Framing Urban School Challenges: The Problems to Examine When Implementing Response to Intervention

This is the first article in a three-part series.

In this three-part series, we present an overview of the issues most relevant to the development and implementation of Response to Intervention (RtI) models in contemporary urban schools. This first article focuses on describing the broad challenges faced by and within urban school systems in effectively educating students. These issues, we contend, should be well considered—and addressed when possible—prior to implementing an RtI framework. The second article in the series focuses on how RtI frameworks in urban schools should be designed to consider the cultural dimensions of racialization and linguistic hegemony that limit equitable opportunities to learn. The third article seeks to present promising examples of how RTI practices that consider cultural dimensions operate in urban schools.

RtI is a seamless system of continuous, meaningful, and research-based interventions for struggling learners, anchored in high quality, culturally and linguistically responsive instruction and assessments (Buffum, Mattos, & Weber, 2009). As such, it is designed as a model for the prevention of long-term academic failure and thus, is a potentially powerful tool for addressing the needs of all students in all contexts. Given their complexity and expressed challenges, however, urban school systems require a deliberate and thoughtful examination of the context for teaching and learning· prior to their attempt to successfully implement RtI.

Urban School Challenges

It is important to note that the challenges facing urban school systems are not entirely unique to metropolitan areas, nor are all urban school systems confronted with the same challenges. Urban schools do, however, share some unique physical and demographic characteristics that differentiate them from suburban and rural school districts. Unlike suburban and rural school districts, urban school districts operate in densely populated areas serving significantly more students. In comparison to suburban and rural districts, urban school districts are frequently marked by higher concentrations of poverty, greater racial and ethnic diversity, larger concentrations of immigrant populations and linguistic diversity, and more frequent rates of student mobility (Kincheloe, 2004, 2010).

While sociodemographics are not themselves the challenge of urban school systems, they speak to the broader social and economic inequities facing such populations that invariably frame the work of urban schools. As Orfield (2004) explained, segregation and poverty underlie grander issues in urban education systems:
It is wrong to assume that segregation is irrelevant, and policies that ignore that fact simply punish the victims of segregation because they fail to take into account many of the causes of the inequality…Current policy built on [this assumption] cannot produce the desired results and may even compound the existing inequalities. (p. 4)
Sociodemographics are not simply an artifact of urban education; rather, they have a significant impact on how urban schools are structured. The concentration of poverty and racial isolation matters in that it is directly related to school processes that significantly influence student achievement trends (Rumberger & Palardy, 2005). The challenges of urban education cannot be divorced from its sociodemographic context.·
These challenges facing urban school systems have both structural and cultural components. Structural challenges are specific school policies and practices that impede student success or fail to adequately address students’ needs. Alternatively, cultural challenges are those policies, practices, and sets of beliefs that contribute to dysfunctional perceptions of students’ intellectual abilities—particularly those students who are culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD)—due to limiting predictors of school achievement (Noguera, 2003).

