Solutions for Urban K-12 Education in America

The urban K-12 education system is failing in America.  Everyone is frustrated and there is finger pointing all over the place.  Some blame the parents.  Some blame the teachers.  Some blame the school systems.  Some blame the students.  And so on.

This blog will describe the problem, explain why the current approaches will never work, and outline eight steps that can be taken to really fix urban K-12 education in America.

The Problem

As most people know, a large percentage of students in urban school districts are not performing near their grade level and end up dropping out before the eleventh grade.  Large urban school districts struggle to get 50% of their students to graduate from the 12th grade.  On any given day you can find students fighting, cursing at teachers, shooting dice, having sex, and/or skipping class in almost every school district, especially in high schools.   Too many students go to school for everything except education – they do not study, do not do any homework, and misbehave in class on a regular basis.  It does not help that parents frequently are unable or unwilling to work with the school to improve their child’s performance.  In many cases, the only reason that parents come to school is to complain about something or attempt to set the school up for a lawsuit.

It is no wonder that parents that care are removing their children from these environments; teachers are frustrated, and the good students are overwhelmed with negative influences that often pull them off the right track and into trouble.

While this is not the case in all schools or for all students, it is the case in far too many schools in every urban school district.

For those who have abandoned the inner cities for the suburbs these problems are ghetto problems for those left in the inner city to figure out.  As long as the conditions are not present in their child’s school, then there is nothing for them to worry about.

But they are wrong.  Today, the vast majority of the Americans live in cities.  As we sit back and watch millions of students (especially African-American and Hispanic students) become delinquents, drop outs, criminals, and public aid recipients, it affects everyone.  These students become adults who are unable to get a decent job.  However, like everyone else, they want a nice home, money in their pocket to buy things, and a nice car.  Without a chance of a decent job, many turn to crime.  This makes our urban cities unsafe and poor.  It also means that our cities and states end up spending tons of money on jails and prisons, instead of investing in programs that increase productivity and enhance the quality of life.

From a macro perspective, our failing urban school systems are diminishing America’s ability to compete in the new world economy.  In large part, America has become the world’s economic superpower because we have (1) abundant natural resources, (2) a free and stable democratic republic with a capitalist economy, and (3) an educated populace that has led the world in invention, creativity, and entrepreneurship.   All three elements have been and will be critical to America’s prosperity as a nation.  However, the failing urban education system is causing us to suffer a great reduction in the number of people who can invent things, qualify for 21st Century jobs, and start new businesses.

There is a new economy.  We are fastly moving from an industrial economy to an information economy.  The success of Internet businesses like Google, Ebay, and Amazon and the failure of old industrial behemoths like General Motors and Chrysler are proof positive of this shift.  The new American economy will require a new round of inventions and new kinds of businesses that are based on information and technology.  There is a huge push for green technology and green jobs – but who will invent the green technology and who is going to qualify for the green jobs?  Certainly not the millions that can barely read and write and are dropping out of inner city schools each year.

By contrast, countries like India and China are producing more engineers today than ever before.  In fact, in many of our colleges foreign students make up a large portion of the engineering and science graduates.  Moreover, these students are now seeing that they can take their skills back home and realize exciting opportunities in their growing economies.  In short, if we do not fix the problem of urban education and continue to let millions and millions of students fall through the cracks each year, China and India will be closing in on us within a few decades.

Why the Current Solutions Don’t Work

There are several main approaches to fixing the America’s urban schools.  The most popular solution is to give parents more choices with more charter schools.  However, the test results show that most charter schools are not doing any better, and in many instances are doing worse than the city school systems.  The few charter schools that are producing better results require significant parent participation and have a zero tolerance for bad behavior, truancy, and violence.  Also, often parents have to drive their children to the charter school because it is not close enough for the children to walk.   Which means that those schools are only doing better because they are getting the best students – i.e., students with involved parents who also take the time to transport their children to and from school.

There are some who think that urban schools just need better teachers. This solution is a straw man.  Inner city teachers graduate from the same colleges and require the same certifications as teachers in non-inner city schools.  In other words, all teachers come from the same pool of graduates, so the disparity cannot be blamed on the teachers.  In many instances the teachers in city school districts are more qualified because they may have to comply with more state and federal laws and regulations to teach certain populations.

