The focus of this research has emphasized the primary theories that pertain to improving academic achievement for low-income students. As the research in this specialized area has evolved, advancements, in theory, question the traditional viewpoints that have been adhered to so stringently in years past by educational leadership and academic research. The primary area of focus for this research relates to the academic outcomes for students in urban educational settings who are subject to low-income situations, lack of support at home, and uncertain citizenship status as immigrants. Further, five theories that will be addressed relating to curriculum and instruction: 1) multiple intelligence theory, 2) didactic learning (rote memorization) theory, 3) Socratic theory, 4) facilitative theory, and 5) experiential learning theory. An evaluation of these theories will be utilized to identify methods through which theory can inform modern practice.
American cities are a hub for both immigrants and native transplants that have relocated to seek better economic and social opportunities. Children of immigrants face unique educational challenges that impact their achievement. Disproportionately high levels of poverty, inadequate English acquisition skills, and health disparities are among the barriers faced by children of immigrant families (Borjas, 2011; Javier, Huffman, Mendoza, & Wise, 2009; Monzo & Rueda, 2009). The dire needs of children of immigrant families can be difficult for any district to fulfill, exacerbating the challenges faced by these children.
Other students were born to parents who have come from at least more than one generation of a family member who lived in that same community. Many demographic groups in this predicament, such as African Americans, have faced various civil rights violations and often found themselves pushed into neighborhoods that isolate them from access to more affluent options or more adequately supported educational opportunities (Bonds, Farmer-Hinton, & Epps, 2009). The home environment of the student significantly impacts their performance. The educational performance of children is impacted by the economic levels, educational attainment, and educational attitudes of adults within their community (Owens, 2010; Sciarra & Ambrosino, 2011; Wodtke, Harding, & Elwert, 2011). The attitude a child adopts from their environment permeates not just the students’ conversations, but conversations they may find themselves exposed to with other adults in their community. Without adequate support for their efforts, it becomes emotionally draining on them to find a sense of place in their community and families as well as within their personal academic goals or potentials.
One of the areas where the relationship between the external environment and educational performance is strongly demonstrated is the phenomenon of skills or knowledge atrophy that takes place over the summer months among low-income students. Unlike students who come from middle to higher-income brackets, these students lack access to stimulating learning environments or camps that would enhance their retention over the summer months (Blazer, 2011). Alongside this on-going challenge, there are also the students who are high-achieving who are unchallenged academically during the summer as well as during the school year due to the continuous effort to bring the lower performing students back up to expectations (Bromberg & Theokas, 2013). Further, Bland et al. (2010) and also cite that decreased spending per student is very common in lower-income urban schools. This only adds to the challenges teachers already face when trying to recoup lost learning over the summer, the inability to juggle high-achieving students alongside the lower performing ones and having very little resources to work with to facilitate their efforts.
Fairchild (2012) notes how the history of the academic calendar over the span of more than 100 years has played heavily toward the convenience of the wealthier members of society who wished to leave their communities to escape heat, disease and sanitation issues. He also states that the children of factory workers or farmers were less considered in these decisions (Fairchild, 2012). This is significant when considering educational theory approaches used with students from different economical and professional family backgrounds. More affluent students show gains after these breaks, whereas the lower-income students show as much as a two-point loss of learning (Fairchild, 2012). The amount of learning lost over these summer months, each school year, is a larger problem when looking at the long-term prospect for academic success and education completion.
With the decline in math and reading skills impacted during the formative educational years between Kindergarten and Third grade, the research suggests that there is a more substantial possibility that the students who fall behind by fifth grade will be more likely to not graduate (Wyner, Bridgeland, & DiIulio, 2009). High school drop-out rates in many urban cities, such as Philadelphia, fall into alarmingly high percentage rates that far exceed 40% (Hartman, Good, & Edmunds, 2011). This high level of drop-out rate has been a source of contention for educators and researchers for years. As such, there have been numerous studies addressing various factors that could be used to rectify this issue. As previously mentioned, a lack of summer stimulation has been identified. However, it is far from the only contributing factor and cannot be looked at in isolation of all other factors. Focus on the types of learning theories applied in this unique educational setting is crucial to rectify the current failure of the educational system in urban communities.
Lane (n.d.) addresses Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences theory, which is an educational theory that would be very beneficial to include for this particular group of students. The theory concludes that students learn through different modes, such as visual-spatial, kinesthetic, musical, intrapersonal, interpersonal, linguistic, and logical-mathematical. The theory surmises that all students learn through these different modes, but that each student will be more readily adaptable to one or more modes than others, which is the target focus for how to expedite learning for that particular student. This learning theory can be used in isolation or also in conjunction with other learning theories. The second learning theory that will be discussed is didactic learning.
