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Building on the Strengths of Urban Learners by Belinda Williams and Ellen Newcombe

Author: Belinda Williams and Ellen Newcombe

Educational Leadership | May 1994 | Volume 51 | Number 8 Educating for Diversity Pages 75-78

The Urban Learner Framework offers a positive portrayal of urban learners and charts a direction for understanding the complexity of school change.

By age 18, Russell was a millionaire.1 He lived in a penthouse and owned a Maserati, a Porsche, and a Rolls Royce. An entrepreneur, Russell developed an empire that employed more than 100 ghetto youths. But his business was based on a commodity that was illegal.

When he entered elementary school, Russell was a bright-eyed, attractive child eager to learn, despite scoring low in school readiness tests. He knew his numbers, and his 1st grade teacher described him as a “hard worker.” After being assigned to remedial reading instruction, however, Russell never quite caught up.

When school authorities made a home visit to investigate his frequent absences, they were not prepared for the deplorable situation they found. Drugs, crime, and unbelievable filth prevailed in the welfare hotel where Russell lived with four younger siblings, various relatives, and several friends of his mother. Two of his cousins were already in trouble with the law, and most of the people living there were on drugs, although Russell's mother was drug-free.

Russell continued to work hard, however, and to take pride in his successes. But, as the years went by, teachers stopped saying positive things about him. Russell seemed to stop trying. His focus changed from academics to social interactions with his peers, leading to several negative incidents. In one, Russell was suspected of being the ring leader of a group that stole lunch money from other students. He also helped organize a betting pool around intramural sports.

Because of his history of antisocial behavior, 10-year-old Russell came to the attention of the child study team. Reluctantly, the team classified him as “emotionally disturbed” and placed him in a special, self-contained class with other disruptive youngsters. Soon, Russell stopped coming to school altogether. His mother reported that he had run away. Russell became another sad statistic of the school district.

Eight years later, Russell came into the national news media spotlight when he was arrested. Over a four-year period, Russell had developed a significant drug empire. As a gang leader, he franchised locations to friends in return for a percentage of the profits. He also rewarded shift bosses with the rights to a percentage of the profits from a corner or drug house. Most of his dealings were from “gatehouses,” illicit fast-food outlets for drugs. Russell's associates were able to elude the police by moving from one abandoned building to another.

Until his arrest, Russell had built and managed a successful undercover drug organization that eluded the police for nearly five years. But his illegal dealing finally came home to roost.

More of the Same Won't Work

Most of us working in urban education have known many Russells. The most salient point about Russell's story is the mismatch between the strengths he brought to school and the school's ability to respond. While Russell's talents made him extremely successful on the street, they alienated him from school. Clearly, thousands of urban students have abilities like Russell's that are not recognized by schools.

At Research for Better Schools, we are engaged in a long-term effort designed to put real meaning behind the words “all children can learn.” 2 Tracking, remediation, additional programs, and increased budgets haven't closed the achievement gap between poor urban minority students and majority culture students. More of the same certainly isn't the answer.

By critically reviewing the research, consulting with other educators, and testing our theories in practice, we have developed a framework for looking at urban students that emphasizes the differences, experiences, and strengths that they bring to school. Our Urban Learner Framework underscores four assumptions that present a new positive characterization of urban learners (for example, capable, motivated, able to build on cultural strengths) and reverses negative labeling of them (lacking ability, culturally deprived, unmotivated, at risk). We feel these assumptions must guide all decisions about urban learners:

  • Culture and cognitive development are interrelated.
  • Education must foster the full potential of every urban learner by appreciating group membership and individual diversity.
  • All educational systems must value and care for the learner and the community.
  • All individuals are both learners and facilitators of learning.

Using the Framework

To increase urban educators' understanding of the implications of these assumptions, the framework focuses on four themes.

  1. Urban students bring to schools cultural strengths and learning experiences that must be reflected in curriculum, instruction, and school routines. Culture is a more powerful explanation of differences between student groups than either genetics or socioeconomics (Banks 1988). By culture, we mean the traditions, language, and daily experiences of the home and community. (Ladson-Billings 1990, Tharp and Gallimore 1988, Tharp 1989, 1992). Educators need to align curriculum, instruction, and school procedures to support the needs of urban learners.
  2. Culture plays a fundamental role in cognitive development. While many of us were taught that intelligence was genetically determined, unitary, and fixed at birth, psychologists now argue that intelligence is modifiable, multifaceted, and mediated by the cultural environment.3 These new understandings have clear implications for urban educators (Gardner 1993, Sternberg 1985).
  3. Motivation and effort are as important to learning as are innate abilities. Urban students will benefit from school environments in which they can learn from their mistakes, are effortful in their learning, and fully engage themselves (Bernal 1992, Stevenson and Stigler 1992).
  4. Resilience is a characteristic of urban learners. Despite adverse conditions, many urban children grow into healthy, responsible, productive adults. These “resilient” children display characteristics of social competence, autonomy, problem solving, and a sense of the future. Many educators need to revise their perspective of urban youth from students at risk to learners displaying resilience (Benard 1991, Winfield 1991, Rutter 1987).

