Recently, 16 graduate students in Professor Anthony L. Brown’s Teaching and Learning in Urban Context course co-wrote an op-ed about urban education. The following is an edited version of their group essay.
Urban farming. Urban outfitters. Urban music. What does “urban” look like, sound like, feel like? What is “urban” code for? Depends on who you ask, and what you’re talking about. Within certain contexts the utterance of “urban” connotes a degree of cache and currency, but it just as easily can be deployed to denote decay and decline.
As an adjective, “urban education” signals a particular set of value-laden and layered assumptions. Historically, and across a range of media, urban schools have been represented as troubled and dangerous spaces. Repeated portrayals effectively spin images of deindustrializing cities into legends of chaos and violence, which then narrowly cast students and whole communities as products of declining schools, while simultaneously standing in as the cause of school decline itself. As with all legends and myths however, the truths believed to be contained within are just as contingent as the word “urban” proves to be.
The Troubling Deficit-Lens Narrative of Urban Education
Urban education is socially constructed and often taken up as a static narrative that serves the private goals of those seeking to exploit “urban” black and brown communities. We [as educators] must recognize this, and we must reject it. This is not the only lens, nor the clearest one.
Racism, oppression and social reproduction [the transmission of inequality from generation to generation] have been embedded within the systemic and daily happenings in schools. But by seeing these oppressions, and fighting them fiercely as communities, we can see and uplift the already existing examples of agency, opportunity, resistance and hope for an “urban” that is less legend, and more life.
The term urban and the frameworks associated with it need be redefined. Rather than being viewed through a deficit lens (seeing ‘less than’ instead of ‘more than’), “urban” must express, value, and sustain previously devalued multi-faceted cultural and linguistic strengths. Deficit thinking places the blame of student failure on deficiencies within students themselves, their families, or generalized beliefs about cultural differences. By tapping the roots of cultural wealth and breaking down the constraints of deficit-based thinking, we can acknowledge how urban education has been framed in theory and reality. We then face a choice in how to move forward. Moving forward, we must turn deficit thinking on its head and focus on assets to highlight, empower, and catalyze change.
Why Should We Fix What Isn’t Broken?
The history of urban education is disproportionately laden with folks attempting to “fix” students for normative success instead of actively dismantling systems that oppress them. Researchers attempt to implement interventions that eradicate [supposed] deficiencies of character. They also attempt to provide psychological uplift to help students overcome the damage inflicted on them as a result of their ability to adapt to the neoliberal economy, rather than make students conscious of deep structural changes that are needed to significantly change their life, chances, and future.
Urban education is steeped in a distorted, trial-and-error method of experimentation, often at the cost of students of color. Over the past half century, educational reforms have cycled through repeated efforts to apply policies that fail to fully attend to the needs of marginalized citizens. For the most part, this is not done by accident.
The history of public education in the United States has been built upon a foundation of fear, ignorance, greed, and a lack of faith in the abilities and knowledge of students of color and their parents. Attempts to resolve these issues and work against technical, impersonal, and alienating curriculum and instruction have been repeatedly buried under racially coded political arguments concerning personal responsibility, color blindness, and meritocracy. As a result, communities of color continue to suffer because of the lack of and incomprehensive educational resources.
They become a self-fulfilling prophecy for those who argue they will never succeed.
However, while some may view this as a case of racist policies pushed through by privileged stakeholders, this is not always the case. Schools often mirror the perceptions of superintendents or other policy makers as opposed to serving the needs of the true stakeholders in the communities: the families, community leaders, teachers, and students who are the most impacted. Several instances of policy decisions have led to negative changes in the school environment, including continued segregation of public schooling and governmental housing policies that accelerate gentrification in cities across America.
Rather than help educational systems, these reforms have expedited the deterioration of these institutions.
Let’s Redefine Urban Education
Teachers and schools are always in a state of process, or becoming. Society is ever-changing, and it is our collective responsibility to reimagine what is possible in schools. Moving forward we must empower educators to adopt a culturally sustaining framework of teaching which seeks to promote students’ cultural and linguistic identities.
We have to fight for anti-oppressive education within the ideological and structural systems that reproduce inequities that free public schools from myopic and deficit perspectives promoted by neoliberal education reforms, and we need to decolonize the process in which we exchange, share and value information. This means centering students and their lived realities in the classroom context and beyond.
Our collective conception of the term urban is steeped in the kinds of values we hope to undo. By redefining the term and its associated assumptions, we hope to resolve our concept of those it affects most. The spaces associated with urban contain more cultural wealth and untapped potential beyond what we could currently imagine.
In illuminating the shadowy origins of urban legends, we hope to redress our past and begin imagining and enacting asset-based, student-centered, and anti-oppressive urban education designed to reverse processes that have dehumanized those educated in urban spaces for too long.
Course Instructor: Professor Anthony L. Brown’s work pursues a theoretical argument, which suggests that the examination of the historical and racial constructions of African Americans within the social sciences, educational literature, popular discourse and curriculum is vital to making sense of how questions are raised and how educational and curricular reforms are pursued for African American students in the present.
Students: Joanna Batt, Rebecca Casteel, Gina E. Tillis, Emma Ensign-Church, William Gross, Emiliano Guajardo, Michael Joseph, William Kiley, Heath Robinson, Tatiana Russo-Tait, Lauren Samuel, Grant Selman, Erica Steinitz, Mariah Swift, James Welty, Alexa Zin.