Didactic learning is otherwise known as rote memorization (Banning, 2005). This is the most commonly used method of teaching throughout the history of educational practices, although there is no evidence that effective learning will occur (Banning, 2005). It is, however, the most economical method, which is likely why it is most commonly used, especially in low-income school districts who find themselves with limited funding. This method must be included in this comparison to offer insight into what isn’t working in the current practices employed by urban school districts nationwide. Economical methodology has failed to offer evidence of success essential to raise the graduation rates for these highly unsupported student groups.
Socratic method theory as described by Coffey (2009) “ is a student-centered approach that challenges learners to develop their critical thinking skills and engage in analytic discussion.” The beauty of this method is that it can be used at any grade level and subject area. It also offers the adaptability essential to a continuously evolving society and its educational needs (Coffey, 2009). This method has been gaining more momentum in recent years, but it has yet to completely trump the economical didactic learning method. The reason for this is that if the students direct the learning, there is no cap on spending on materials and equipment. The unpredictability factor has rendered this method more challenging for budget-strapped schools to implement this type of learning in full momentum. It would, however, offer the support essential for students who heavily rely on the multiple intelligences theory and for the prevention of student drop-out rates since the students are the ones in charge of their education. Those who oppose the method do not feel that the students can be trusted to know what they need to learn. This method, however, has been used in conjunction with a newer method known as a facilitative method.
Wiggins and McTighe (2007) address facilitation in teaching methodology. “Facilitative teaching seeks to help students “construct” meaning and come to an understanding of important ideas and processes. When schools embrace facilitative teaching, paired with the Socratic method, the students are given the primary leadership role in their learning and the teacher serves as a “guide on the side” rather than the “sage on the stage” as is common in the didactic learning theory. When this method is used in conjunction with the Socratic method, the fears that the students won’t learn what they need to learn is decreased as the teacher is included in the process to help ensure students discover the information that would be crucial to their academic performance and overall educational outcome. This can also be included with the utilization of multiple intelligence theory, and in fact, would be an apt inclusion with both multiple intelligence theory and Socratic methodology. It does not pair well with didactic learning. This leads to the final theory: experiential theory.
Experiential theory is a complementary companion theory to use with the conglomerate of theories that work well with facilitative teaching. International Centre for Educators’ Learning Styles (2014) defines Dewey’s theory, which dates back to 1896, as a response to the commonly used authoritarian approach to traditional education, i.e. didactic learning theory.
Dewey’s philosophy points out that the strict authoritarian approach of traditional education was overly concerned with delivering preordained knowledge, and not focused enough on students’ actual learning experiences. He insists that education requires a design that is grounded in a theory of experience. He sides neither with traditional education, nor with progressive education, but with the understanding of how humans have the experiences they do, and how this understanding is necessary when designing effective education (International Centre for Educators’ Learning Styles, 2014).
The irony is that this learning methodology has existed for over 100 years, yet is still challenged in many schools. In fact, the purpose of his theory was in response to the didactic learning methodology, which he found insufficient. Nearly 110 years later, this has not changed for many students, especially those found in low-income school districts that continue to face funding challenges due to their high failure rate.
The high failure and drop-out rate can be directly tied to the insistence upon didactic learning methods. Referring to the earlier mention of educational loss over the summer, more affluent students do better because they not only have more resources in their schools, they are also offered more experiential learning opportunities in the summer. Beck (2011) focuses specifically on the higher achieving low-income student group in her research. Specifically, she uncovered much of the larger scope facing these children and what factors are essential to address if these students are to succeed:
The problem is dire in the inner city, where obstacles to students reaching their potential include limited life experiences, a lack of books and insufficient exposure to books, and a lack of both accessible libraries and stimulating summer experiences. Unstable families, incarceration, threats of violence, and the lure of the streets abound. Less academically rich conversation and vocabulary characterize many home environments, and the lack of consistency in language and behavior between school and home often creates challenges for students (Beck, 2011, p. 38).
Looking at the larger scope, as Beck has done, offers the very real world that these students live in, the challenges the teachers face in supporting them. Further, the community structures, which need to be better supported to ensure success for all students in that community.
Engle and Tinto (2008) affirm the very low college graduation from this demographic, which as they state, appears to only be 11% (Engle & Tinto, 2008). The efforts for this group begins in preschool and continues through elementary and then even at the college level, there is a stark challenge to completion. They also cite that this demographic also has less financial support from home and have more obligations than their wealthier classmates, which makes college completion very difficult for them (Engle & Tinto, 2008). Academic preparedness has also been cited as a factor, which begs to challenge what is being done in the K-12 realm to ensure actual preparedness?