Our framework integrates a new vision of the urban learner with four areas central to the functioning of schools. Using the themes as a guide, urban educators can conduct needs assessments and prioritize strategies in these areas:

  • Curriculum, instruction, and assessment. When curriculum and instruction are tied to the cultural experiences and values of urban students, schooling becomes more meaningful for them. Schools need to design assessments of these new learning experiences that go beyond standardized paper-and-pencil tests.
  • Staff development. To begin to value and build on the experiences and strengths of urban learners, educators must think, feel, and behave in new ways. Staff development programs often serve as catalysts for teachers to make the kinds of cognitive, affective, and behavioral changes that will foster the success of urban learners.
  • The school environment. Schools organized to assure high expectations, a challenging curriculum, a caring climate, and positive self-esteem are more likely to develop individual potential and promote growth and learning in all students. Likewise, community members, local district administrators, state and federal agencies, legislators, and other stakeholders must contribute to these efforts.
  • Management. Through increased school-home collaboration, shared decision making, and other strategies, districts and schools can increase the awareness of school staff about the experiences and strengths of urban learners.

Needed: Creative Solutions to Complex Challenges

While the Urban Learner Framework started out as a theoretical foundation in two school districts—Washington, D.C., and Camden, New Jersey—the framework serves as one of the key components of the reform agenda for systemic change. Staff developers, teachers, and teacher mentors in these districts are exploring how teaching and learning practices can value and build on the strengths of urban learners.

This year, with our district partners, we are developing strategies to identify and define the learning experiences of culturally diverse urban student groups while recognizing the multiple intelligences of every individual. We are also exploring ways to use this information as a bridge to new classroom learning. As we expand our own knowledge, we will incorporate these new understandings into the framework.

Not surprisingly, the experiences of our staff underscore what others have found—namely, that urban school change is always difficult, complex, and long term. Many researchers believe that current programs for urban restructuring lack sufficient depth and will not significantly affect current urban achievement patterns (for example, Asher 1993, Haberman 1991). Our district partners agree and typically find the Urban Learner Framework a useful, substantive addition to other major efforts such as decentralization, site-based management, and curriculum integration. We know that quick fixes, fragmented efforts, and add-on programs that do not focus on the learning experiences of urban students will not significantly change dropout and achievement patterns.

Along with our partners, we are encountering many challenges that will need creative solutions developed in cooperation with urban educators. Some of the barriers to change we have experienced include the following:

  • Belief systems. The Urban Learner Framework requires, for many, a change in beliefs about culture and intelligence, the abilities of urban students, and the teacher's role. To change beliefs and practices that were determined by early socialization will require long-term attention. By showing their support for teachers' efforts (for example, time for teacher inquiry and collaboration) and by demonstrating the use of the framework's principles in their decision making, school leaders can take a first step toward achieving a more enduring form of change (Pajares 1992).
  • District, state, and federal regulations and policies. In some districts, the rigidity imposed on student classroom experiences severely limits reform. If change is to flourish, regulations and requirements must be relaxed or waived, and assessment and accountability need to be determined not by achievement test scores alone, but by alternative measures as well.
  • Multiple reforms. Another barrier in urban districts is the plethora of improvement initiatives taking place that lack a central focus on urban learners. The Urban Learner Framework can support other restructuring efforts, such as site-based decision making and new curriculum content standards, and supply a common focus—the urban learner.
  • Sufficient time. It takes time for educators to learn about the cultural experiences of urban students and to participate in the professional development needed to reshape their teaching. It takes time to discuss related issues with colleagues, parents, and community members. And it takes time to make good decisions and to carry them out. The lack of time to assimilate new knowledge and to bring about change is a significant barrier in urban schools.