Stuctural Challenges

Urban school systems tend to have specific structural challenges that impede their ability to effectively educate the most vulnerable students. While these structural challenges may be evidenced across all types of educational contexts, they are perhaps most potent in urban settings. They include 1) persistently low student achievement, 2) a lack of instructional coherence, 3) inexperienced teaching staff, 4) poorly functioning business operations, and 5) low expectations of students (Kincheloe, 2004, 2010; MDRC, 2002). We discuss each briefly below and provide suggestions for addressing these structural challenges.
Low Student AchievementEven in the midst of tremendous political attention, low student performance persists. This is often exemplified by a large number of students performing poorly on achievement tests and not performing at grade level, as well as high rates of high school noncompletion and special education classification. Given the sociodemographic backgrounds of the urban school population, students attending urban schools enter at varied levels of academic readiness and oftentimes with particular stressors that challenge students’ ability to perform at high levels. The vast majority of students want to succeed in school and view school as important to being successful in life, but structural barriers both inside and outside school often stand in the way of the realization of this (Theoharis, 2009). Moreover, negative stereotypes about families often misinform educators and lead to negative views about students (Harry & Klingner, 2006; Harry, Klingner, & Hart, 2005).
A Lack of Instructional CoherenceUrban schools are bombarded with so many instructional initiatives and approaches that they can become fragmented, or indeed contradict one another. Moreover, the professional development used to launch these initiatives and support teachers’ continued learning is too frequently ineffective. The current development and implementation of RtI is a perfect example; many school districts are doing closed-door sessions to develop the framework to “fit” the operational structures already in place and are not developing a plan for institutionalizing the RtI framework as the operating statute of professional learning communities (PLCs), grade level and content meetings, child study team meetings, and staff meetings.
Given the diversity of their student populations’ needs, urban school districts require a variety of initiatives, but these need to target specific and identified needs that are aligned within a broader vision of student success and academic standards. Moreover, urban school initiatives should be carefully chosen, with attention paid to what is already being implemented within the school district. Urban school initiatives should utilize expertise within the schools for coaching and program building so that institutional knowledge can be passed on to new and novice teachers who have perhaps the greatest need for professional learning supports.
Inexperienced Teaching StaffThe issue of teacher quality is considered central to growing efforts to understand and reduce performance gaps in achievement between students of color and their White and Asian peers (Ferguson, 1991, 1998). Students in schools with high concentrations of low-income Black and Latino students are more likely to have inexperienced or unqualified teachers, fewer demanding college preparatory courses, more remedial courses, and higher teacher turnover (Lee, 2004). Aside from the school building itself, teachers are perhaps the most visible school resource. Extensive research has demonstrated that teachers have a significant impact on student achievement (e.g., Goldhaber, 2007; Gordon, Kane, & Staiger, 2006; Rivkin, Hanushek, & Kain, 2005; Rockoff, 2004; Sanders & Horn, 1994 Sanders & Rivers, 1996; Wright, Horn, & Sanders, 1997), with a key indicator of teacher experience being related to student performance. Teachers become more effective the longer they teach. In his review of teacher research, Goldhaber (2008) highlighted studies that consistently demonstrate teachers becoming increasingly more effective in the first 3 to 5 years of teaching. Thus, it can be inferred that teachers with fewer than 3 years of teaching experience are less effective than those with 3 or more years of teaching experience.
