The University Record, January 25, 1999

In celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.

Solutions to urban education problems require passion, panelists say

By Kerry Colligan

In a recent interview, Ray Johnson, principal of the Paul Robeson Academy in Detroit, talked about student achievement and teacher expectations. When asked if second graders learning multiple languages and quadratic equations was too much, “I reminded the reporter that the average person can learn more than five languages with ease, and yet we come out [of school] monolingual.”

Johnson was one of four panelists at the Jan. 18 discussion “Urban Education: Issues and Implications,” sponsored by the School of Education. More than 100 students and faculty filled Whitney Auditorium for an informal discussion of the issues facing urban education, and what the academy (and public schools) can do to better the American education system.

Change is occurring in many ways, said Kris Gutierrez, associate professor of education and information studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. We must look at social, political, economic and racial issues to understand where urban education is today, she added.

Referring to an increase in hours worked and widespread dissolution of the family as a unit, Gutierrez and Johnson agreed that the shift in family involvement in students’ lives has a major impact on student achievement.

More pernicious, she said, is the trend in legislation toward exclusion. Propositions 209 and 227 were clearly blows to affirmative action and bilingual education, “and that doesn’t begin to address SP 1,” the initiative to remove race from admissions decisions in the California higher educational system, Gutierrez said.

Economically, school districts are seeing fewer and fewer dollars per pupil, according to Harvey Dorrah, assistant professor of educational administration at Central Michigan University. Detroit public schools serve more students than any other district in Michigan, Dorrah said, yet they rank 79th in resources.

Worse yet, economic resources must be considered in the context of their use, said Gloria Ladson-Billings, professor in curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. A principal of a suburban school built in 1980 can do a lot more with $10,000 than the principal of an urban school built in 1930.

These social, political and economic factors present a perplexing problem, Ladson-Billings said. “We know that the highest achieving students in the technological world are Asian-descent students in American schools. At the same time, the lowest achieving students are African American students in American schools. The same schools that produce the world’s best, somehow produce the world’s worst.” Quality school districts like those in Madison, Ann Arbor, Chapel Hill and Oberlin have not yet figured out how to deal with the achievement gap, she said.

Despite these difficulties, urban education is not doomed. All four panelists agreed that good things are happening in select schools. For results to be replicated, however, the panelists offered some specific suggestions.

Professional development is virtually non-existent in urban education, Ladson-Billings noted. In an informal survey of insurance, pharmaceutical and technology companies, Ladson-Billings found that those companies spent an average of 10 to 15 percent of their budget on research and development. The better school districts, she said, spent 1 percent.

“We also need to think about the incongruity between who is being served and who is training our teachers,” she explained. “We prepare teachers for public schools ‘way back when.’ There’s a mythical kid and time where everybody was white, could read, and had two parents. There’s a dream and desire to return to some place that never existed.”

To better prepare our teachers, Gutierrez suggested academics become “public intellectuals.” While she recognizes that the reward structure for less-theoretical research in urban education has not sufficiently changed, it is important academia begin to discuss education with the public.

Dorrah took her comment one step further to suggest that when research on urban education yields results, those results need to be implemented both in public schools and in teacher training. “We have to again establish the connection emotionally and socially to urban education,” Dorrah said.

Establishing that connection, with the educational system and with the public, Johnson argued, must include collaborations between academia and public education, and between public education and the corporate world. “Partnerships become extremely important in providing skilled and talented individuals [to schools]. If we can enlist the support, we’ll see the change.”

But changes in the educational system will likely not come that easy, Johnson said. There must be a passion for change.

“One of the things I want to point to is this notion of passion that becomes so very important. . . . I have a passion that schools ought to lead the way in terms of change, that we ought to make the definition of what education is supposed to be about.”

That definition is the keystone for Ladson-Billings also. Children in all parts of the country ask the same question, she said. “‘Education for what?’ We will have difficulty until we can look each kid in the eyes and answer that question.”