Two Separate Problems

Michael Lewyn's picture

Conventional wisdom dictates that middle-class families would find urban schools more tempting if we only "fixed the schools"- a concept that implies that urban public schools are simply unable to educate anyone, because they are either horribly underfunded (in the liberal version of this claim) or horribly mismanaged (in the conservative version).

A few days ago, the National Center for Education Statistics came out with the Mathematics 2009 Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA)(1), a test designed to compare urban school districts.  TUDA tells us, not surprisingly, that public schools in the major cities tested have lower fourth-grade test scores than those of the nation as a whole: the average national score is 239, while the average big-city score is 231.

But there were one statistically significant exception to this rule: Charlotte, North Carolina, which clocked in at 245. What could that city be doing right? Well, its demographic makeup might be relevant: 47 percent of Charlotte students are eligible for subsidized school lunches, far below any other urban system listed (and in fact below the national average of 48 percent).

In fact, when we control for race the suburban advantage disappears: in eight of the eighteen urban school districts tested, white students did better than the national average for whites. And white students performed below the national average in only five. (In most of the rest, whites were either so scarce that test results were statistically insignificant, or performed at about the same level as the national average).

Similarly, among students affluent enough to be ineligible for subsidized lunches, urban students performed as well as the national average: better than the national average in four urban school systems, worse in four, and about the same in ten.

If supposedly bad school districts educated all students badly, we would find that the school districts with the worst scores were the ones in which affluent and white students performed below the national average. But this was not always the case. For example, Washington, D.C's average fourth-grade score was 220, second worst among the listed school districts. But the District's white student population scored an average of 270, above not only the national average, but above the score for top-ranking Charlotte (263). The same was true for Atlanta, whose average score was 225 (fifth from the bottom) but whose white students clocked in at 266. (I note that both these cities no longer have significant white working-class populations; thus, race is a better proxy for affluence there than in some other cities).

On the other hand, "bad" school districts were somewhat worse than the nation as a whole in educating low-income students (defined as those eligible for subsidized lunches). The national average for low-income students was 228; Atlanta low-income students scored 216, and Washington students scored 210, worse than every city but Detroit.(2)  However, the differences between urban schools and the national average were often far lower than the differences between races and classes; for example, the gap between Atlanta's low-income students and the national average was 12 points, but the gap between the national low-income average and the national average for non-low-income students was 22 points.

In sum, the "worst" school districts were often reasonably good at educating the sort of children who can afford suburbia - but were especially bad in educating the children of the poor.

This tells us that the so-called "urban school crisis" is really two separate problems: (1) American schools' collective inability to educate disadvantaged students, and (2) affluent parents' unwillingness to send their children to schools full of those students. The two problems may well have different solutions.  For example, magnet schools for high achievers may be very useful in solving (2) but won't do much to solve problem (1).  Conversely, I am not sure how much progress we would need to make on problem (1) to really affect problem (2).

(1): All data are available at

(2): Statistics for eighth-graders are roughly similar, but differ in that many school districts have so few white students that interracial comparisons are impossible.

Michael Lewyn is an assistant professor at Touro Law Center in Long Island.



Michael Rodriguez's picture

urban schools

Quite interesting that white students still perform above the national average when in an urban school. I truly believe that the school issue is what keeps families from staying in the cities. Yes, many young professionals are moving to urban centers now - but just as many move out once they have children. Ten to fifteen years from now, we will see the change, because of the very perceptions you point out.

One reason this may still happen, however, is a goal of "maximizing" education. Yes, a white student at an urban school will perform better than the "national average." But what about that student at an urban school versus the neighboring suburban district? In the DC area, the presumption is that those students will fare better in Fairfax or Montgomery County schools than in the District.

You point out that "the “worst” school districts were often reasonably good at educating the sort of children who can afford suburbia."

However, "reasonably good" isn't good enough for parents who are seeking "best." If we want the affluent suburban types to move and stay in the city after they have school-aged children, urban schools need to be great, not just "reasonably good." This is especially true when, "best" is only a few miles and a jurisdiction away.

Again, I'm not an apologist for urban flight; quite the contrary. I do wish we can move towards progress in urban schools and get more people living in the city. Simply, I'm attempting to pose a hypothesis for why these parents still choose suburbia in spite of the types of data that Michael just pointed out.

Michael Lewyn's picture

Good students in cities vs. good students in suburbs

Mr. Rodriguez suggests that high-achieving, well-off students in cities might be better off still in suburbs. I can't establish that this is right or wrong; the absence of county-level data (at least for this test) means we can't know. But it seems to me that if I don't know the answer to this question, the average parent CERTAINLY doesn't know. My suspicion is that parents go by reputation, which in turn might not be related to these kind of details.

Michael Rodriguez's picture

RE: Good students in cities vs. good students in suburbs

Mr. Lewyn,

Great point. I certainly think that in terms of perception, the suburban schools almost always win in affluent parents' minds. Its unfortunate that we don't have the data to confirm, or deny, whether suburban Chicago area schools are better than schools in the City of Chicago; Fairfax vs. DC; or pick-your-urban-area comparison. So instead, people rely on heuristics and anecdotes, which heavily favor the bias for suburban area schools.

Then there is also the matter of cherry-picking a specific school. We know that the prestige of a high school can influence land values. So even within a specific school district, there are likely discrepancies from school to school. Miami-Dade Public Schools is a great example - a unified school district with vast differences in upper-middle class high schools to the inner-core urban high schools. Data that is more granular, and compares schools against other schools in the same district but different socio-economic neighborhoods, would be welcome.

It would be great to see if the data does support these perceptions. I would welcome any data that gives better reason to convince young families that its OK to move back to the city. In the end, the burden is to alleviate the anxieties of upper-middle class families - "will my children get a decent enough education? Will they be able to compete for highly competitive colleges with the same advantages of suburban schoolchildren?" I think perceptions rule the answer to those anxieties right now. The academy should certainly begin to address this question in regards to how it influences planning, housing, and urban revitalization efforts. (Grad students, are you also reading that great paper prompt?)

If the education is par, we are always seemingly burdened with more perceptions. Things like safety, quality of facilities, and the frank socio-economic biases of some people, come into play.

A difficult area to address indeed. I thank you for bringing this topic to light with a start on some intriguing data.

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