Experienced teachers, however, are not equally distributed across low- and high-poverty schools. Boyd, Lankford, Loeb, and Wyckoff (2005) demonstrated that teachers are drawn to schools with low concentrations of poverty, low minority populations, and high levels of student achievement, thus framing the problem of teacher quality as one related to professional mobility. Teachers who perform better on the general knowledge certification exam are significantly more likely to leave schools having the lowest achieving students, leading to high teacher turnover rates in lower performing schools. This high turnover rate makes it harder for low-performing schools to build an experienced teaching core, thus creating an unequal distribution of experienced teachers. To address the needs of struggling learners, urban school districts need to consider their teachers as valuable and strategic resources and systemically assign academically underperforming students to effective teachers.·
Poorly Functioning Data Management SystemsGiven the great needs of the students served by them, urban school systems are often under resourced. Urban school districts tend to have ineffective or underutilized data management systems (MDRC, 2002), making it difficult for them to identify student needs and monitor student progress. While much of the budgetary and resource challenges are deeply embedded in other political and economic factors outside the reach of a school system, urban school districts need to develop data systems and promote their use in critical analysis and examination of their own practices. This entails a commitment to data analysis as a continuous process, with clearly stated questions or problem statements, a readiness to question assumptions, and the capacity to go beyond the numbers (Reeves, 2008). As such, data analysis can occur at the district level with improved data collection and monitoring systems. With improved systems, data analysis can also be implemented at the school level with data walks, inquiry groups, and critical friends groups.
Low Expectations of StudentsUrban schools often fail to provide environments of high academic expectations (Griffith, 2000; Matute-Bianchi, 1991; Noguera, 2003; Valencia, 2000; Valenzuela, 1999). While also a persistent cultural challenge, urban school districts have structural challenges that either produce or perpetuate low expectations of students. As characterized by MDRC’s (2002) case studies, teachers in urban school districts can feel overwhelmed by what they consider to be the high needs of their students, and thus lower their own expectations for student performance. Structurally, this is exemplified in the absence of demanding and high level courses and programs such as advanced placement courses and gifted and talented programs, as well as school systems that council students out of school (Fine, 1991). Research has shown that given the opportunity and appropriate support, students will live up to the high expectations set forth for them.
Of course, it is not as simple as setting a high bar. The students themselves need to feel, understand, and interpret the structures and culture of the school as requiring their best effort and expecting excellence of them. Urban school districts need to provide access to rigorous courses and increase academic support to struggling students—through programs such as AVID (advancement via individual determination), MESA (mathematics, engineering, science achievement), double period classes, extended learning time, after school sessions (but not just more of the same), and summer school—to support struggling students and help them reach high expectations set for them. Moreover, urban schools must employ early intervention systems to identify struggling students, which are a critical component of any RtI framework.