There is a frequent claim that urban schools could be better if teachers were paid based on merit.  In theory, this would help improve student performance; however, it would be extremely difficult to make a fair comparison in teacher performance.  If you have a class that misbehaves and the teacher is successful in getting the students to calm down is he or she not to be rewarded?  If a teacher has a large group of students who insist on skipping school and not doing their school work, should the teacher be punished?  A merit pay system is likely to create resentment in the teachers who are not rewarded and encourage teachers to avoid the schools with the most challenges.   Also, merit pay will not get to the root cause of the student’s poor school performance.

8 Steps to Fix Urban K-12 Education

There are eight steps that could be taken to fix urban K-12 education.  I will briefly outline them below.

1.  Implement an “Education Matters” campaign.

The biggest reason that students are failing is because we have a culture in the inner city that does not value education and too many in the community who do not know what to do to help students succeed in school.  This may be a surprise to many, but most students are not failing because of poor teachers, poor schools, or poor instruction.   The more important variables are the fact that students do not study, do not do homework,  misbehave in class, engage in all kinds of inappropriate activities in school and on school grounds (e.g., cursing, shooting dice, fighting, and having sex), and often skip classes.

We have to change the culture.  The old proverb “It takes a village to raise a child” is as true today as it ever was.  We need to change the way many in the inner city view education.  We need to have a major campaign to educate people about education.  We need the community’s leaders to come together to develop a campaign that educates and reinforces the importance of education.  It could be called “Education Matters.”  The campaign would involve the city’s politicians, community activists, celebrities, fraternities and sororities, religious leaders, parents, extended family members, teachers, school administrators, business leaders, student leaders, unions, television stations, radio stations, newspapers, magazines, billboard companies, and everyone else that can be helpful in the campaign.

The “Education Matters” campaign should tell people why education is important from a variety of perspectives, why the students should stay in school, how school will improve their lives, why they should study, how education is relevant to what people do in real life settings, how many hours a day they should do homework, how to behave in school, why the parents should attend parent-teacher conferences, how parents can be partners with teachers, why (and how) people should volunteer in schools, how parents can get help when their children are having difficulty in class, and so on.  The “Education Matters” campaign should include television and radio commercials, billboards, community fliers and posters throughout the community (in churches, barber shops, beauty salons, recreation centers, schools, etc), people walking the neighborhoods and working festivals, and so on.  In short, it should be a massive positive propaganda campaign.

Furthermore, the “Education Matters” campaign will need to continue for at least 20 years.  This may sound like a long time, but if we had gotten started in 1989, we would have made significant progress by today.  Instead, we have spent the last 20 years on unsuccessful efforts that do not address the real causes of student failure.  Until our leaders decide to implement a 20-year (or longer) campaign to change the inner city culture regarding education, we will not be successful in fixing urban K-12 education.

2. Make Sure That Children Can Read by Third Grade

There is no way that children (or people) can be successful in the new world economy if they cannot read.  There has to be a focus on reading in elementary school.  Students cannot perform well in any subject if they cannot read.  If the students are not reading by third grade, then they should not be allowed to go on to other advanced subjects.  In other words, they should spend a greater and greater amount of their school day on reading until they can read.  Reading is truly fundamental.

3.   Create Safe Schools and Safe School Grounds

Schools have to be safe places – both inside and out.  There is no learning that can occur in an unsafe environment.  It is basic human nature to need safety after food, water, clothing, and shelter.  Everyone is pre-occupied with fear in an unsafe environment.  Also, we owe it to children and families to make schools and school grounds that are safe zones.

4.  Implement Competitive Rewards for Outstanding Teachers

Teaching today is hard work.  There are not enough rewards for doing outstanding work in the classroom.  Everyone responds to positive reinforcement and being rewarded for being the best.  This does not involve merit pay from the employer.  This reward should be competitive and based on recommendations from parents, colleagues, and members of the community.  It should be financed by businesses and foundations, and there should be a selection committee that is representative of the funders and others selected by the funders.  The amount should be significant (perhaps $10,000 per teacher) and the recipients should be honored publicly

5.  Teach Character Education in Schools

Unfortunately, many students are not receiving proper home training.  Students come to school thinking that it is ok to curse in class (at teachers and students), disrupt class, and show general disrespect to adults.  This has gone on for far too long.  This problem is made worse by the images and language in rap videos, the absence of fathers, and the rise of street gangs.  We have to teach character education because that is the only place where many students are going to get it.

