First of all, what is urban education? While there is no clear definition, Richard Milner (What is Urban Education?) says that the environment of the school is what makes the school urban. Milner says that in many large cities, “the infrastructure and large numbers of people can make it difficult to provide necessary and adequate resources to the large numbers of people who need them” so that  “outside of school factors such as housing, poverty, and transportation are directly connected to what happens inside of the school” (Milner 559). Schools do not operate in a vacuum and the schools adopt the issues–both positive and negative– important to the families in the neighborhood.

In addition to the outside environment of the school, the atmosphere inside an urban school is usually different than that in wealthier suburban schools. In a textbook dedicated to future urban educators, the author insists that “the large, impersonal bureaucracy with its emphasis on inflexible rules is often the determining factor in urban teachers’ and students’ struggles” (Weiner). Students and teachers alike often struggle in urban schools because resources are scarce, yet the opportunity for flexibility or outside the box thinking is frequently impossible in a large bureaucratic district. Successful teachers such as John Taylor Gatto and Jose Luis Vilson have described how they developed amazing opportunities for their New York City students, but how administrators and even fellow teachers opposed their efforts repeatedly. Urban teachers often deal with poor facilities, a lack of basic supplies, and an unsupportive administration–problems far less common in wealthier areas.

Critics of urban education do not believe that the atmosphere in urban schools is accidental. “First, urban pedagogies work through adolescents of color, making them less competitive economically by subjecting them to an education that emphasizes discipline and control and that minimizes intellectual rigor and the development of meaningful skills. Second, they work upon adolescents of color by making them undesirable as employees in a service-orientated high-tech economy.” (Duncan 30)  Urban schools primarily promote a curriculum that resembles factory assembly lines even when factories and manufacturing have disappeared from the US economy. “These institutions also tend to be conservative and traditional, employing educational practices where knowledge is transmitted passively from teacher to student. The pedagogies in these schools emphasize control, rigidity, and conformity, subjecting students of color to mindless drills and exercises solely to prepare them to raise their standardized test scores” (Duncan 38).

In order to maintain control and promote compliance, the pedagogy of urban education often lends itself to fill-in-the-blank type worksheets rather than rigorous and relevant writing assignments intended to make students think critically about the world around them. Ironically, the same situation exists in North Korea because government controls prevent students from creative and critical thinking. Therefore,  both North Korean students and American urban students face the same situation — an inability to write a strong, analytical essay.

Jonathan Kozol has exposed the incredible disparities between wealthy and poor schools, and he has more recently focused on the increasing re-segregation in U.S. public schools. [quote] Unfortunately, “urban” may become a derogatory phrase used by detractors to describe failing schools for children of color living in poverty. Educators who work in urban environments know that despite the challenges, the rich diversity and tremendous opportunity compels us to support students who deserve the same quality education as those with wealthier parents.

High-Stakes Testing

In this photo taken Feb. 12, 2015, practice test books sit on a table in the Sixth grade English Language Arts and Social Studies classroom at Morgan Elementary School South in Stockport, Ohio. On Tuesday, Ohio becomes the first state to administer one of two tests in English language arts and math based on the Common Core standards developed by two separate groups of states. By the end of the year, about 12 million children in 28 states and the District of Columbia will take exams that are expected to be harder than traditional spring standardized state tests they replace. In some states, they'll require hours of additional testing time students will have to do more than just fill in the bubble. The goal is to test students on critical thinking skills, requiring them to describe their reasoning and solve problems. (AP Photo/Ty Wright)
(AP Photo/Ty Wright)

The current focus on high-stakes testing has forced all districts to focus almost exclusively on what will be tested. In order to maintain necessary federal and state funding, urban districts need to make sure they make the numbers for participation and pass rates. While these tests are clearly making money for the corporations that prepare them, it is not clear that they are beneficial to the students forced to take them. For example, in New Jersey, districts with high numbers of PARCC “failures” are forced to allocate scarce resources on remediating and retesting students in order to meet state graduation requirements. Meanwhile, students in wealthier districts who don’t pass PARCC are very likely to gain a qualifying score on the SAT, since many suburban districts cater to families who can afford private tutoring to achieve a higher college entrance exam scores. The cost of remediation has further reduced the time and material resources available for authentic teaching and learning in many urban districts.


When states mandate standardized tests to compare the two sets of students, they determine that the urban students failed. Now urban districts will need to allocate even more resources to the so-called achievement gap will continue to widen. Critics of the focus on upholding standards believe that we are blaming the victim when we determine that a student lacks certain academic skills due to “poor teaching at best and institutionalized racism at worst” (Delpit 291).


