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Urban schools, attended by mostly low-income black and Latino students, continue to lag behind suburban, mostly middle- and high-income white schools in student achievement, studies show. To shed light on that disparity--one that exists long after Brown v. Board of Education declared segregation unconstitutional--APA's Task Force on Urban Psychology is calling for more contextual research that looks beyond the classroom to the full picture of urban students' lives.

More specifically, the report--slated for release early next year and discussed at the 2004 Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues Biennial Convention--notes that psychologists can gain insights into reducing the gap by conducting analyses that look at socioeconomic status (SES), family, community and other such outside influences on urban students' achievement.

Providing background on the report at the session was task force staff liaison Gwendolyn Puryear Keita, PhD, associate executive director of APA's Public Interest Directorate. She gave an overview of research on urban education environments, including the effects of poverty and residential and educational segregation on student achievement.

"Fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, our urban schools are still separate and unequal," Keita said. "Urban school reform must be grounded in a real understanding of the complexities of urban life that have led to poor academic achievement by urban students."

Urban influences on achievement

That said, research on urban education settings may offer insights on how to most effectively reform these schools, Keita noted.

Research shows that urban students--compared with their suburban counterparts--are more likely to live in poverty and attend schools with significantly higher concentrations of low-income students; drop out of high school; be assigned to special education; struggle with speaking, reading and writing English; live in single-parent households; and have less access to regular medical care. Also, urban schools tend to have fewer financial and educational resources and a shortage of teachers.

Moreover, urban teachers spend more time responding to student behavior problems--such as absenteeism, teen pregnancy, classroom discipline and weapons possession--than teachers in suburban schools.

To help solve such problems in urban education, psychologists can--through their research--illustrate how existing urban environments affect the psychological well-being of residents and communities, Keita said.

As such, she advised that psychologists consider urban student achievement in terms of the social ecology of their neighborhoods--including ethnicity, SES, family, community resources and patterns of residential and educational segregation. This contextual approach would mark a departure from many traditional urban-reform efforts, which tend to treat schools as isolated entities, disconnected from communities and insulated from the political and economic realities that surround them, Keita noted.

"If we are going to make changes--and I think we can--we are really going to have to focus on unemployment in many urban areas, the high poverty, racism, discrimination, and deal with all those issues as we deal with urban education," Keita said.

Effects of desegregation

Besides studying the psychological effects of predominantly black or white schools in urban and suburban settings on student achievement, psychologists are also evaluating the benefits to students in schools that have a more equally diverse make up. Research has shown that more racially inclusive schools have a modest but positive impact on African-American students' academic achievement, particularly on reading skills, said doctoral student and session presenter Leslie Hausmann of the University of Pittsburgh.

Specifically, research shows African-American students in diverse schools tend to have a lower high school drop-out rate, set higher career goals and, eventually, attain higher salaries in the workplace compared with African-American students from mostly black schools, Hausmann said. Indeed, she notes the Brown v. Board of Education work of creating more diverse schools is hardly complete.

"There is a long road ahead of us as a nation...and it's important to walk down that road together with those from other backgrounds rather than proceeding in single file, grouped from first to last, by things such as skin color, language or economic status," she said.