6.  Teach Violence Prevention in Schools

We have too much violence in schools and on school grounds.  Students cannot resolve conflict without fighting and even resorting to serious weapons like knives and guns.  We can save lives and reduce the fear that students face in going to school each day by teaching violence prevention and conflict resolution in the schools.

7.  Re-evaluate Career Technical Programs

In most school districts, there are career technical programs (sometimes called vocational technical programs) that teach trades like welding, auto mechanics, computer repair, cosmetology, nursing, etc.  These programs need to be re-evaluated in light of the new economy to make sure that students are learning trades that fit today’s open jobs.  In the new economy, there are new opportunities for new careers in new industries like green technologies, the Internet, and bio technology.  Health care is also a growing industry.  These fields pay good wages but require skills (and sometimes licenses).  It is time to re-evaluate the career technical programs to make sure that we are preparing students for the jobs of today as well as the jobs that we can see on the horizon.

8.  Require That High School Students Graduate Prepared for College or With a Trade

Students who drop out with no skills contribute to poverty and crime.  The quality of life suffers for everyone in the city and the city has fewer and fewer resources as the tax base shrinks.  Urban schools can be economic engines for cities.  Currently, there is a rifle focus on getting all students go to college.   However, many students are not prepared for college and furthermore, have no interest in college.  However, students can be taught a trade so that they can get a good job upon graduation.  Also, research shows that students in a career tech program are more likely to remain in school and graduate.

Schools should make sure that students are either solidly prepared for college or receive a trade (or at least be solidly on their way to a trade that needs a little more training, education, or an apprenticeship).  This would be a form of voluntary tracking.  Students and parents would be required to select either a college prep track or a career technical program.  Those who are unsure would receive the career technical education offered at their neighborhood school (with the option to change at a later date if they chose to do so). This would ensure that students are graduating with the tools necessary to become self-sufficient and likely middle class.  It would give the students a trade upon which they can build a business or earn money for college.  Also, it would increase the average income of the citizens and reduce the crime in the inner city (people with jobs and businesses are less likely to commit crimes).


The problems confronting urban K-12 education are not new.  They were created over decades.  As a result, they will not be solved by the short-term solutions proposed today.  A comprehensive, long-term strategy is needed.  I have outlined 8-steps that will make a huge improvement in urban K-12 education.  The plan will also improve the quality of life for residents in the inner city, free up resources that are now devoted to building jails and prisons, and increase the brainpower needed to keep our economy innovative and competitive.

There are lots of details to work out.  But I believe in America and if we make up our mind that we want to fix urban education we can do it.

There is no time like the present to start.

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2 Responses

  1. Janet Barnstable - August 22, 2009

    The article is interesting. It exaggerates in some instances and over simplifies in others.
    One big area he did not mention was drugs. Many parents of children deep in the inner cities are so strung out on drugs that they do not even know they have children. Some children are even born with drugs in their system and this causes developmental delays. It is probably similar to very poor areas in any country where children are not receiving enough nutrition, but is even worse because they also are not receiving the love an encouragement that is so necessary.

    The students at my school are from a wide economic and social range; we have students on welfare, who receive free breakfast and lunch because their families are too poor to pay and some who are being raised by grandparents because the parents are totally incapable of caring for them. Those are the lucky kids who have found themselves in our village which IS a village that believes that they need to help all children grow.

    Children in some of the worse areas of the inner cities do face violence and disruptive students in their schools. There are also examples of adults who have been raised in public housing in the poorest areas by parents who care and make sure they get to school, come home, study and learn. They are the exception, but the only such cases are ones in which a parent – usually a mother – has been vigilant and caring and insisted that they learn.

    It think that is the key. You learn not from the schools alone, in fact the school can do little unless it is supported by the home. We do teach character education, but if it is not reinforced at home, it does not help. If a child comes home and says today we learned ways in which to “be truthful” and the parent puts that down or tells the child that’s a stupid idea, the child will be very confused and likely listen to the parent.

