Nothing in Isolation: Supporting Urban Communities and Schools

February 27, 2018


Discussions of K-12 education policy focus primarily on standards, testing, teacher evaluation and school choice. For urban schools charged with meeting the needs of diverse learners in the face of student and community poverty, tight district budgets and teacher shortages, this narrow concept of education policy is insufficient.  In “What “Counts” as Educational Policy? Notes toward a New Paradigm,” published in the Harvard Educational Review, the late scholar Dr. Jean Anyon argues that education policy will only improve outcomes for students in urban schools if its definition is substantially broadened to include related social and economic initiatives (Anyon, 2005).  She argues that “rules and regulations regarding teaching, curriculum, and assessment certainly are important, but policies to eliminate poverty-wage work and housing segregation (for example) should be part of the educational policy panoply as well, for these have consequences for urban education at least as profound as curriculum, pedagogy and testing” (Anyon, 2005).


Duncan and Brooks-Gunn’s 1997 volume The Consequences of Growing up Poor, connects poverty with decreased student achievement.  The authors state that “family income is usually a stronger predictor of ability and achievement outcomes than are measures of parental schooling or family structure [eg single parenthood]” (Duncan & Brooks-Gunn, 1997 p. 603).  Anyon cites Lee and Burkham’s Inequality at the Starting Gate: Social Background and Achievement at Kindergarten Entry to emphasize the fact that “the least advantaged United States children begin their formal schooling in consistently lower quality schools. This reinforces the inequalities that develop even before children reach school age.”  Education policy must address this at its root if schools are to help students overcome structural inequality rather than reinforce it. 


In his article “Mis/Education and Zero Tolerance: Disposable Youth and the Politics of Domestic Militarization,” education and critical race theory scholar Henry Giroux argues that policy makers have historically responded to urban poverty and its accompanying social consequences through policies of containment and the constant presence of an increasingly militarized police force (Giroux, 2001). Reflecting on then Mayor Guiliani’s decision to transfer oversight of school discipline from the Department of Education to the police force, Henry Giroux states “once it was clear that Guiliani would receive high marks in the press for lowering the crime rate due to zero-tolerance policies adopted by the city’s police force, it seemed reasonable for him to use the same policies in the public schools.” (Giroux, 2001) While NYPD no longer oversees school discipline in New York City, this same logic has emerged in rhetoric calling for more police presence in schools, armed veterans and even armed teachers as a solution to the plague of mass school shootings.


Giroux cites Lewis Lapham’s Harper’s Magazine article “School Bells” to elaborate on his connection between schools, policing and prisons. Lapham states that “high schools now ‘possess many of the same attributes as minimum-security prisons  - metal detectors in the corridors, zero tolerance for rowdy behavior, the principal as a warden and the faculty familiar with the syllabus of concealed weapons.”  The carceral concept of discipline aims to “instill the attitudes of passivity and apprehension, which in turn induce the fear of authority and the habits of obedience” (Lapham, 2000). This logic is quite at odds with education’s stated goal of empowering students to develop the habits of critical thinking and self-determination necessary to be an engaged citizen in a complex society.


At a point where a significant plurality of the population is calling for increasing the presence of guards, police and weapons in schools in the name of security, it is important to recognize that this approach has already been implemented – and failed – in urban schools. The consequences of doubling down on such policies would be catastrophic, particularly for children of color. Education policy experts should look beyond standards and mandates while legislators must reject the alignment of schools and prisons. Dr. Anyon’s broad definition of education policy makes the unavoidable connection between supporting students and the communities in which they live. The successes of programs such as community schools and restorative practices suggest that such an approach has the potential to make a meaningful difference in the lives of students in urban schools.



Works Cited

Anyon, Jean. “What ‘Counts’ as Educational Policy? Notes toward a New Paradigm.” Harvard Educational Review, vol. 75, no. 1, 2005, pp. 65–88., doi:10.17763/haer.75.1.g1q5k721220ku176.

Giroux, Henry A. “Mis/Education and Zero Tolerance: Disposable Youth and the Politics of Domestic Militarization.” Boundary 2, vol. 28, no. 3, 2001, pp. 61–94.


Please check out Increasing Achievement in Urban Schools, a conference that will provide research supported strategies and resources to improve outcomes for students in city schoool districts. 




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