Achievement Gap vs. Opportunity Gap


When examining the results of standardized test scores, there has been a great deal of focus on the achievement gap in this country– the idea that students of color do not achieve as much academically as white students. But increasingly researchers have noted that we are really dealing with an opportunity gap. Milner contends that “opportunity is at the core of success and failing in society as well as in schools” (Start 8) and the fact that poor students and students of color do poorly on standardized tests should tell us more about the opportunities for learning than about their abilities. Rather than focus on the achievement gap which only tells us about test scores, we should focus on “the teacher quality gap; the teacher training gap; the challenging curriculum gap; the school funding gap; the digital divide gap; the wealth and income gap; the employment opportunity gap; the affordable housing gap; the health care gap; the nutrition gap; the school integration gap; and the quality childcare gap” (Irvine).



Success in the Urban Writing Classroom

What are the implications for writing teachers in urban school?

In addition to knowing their students, teachers in urban schools need to be prepared to provide a rigorous, robust curriculum which meets the challenges of life in a digital age while still meeting local, state and federal mandates and standards. It is an often overwhelming responsibility, yet the starting point could be the newly revised “Professional Knowledge for the Teaching of Writing” approved by the National Council of Teachers of English in February 2016. The statement covers all aspects of writing from purpose to assessment, and gives the writing teacher a wider vision of writing instruction than merely covering the format that will appear on the next standardized test.


For students who come to high school without the necessary pre requisite literacy skills, students should be given additional class time to develop those skills. Some urban schools have successfully implemented a ninth-grade academy to allow students to adjust to the rigor of high school. Explicit instruction, using the Six Traits (ideas, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency and conventions and presentation) provides a common vocabulary for teachers throughout the school to discuss writing (Spandel). Direct instruction should be concise and focused on a few areas rather than trying to teach all areas of essay writing in one long lecture. Feedback should also be focused on improvement and specific student needs.


“The Writing Revolution” –

Success in Staten Island’s New Dorp High School — a school that was on the brink of closure due to continued failures — came about from an intense focus on analytical writing across all disciplines. Students struggled — not because they weren’t smart enough to write well — but because they didn’t understand basic sentence structure. They didn’t understand how language works so they were unable to put their ideas into writing. The formula they used at New Dorp, modeled on a program used in successful private schools, teaches students to put ideas into simple sentences, then how to construct complex sentences and eventually create paragraphs and essays (Tyre). While the program at New Dorp garnered much criticism from those who said it was destroying the creativity of student writers, objectively students are in a better place to exercise their creativity if they can graduate from high school and move onto college with solid writing skills.

Explicit writing instruction is also supported by writers such as Lisa D. Delpit who insists that students of color will be left out of the dialogue if they are not taught the rules of discourse for the culture of power. Delpit notes that students learn to write when they are doing “actual writing for real audiences and real purposes” (288), but there also needs to be direct instruction on a writing topic as well as student-centered conferences with a teacher who can determine the writing instructional needs of the student. One popular resource for writing teachers is the book They Say, I Say which gives writers and writing instructors a way to practice with the moves that are commonly used in academic writing, but in no way hampers creativity or freedom of expression.


Beyond the Formula –

While students are mastering the academic forms of writing, they should also have access to a high-interest relevant curriculum rather than boring lessons intended to raise test scores. Focusing on genres and topics of interest to urban youth isn’t just a trend; it will pay real dividends to students in the long run. “When culturally relevant pedagogy is included as an integral part of literacy instruction, the identities of marginalized youth are recognized and affirmed, and academic achievement is expected and possible” (Winn 13).

“Culturally relevant pedagogy humanizes, respects, and considers the histories, perspectives, and experiences of students as an essential part of the subject matter, classroom practices, and content of educative practices and spaces. It considers students’ experiences as legitimate and official content for the class curriculum” (Winn 14)

Relevant, high-interest topics shouldn’t be seen as lowering the standards because the topics and authors are no longer limited to the established white canon. Infusing students’ perspectives, ideas, and experiences into writing instruction can “help students learn to see how their own experiences, ideas, and perspectives can–in dialogue with others–give them a window into the social and political issues that impact their lives” (winn 43). A few ideas that incorporate culturally relevant topics in writing instruction include a lesson plan on media bias and utilizing podcasts such as Serial in the classroom. Utilizing remix, which students will recognize from music, and multimodal assignments will allow students to gain the digital literacy skills they will need for life in the 21st century.

