The City: Critical Concepts in the Social Sciences. Volume 5: Cities in the Third World

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In public schools with a growing population of more affluent students, educators often seek assistance in meeting the needs of a wide range of students.


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In the last decade, a small but growing body of literature has documented the impact of urban gentrification on the enrollment and culture in public schools. There is also an emerging focus on the impact of changing demographics on suburban public schools.

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In other suburbs, further from the New York City boundary, the white, non-Hispanic population has stabilized at about 50 percent. In both contexts, educators and students are grappling with racial, ethnic, and cultural differences that many of them had not encountered before. When we think of education policies and practices to support and sustain the increasingly diverse public schools in both urban and suburban contexts, it is clear that K—12 educators and educational researchers have much to learn from the higher education research on the educational benefits of diversity in efforts to both close racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps while helping all students succeed.

And just as fair-housing advocacy has increasingly prioritized the stabilization and sustainability of diverse communities, education policy needs to follow suit.

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Unfortunately, too few policy makers see the need for such programs, even as a growing number of educators in diverse schools are clamoring for help to close those gaps and teach diverse groups of students. The current mismatch between the policies and the needs of an increasingly racially and ethnically diverse society inspire us to fill the void with compelling success stories of public schools working toward a greater public good by tapping into the possibility of changing neighborhoods to teach children how to thrive in a society of racial and cultural differences.

One of the schools we are studying in a gentrifying area is helping build more cross-racial understanding across the Hispanic and white parent groups by trying to assure more equal voice in the decision-making processes—everything from the kind of food and music available at the fund raisers to the mix of various field trips to cultural institutions. Schools and communities on the front lines of demographic change face significant obstacles to realizing the sort of educational benefits of diversity that can help us all understand and appreciate differences.

Urban history suggests that when a racial group begins migrating to a new community, the existing population is likely either to be pushed out or to flee, setting into play a perpetual cycle of segregation and resegregation. The most disadvantaged students are the most negatively impacted by such a failure. Thus, as leaders in higher education have relied heavily on social science evidence to put forth a powerful legal and policy argument in support of the educational benefits of diverse campuses and classrooms, the policy priorities in K—12 public education have gone in the other direction, with a strong focus on narrow accountability measures within increasingly segregated schools.

Policymakers who ignore the rapid demographic changes within the K—12 population miss a critical opportunity to lead this increasingly diverse nation toward a more equal and cohesive future.

In fact, many voters would welcome more leadership in this area. Further, attitudes among whites have changed more , simply because they had further to go due to the fact that nonwhite respondents have favored diversity for longer and in larger numbers. Although diverse, integrated spaces are becoming more socially desirable, our society is still quite divided along racial lines in terms of perceptions of how far we still have to go to achieve racial equality. While nearly all whites dismiss at least publicly ideas that blacks in particular are less intelligent or hardworking, and fewer oppose interracial marriage, they are increasingly less likely to believe that blacks continue to experience racial discrimination as a result of structural inequality and a history of slavery and oppression.

These divergent perceptions point to the true educational benefits of diversity, particularly the democratic, deliberative goals of intercultural dialogue and understanding, and they are sorely needed—for students, parents, and community members. These racial divides on issues of past injustices and ongoing structural inequality are best addressed through cross-racial dialogue and understanding. The need to sustain racially and ethnically diverse communities is vital to our future as a diverse democracy. A hopeful sign related to the last point above is that parallel to these shifts in racial attitudes is the growing desire for diverse schools and classrooms.

Despite the many challenges and shortcomings of school desegregation that played out across the United States in the early phases of this policy, in the decades following the implementation of these policies, interracial contact slowly increased and racism among whites declined.

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As our society becomes more diverse racially and ethnically, support for integrated schools has only grown stronger. A rise in support started in the late s and accelerated in the s. For instance, a review of public opinion on school desegregation found Americans increasingly in favor of desegregation.

This was particularly true among people who have personal experience with desegregated schools.

This included the agreement of the vast majority of African Americans—84 percent. A survey of more than three thousand adults found that nearly three-fifths of respondents—including 60 percent of white parents—said they believed integrated schools were better for their children. According to a Newsweek survey, 71 percent of all respondents felt that increasing diversity and integration in public schools is important to their improvement.

This number was higher among African American and Hispanic respondents than among whites, but is much higher among whites than in previous years. The wording of this question, which is the only one that has remained nearly identical, allows for a comparison in responses that would not have been possible otherwise. Again looking at a local context, Louisville, Kentucky provides a good microcosm of changing racial attitudes about diverse schools.

In the s, when the school desegregation plan was first proposed, 98 percent of those polled in the Louisville area were opposed to the plan. S Supreme Court ruling in that sharply curtailed the use of race in the Louisville student assignment plan, the school district actually tried different ways of promoting diversity. Similarly, a recent grassroots movement in Wake County, North Carolina is an example of the strong support that parents, students, and school leaders have for maintaining racially diverse public schools.