    I agree that we need to put more money into education, and hopefully save in the long run on jails. However, I do think putting money into the school is not the total answer. It has to be an investment in the community. The poor are not stupid, but often they are under nourished, do not have sufficient clothing or sanitary conditions in which to live, and all too often have to ‘stay out on the streets’ if a parent want the use of the house for ‘whatever.’

    Also some groups arriving in this country do not value education at all. The children did not go to school unless the family was wealthy. In our area this is true of much of the population who make up a large portion of our city schools. Too many also are here illegally, so there is not much that can be done even to help them. The schools do not ask if they are legal or not, but take everyone who enrolls. By high school many of them see no reason for further education. Their families do grass cutting, or pick vegetables, or are day laborers and they see no reason to do anything else or aspire to anything else. If they are not legally here, that is another drawback to being able to get a job beyond simple laborer, so why go to school? Again, there are many exceptions to this which occur if the parent is interested in education.

    Sadly, though we are a very rich country, many people would refuse to allow money to be spent to improve the conditions of the communities in which these schools exist. They would rather pay for jails. I think that is very sad.

  2. Jackson Reed - October 19, 2009

    The points are very informative. If anyone is interested in this subject, I found this article that you might also find interesting –

    Making the Grade Isn’t About Race. It’s About Parents.

    The Washington Post
    By Patrick Welsh
    Sunday, October 18, 2009

    “Why don’t you guys study like the kids from Africa?”

    In a moment of exasperation last spring, I asked that question to a virtually all-black class of 12th-graders who had done horribly on a test I had just given. A kid who seldom came to class — and was constantly distracting other students when he did — shot back: “It’s because they have fathers who kick their butts and make them study.”

    Another student angrily challenged me: “You ask the class, just ask how many of us have our fathers living with us.” When I did, not one hand went up.

    I was stunned. These were good kids; I had grown attached to them over the school year. It hit me that these students, at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, understood what I knew too well: The lack of a father in their lives had undermined their education. The young man who spoke up knew that with a father in his house he probably wouldn’t be ending 12 years of school in the bottom 10 percent of his class with a D average. His classmate, normally a sweet young woman with a great sense of humor, must have long harbored resentment at her father’s absence to speak out as she did. Both had hit upon an essential difference between the kids who make it in school and those who don’t: parents.

    My students knew intuitively that the reason they were lagging academically had nothing to do with race, which is the too-handy explanation for the achievement gap in Alexandria. And it wasn’t because the school system had failed them. They knew that excuses about a lack of resources and access just didn’t wash at the new, state-of-the-art, $100 million T.C. Williams, where every student is given a laptop and where there is open enrollment in Advanced Placement and honors courses. Rather, it was because their parents just weren’t there for them — at least not in the same way that parents of kids who were doing well tended to be.

    In an example of how bad the fixation on race here has become, last year Morton Sherman, the new superintendent, ordered principals throughout the city to post huge charts in their hallways so everyone — including 10-year-old kids — could see differences in test scores between white, black and Hispanic students. One mother told me that a black fifth-grader at Cora Kelly Magnet School said that “whoever sees that sign will think I am stupid.” A fourth-grade African American girl there looked at the sign and said to a friend: “That’s not me.” When black and white parents protested that impressionable young children don’t need such information, administrators accused them of not facing up to the problem. Only when the local NAACP complained did Sherman have the charts removed.

    Achievement gaps don’t break down neatly along racial lines. Take Yasir Hussein, a student of mine last year whose parents emigrated from Sudan in the early 1990s, and who entered the engineering program at Virginia Tech this fall. “My parents were big on our family living the American dream,” he said. “One quarter when I got a 3.5 grade-point average, the guys I hung around with were congratulating me, but my parents had the opposite reaction. They took my PlayStation and TV out of my bedroom and told me I could do better.”

    Yasir said it wasn’t just fear that made him study: “Knowing how hard my parents worked simply to give me the opportunity to get an education in America, it was hard for me not to care about getting good grades.”

    But Yasir’s experience isn’t what community activists and school administrators at T.C. Williams or around the country focus on. They cast the difference between kids who are succeeding in school and those who are not in terms of race and seem obsessed with what they call “the gap” between the test scores of white and black students.

