth-grade math at East High School, earlier this year decided that it was time that the community stepped in to change the course for urban students at his school. More than 500 people volunteered to tutor his classes for an upcoming state exam and more than 300 showed up.
“It showed them so many people care,” he added. “It also has given me a great leg to stand on. You know I work hard for you. That kid is so empowered. Now, some of them have mentors now because of that.”
Jessica Cruz, 17, said that she has seen problems at city schools firsthand as a junior at Monroe Middle School, including teachers who come into the classroom with preconceived notions that all the students are “thugs.”
Jessica said she refuses to be a negative statistic and plans to not only graduate next year but go on to become a veterinarian.
Any teacher, she added, who doesn’t expect city students to do well academically are doing a disservice.
“We try our hardest to prove them wrong,” Jessica said.