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  • For example, after the courts ruled to release the Charlotte Mecklenburg School District in North Carolina from their court-ordered desegregation plan, the district fought against the decision, arguing that they had a compelling interest in maintaining racially integrated schools.

    The unfortunate reality is that even for parents who prefer diverse schools, these structural challenges make finding and choosing these schools very difficult. This parent, and millions like him, know intuitively that educating children in racially segregated schools does not prepare them for living and working in the increasingly diverse society in which they will become adults. As was well-documented in the amicus briefs in the Fisher II case, there is mounting evidence that universities and employers are seeking students and employees who can work with diverse groups of people and who have cross-cultural, group-work skills.

    One has to wonder why, when so many parents, universities, and employers want to see our children attending less racially isolated public schools, our policy makers are not listening. The lack of attention to this matter on the part of our political leaders is all the more puzzling given the recent backlash against the policies they have recently supported, most notably, standardized tests. Over the last three decades, public schools in the United States have been required to measure student learning with greater frequency via state-mandated standardized tests. Since , the federal government has played a central role in the accountability movement, basically forcing each state to establish an accountability system or lose federal funding.

    If all we value about education can be illustrated in a few numbers, then these recent policy developments are acceptable—good even. But if we want more than that, then this trajectory is problematic. The strong negative correlation between the percentage of black, Latino, and low-income children in a school and its average test scores has been persistent. But these understandings are too rarely discussed. Meanwhile, research on learning and pedagogy suggest that the best way to engage students is to build on their existing knowledge and then connect those understandings to more abstract and unfamiliar topics.

    An approach to accountability that relies almost exclusively on standardized tests often has a negative impact on the educational experiences of all children, but particularly those of low-income black and Latino students. It also works directly against political incentives to create more racially and ethnically diverse schools.

    Such a system is anything but colorblind, and can only be addressed via a race-conscious and progressive agenda. Part of that agenda could potentially include several elements found in the newly implemented Common Core Standards reform. In fact, many progressive educators celebrate the fact that the Common Core, if taught in a manner that does not put standardized tests at the center, provides students with the opportunity to engage in close critical readings of complex texts and to question and interrogate what they read.

    In theory, the Common Core provides teachers with more freedom for planning meaningful literacy experiences for students. The Common Core guidelines even recommend some texts that reflect a departure from the traditional canon that has marginalized students from non-white and low-income backgrounds for many years. Such pedagogy is best used in culturally and racially diverse schools and classrooms.

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    Historic civil rights organizations, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, are embracing this progressive potential of the Common Core. Such efforts can and should be shared and expanded. In racially and ethnically diverse schools, such experiences could easily tap into, strengthen, and augment the educational benefits of diversity in a manner similar to what the universities and some schools districts for example, Lynn, Massachusetts are arguing for in the courts.

    When good ideas that could help support racially and ethnically diverse schools and prepare all students for a more dynamic and diverse global economy are being thwarted by a testing regime, it is time to reevaluate the importance we have placed on narrow measures of student achievement. Building on a groundswell of resistance to such approaches across the country , a more race-conscious and progressive policy agenda can unfold.

    The success of this approach will depend on using the knowledge researchers have gained over the past several decades in both the higher education literature and K—12 literature as discussed in previous sections. This legislation not only grants more decision-making power to the states, but it also requires assessments to involve multiple measures of student achievement, including measures that assess higher-order thinking skills and understanding.

    In other words, student growth may be assessed in the form of portfolios, projects or extended performance tasks. At the same time, higher education scholars and educators have much to learn from K—12 researchers and teachers about how to connect the sociocultural issues of diverse schools to teaching and learning. All this can lead to a more thoughtful educational policy and practice from kindergarten through graduate school. As we have noted, despite the policy setbacks against racially diverse public schools, leaders, parents, and advocates at the local level have fought back in support of racial and ethnic diversity in public education.

    There are still school districts that continue to pursue racial integration in schools and exemplify the benefits integration has for all students regardless of the limits that federal courts have placed on such local decision making. This led to a concerted effort to reduce racial segregation in and around the Hartford area. The result was a lottery-based magnet school system designed with the goal of achieving racial, ethnic, and economic integration. By the —14 school year, there were over forty interdistrict magnet schools with different curricular themes and teaching methods in the greater Hartford area serving over sixteen thousand students from multiple suburban communities in and around Hartford.

    For these schools to maintain their magnet status, they must meet integration standards, which dictate that 25 percent of students must be white and half of the students must be from the suburbs. However, it is important to note that no student is admitted on the basis of their race or ethnicity to meet these requirements.