A New Era in Urban Education?

August 1, 1998

Many educators have come to realize that poverty and language barriers in urban schools are unacceptable excuses for appallingly low student performance. To write off these districts’ dismal achievement levels as inevitable is to consign a generation of city youth to lives without prospects or hope. Reform’s day has come. The rescue of urban schools entails dismantling entrenched and patronage-driven school board bureaucracies, holding schools accountable for their performance, and encouraging well-planned experimentation with charter and contract schools, and vouchers.


By any measure, student performance in the nation’s urban schools is low. In urban schools that enroll high proportions of poor students, performance is appallingly low. While almost every urban district has some exceptionally effective schools, outcomes for most students and most schools compare unfavorably to those in non-urban districts. School officials usually explain the dismal results by referring to the large concentrations of poor and non-English-speaking students in cities and to the fact that poverty is highly correlated with low academic achievement.

At a conference on urban education at Brookings last May, sponsored by the Brown Center on Education Policy, scholars and school superintendents agreed that urban schools are due for a massive overhaul. The new wave of school reform now underway rejects the idea that the failure of a huge proportion of poor children in the inner cities is inevitable. To accept educational failure on the current scale among poor children in urban public schools is to consign a large segment of the rising generation to lives without hope. The deliberations of the conference, which will be published early next year as the second volume of the Brookings Papers on Education Policy, considered the prospects for a variety of changes to the education system, including the introduction of charter schools, private contracting, and vouchers.

Performance in Urban Schools

Urban schools enroll 24 percent of all public school students in the United States, 35 percent of poor students, and 43 percent of minority students. In a massive survey of urban education, Education Week concluded that “most 4th graders who live in U.S. cities can’t read and understand a simple children’s book, and most 8th graders can’t use arithmetic to solve a practical problem.” Slightly more than half of big-city students are unable to graduate from high school in the customary four years, and many of those who do manage to graduate are ill-prepared for higher education or the workplace. Performance is worst in high-poverty schools, explain the Education Week editors, yet poverty is not the only reason for low performance: “Somehow, simply being in an urban school seems to drag performance down. Students in urban schools where the majority of children are poor are more likely to do poorly on tests than their peers who attend high-poverty schools outside cities.” The odds are against poor students in urban public schools. Equally disadvantaged students in urban Catholic schools outperform their public school peers and are far less likely to drop out.

On tests administered by the federally-funded National Assessment of Educational Progress, students in high-poverty schools in cities fall far behind all others. As Figure 1 shows, 63 percent of 4th grade students in nonurban schools across the nation reach the basic level in reading as compared to 43 percent of students in urban schools. In high-poverty schools in urban districts, only 23 percent of 4th graders meet that minimal standard. The urban-nonurban gap is even larger in some states (see Figure 2). Even more surprising, however, are the large differences between students in high-poverty schools in urban and nonurban districts. Poor children in city schools are far less likely to meet the basic achievement level on NAEP tests than poor children who do not live in cities.

Some Contributing Factors

Urban education suffers from many problems, but worst among them is the spread of dense areas of poverty, where multiple social ills converge. The correlates of poverty—poor health, inadequate housing, high crime rates, single-parent families, substance abuse—create an environment in which heroic efforts are necessary in order to sustain aspirations for the future and a willingness to work hard for delayed benefits. In some cities—such as East St. Louis, Illinois, and Camden, New Jersey, Detroit, New Orleans, Hartford, Miami, Atlanta, Cleveland, and Dayton—more than 40 percent of the children live in poverty. Schools can provide health services, adult education, and a variety of other programs to assist children and their families, but in the end their primary responsibility is to provide a superior education to the children; if they don’t do it, no other institution will. For children in poverty, effective schools are crucial; the schools are their last, best hope for a better life. Schools cannot create economic activity or jobs; what they can do is to teach children the knowledge and skills without which they cannot improve their life prospects.

Urban schools are not meeting this fundamental expectation. Not only is performance strikingly poor, but in many districts, school buildings are in disrepair, supplies are inadequate, and teachers’ salaries are not competitive with neighboring suburbs. Because of what are often poor working conditions and non-competitive salaries, urban districts have trouble attracting and retaining well-qualified teachers. Nationally, 39.5 percent of science teachers lack either an undergraduate major or minor in science and 34 percent of mathematics teachers lack either a major or minor in mathematics. The figures are even higher in urban districts. For example, in urban schools where half or more of the students are poor, 45 percent of the mathematics teachers have neither a major nor a minor in mathematics.

The large bureaucracies that are responsible for urban schools seem incapable of effective management, even when they do have the resources to repair their buildings and pay better salaries. Big-city school bureaucracies often seem to adopt self-serving strategies that protect administrative jobs rather than children. They have mastered the art of continual reform, loudly trumpeting the latest initiative, even though these heralded reforms do not produce significant change in the educational outcomes for children. The track record of these school systems has given rise to suspicion that additional resources will be absorbed by dubious one-shot programs and administrative spending, without any effect on what happens in the classroom.

