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Learning from Chicago's Schools

As the north side of Chicago has gentrified, many Chicago schools' test scores have improved- evidence that if a city neighborhood attracts enough affluent families, its schools will become more attractive as well.
Michael Lewyn | @mlewyn | January 24, 2014, 1pm PST
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In November, the Urbanophile blog featured an interesting post on Chicago's public schools.  The post points out that as some of Chicago's northern neighborhoods have gentrified, the neighborhood schools in those areas have improved.  In 2001, only three Chicago neighborhood schools had over 25 percent of their students get an "exceeding standards" score on a state-run standardized test.  By contrast, in 2013 fifteen schools achieved that level of accomplishment- mostly in well-off areas.  What does this reality tell us?

As the author of the Urbanophile post, Daniel Hertz, points out, it tells us that "economic background is the single best predictor of a child's academic success" - and because it is the best predictor of a child's success, it is the best predictor of a school's success, whether that school be urban or suburban.  It logically follows that some common beliefs about urban and schools are false.  To name a few:

1. "City schools stink because they are run by liberal Democrats/incompetent teachers' unions/stifling bureaucracy." No, city schools have bad reputations because their students are from disadvantaged backgrounds.  Chicago's example shows that even in an urban school system with a bad reputation, well-off students will do well no matter who runs the teacher's union or the school board.  As one commenter on the Urbanophile blog wrote: "Test scores completely correlate to family income and stability. If you say a school is “good” based on the percentage of kids who pass a test, you are fooling yourself that teacher quality has anything to do with it."

2.  "City schools stink because cities have a weak tax base."  If this was true, all city schools within a district would be pretty similar- but again, the success of schools with middle-class students shows that a school's success depends on its pupils' socio-economic status, not on the municipal tax base.  Moreover, when city schools full of poor people outspend suburban schools, they achieve the same mediocre results as underfunded school systems.  For example, in the 1980s and 1990s federal courts sought to desegregate the Kansas City schools by ordering increased spending on city schools- so much so that Kansas City spent 30 percent more than the most well-funded suburb. However, suburban whites did not return to the schools, nor did the city/suburban test score gap close.

3. "The middle class won't come back to cities until the schools are fixed." This isn't a complete falsehood, but it does confuse cause and effect.  The middle class returning to the schools is precisely what will fix the schools, not vice versa.  If gentrification causes an urban school to become dominated by pupils with well-off parents, the school will magically improve.  If vouchers or magnet schools cause the creation of heavily high-income schools, those schools will also be perceived as "good" schools by many parents. 

On the other hand, cities can try to block "school gentrification" by somehow ensuring that every urban school continues to have a large low-income population, in the name of "equity."  This policy was tried (using race as a measure rather than income) in most urban American schools in the 1970s; as a result, white parents moved to the suburbs en masse.  As long as suburbs are allowed to have heavily middle- and high-income schools, parents will prefer such schools, and such egalitarian policies will have the same dismal results as they did in the 1970s.  

4. "If schools in gentrifying areas improve but other schools aren't, that would be terrible because public schools are an egalitarian institution." No, they aren't.  Public schools reflect their students, and the alleged egalitarian promise of public education is, at least in the schools as currently constituted, about as real as the Easter Bunny.  

It may the case that with some never-tried policy, socio-economic gaps in educational achievement will be reduced so significantly that the high-income lion will lay with the low-income lamb.  It may also be the case that cancer will be cured next week.  I cannot say that either of these wondrous achievements will never happen; I can say only that I have no idea how to achieve either one of them, and that as far as I know, no city has shown the nation how to achieve either one of them. 

Hertz sees the success of Chicago's "better" schools as problematic; he worried about if a school becomes too affluent, low-income children won't benefit from the improved schools.  This argument seems to me to be based on the assumption that low-income students in the "better" schools are in fact benefitting from the presence of their higher-income peers.  But there is no reason (at least based on the data supplied by Hertz) to believe that this is the case.  It might be the case that a high-performance school's test scores are the same, controlling for income, as they were in 2001: if this were true, neither the high-income nor the low-income students would be any better off than in 2001, but the school's overall score would have risen only because the first group has become more numerous. As one commenter to Hertz's post wrote: "You can move low-income kids into the “good” schools and they will still perform less well than their more affluent peers."*

*Of course, it could be argued that the low-income children will still perform somewhat better than they would in a homogenously low-income school.  I express no opinion on this question here, and may address the implications of this possibility in a future blog post. 

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