Some of the new strategies being utilized in various urban, low-income school settings have included college-readiness programs and the idea of implementing something similar to the international baccalaureate program (Mayer, 2008). Some of these schools have utilized charter school funding to pursue these efforts as charter schools do not have to follow the same standards as the public school system, which enables them a little more freedom in the way that they choose to approach the educational efforts. Some have required students to wear uniforms and attend school for extended hours each day.
Rigor has become a high priority and there have been mixed results from what has been demonstrated so far. McGrath (2014) states that the College Board has now begun offering free SAT prep for low-income students to help facilitate the achievement gap in learning for these students and to encourage them to pursue college. Reinforcement from numerous sources, all with the focus on college readiness, appears to be gaining favor. However, there is still a high school drop-out rate that has not been addressed. The current focus only perpetuates the already highly unsuccessful didactic method, which means the funding that could be spent on more experiential learning is being used to reinforce a broken methodology that will continue to perpetuate this inescapable cycle.
Nance (2013) cites that there are so many increasing efforts for security measures at many schools, especially those in high-risk urban neighborhoods, that the minimized resources already deficient at these schools cited by Reschovsky and Imazeki (1997) are now being further depleted by the necessity of funding security measures, often including security personnel (Nance, 2013). Most of these security issues are found in higher grade schools. Middle schools and high schools can often be found with a campus police officer (or many) as well as metal detectors or other similar scenarios.
Some campuses look like a prison with their gates locked tight during school hours. The mere environment itself does little to inspire academic achievement and success. Even though the resources are greatly limited and the teachers over-extended, now the students are facing test prep as their only education and they must do so in an environment that makes them feel trapped and mistrusted. That does not mean that there are not very real threats on campus. These are kids who come from very volatile home environments and have been exposed to extreme crime scenes regularly. They are likely to be hardened and potentially involved in criminal activity outside of school hours. There is no easy answer for this and it only serves to feed the challenge of how to keep them inspired until graduation as well as encouraging them to pursue college.
Like their college counterparts, these students are also likely facing hardships that fall far outside of the traditional teenage issues. They may be holding down a job after school to provide for their family or they may be parents themselves. Wong (2010) has demonstrated the effectiveness of having a community support center for students in China. When the students feel they have the adequate support they need to succeed, then the difficulties they may face outside of school may feel lightened and they can be empowered to get through it all to succeed. There appears to be a recurring theme of community support for all of these age groups in the research. Students in preschool lean preparation for kindergarten through socialization in a group. AVID provides community support for the value of education for the students and their families, and now the reinforcement that other countries are citing the value of community to ensure students feel support extends beyond our borders. It is evident that what the teen students need a sense of community to boost their academic achievement.
The reality is that they will choose to support their family now over a theoretical future that they can’t even imagine, let alone guide themselves to select a particular path. A sense of identity has been lost in this hot pursuit to push college readiness. Education has primarily focused upon quantitative metrics of achievement, such as testing and narrow academic focuses. Reading and math courses can expose one to the wonders in various career paths, but if those students don’t know about those career paths, aren’t exposed to people who work in such fields, and have no idea what that will mean to their economic future in real terms, they won’t take the leap. They will focus on what is right in front of them and what is familiar, even if it is less desirable than a theoretical future that someone might plant in their minds.
Thinking about this enlightens how the student relates to their world. Rather than combining them as another statistic, another high-risk student, another low-income student living in an urban environment, there needs to be an emphasis on the individual as a human being and the value that they bring to the table. If more education programs stopped to think about the inherent value the student already embodies, and reinforces those skills and insights into something truly meaningful to the student to contribute to their community, to their family and to society, the likelihood that more would feel inclined to pursue the highest level of education about achieving that goal would likely be more significant than the current drill and test methodology.
This renders the urban educator to become more of a psychologist and possibly even a social worker. Not just dealing with the band-aids to keep the kid surviving another day, but rather to help them thrive with their identity intact and becoming stronger and more constructive. The streets are already impacting these students in this manner. The only way a school can truly combat the detrimental effects of what goes on outside of school walls is if the school itself taps into that key component already impacted by the external influences. It can’t just be about making a child hop to a demand. That does nothing to inspire their identity. That will only feed resistance when they feel they have much more significant concerns to spend their time on. The education has to have meaningful value to them. Without their identity being tied to it, no effort, test, or rigorous protocol will inspire the student to want to excel and obtain a college degree. This does not mean that schools need to provide emotionally moving or inspiring assemblies. It is so much more individualized than that. Education has to become important on the individual level. This means that blanket education strategies are pointless.
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