Tensions and Contradictions in Approaches to Improving Urban Inner-City Schools in the United States

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Addressing the needs of underperforming central city schools is one of the most perplexing questions in contemporary educational research. At least two approaches have emerged as paradigms shaping the nature of reform efforts: (1) building-based
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  RUNNING HEAD: TENSIONS AND CONTRADICTIONS Tensions and Contradictions in Approaches to Improving Urban Inner-City Schools in the United States D. Gavin Luter University at Buffalo, State University of New York January 2015 Accepted for publication in Information Age Press International Research on School Leadership Volume 6 book series Challenges and Opportunities of Educational Leadership Research and Practice: The State of the Field and Its Multiple Futures Acknowledgements I would like to thank Dr. Stephen L. Jacobson for his encouragement and helpful comments on the chapter.  TENSIONS AND CONTRADICTIONS 1 Introduction  Improving urban inner-city schools within the United States (US) is one of the most  perplexing questions in contemporary educational research. At least two broad approaches emerged as paradigms shaping the nature of reform efforts: (1) building-based approaches such as comprehensive school reform (Slavin, 2008), and (2) place-based approaches that include interventions at the community and neighborhood-level (Jennings, 2012). The US federal government has supported both approaches, both separately (e.g. building-based approaches funded through No Child Left Behind, NCLB, and place-based approaches by Full Service Community Schools, FSCS) and jointly (e.g. Promise Neighborhood, PN, Choice  Neighborhoods, CN). Inherent tensions exist between these competing paradigms  —  tensions that are complicated by the political and competitive environment surrounding school reform (McGuinn, 2012). Additionally , the federal government’s accountability system introduced the “public -school choice sanction ”  to create competitive forces between schools that further complicates the urban inner-city school reform landscape (West & Peterson, 2006, p. C48). To this end, this chapter examines the tensions and contradictions that exist between place-based and building-based approaches in the context of a school choice environment. These tensions have largely been ignored by contemporary school reform and educational leadership literature. To better understand how local, yet federally funded, place-based reforms can exist in the same space as local school choice and federal standards and accountability  policies, a more comprehensive framework is necessary. Such a framework (or frameworks) would offer a more complete picture of how these efforts were implemented, how they have existed on a daily basis, and how “on the ground” tensions have emanated from them. This analysis would provide a clearer understanding of the most impactful school reform approaches  TENSIONS AND CONTRADICTIONS 2 for low-performing schools, taking into consideration the local neighborhood context. The focus here is on the federal-local nexus in school reform. This chapter takes readers through the evolution of approaches used by scholars and  practitioners to address struggling urban inner-city schools. I begin by briefly providing an overview of the US policy context of urban inner-city school reform. Then I move to an examination of one locally-driven, yet federally-supported, building-based approach to improving urban schools: comprehensive school reform. Next, I explain school choice as a distinct, yet still building-based approach, to improving urban schools. I continue to examine a set of factors that stand to challenge the assumptions upon which school choice stands  —  neighborhood effects. Finally, I move on to analyze approaches to improving urban schools that attempt to respond to neighborhood effects  —  community schools, community organizing, and  place-based reforms. Across the literature, I identify three prominent gaps that have implications for policy implementation and educational leadership researchers and practitioners. With this chapter, I seek to fill some of those gaps and conclude with a call for more helpful frameworks that can inform researchers and practitioners who seek to understand and work within the field of place- based school reform efforts with interventions that blend building-based and place-based approaches. Urban Inner-City School Improvement: The US Policy Context Fragmentation in governance defines American educational policy and practice: between federal, state, and local governments, between citizens and professional educators, between school boards and superintendents, among other conflicting groups and interests. America’s tradition of distrust in centralized national authority translated into a tremendously fragmented  TENSIONS AND CONTRADICTIONS 3 system of education where the federal government traditionally held no formal responsibility (Cohen & Spillane, 1992; Marsh & Wohlstetter, 2013). Instead, responsibility for education devolved to the states, but most states passed responsibility down to the “smallest possible unit” of government: the local level (Katz, 1987, p. 33). This federalist system became known for its “fragmented” (Cohen & Spillane, 1992) nature, but it was intentionally created “as a response against executive dominance in the colonial era” which make coordination between different levels of government arduous (Kaufman, 1969, p. 3). It was not until  Brown v. Board of Education  in 1954 when the federal government  became active in the American schooling system. Even at this historical landmark, the federal government’s mandate was simply to create “a more equitable system of public schooling” (McGuinn, 2006 , p. 27). This event, coupled with the “public ’discovery’ of poverty” (Vinovskis, 2009, p. 11), hurled the government into a battle to equalize funding for urban school districts as it attempted to educate all students, especially children of color and those in  poverty. With the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, the federal role in education reform exponentially grew (McGuinn, 2006; Vinovskis, 2009). ESEA  provided the largest financial investment ($1 billion) in the A merican government’s history, mainly focused on redress for mostly urban school districts that served large proportions of low-income students (Thomas & Brady, 2005). Frustrations with persistently low-performing schools were well-documented, but the frustrations reached a crescendo when the federal government released the  A Nation at Risk    (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983) report which suggested that America’s  public schools were in decline, and therefore the country’s economic prospe rity was at risk, which demanded federal intervention. Before NCLB, the most recent ESEA reauthorization, the  TENSIONS AND CONTRADICTIONS 4 federal government’s role in education policy was limited, linked mostly to encouraging states to achieve higher standards, experimenting with innovative programs, ensuring access to education for all students regardless of physical (dis)ability, and providing equitable resources to districts with high concentrations of minority students. These standards-and-accountability reforms, with their roots in the 1980s (President George H. W. Bush’s Charlottesville Education Summit)  and 1990s (President William J. Clinton’s Goals 2000 legislation) , addressed the issues of (1) education achievement dissonance  between students from different racial and class groups and (2) fragmented and incoherent  policies to hold states and localities accountable for student achievement (McDonnell, 2011; Smith & O’Day, 1991). A broader policy regime formulated around the standards-and-accountability role of the federal government which eventually paved the way for the passage of  NCLB under President George W. Bush’s leadership. Its passage also meant an expanded federal role in education that linked funding and school governance decisions to performance on state-created standardized tests (McGuinn, 2006). Sanctions would be imposed on schools and districts for failing to meet adequate yearly progress, such as allowing families to choose what schools to attend or school closures. In response to this failure, the federal government switched its approach to that of stimulating reform through competitive grant programs embodied by Race to the Top (McGuinn, 2010, 2012). Based on this overview, it is possible to conclude that this federalist system results in a confusing and conflicting landscape that can interfere with the most well-intentioned school reform efforts (Datnow, 2005; Desimone, 2002; Furhman & Elmore, 1990). In the next section, I turn attention to one primary local lever of school reform, comprehensive school reform  —  one policy response to the “problem” of low -performing schools. Comprehensive School Reform: A Primary Local Lever for Reform
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