Because the vast majority of U.S. students reside in urban areas, their education and indeed the preservation of the values of democracy are intrinsic to the success or failure of U.S. inner-city schools. Such schools are historically overpopulated and underfunded, leading to problems relating to the quality of education and learning activities offered in comparison with suburban schools. Of concern are large classes affecting discipline, motivation, teaching effectiveness, and morale, as well as having sufficient school supplies and attractive learning facilities. Maintaining a safe environment and recruiting and retaining good teachers are other primary concerns.
Like their suburban counterparts, inner-city schools address the usual pressures of preparing students for productive lives upon graduation. In many instances, contemporary inner-city student bodies are multiracial, multiethnic, and socially and ethnically diverse. Complicating “normal” teaching and administrative challenges—for example, the practical enactment of classroom authority—is the need to nurture positive academic and racial/ethnic identity and the ongoing negotiations between teachers and students. These teacher-student relations are socially constructed and linked to social problems in the wider society.
Public schools located in densely populated urban areas contend with challenges that are indistinguishable from the broader social environments in which the schools and their students exist. Crime and gang activity, particularly activities related to the selling and using of illegal drugs, coupled with low societal expectations of inner-city students, make up an almost insurmountable barrier to school—and student— success. Recent empirical and ethnographic studies of drug-related social problems, linked to the rising incidence of violent crime, point to potentially dire consequences for poor students of color in inner-city neighborhoods situated in urban centers. However temporary they may be, the complex social and economic benefits of participation in the local drug and gang cultures in inner cities can be an irresistible lure to young people with few family or financial resources. Although a thriving drug and gang culture creates myriad problems, including poverty, drug addiction, homelessness, and the like, such a culture also can offer a sense of belonging and even a sense of social structure to the community.
Findings from recent research on low-income African American and Latino/a students identify key factors that influence racial/ethnic identity formation in inner-city schools. Such findings link racial/ethnic identity formation with student achievement and, ultimately, school success and describe student responses as falling into one of three general categories: (1) cultural mainstreamers, (2) cultural straddlers, and (3) noncompliant believers.
Cultural mainstreamers express themselves culturally in race-neutral terms and, as might be expected, tend to achieve at higher levels in comparison with the other two groups. The cultural mainstreamers appear to acknowledge an essential racist environment while simultaneously accepting the structural limitations of assimilation. The implication is that cultural assimilation—accommodation to the norms, values, and cultural behaviors of middle-class white society— place such students at odds with their racial/ethnic peers.
Those in the second group, the cultural straddlers, inhabit two worlds. They honor the school’s cultural code while at the same time constructing an alternative meaning for their everyday academic experience as students. Furthermore, the enrolled children of immigrants often have limited English proficiency, and the language barrier often constrains their parents’ interaction with the school and reinforcement of these children’s learning.
The noncompliant believers, predictably the group least likely to experience school success, paradoxically strongly believe in education, especially its potential for upward mobility. As might be expected, students who resist the premium placed by schools on academic work tend to do poorly academically. However, contemporary qualitative studies have uncovered a more nuanced appreciation for the processes whereby cultural complexities are implicated in a racial/ethnic dynamic that implicitly rejects the academic values of white society. In particular, noncompliant students tend to acutely struggle with the norms of the school— its dress code, the policing of student behavior, or an irrelevant school curriculum.
Issues of student and cultural diversity complicate the consolidation of professional authority in the classroom. This leads, potentially, to the academic underachievement of straddlers and noncompliant students, or worse, ultimately pushing many young black and Latino males into criminal activity and probable eventual incarceration. The broad social challenge is to achieve educational and social equity in an increasingly multiracial and multicultural society. Given the educational and political challenges of narrowing the achievement gap, the central goal of the No Child Left Behind Act, both a conceptually more sophisticated understanding of teachers’ authority and the application of this legitimate authority in relation to student identity are crucial.
- Anyon, Jean. 2005. Radical Possibilities: Public Policy, Urban Education, and a New Social Movement. New York: Routledge.
- Carter, Prudence L. 2005. Keepin’It Real: School Success beyond Black and White. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
- Lauria, Mickey and Luis F. Miron. 2005. Urban Schools: The New Social Spaces of Resistance. New York: Peter Lang.
- Lipman, Pauline. 2003. High Stakes Education: Inequality, Globalization, and Urban School Reform. New York: Routledge.
- Miron, Luis F. 1996. The Social Construction of Urban Schooling: Situating the Crisis. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton.
- Noguera, Pedro A. 2003. City Schools and the American Dream: Reclaiming the Promise of Public Education. New York: Teachers College Press.
- Sentencing Project. 2003. “The Economics of Drug Selling: A Review of the Research.” Washington, DC: Sentencing Project.
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