The primary goal of the present study is to examine the impact of the changing macroecological characteristics of cities on school performance, and to draw from the research base and from innovative developments on what can be done to make a significant difference in reducing the achievement gap among urban students from minority backgrounds. Greater numbers of children from increasingly diverse sociocultural and economic backgrounds have been included in our nation’s schools, and the kinds of educational programs offered in the classroom have been greatly diversified. These accomplishments, while significant, have fallen short of the educational vision of a universal school system that provides all children with equal access to schooling success. To date, efforts during the past three decades to desegregate schools have produced very little change to enhance social and academic integration. Furthermore, the focus on the “setting” of schooling has become a barrier to the nation’s quest to improve schooling for the very students who are the intended beneficiaries of school desegregation. In particular, the difficulties of life in the inner city often overshadow the urban community’s rich resources for children and families. By finding ways to magnify the positives in urban life, we can improve the capacity for education in the urban community and enhance the schooling success of those children and youth from economically disadvantaged backgrounds who live in some of the most adverse inner-city environments. There is increasing evidence that the achievement gap in this nation’s urban schools may be better understood in terms of the decentralization of cities, the resulting changes in the social ecology of neighborhoods, and the structure of the urban labor market. The contention is that the changing makeup of the cities accounts for much of the failure of urban schools. The United States leads the industrialized world in numbers of children living in poverty. In addition, residential segregation by race and social class has also worsened despite efforts to desegregate the nation’s cities following the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. African-American and other minority students tend to be in schools where overall achievement is low. And even in schools that have achieved racial integration, students from language and ethnic minority backgrounds are often resegregated by a variety of pullout remedial or compensatory education programs. These programs tend to underestimate what students can do, neglect fundamental content, provide inferior instruction, delay the introduction of more challenging work, and fail to provide students with a motivating context for learning. These circumstances place children at risk of educational failure and place schools at the center of interconnected social problems. Countering these trends and reducing the achievement gap requires an inclusive approach to responding to student diversity and the provision of powerful instruction that can increase the capacity for achieving the educational success of all students.
Much is known from research and the practical application of innovative practices in overcoming adversities and strengthening the resources and protective mechanisms that foster the healthy development and educational resilience of children and youth at risk of educational failure. If we can find the means of viewing and understanding the “positives” in the lives of urban children and youth, we can rekindle the hope for progress by addressing the deep-rooted problem of the achievement gap. It is difficult if not impossible to achieve significant school improvement without forging working connections with the multiple forces that influence the development of children or the social ecology of neighborhoods. Recent discussion among educators has centered on the search for resilience-promoting strategies or protective mechanisms that help reduce the burden of adversity and advance opportunities for learning. Two major guidelines, emerging from the past three decades of research and innovative development efforts, have received increasing recognition for potentially reducing the risk factors associated with the urban life and the achievement gap in urban schools: (a) forging greater school connections with families and the community; and (b) reducing educational segregation within schools and implementing responsive and powerful instructional practices to ensure learning success of every student. There is growing public demand for a coordinated and inclusive approach to service delivery, and increasing recognition that the learning problems of children and families cannot be tackled by schools alone. Broader social policies must be established to initiate interagency, collaborative programs that link schools and other service agencies. To this end, a variety of innovative strategies and programs that are effective in forging coordinated, comprehensive education and related human services delivery are being created across the country. Although they vary in their approaches and in the specifics of their program designs, the problems facing children and families stem from a variety of cultural, economic, political, and health problems and that their solutions are complex and require pooled resource from public and private sector agencies. Clearly, we must find ways to reform current practices to ensure that educational experience in elementary and secondary schools are appropriate, meaningful, and the main source for positive development and education. The central improvement question is not whether to provide an inclusive system of education and related services delivery, but how to implement such a system in ways that are feasible and effective in ensuring the schooling success of all children, including and especially those with special needs. There is a substantial knowledge base that should be utilized in attempting to improve the current disjointed and unresponsive approach to serving children and youth with special needs who are not adequately served under the current system. Public school should be inclusive and integrated, and separation by race, gender, language background, and/or ability should be minimized.
To ensure adequate accountability for achieving equity in the educational outcomes of children and youth from ethnic and minority backgrounds who are at risk of educational failure, federal and state education agencies and local schools must be linked with other educational, social, and health service-providing institutions. A common standard of educational outcomes must be upheld for each student, including those in urban schools with high concentrations of students from minority backgrounds. A two-part initiative is needed to address the concern of the achievement gap in urban schools – one that forges greater school connections with families and the community to foster resilience development, eliminates educational segregation within schools, and implements responsive and instructionally powerful practices to ensure the learning success of each student. This initiative joins demonstrably effective practices and establishes a coordinated and inclusive educational service delivery system for children and families. It also calls for broad authority at federal, state, and local levels to grant waivers of rules and regulations to schools that wish to provide more integrated forms of education. A major next-step task in achieving a better, more systematic approach to service delivery within and beyond school walls is an aggressive plan to engage the public in dialogue on the kinds of broad-based school reforms that are needed to significantly reduce educational segregation and the achievement gap.