Cultural Challenges

Along with the structural challenges faced by urban schools, there are also critical cultural challenges that stand in the way of the successful implementation of RtI models. In our work at New York University’s Metropolitan Center for Urban Education over the course of more than 8 years across 40 districts, we have identified predominant cultural beliefs that contribute to low performance patterns in the academic achievement of vulnerable student groups—particularly CLD students. We identify these cultural beliefs generally as cultural dissonance that manifests itself in policies, practices, beliefs, and outcomes in myriad interconnected ways. Taken together, these elements of cultural dissonance constitute a prevailing pattern that includes (but is not limited to):
  • perceptions of race and class as limiting predictors of school achievement;
  • perceptions of different learning styles versus intellectual deficiencies; and
  • lack of cultural responsiveness in current policies and practices.

We discuss each of these briefly below followed by some of the practices we suggest for meeting these challenges that are being implemented in some of the more successful urban schools.
Perceptions of Race and Class as Limiting Predictors of School AchievementLow-income and racial/ethnic minority students are often viewed by school practitioners as not “ready” for school (O’Connor & Fernandez, 2006). More specifically, school and district staff at times perceive the cultural practices of the home environment as causing low-income and racial/ethnic minority children to be unable to learn or in conflict with school practices. Taken to the extreme, some urban school practitioners have come to accept the notion that the concept of “urban behavior” and the differences in cultural norms of urban communities from prevailing school norms are the driving force behind the underachievement of Black and Latino students. In fact, such perspectives can be found in many suburban and rural districts as well. To effectively combat these beliefs, we find school districts engage in some form of continued dialogue regarding these beliefs through year-long reading groups, attendance in continuous diversity dialogue seminars, and opportunities to operationalize their new thinking such as in PLCs, grade level and content meetings, staff meetings, collegial circles, and data inquiry groups.
Perceptions of Different Learning Styles Versus Intellectual DeficienciesWithout due diligence, urban schools may unwittingly situate poverty-induced traits and racial/ethnic minority cultural differences as expressions of learning or emotional disability (O’Connor & Fernandez, 2006). These predominant beliefs regarding low-income and racial/ethnic minority students as “deficient” may also result in students feeling a sense of stereotype threat and vulnerability because their low-income or racial/ethnic minority status came to be viewed as a risk factor (Perry, Steele, & Hilliard, 2003).
Steele’s (1997, 2010) research indicates that African Americans and other racial/ethnic minority groups for whom there is a societal perception of intellectual inferiority display greater psychological vulnerability to failure and other identity-threatening, social-environmental cues. Students may process school failures, particularly early in their academic experiences, as confirmation of negative stereotypes about their social and racial/ethnic group’s intellectual ability.
Lack of Cultural Responsiveness in Current Policies and PracticesThe principles of culturally responsive pedagogy recognize that culture is central to learning and pivotal not only in communicating and receiving information but also in shaping the thinking process of groups and individuals (Ladson-Billings, 1994). A pedagogy that acknowledges, responds to, and celebrates knowledge, information, and processes as culturally bound offers fuller and more equitable access to education for CLD student groups (Gay, 2000; Nieto, 1999).
Reflective practitioners regularly contend with the question of why certain school practices work well for some students and not for others. Too often, schools make policy, curricular, and pedagogical decisions without careful consideration of the racial, ethnic, and cultural realities of the students and communities they serve. For instance, schools with high concentrations of children who are homeless need to construct homework as in-school reinforcement and not as an activity for a home environment that is not universally available for all children.
The dearth of culturally responsive practices leads to a lack of student trust in the school setting (Steele, 2010). Students may interpret the school environment as unwelcoming and thus unworthy of a meaningful, personal investment, making their academic achievement much more unlikely (Cushman, 2005; Valenzuela, 1999).· Delpit (2006) suggested that CLD students may even respond to what they perceive as inhospitable school environments with behaviors that are oppositional to the prevailing norms and values of the school.
Good Practices for Addressing Issues of Cultural DissonanceCultural dissonance and the beliefs relative to the limited abilities of urban students distract practitioners from engaging in conversations about how teaching matters in learning outcomes. That is, we find practitioners are frequently willing to cite the family and community (i.e., poverty, and limited access to social and cultural capital) as the reason why underperforming low-income and racial/ethnic minority students struggle academically.
Cultural dissonance can be profoundly impactful, however, to the school experiences of urban students. It has an impact on the manner in which schools view students; it contributes to misconceptions about students’ motivations. It shapes and colors the expectations for achievement and sends critical messages to students about how much (or little) their cultural selves are valued by the school and larger society.
To address these issues of cultural dissonance in the preparation of the implementation of an effective RtI model, urban schools must develop the capacity for these critical components of policy, practice, and belief:
  1. Achieve clarity of institutional mission that focuses on cultivating talent, confidence, and competence in all students.
  2. Demystify school success.
  3. Embrace immigrant students and their culture.
  4. Build strong relationships between teachers and students to improve behavior and achievement.
  5. Build partnerships with parents and critical stakeholders.

