Archived Information

Tools for Schools - April 1998

Urban Learner Framework

What Is It?

The Urban Learner Framework is an integrated knowledge base that incorporates and disseminates the most current, promising, and pertinent research concerned with improving and restructuring schooling in urban districts. This knowledge base has been organized into a decision-making framework challenging the sweeping generalizations that have envisioned the urban learner as deprived, underachieving, unmotivated, and at-risk. It presents a new vision of the urban learner as culturally diverse, capable, effortful, and resilient and represents a major paradigm shift in research and theories of intelligence and learning.

Why Did It Get Started?

Beginning in 1991, staff at Research for Better Schools, a Philadelphia-based research and development laboratory, working with educators in Washington, D.C.; Baltimore; Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, developed the Urban Learner Framework to address the complex issues that must be dealt with in restructuring urban schools. The Framework has been used widely in these mid Atlantic school systems as well as other school districts across the country.

How Does It Work?

The power and usefulness of the Urban Learner Framework comes from its integration of research knowledge into a coherent focus for developing strategies. Because the Framework's vision is integrated, it helps to reduce the fragmentation produced by reforms that deal solely with organizational processes or with aspects of pedagogy. Internalizing the principles of the Framework enables educational communities to explore new meanings, examine current practices, focus leadership, develop context-specific strategies, and expand accountability. The Urban Learner Framework has two major features:

The four research themes are described below.

Cultural and Linguistic Diversity and Learning

All children bring specific cultural knowledge, experiences, and strengths with them to school. The Urban Learner Framework encourages teachers to connect with learners' cultural experiences and challenge them with relevant instructional materials in order to facilitate learning and cognitive growth. The goal is help each child to develop fully. The emphasis on culture in the Urban Learner Framework highlights the fundamental role that culture plays in all human development.

Unrecognized Abilities and Underdeveloped Potential

Each child possesses a different combination of natural talents across the range of intelligences that include logical-mathematical, leadership, interpersonal, organizational, linguistic, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, artistic, and spatial intelligences. The Urban Learner Framework advocates that teachers, administrators, and school settings should attend to this range of intelligences and develop them through authentic, relevant and academically rigorous curricula. Furthermore, a curriculum that includes cooperative learning supports student work by building enthusiasm for the wide range of student intellectual accomplishments.

Enhancing Ability Development through Motivation and Effort

Urban learners often are not challenged to move beyond initial errors, and as their potential to learn goes undeveloped, their motivation and effort wane. High academic achievement is supported by a belief that ability increases under positive, supportive conditions, such as teachers having high expectations for all students, believing that effort can increase success, and recognizing that students learn through different experiences. Teachers can use group problem-solving activities and project-focused tasks to provide more opportunities for students to learn by tackling challenging, personally-relevant subject matter and to experience both social and intellectual rewards for their efforts.


Resilience refers to the energy and strategies that urban learners apply in order to overcome adversity. Students develop resilience in school from encountering caring and supportive teachers and from being challenged by an accelerated curriculum built on high expectations. Under these conditions, students develop protective mechanisms that reduce the impact of risk, reverse the effects of negative labeling, and low expectations, raise students' self-efficacy and self-esteem, and open new opportunities for learning.

The second major feature of the Urban Learner Framework is a set of decision-making guidelines to aid educational communities and schools in their efforts to use the Urban Learner Framework knowledge base in moving toward systemic change. Every day, urban educators at all levels make decisions in each of four functional areas of school organization: (1) determining appropriate curriculum, instruction, and assessment; (2) designing effective staff development programs; (3) establishing supportive school environments; and (4) building visionary leadership and effective management. These decisions will benefit from being informed by the Framework's unique vision of the urban learner.

What Are the Costs?

Interested districts may purchase materials that provide an overview of the Framework as well as the video and associated guides which describe the Framework and how it can be used. The costs of these items is very modest.

How Is The Model Implemented In A School?

The Urban Learner Framework has been introduced in districts and schools through a number of entry points. The superintendent, director of curriculum, director of professional development, or director of research of the school system usually learns about the Framework after attending a presentation, reading a published paper, or through a recommendation from a colleague. A presentation of the Urban Learner Framework is scheduled and a process, mutually agreed upon by the consultant and the district or school representative, is developed. The process includes the following:

What Is The Evidence That The Model Is Successful?

Districts using the Urban Learner Framework have seen the development of more positive attitudes among practitioners regarding the learning potential of all children, and more awareness of their role and responsibility in ensuring that all children succeed. The Urban Learner Framework also serves as a bridge between research and educational practice in some districts, providing staff with a mechanism for helping teachers and administrators reflect on how the research ideas on which the Framework is based, can be used to inform their practice. In other districts, the Urban Learner Framework has been introduced as a management guide or as a tool for the design of professional development and instruction. The Framework has consistently received strong positive evaluations, from audiences of educators, from parents, from districts and schools when used as a guide for designing and implementing systemic change.

Where Can I See It?

The Urban Learner Framework is being introduced in several school districts, including St. Paul, Minnesota; Battle Creek, Michigan; Kansas City, Missouri; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Whom Do I Contact?

Belinda Williams
Northeast And Islands Regional Educational Laboratory At Brown University
222 Richmond Street, Suite 300
Providence, Rhode Island 02903-4226
Telephone: 800-521-9550 ext. 236; or 401-274-9548 ext. 236
Fax: 401-421-7650

The Research Base

Recent theories of intelligence, learning, and instruction suggest four themes that, taken together, generate a vision of urban learners as culturally diverse, capable, motivated, and resilient. The Urban Learner Framework draws on the findings from a variety of research areas:

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