Many school reformers believe that the current governance system is incapable of improving the achievement of inner-city students or creating the kind of schools that can successfully educate poor children. Urban schools continue to work on the assumption that there is one best way to manage every issue and that those who work in the central offices know best. Regardless of who is superintendent or who are members of the school board, administrators in the central office control the budget, hire and assign staff, and issue directives to the schools. Important decisions are made at central headquarters, not at the school. Compliance with rules and regulations is prized more than performance. Those who are closest to the children—the principals and teachers—are robbed of initiative by the nature of the system. Urban school systems are uncomfortable with the principle of student or teacher choice of assignment; they prefer a system in which all schools are as nearly identical as possible, with students and teachers as interchangeable as widgets. These systems are characterized by their absence of clear standards, acceptance of social promotion, lack of accountability, and administrative bloat. The proliferation of federal and state programs, many designed to correct urban problems, have exacerbated the bureaucratic tendencies of big-city districts by adding new layers of reporting, regulation, and micromanagement.

Challenging the Urban System

The systemic failure of urban education has provoked various efforts by state and local officials to shake up the status quo. Where school failure has been especially abysmal, the state has taken over certain school districts (the most aggressive state has been New Jersey, which took control of the schools in Newark, Paterson, and Jersey City). In Illinois, the legislature transferred charge of the school system in Chicago to the mayor. Some districts have hired non-educators to manage the school system. Others have shut down and reconstituted failing schools with a new staff.

Other promising strategies—charter schools, contracting, and vouchers—rely on market-based principles of competition and choice. Charter schools are public schools that receive a charter to operate outside the immediate control of any local school board. They are answerable to public authorities and must agree to meet state standards. If they do not, they may lose their charter. This is the difference that immediately sets charter schools apart from regular public schools, which may fail to meet state standards for years without any untoward consequences for anyone but the children. Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform, which keeps count of charter schools, estimates that more than 50 percent of all charter schools today are in urban districts. The promise of charter schools is a straightforward exchange: autonomy from regulations in exchange for accountability for results. Some charter schools are regular public schools that opted out of their school district; others are run by nonprofit organizations, parents, or teachers. Fewer than 10 percent are managed by for-profit organizations like the Edison Project. A small proportion are operated by universities, teachers’ unions, or other agencies.

Minnesota passed the first charter law in 1991. By 1998, 34 states had adopted laws permitting the establishment of charter schools. According to the Center for Education Reform, nearly 800 charter schools, serving about 166,000 children, were open by the end of the 1997-98 school year, and 400 more had been approved to open in the fall of 1998. The typical charter school is small (fewer than 300 students), and most have a waiting list. The majority of charter schools are located in Arizona, California, and Michigan, but substantial numbers of schools are also operating in Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Texas. In some states, weak charter laws guarantee that few charter schools will ever open because local school boards have the exclusive right to grant charters. No agency is more hostile to charter schools than local school boards, which correctly see them as unwanted competition.

Charter schools have far more freedom than regular public schools, and one way that they use it is to provide smaller classes than regular schools, usually with fewer resources. Most charter schools are started by people who have a vision of what makes a successful school, and their visions are many. Some are very progressive, others are very traditional. In the Center for Education Reform’s annual survey, one-quarter of the charter schools had a back-to-basics curriculum and another one-fifth employed E.D. Hirsch’s core knowledge curriculum, which stresses a knowledge-rich curriculum. Forty percent served dropouts or students at risk of dropping out, while one-quarter were geared to gifted and talented youth.

What is particularly appealing about charter schools is that they are public schools that rely on choice (by parents and teachers) and accountability (to public authorities). When a charter school fails—some have been closed for mismanaging funds, one in the District of Columbia was closed after the principal assaulted a news reporter—the very fact of the charter’s termination is evidence that public officials take seriously their responsibility to monitor the financial and academic integrity of the school.

Given their short history, it is too soon to gauge whether charter schools will improve student test scores or graduation rates. In both urban and suburban districts, local school officials have disparaged charter schools for taking away students and dollars. Nonetheless, the establishment of charter schools often causes the regular public schools to act forcefully when faced with competition for students, using resources more wisely and focusing on student performance. Charter schools may be the wake-up call that spurs sluggish school systems to adopt effective reforms.

