Educational Leadership


‘Isn’t that what “those kids” need?’ Urban schools and the master narrative of the ‘tough, urban principal’

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Taylor & Francis


We report on a field trip we took to a ‘highly successful’ urban middle school and a number of disturbing events that occurred there. Afterwards, we filed formal complaints about the violence, and racial and sexual harassment we observed. These complaints led to both a formal investigation and a series of newspaper articles that resulted in a public discussion of urban schools and how best to work with young urban students of color. We present our analysis of this public discussion in terms of what we identify as the master narrative of the ‘tough, urban principal’ and how children of color in urban schools are ‘othered’ in ways that allow members of the public to consider abusive behavior an appropriate way to improve students’ learning. Four themes emerge in the public discussion of these events: (a) Minimization of startling behaviors – calling them ‘unconventional’, for example, to regularly scream racial epithets at students; (b) ‘Isn’t that what those kids need?’ in which outrageous and possibly criminal levels of assault on students, teachers, parents, and community members are perceived as ‘what is needed’ to reach ‘those kids’; (c) Desperation on the part of parents and community members to find and identify ‘good’ urban schools; and (d) Dismissal of those who would complain about such actions as ‘politically correct’, ‘soft’, and ‘foolishly naïve’ about what ‘urban’ children need to succeed. These themes are discussed in terms of the implicit and explicit dehumanization of students of color, the racial separation between the community and the local schools (i.e., the community is more white and middle class than the student population of the schools), conversations about what constitutes a ‘good’ school, and the role of standardized test scores in protecting against criticism.