Journal Issue: Excellence in the Classroom Volume 17 Number 1 Spring 2007
A Portrait of Urban Districts and Schools
What is an urban school? For many Americans, the term urban school evokes an image of a dilapidated school building in a poor inner-city neighborhood populated with African American or Hispanic children. How accurate is that image? By definition, of course, urban schools are located in large central cities. But although these communities are often characterized by high rates of poverty, poverty itself is not unique to urban areas and can be found, in particular, in many schools in the nation’s rural areas. In this section I highlight key features of urban schools and school districts that distinguish them from both rural and suburban districts. I then show how those features contribute to the staffing challenges faced by these districts.
The statistics shown in table 1 present a detailed portrait of urban schools and communities. Unless otherwise noted, the data are drawn from the Schools and Staffing Survey of 2003–04, a nationally representative survey administered by the Department of Education. The top panel confirms that urban districts do indeed have high shares of poor and minority students. Roughly 64 percent of students in central cities are minority, as against only 32 percent in areas on the urban fringe or large towns (hereafter I will refer to these areas as suburbs). Similarly, 56 percent of students in central cities participate in free lunch programs and 40 percent receive services under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (federal funds earmarked for poor children), compared with 32 and 20 percent, respectively, in suburbs. On average, urban students score lower on standardized achievement exams than their suburban counterparts. For example, only 17 percent of fourth graders in central cities scored at the proficient level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) math exam, compared with 27 percent in suburban schools.
Poverty, as noted, is a feature of rural districts as well as urban districts. So is low student achievement. And urban schools resemble rural schools—and differ from suburban schools—in two other respects. First, like some of the nation’s rural schools (see the article by David Monk in this volume), urban schools educate many of the nation’s immigrant children, for whom English is a second language. The share of students classified as limited English proficient is twice as high in central cities as it is in suburbs (17.3 versus 8.2 percent). Indeed, many large U.S. cities educate children from dozens (or even hundreds) of different nations. In New York City schools, for example, students speak more than 120 languages.3 This rich array of languages makes it harder for schools to communicate with parents and also limits districts’ ability to offer any home language instruction (whether full-blown bilingual education or simply periodic assistance in the home language) to many of their students. Again like students in rural schools in some areas of the nation, students in urban schools tend to have extremely high rates of mobility.4 And when teachers are forced to adjust to accommodate an ever-changing set of students, this high mobility becomes disruptive not only for the “movers” but also for stable students.
The portrait of central cities drawn by the table is rather bleak: rates of unemployment, poverty, and crime are all high. The jobless rate in urban areas, for example, averaged 7.5 percent, as against 4.6 percent in the suburbs. And the rate of violent crime per 100,000 inhabitants was 506 in urban areas, compared with 377 in the suburbs (and only 202 in nonmetropolitan counties). Beyond tangible measures of disadvantage such as poverty or crime, some researchers have also argued that many inner-city neighborhoods suffer from poor “social capital”—the informal connections between people that help a community monitor its children, provide positive role models, and give support to those in need.5
Urban and suburban schools also differ from each other in terms of the resources available to students and teachers, although the many compensatory state and federal programs reduce the size of the disparities. Indeed, per pupil expenditures were higher in cities than in the suburbs—$7,812 compared with $7,542, according to the 2004 SASS data. Such aggregate statistics, however, likely mask the extent of the disparities because they do not account for regional differences in the cost of living. They also fail to distinguish between the most and least underresourced urban schools.
Many urban districts must contend with an eroding tax base, which makes them unusually dependent on state and federal funding. That reliance on outside actors further constrains urban districts. With the cost of living often higher in urban than in suburban and rural areas, urban school districts may have a harder time attracting workers, whether teachers or maintenance workers, than would private sector employers, who may be better able to adjust wages accordingly.
Differences in other “tangible” resources are small. For example, roughly 38 percent of urban schools were using temporary buildings, compared with 34 percent of suburban schools, and fewer teachers in urban schools reported that they did not have their own classrooms because of lack of space. More than 90 percent of schools in both types of districts reported having a library media center and computer workstations with Internet access.
Finally, urban districts are much larger than their suburban or rural counterparts. In some respects, that large size may be an advantage. For example, large urban districts might be able to negotiate better rates with suppliers (of computers or telephones, for example) and can mount large-scale recruiting efforts that would be impossible for districts that hire only a handful of teachers each year. Districts like New York City and Chicago, for example, recruit not only nationwide but from foreign countries as well. But the large size of many urban districts may also entail disadvantages. Large districts are more likely to have complicated bureaucratic systems that prevent them from acting quickly and decisively. They also tend to face strong and well-organized teacher unions, which limit the authority of district leaders.
The size difference also affects competition between schools. The economist Caroline Hoxby has argued that competition between school districts (generally suburban districts) leads schools in these districts to become more efficient, since they must satisfy demanding parents or risk falling enrollments.6 As Hoxby sees it, the key to such competition is that families in many suburban areas can easily move from one suburban district to another. Although other researchers have criticized Hoxby’s analysis, it is certainly true that, at least in theory, there may be important benefits of competition between schools.7 Hence, it is important to understand the type and extent of competition that urban districts face. Urban districts do not face serious competition from each other (though they do face competition from suburban districts).8 But urban school districts face considerably more competition from private schools than do suburban or rural districts. Statistics from the SASS indicate that roughly 13 percent of children in central cities attend private schools, compared with only 9 percent in suburbs. Of course, one reason for that discrepancy may be that parents are dissatisfied with urban school education. But the high population density in cities makes private schools more cost-effective to operate, thus increasing the potential supply of private schools.