Contracting is another form of competition and choice that has the potential to change urban education. Paul T. Hill, Lawrence C. Pierce, and James W. Guthrie in their book Reinventing Public Education proposed that every public school should have a contract with public authorities that would allow the individual school to control its budget and staff. Basic to their argument is the belief that schools succeed when they have an integrative principle, a set of clear goals that describe what makes the school a community and that focus the school on student learning. In their scheme, schools would be self-governing, making most of the decisions that affect them. Unlike the current urban school system, which tends to level out differences among schools, contracting would encourage schools to pursue their own purposes so long as they agree to meet the academic standards established by public authorities. Local school boards like contracting, especially when it allows them to find an agency willing to take responsibility for hard-to-educate children. Some urban districts have contracted with for-profit organizations like the Edison Project to manage schools, and a few others (Seattle and Riverside, California) are considering contracting as an overall reform strategy. There are about half a dozen for-profit organizations and numerous not-for-profit organizations that offer their services as contractors to school districts. However, in some states—New York, for example—it is actually illegal for a school board to contract out instruction.

The proposal that generates the most passionate support and the most passionate opposition is vouchers. The original idea for vouchers came from Milton Friedman in 1955, who wanted to break up the public school monopoly by enabling every family to spend its education dollars at will. Over the years, voucher proposals have won the allegiance of free-market enthusiasts, but have been bitterly opposed by public employee unions and others who prefer the current system of public education run exclusively by government agencies.

In recent years, the voucher debate has shifted to focus primarily on low-income students. Dozens of privately-funded voucher programs are operating in the nation’s cities. They are intended to induce demand for publicly-funded programs. Currently, the only public voucher programs are in Milwaukee and Cleveland, where low-income students receive public grants to attend private schools, including religious schools. Both programs were challenged in state courts by the teachers’ union, the American Civil Liberties Union, and other plaintiffs who oppose not only the use of public money in nonpublic schools but specifically the inclusion of religious schools. In June 1998, the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the Milwaukee program, including the participation of religious schools, stating that the choice program has a secular purpose, will the primary effect of advancing religion and would not lead to excessive entanglement between church and state. Eventually, either the Milwaukee program or the Cleveland program will reach the U.S. Supreme Court, which will resolve the issue.

Perhaps because of despair over the dire condition of urban schools, public opinion is shifting toward support of vouchers. According to a Gallup Poll, 74 percent of the public was opposed to vouchers in 1993; by 1997, opposition had dropped to 52 percent. The highest level of support for vouchers was found among blacks (72 percent), 18-to-29-year-olds (70 percent), and urban residents (59 percent). In a poll by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, vouchers received the endorsement of 57 percent of blacks, and 86 percent of blacks between 36 and 50. The greatest support (70 percent) came from blacks with the lowest income (under $15,000). What is more, prominent black leaders such as former Democratic Congressman Floyd Flake in New York and former schools superintendent Howard Fuller in Milwaukee are stepping forward to not have support vouchers, charter schools, and other fundamental reforms.

Fig. 2. Student Achievement: Biggest Gaps Between Urban and Nonurban Districts

Percent of students scoring at “basic” level or higher on NAEP, ranked by percentage point difference

Source: Education Week. Published tabulations from 1994 NAEP reading test and 1998 mathematics and science tests.

The Direction of Education Reform

By now, there is general agreement that there is no silver bullet or panacea that will solve the problems of urban schools, but certain allied strategies are emerging as fundamental to lasting change. No one of these should be seen as free-standing, but rather as parts of a coordinated effort to redirect urban schooling.

  • Urban school systems, and their states, must adopt clear and rigorous academic standards so that everyone knows what students are expected to learn.

  • They must have high standards for those who teach in their schools, hiring only those teachers who have an academic major in the subject they intend to teach, and who have passed a qualifying examination, like people in other professions.

  • Valid and accurate information about student performance must be readily available to the public. This information should be drawn from tests and assessments that gauge what children should know and be able to do, rather than norms that merely define average performance. One way to do this would be to allow school districts to have access to their NAEP scores in reading, mathematics, and science.

  • Districts that have been starved for resources for capital improvements and teachers’ salaries should get them. Those that suffer from mismanagement and misallocation of resources need governance reform.

  • Individual public schools should have far greater authority over resources and staffing. The academic standards should be set by city or state officials, but the school should be free to determine how to meet the standards, whom to hire, where to purchase supplies, services, and meals, and how to manage its schedule and organization, so long as it produces satisfactory educational results.

  • Schools must be held accountable for student performance. Public officials must audit schools for educational and fiscal performance and be ready to reconstitute failing schools, suspend charters, and do whatever else is necessary to make sure that persistent failure is not tolerated.

  • Choice should be encouraged by public authorities to stimulate higher performance and customer satisfaction. Families should be able to send their children to the school of their choice.

  • Competition among schools should be encouraged by state and local officials by promoting charter schools, contracting, and low-income vouchers. Good schools will thrive.

In different cities and to different degrees, all of these changes have begun to happen. Tectonic plates are moving slowly but inexorably to change public education, especially where change is needed most. Responding to a concerned public, policymakers in most states are ready to try any reasonable alternative that offers hope of saving the rising generation in our nation’s cities.