The Truth About Urban Schools

Conversations about urbanism always eventually end up going in the direction of education policy. After all, absent better schools, the city will always be a place for poor people, very rich people, and young people rather than for the mainstream of American life. To that end, it's worth noting that a lot of people's ideas about the quality of urban schools are mistaken, as you can see from a look inside the results of the NAEP mathematics test as revealed in the Trial Urban District Assessment from 2005. First off, consider the number of eighth grader who rate as "below basic" (this is bad):


That's your classic "big city, bad schools" chart with DC, New York, and Boston all doing far worse than the national average. Except it turns out that demographic factors have a huge influence on school achievement. Big city school systems tend to contain a higher-than-average number of poor kids, and poor kids tend to do worse than middle class kids, so cities wind up with bad test results. What if we restrict our sample and just look at how kids from economically struggling families, the ones eligible for federally subsidized school lunches, are doing?


Here things look very different. Once we control for demographics, it turns out that New York and Boston don't have "failing inner city schools" at all -- on eighth grade math scores, their schools are actually doing a slightly better than average job of educating poor children. Their overall numbers are pulled down by their larger-than-average number of poor kids, but when you add appropriate controls their school system is doing fine. DC, by contrast, does have a challenging population, but also is doing a crappy job relative to the challenge.

Now of course things change a little bit if you look at 4th grade instead of 8th grade or reading instead of math, or middle class kids only instead of poor kids only, or the high end or the low end, but the basic pattern is pretty robust -- New York and especially Boston have average public school systems masked by difficult demographics, whereas DC has a shitty public school system whose badness is masked by clichés about bad big city schools. Here's 4th grade scores among lunch-eligible kids:

non-poor kids who did well on the test:


So to make a long story short, when talking about this issue it helps to be precise. All across the United States we have a problem with kids from disadvantaged backgrounds doing poorly in school. We also see kids from disadvantaged backgrounds overrepresented in urban school systems. Consequently, average results from city school systems tend to be below average. But when you use appropriate demographic controls you see that there's huge city-to-city variation and also a huge amount being determined by the demographics.

Some cities -- i.e., Washington DC -- really do have sub-standard school systems and would do well to implement reforms that made DCPS get results more like what you see in Boston or New York. But even if all cities did get the level of performance that you see from the best cities, there would still be a problem insofar as poor kids tend to do badly even in "good" schools in the United States.