I have a Master’s degree in Secondary Education and have worked with inner-city high school students for over 25 years. And though the term “urban education” has been bandied about ad nausium for decades to identify the education (or mis-education) received by students in large urban school districts, I have never in all that time heard anyone refer to the education I received in a suburb of Philadelphia, PA as “suburban education.” Granted, what I took for many years as the norm for what a student should know coming out of high school was far different from my inner-city counterparts. Nevertheless, as far as I can tell, the impartation of knowledge from one person to another person or group only varies by methodology. Since the definition of the word “education” does not change whether a school is in the center of Cleveland or Shaker Heights, Philadelphia or Bryn Mawr, Chicago or Champagne, I contend that there truly is no such thing as “urban education.”
I risk making this contention, even as an educator myself, because I have witnessed students in various environments gain new knowledge, as well as be resistant to learning, with little or no regard to where they live as an independent variable. I have seen students learn in dire circumstances that many thought would preclude their eagerness and/or ability to learn, as well as seen students in “ideal” learning environments make minimal progress in learning. The difference in how, why or whether students learn in whatever circumstances they may live, seems to be much more dependent upon the methodologies and exposures than their external environment. Consider the example of Marva Collins’ Westside Preparatory School, whose story was first nationally telecast on 60 Minutes back in 1979 and for which a television movie was later produced in 1981. The story is instructive: despite the neighborhood in which they lived and the minimal space & resources, the students thrived with a rich investment of time and attention. I have seen the same first-hand in my work with high school students in Philadelphia. So then why do the powers-that-be put forth the notion, by using the term “urban education,” that there is some distinctive, implicitly sub-par type of education that is relegated to urban schools? I personally believe that somehow the idea has germinated in the minds of those charged with preparing teachers that it couldn’t just be the effort or attitude of the educators that makes the difference…that there has to be some kind of idiosyncratic body of education that only urban students can absorb. Consequently, schools of education throughout the country have created majors in “Urban Education” to which students come with various mindsets regarding the true meaning of the term, not the least of which is that the capabilities of students in urban schools cannot be equated to those of their non-urban counterparts. Others may truly feel that they have a calling to step into the challenging world of education and pay particular attention to making an impact in urban environments. Regardless of the mindset with which students who want to teach enter their preparatory phase for this career, it is essential that they understand one thing: education is education is education. What makes the difference in whether it “works” or not, regardless of the environment, is the time and effort you put into it. Education in urban settings (now there’s a more appropriate and accurate name for a major!) can be just as effective, have just as much impact as education in any other setting if and only if those who are doing the instruction care about their students as individuals and creating a nurturing environment that perpetuates the belief that learning is possible for everyone.