The continued urban school debate: differentiated solutions

Diana Senechal wrote a thoughtful response to my post Private School Idolatry and the Case of the Missing Solution. In it, she argues that

Many children in urban schools are not on the brink of failure; they desperately need more challenge. They are placed in classes with students who lag them by several years. I'm not saying tracking is the solution?but these students should at least be acknowledged.

Because of the belief that urban students in general must be yanked into success, some reformers assert that every moment of the lesson should be directly tied to its objective and that the lesson should be swift, purposeful, and productive. This precludes the sort of discussion that allows for tangents and open questions and that does not lead to a physical product or concrete result.

First, I agree that there are many urban students who do not come in behind?or at least not as far behind as many of their peers.

That said, I think we do need to deal with the reality that we face in far too many urban classrooms. Here are a few fast facts (gathered together by the Education Equality Project) that we should remember when we're debating the tough choices and tradeoffs that urban schools face every day:

These are facts that need to always be front and center in our minds when we are debating urban school models. Yes, there are students who come into our urban schools who are beating these odds out of the gate. And, from my experience, urban charter schools do try to push them to the next level. To their credit, they admit they could do even more.

But the harsh reality is that, for the vast majority of students who enter the doors of many urban schools, every moment that is not spent trying to close the practice gap is a minute that contributes to the achievement gap.

It is certainly true that creating a culture of urgency and maximizing every moment to try to fill these enormous gaps in basic skills and knowledge risks pushing back the kind of discussion and investigation you think is so critical. But the best urban schools concentrate this gap-filling effort into the early years exactly so that when they turn to these discussions, all students can be equal participants.

One school that I think, from a culture standpoint, does this expertly is KIPP: Infinity in Harlem. When you walk into that school, the feel is the exact opposite of the kind of militaristic regimentation that critics associate with KIPP. Instead, you walk into a school and hear the hum of students working hard and engaging in their work. You move through common areas and see students walking between classes--on their own, not always in lines--quietly, books in hand, often having conversations about what they just learned. On the walls you see student work that genuinely wows you with its creativity and uniqueness. And you see students in free spaces between classes reading real literature--for pleasure.

And in classes--particularly in the upper grades (the school is 5-8) you can often hear the kind of discussions that I think so many of us want to see even more of in all schools. Yes, these discussion are purposeful. But they are anything but stifling.

This is just one example. There are others, though none of them is perfect. No school is. And many of these school leaders struggle to figure out how to help their students struggle with the uncertainty Diana mentions. They are seeking solutions. And these are public schools that are serving majority poor, majority urban, majority African American and Latino students using a model that is ready to be scaled up to meet the overwhelming demand. Why would we look past them to a boutique private school like Sidwell Friends for inspiration?

Perhaps it is the overiding intensity and focus, which can be a turnoff to some. It is certainly true that behind KIPP's success is a teacher culture that is absolutely focused on maximizing every moment. The teachers share a vision--a vision that I think most of us want for all schools--of what education should be. They just realize that it's not going to happen automatically and that the path to creating it may be different than the path to creating it at a Sidwell Friends and Dalton. When you sit in on teacher meetings--after school, at the end of very long days?they regularly discuss each and every student. Where they are, what their individual goals are, whether they're meeting them, and when they aren't, how they as a team are going to target interventions to help.

My point is that this kind of culture?one that maximizes every moment in service of the creation of the vision of a truly great and rich education?is ?achieved differently in schools where students come through the door with different challenges. It has to be to meet students needs. We can't wish away achievement gaps; they can only be closed with hours and hours of hard work.

Just as teachers understand the need for differentiated instruction for students with different needs, we need to acknowledge that the path to our vision for excellent schools might look different in schools that serve students who go home to an environment that makes engaging in the most challenging homework or projects difficult or impossible, or who come in never having read a book on their own.

In the end, if we agree on the what?what a great education looks like?then the conversation has to shift to the how: How can we create the education we want for all students in urban schools? Urban charter schools like KIPP: Infinity or Amistad Academy have one answer. It's not the only one, but it's a proven one that year after year urban parents actively seek out for their students. How would the same children do if they descended en masses to Sidwell Friends or Dalton? I suspect much worse, but the truth is we may never know because those elite private schools have not opened their doors to the thousands of children in the impoverished neighborhoods nearby.

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