In recent years, many of America’s urban schools have improved significantly. A 2016 report from the Urban Institute found that while all the country’s public-school students improved in the decade starting in 2005, the gain for those in large cities was double that of the U.S. average; the advances are especially pronounced in kids’ reading scores. With these strides, the achievement gap between city districts and their suburban and rural counterparts closed by roughly a third during that same period.
In some cases, the gap is all but nonexistent. Take, for example, Chicago, which in the late 1980s was notoriously deemed the country’s “worst school system” by then-Education Secretary William J. Bennett. A number of recent studies have shown that while standardized-test scores across Illinois have been flattening for the past decade or so, achievement in Chicago’s public-school district (CPS) has been steadily rising.
In fact, data from 11,000 school districts studied by Stanford researchers last year suggest that CPS ranks first in the nation for academic growth, and state statistics show that its students’ college-attendance rates are steadily improving, too: Sixty-five percent of the district’s 2018 graduates enrolled in college within a year after getting their diploma, compared with an average of 75 percent across the state. CPS students’ college-going prospects still fall toward the bottom when compared with those in most nearby districts, but they’re far from the worst—and the Stanford researchers’ findings around future growth in CPS indicate that its students’ postsecondary-achievement levels are poised to continue improving.
But middle-class, white parents tend to make assumptions otherwise—and research suggests that those assumptions are the result of racial biases. A recent study in the journal City & Community based on survey data out of eight metropolitan areas in the U.S. suggests that residents—including, presumably, parents—frequently harbor negative associations with the term urban and, by extension, “inner-city” communities and institutions, such as schools. To them, these words may connote scenes of educational dysfunction—rows of decrepit classrooms, for example, each stocked with an overworked teacher and a cluster of indignant teens, almost all of them poor students of color.
By contrast, the study pointed to evidence that the term suburban tends to elicit images of productivity and well-being among white parents. Of course, these stereotypes that white, middle-class parents harbor aren’t simply about population density, but about race, with urban standing in for predominantly black or Latino. A number of studies have shown that white parents tend to select schools with lower proportions of black students, regardless of school quality.
“We know that these terms, which might seem like they are neutral descriptions of physical spaces, are not neutral,” says Shelley Kimelberg, a sociologist at the University at Buffalo who co-authored the study with the Wichita State University sociology professor Chase Billingham. “They reflect people’s lived experiences and the social environment.” According to Kimelberg, the influence an individual’s personal experiences have in shaping how she defines the term urban contributes to a feedback loop, cementing “the idea that urban equals bad school and suburban equals good school.”
In their study, Kimelberg and Billingham analyzed data from a survey of residents in metropolitan areas across the U.S. When controlling for other factors, every one-point increase in whites’ perception of their neighborhood’s school quality was associated with a 15 percent decrease in the odds that they would describe their area as “urban.” The same effect was not evident among people of color.
Jack Schneider, a historian who studies education, has described this as “a gap in perceptions,” pointing as one example to public-opinion polls finding that while parents consistently give high marks to their own neighborhood schools, they also tend to report a lack of confidence in U.S. public education as a whole.
One of the most glaring manifestations of this gap, Schneider has argued, is the stigma against urban schools. Not only do stereotypes fail to acknowledge the variation within these districts, as Kimelberg’s study highlights, but they also place too much emphasis on test-score data, which, as Schneider has shown, provide a flawed illustration of school quality. For example, one 2006 study found that a majority (60 percent) of the variance in students’ test scores is attributable to kids’ lives outside of the classroom—where they live and with whom. The quality of instruction, including things like teacher characteristics, had little bearing on exam performance. Other research has found that the quality of one’s schooling plays a very limited role in determining whether she climbs up the economic ladder later in life.
Yet the stigma persists, and the tragedy of all this is that the stigma itself is a key reason educational inequality remains. Despite signs of a reversal in the white flight that crippled urban school districts following desegregation orders tracing back to the late 1960s and ’70s, research suggests that the country is seeing a new iteration of income-based housing segregation driven almost exclusively by affluent families with children. By moving to certain neighborhoods in pursuit of what they perceive to be good schools and to flee what they perceive to be bad ones, they contribute to school-funding inequalities by taking resources and social capital with them.
Chicago Public Schools, where close to nine in 10 students are black or Latino, offers a case study for these trends. The district has in recent years engaged in earnest efforts to attract middle-class families—launching International Baccalaureate programs at a slew of high schools, for example, and building new schools in white neighborhoods.
And, perhaps in part as a result, a body of scholarship corroborates the turnaround narrative that district officials have—sometimes suspiciously—long been touting. For example: CPS students, no matter the demographic subgroup, generally perform better than their peers in other Illinois school districts. These results are partly attributable to the district’s rising graduation rates and scores on the ACT college-entrance exam, but they also owe themselves to growing poverty and racial diversity in suburban school districts—a trend that Kimbelberg highlighted when reflecting on the outdated or otherwise flawed assumptions that seem to inform people’s mental associations with the words suburban and urban.
Despite these changes, CPS has struggled to generate a critical mass of middle-class parents interested in its public schools—at least beyond those schools where students need a certain test score to get in. While reporting by WBEZ shows that the rate of families in Chicago who choose to send their children to their neighborhood school has declined, the trend is particularly evident among white families. Just half of Chicago’s white, school-age children attend the city’s public schools, compared with about 80 percent of their black counterparts, according to a 2014 report by WBEZ; the remainder attend other types of schools, like charters, magnets, or private institutions.
This dynamic, which is seen in urban areas across the country that give parents significant choice over where to send their kids to school, has been found to exacerbate educational stratification and racial segregation. The result is that even when urban districts improve a little, they struggle to improve a lot. And yet another generation passes through an education system defined by its unevenness and its racial divides.