Achieve Clarity of Institutional Mission That Focuses on Cultivating Talent, Confidence, and Competence in All Students
The first task in developing clarity around mission in urban schools involves securing the appropriate buy-in from all staff regarding expectations and norms. Any notions, however subtle they may be, that accept the normalization of failure must be deliberately and directly challenged. Urban schools must adopt policies, practices, and beliefs that abandon deficit-based views of students’ abilities. School teams should attempt to define explicitly what equity means in the specific context of the school building. In the course of defining equity, schools should identify and implement strategies that support the most vulnerable student populations and that also address the social and emotional needs of students as well as the underlying causes of behavior problems. These efforts should not be viewed as something that occurs in addition to what the school does but, rather, as something that is central to the school’s core mission.
Demystify School SuccessEven those schools that exist in the heart of communities with almost entirely low-income and racial/ethnic minority populations have the tendency to promote a culture that mirrors the larger society’s codes of power (Delpit, 1988). The individual student’s ability to achieve school success is largely a function of a student’s ability to navigate within a schema that may differ dramatically from the cultural norms learned in one’s home community. For these students whose home cultural frame of reference differs significantly from the school’s, the pathway to academic achievement may seem confusing or even counterintuitive. Therefore, it is imperative for the school to explicitly teach the codes of power that underscore the school’s cultural code without diminishing the value of native cultural norms and ways of being.
Further, the capacity for developing students’ familiarity with the codes of power has to be taught explicitly and thoughtfully incorporated into the fabric of all core instructional offerings so that it will create an internal value to school success for students that does not contradict other critical dimensions of themselves. Schools must accept the responsibility for providing clear guidance for “normed” expectations. These normed academic and social expectations need to be regularly clarified—particularly at critical transition points in the education pipeline.
Embrace Immigrant Students and Their CultureIncreasingly, the children of recently arrived immigrants are enrolling in large numbers at urban public schools. These first-generation and 1.5 generation students are likely to feel a strong obligation to honor the cultural codes of their home communities. Along with cultural differences, language differences create feelings of disconnect and alienation for students trying to decipher the school’s prevailing codes and structures. Contrary to the politicized stereotypes that might suggest otherwise, some immigrants do enter the country with a great deal of education and other professional training. The families of the formally educated as well as others with limited levels of formal education invest heavily in the notion that American schools will provide the goods and services that will give their children access to critical social, educational, and economic opportunities. The academic success of immigrant students is largely contingent on how they and their families are treated. Schools serving large numbers of immigrant students must be increasingly vigilant in their commitment to the principles and practices of culturally responsive education (CRE). The school practitioners must be especially aware of the ways in which the acculturation process may produce cultural conflict for recent immigrants. To mitigate the potential for conflict, the school must redouble its efforts to develop both cultural and language competence among staff.
Build Strong Relationships Between Teachers and Students to Improve Behavior and AchievementYoung people who are particularly vulnerable to school failure are most benefited by both good pedagogy that is supported by a carefully planned, rigorous curriculum as well as strong relationships between practitioners and students. Good teaching in urban schools is often a function of leveraging trust and relationships to challenge students to meet the high expectations for learning. In this way, extracurricular activities can be utilized as tools to engage students, and these activities should be designed to develop skill sets beyond athletics that create opportunities for youth leadership and civic engagement. In addition, schools should provide targeted mentoring for most vulnerable student populations that assists in the development of the strong sense of students’ academic selves. Urban schools that are successful with low-income and racial/ethnic minority students accept the responsibility of assisting them in the process of reconciling the cultural differences between the different spaces in which they hold membership (i.e., school, community, race, ethnicity, religion, etc.). Good schools produce students who feel they can present their intellectual selves authentically in a way that does not conflict with the cultural ways of being that are also important to their social and cultural selves.
Build Partnerships With Parents and Critical StakeholdersTrust and relationships between students and school practitioners are also facilitated by the careful coordination of services with community partners to meet specific nutrition, health care, and counseling needs. Effective urban schools should seek to build relationships with social service agencies and other community-based organizations. Urban schools should see these other agencies as not having outside interests but, rather, being equal stakeholders in the long-term goals of the school. To this end, urban schools should offer training for staff on effective strategies for communicating with parents. The interactions that parents have with the school should be considered thoughtfully so that they do not send conflicting messages. In partnering with parents, schools should work to provide clear guidance on what they can do to support children. Work with parents should be based on the assumption that all parents want the best for their children and would like to partner effectively with the school. In considering the structures for incorporating the cooperation of parents, schools should remember that the most critical forms of parental support occur at home.


As previously stated, it is important to recognize the complex realities facing urban school systems that challenge the effective development and implementation of RtI. The structural concerns of persistent low achievement, limited teacher and leader capacity, poor data and data inquiry infrastructures, and low expectations of students are not new phenomena but, rather, are historic conditions in urban schools. Additionally, the cultural challenges of teacher and leader perceptions about race and class as limiting conditions and producing intellectual deficiencies, and consideration of culturally responsive pedagogy in policies and practices, are bound to macrosocietal conversations of race and class. As RtI continues to take center stage as a framework for considering equitable and consistent positive outcomes for all students, attention to these structural and cultural challenges is paramount. Otherwise, RtI has the potential, under the weight of these structural and cultural challenges, to become an evidence-based mechanism for tracking ability of racial/ethnic, low-income, and linguistically diverse populations, which would further contribute to low achievement patterns for vulnerable student populations.
Read the second article in our urban school article series >>

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