After a rash of police killings last summer, H. Richard Milner, a professor of urban education at the University of Pittsburgh, set out to answer a question that had been gnawing at him for some time. As a noted expert on race in education, he frequently received calls from journalists seeking comment on how to help teachers talk about race in the classroom, typically following the fatal police shooting of a black victim. And he always thought the questioning was misguided and inadequate. “Rather than asking me how to help teachers … we should be asking teachers if they believe race is salient … something [they] should be interrogating and thinking about [in the classroom].”
So in early fall 2016, he surveyed 450 pre-service and current public-school teachers on their beliefs about race. Despite the small sample size, the preliminary findings from the nationally representative group revealed an intriguing disconnect. Teachers overwhelmingly agreed that race should be discussed in classrooms; they felt woefully unprepared to lead such
conversations; and they strongly rejected discussing racial violence, which Milner called “central to working with … black and brown students” who are frequently the victims of police shootings. “Basically, teachers said, ‘You’ve twisted my arm. We should talk about race. Nope, I don't feel prepared to do
that. And I'm definitely not going to [talk about] violence against black bodies.’ That’s where we are in 2017.”
With a profession that’s characteristically white, female, and middle class—and with students of color and children in poverty rapidly making up the majority of the public-school population—it’s become a necessity to have teachers equipped and willing to talk about race and racism. The mere mention of these topics can be awkward and difficult, yet various research findings point to the need to confront the discomfort to improve student learning. Increasingly, that duty has fallen to urban-education programs—a special category of teacher preparation that is reimagining how teaching candidates are prepared and disrupting the race and class stereotypes surrounding urban students and communities.
The dictionary definition of “urban” relates specifically to cities and people who live in them, but population shifts have rendered the term somewhat imprecise. According to federal education data from 2013, some 14 million students (29 percent of total enrollment) attended public schools in cities during the 2010-11 school year. The city classification, however, ranged from urban areas with a population of less than 100,000 to those with 250,000 residents or more—and spanned school districts as geographically diverse as Anchorage, Alaska, and Baltimore to Nashville and New York.
More commonly, urban schooling is defined by bleak statistics and the prejudices encoded in the adjective “urban” rather than official government categories. A 2015 report from the Center for Reinventing Public Education offered a stark glimpse of the state of urban public schools, including one in four students not graduating from high school in four years. Additionally, a study probing the intersections of race and teaching found the word urban was regularly used as shorthand for unfavorable characteristics associated with students of color.
“People generally [believe] that if it's urban, it's negative,” said Milner, the director of Pitt’s Center for Urban Education, noting that includes student teachers from all racial and ethnic backgrounds. Much of his work—in this case, training undergraduates—is concentrated on cultivating “the skills, the attitudes, and the dispositions” to be effective in urban environments. “That means we think about this notion of urban [and] teachers' belief systems about who these students are and what their capacity happens to be.”