    This year, community groups in St. Louis and Portland, Ore., issued reports decrying the gap. After a recent state report on test scores in California schools, Jack O’Connell, the state’s superintendent of instruction, said the gap is “the biggest civil rights issue of this generation” — a very popular phrase in education circles.

    But focusing on a “racial achievement gap” is too simple; it’s a gap in familial support and involvement, too. Administrators focused solely on race are stigmatizing black students. At the same time, they are encouraging the easy excuse that the kids who are not excelling are victims, as well as the idea that once schools stop being racist and raise expectations, these low achievers will suddenly blossom.

    Last year, two of the finest and most dedicated teachers at my school — one in science and one in math — tried to move students who were failing their classes into more appropriate prerequisite courses, because the kids had none of the background knowledge essential to mastering more advanced material. Both teachers were told by a T.C. Williams administrator that the problem was not with the students but with their own low expectations.

    “The real problem,” says Glenn Hopkins, president of Alexandria’s Hopkins House, which provides preschool and other services to low-income families, “is that school superintendents don’t realize — or won’t admit — that the education gap is symptomatic of a social gap.”

    Hopkins notes that student achievement is deeply affected by issues of family, income and class, things superintendents have little control over. “Even with best teachers in the world, they don’t have the power to solve the problem,” he says. “They naively assume that if they throw in a little tutoring and mentoring and come up with some program they can claim as their own, the gap will close.”

    Perhaps nothing shows how out of touch administrators are with the depth of poor students’ problems more than the way they chose to start this school year. The Alexandria School Board had added two more paid work days to the calendar, a move that cost more than $1 million in teachers’ salaries. So the administration decided to put on a three-day conference they dubbed “Equity and Excellence.” We were promised “world-class speakers.” If only that had been true. As part of the festivities, Sherman formed a choir of teachers and administrators that gave us renditions of “Imagine” and “This Land Is Your Land.” Sherman closed the conference by telling us that if we didn’t believe that “each and every” child in Alexandria could learn, he would give us a ticket to Fairfax County.

    Now, six weeks into the academic year, some 30 fights — two gang-related — have taken place at T.C. Williams. I wish those three days had been spent bringing students to school to lay out clear rules and consequences, and for sessions on conflict resolution and anger management.

    Last week, Sherman announced that a second installment of “Equity and Excellence” featuring a “courageous conversation” with Ronald Ferguson, director of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard, will take place at T.C. Williams tomorrow. I am eager to find ways to help my students succeed, but I am afraid that Ferguson — whose book includes a chapter titled “Teachers’ Perceptions and Expectations and the Black-White Test Score Gap” — may underestimate what it will take to meet the challenges that we face.

    There is one moment of those frivolous first days of the year that I do keep returning to: One of the speakers, Yvette Jackson, the chief executive of the National Urban Alliance, made it clear that the lip service and labels Alexandria is putting forward are not going to help children who are what she calls “school-dependent learners.” These are students from low-income backgrounds who need school to give them the basic knowledge that other kids get from their families — knowledge that schools expect students to have when they start classes. To her, the gap everyone is talking about is not a question of black and white but of the “difference between children’s potential and their performance.”

    “No matter how poor they are, when little kids start school, they are excited; they believe they are going to learn,” Jackson said. “But unless schools give them the background knowledge . . . so they can connect with what they study and feel confident, they begin to feel that school is a foreign place, and they give up.”

    For Junior Bailey, a senior in my Advanced Placement English class, school has never been a foreign place, a fact he attributes to his dad. “He has always been on me; it’s been hard to get away with much,” Junior said. He also told me that hardly any of his friends have their fathers living with them. “Their mothers are soft on them, and they don’t get any push from home.”

    On parents’ night a few weeks ago, I was thrilled to see Junior’s dad, Willie Bailey, a star on T.C. Williams’s 1983 basketball team, walk into my classroom. Willie told me that after seeing how the guys he grew up with were affected by not having their dads around, he promised himself that he would be a real presence in his son’s life.

    With more parents like Willie Bailey, someday schools might realistically talk about closing the gap between students’ potential and their performance.

    Patrick Welsh teaches English at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria.

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