Students should experience work and words of people who share the same cultural background as well as those who are very different. Allow students to develop a critical consciousness about issues of race, gender and other social issues. Provide opportunities for daily writing and varied audiences and purposes for that writing. Include critique so students develop the academic tools they need to continue their education. Include informal writing assessment in writer’s workshop. “Because student prior knowledge is at the core of writing in the culturally relevant classroom, we believe that in culturally relevant assessment, there should be an effort to assess more than product” (Winn 79)


In addition to timely and relevant topics, students should be able to bring their home language into the classroom. Codemeshing, or blending formal language with vernacular phrases, can be an effective way for students to communicate. Graff and Bernstein in They Say, I Say, suggest that writing that includes vernacular and scholarly phrases can make both a political statement about the way society over- and under-values particular methods of discourse. Blending standard written English and other Englishes can be a powerful method of showing that academic conversations need to be opened up to more diverse people rather than being limited to and controlled by an elite few. (125-126) The multilingual student who can speak a variety of languages and dialects is at an advantage in our global economy.

Furthermore, the NCTE has issued the Students’ Right to Their Own Language statement urging teachers to “promote democratic engagement among students and honor linguistic diversity” (71). The diversity of the urban classroom lends itself to a place where a variety of voices are heard and appreciated. Students are accustomed to knowing people from different cultures, who speak different languages or use different Englishes. What does that mean for the writing teacher? It can be an opportunity to encourage authentic voice. Codemeshing for urban students allows them to bring their home language into the classroom. Urban classrooms are a place where multilingual students can share their voice with peers.


Teachers need to be practitioners of literacy activities in their real life. Teacher should model writing and demonstrate enthusiasm for the impact of literacy on real life. “Students may have never seen someone struggle with writing or a first draft until they see the teacher model the writing process “ (Meeks) Model texts–especially high-interest and student-selected pieces–can also be used to assist students with the writing process.


Although a lot of an urban writing teacher’s situation is outside of his or her control, educators need to continually refine their practice in order to bring the highest level of instruction to the students in society who need it most. As Milner’s book is titled, “Start where you are, but don’t stay there.”


Works Cited

Delpit, Lisa D. “The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children.” Harvard Educational Review 58.3 (1988) 280-298.

Duncan, Garrett Albert. “Urban Pedagogies and the Celling of Adolescents of Color.” Social Justice 27.2 (2000) 29-42. Education Source. Web. 26 Mar. 2016.

Gatto, John Taylor. Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher’s Journey Through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society. 2009.

Graff, Gerald and Cathy Birkenstein. They Say, I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing. New York: Norton. 2014.

Irvine, J.J., forward to Culture, Curriculum, and Identity in Education. H. R. Milner Ed., New York; Palgrave Macmillan. 2010.

Lunsford, Andrea A. and John J. Ruszkiewicz. Everything’s an Argument. Boston: Bedford. 2010.

McPartland, Robert Balfanz, Alta Shaw. “The Talent Development Literacy Program for Poorly Prepared High School Students” (252-273) Bridging the Literacy Achievement Gap Grades 4-12 Dorothy S. Strickland and Donna E. Alvermann Eds. New York: Teachers College 2004.

Meeks, Lynn Langer and Carol Jewkes Austin. Literacy in the Secondary English Classroom:  Strategies for Teaching the Way Kids Learn. Boston: Pearson. 2003.

Milner IV, H. Richard. “But What is Urban Education?” Urban Education 47.3 (2012) 556–561. SAGE. Web. 29 Mar. 2016.

Milner IV, H. Richard. Start Where You Are, But Don’t Stay There. Cambridge: Harvard Education. 2010

National Council of Teachers of English. Professional Knowledge for the Teaching of Writing. Urbana: NCTE. Feb. 2016. Web. 26 Mar. 2016.

National Council of Teachers of English. Students’ Right to Their Own Knowledge. Urbana: NCTE. Fall 1974. Web. 26 Dec. 2015.

Spandel, Vicki. Creating Writers: Six Traits, Process, Workshop, and Literature. Boston: Pearson. 2013.

Tatum, A. W., & Muhammad, G. E. (2012). “African American males and literacy development in contexts that are characteristically urban.” Urban Education, 47.2 (2012), 434-463.

Tyre, Peg. “The Writing Revolution.” The Atlantic. October 2012. Web. 21 Jan. 2016.

Vilson, José Luis. This is Not a Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class and Education. Chicago: Haymarket. 2014.

Weiner, Lois. Urban Teaching: The Essentials. New York: Teachers College Press. 2006. Print.

Winn, Maisha T. and Latrise P. Johnson. Writing Instruction in the Culturally Relevant Classroom. Urbana:  NCTE. 2011.



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