Figure 1. Toward a New Vision of Urban Learners

Current View

A New Vision


Culturally Different


Unrecognized Abilities/Underdeveloped Potential





Meeting the Challenge in Urban Districts

Many urban educators we have worked with recognize the importance of an organized presentation of the current research and theory about the teaching and learning process and the nature of cultural diversity. They realize that the Urban Learner Framework is not just another program promising a quick fix. As one teacher mentor put it, “This is not a program. A program has a beginning and an end ... a life span. This is a movement.... we're looking at a distant light. We must not only change our attitudes about urban learners, but our teaching styles must change also.”

We at Research for Better Schools and our two district partners are exploring whether schools can use the Urban Learner Framework to provide educational experiences that enable students to achieve academic success without forsaking their cultural and racial identities. The would-be “Russells” can then become lifelong learners, able to lead productive lives and contribute to the social and economic fabric of their communities and society.


Asher, C. (1993). Changing Schools for Urban Students: The School Development Program, Accelerated Schools, and Success for All. Trends and Issues No. 18. New York: ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education.

Banks, J. A. (1988). “Ethnicity, Class, Cognitive, and Motivational Styles: Research and Teaching Implications.” Journal of Negro Education 57, 4: 452–465.

Benard, B. (1991). Fostering Resiliency in Kids: Protective Factors in Family, School, and Community. Portland, Ore.: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory.

Bernal, E. M. (1992). “The New Age of Discovery: The Hidden Talents of America's Urban Youth.” A New Vision of the Urban Learner: Invited Papers for the Seminar Restructuring to Educate the Urban Learner. Philadelphia: Research for Better Schools.

Cole, M. (1985). “The Zone of Proximal Development: Where Culture and Cognition Create Each Other.” In Culture, Communication, and Cognition: Vygotskian Perspectives, edited by J. V. Wertsch. New York: Cambridge University.

Feuerstein, R. (1990). “The Theory of Structural Cognitive Modifiability.” In Learning and Thinking Styles: Classroom Application, edited by B. Z. Presseisen et al. Washington, D.C.: National Education Association.

Gardner, H. (1993). Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice. New York: Basic Books.

Haberman, M. (1991). “The Pedagogy of Poverty Versus Good Teaching.” Phi Delta Kappan 73, 4: 290–294.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1990). “Culturally Relevant Teaching. Effective Instruction for Black Students.” The College Board Review 155: 20–25.

Moll, L. C., C. Amanti, D. Neff, and N. Gonzalez. (1992). “Funds of Knowledge for Teaching: Using a Qualitative Approach to Connect Homes and Classrooms.” Theory into Practice 31, 2: 132–141.

Pajares, M. F. (1992). “Teachers' Beliefs and Educational Research: Cleaning up a Messy Construct.” Review of Educational Research 62, 3: 307–332.

Rogoff, B. (1990). Apprenticeship in Thinking. Cognitive Development in Social Context. New York: Oxford University Press.

Rutter, M. (1987). “Psychosocial Resilience and Protective Mechanisms.” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 37: 317–331.

Sternberg, R. J. (1985). Intelligence Applied: Understanding And Increasing Intellectual Skills. San Francisco: Harcourt, Brace, and Jovanovich.

Stevenson, H. W., and J. W. Stigler. (1992). “Effort and Ability.” In The Learning Gap: Why Our Schools Are Failing and What We Can Learn from Japanese and Chinese Education. New York: Summit Books.

Tharp, R. G. (1992). “Cultural Compatibility and Diversity: Implications for the Urban Classroom.” A New Vision of the Urban Learner: Invited Papers for the Seminar Restructuring to Educate the Urban Learner. Philadelphia: Research for Better Schools.

Tharp, R. G. (1989). “Psychocultural Variable and Constants: Effects on Teaching and Learning in Schools.” American Psychologist 44, 2: 349–359.

Tharp, R. G., and R. Gallimore. (1988). Rousing Minds to Life: Teaching, Learning, and Schooling in Social Content. Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Winfield, L. F. (1991). “Resilience, Schooling, and Development in African American Youth: A Conceptual Framework.” Education and Urban Society 24, 1: 5–14.


1 “Russell” is a composite view of several adolescents who dropped out of public school in a large eastern city.

2 The work discussed here represents a joint effort of all staff of the Urban Education Project at Research for Better Schools.

3 See, for example, Gardner 1993, Sternberg 1985, Feuerstein 1990, Vygotsky 1978, Moll et al. 1992, Tharp 1989, Rogoff 1990, Cole 1985.

Belinda Williams is Director and Ellen Newcombe is Research Associate, Urban Education Project, Research for Better Schools, 444 N. Third St., Philadelphia, PA 19123.

DMU Timestamp: April 27, 2017 18:26

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