Special Report

Barriers to Success

By Lynn Olson & Craig D. Jerald — January 08, 1998 3 min read

When people talk about the problems in public education, they’re usually not talking about suburbs or small towns. They’re talking about big-city schools--specifically the ones that serve poor children.

Urban students perform far worse, on average, than children who live outside central cities on virtually every measure of academic performance. The longer they stay in school, the wider that gap grows.

Every city has its lighthouse schools, where poor and minority children achieve at high levels. These schools prove that inner-city youngsters can succeed. But such excellence rarely transcends individual schools. As Martin Haberman, a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, puts it, “There are no model urban school systems.”

Too many city districts are overwhelmed by invasive politics, a rapid turnover in administrators, inadequate and ill-spent resources, a shortage of good principals and teachers, conflicts with teachers’ unions, disengaged or angry parents, and apathy--if not outright antagonism--from state lawmakers.

The causes of these problems cannot all be laid at the feet of the districts. Since World War II, America’s big cities have struggled with the middle-class flight to suburbia and the loss of manufacturing jobs. Since 1970, neighborhoods in city after city have collapsed under the weight of poverty and neglect.

“The children of the inner city are a minority isolated in many ways from mainstream American society,” William L. Taylor, a civil rights lawyer, said in a speech at Stanford University last year. Today, one of every four children attends an urban school. Forty-three percent of America’s minority children go to an urban public school, as do 35 percent of poor children.

“What’s at stake? America’s future, nothing short of that,” says Hugh B. Price, the president of the National Urban League. “Where are the employee and entrepreneurs and neighbors and taxpayers of America of the 21st century going to come from? They will increasingly be drawn from urban public schools.”

Mayors have gotten the message. Richard M. Daley of Chicago, Michael R. White of Cleveland, and Thomas M. Menino of Boston, among others, have shown a willingness to assume much greater responsibility for the schools in their cities.

Can urban schools rouse themselves from decades of torpor? That depends on whom you ask. “I don’t think any of the big cities has any grip at all on what to do to make the schools better,” says Paul T. Hill, the director of the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington.

But Wilma Brown, the former chairwoman of the board of the Council of the Great City Schools, a membership organization of urban districts, asserts that “America’s urban schools are coming back.” Many big-city districts have raised their standards for what students should know and are recommitting themselves to a focus on results. Quality Counts ‘98 documents a number of instances where such changes are taking hold.

“There’s still a great deal of uncertainty as to whether large systems can deliver,” argues Robert S. Peterkin, the director of Harvard University’s Urban Superintendents Program.

But, he adds, “you have places like Boston and Philadelphia and New York where a firm leader has insisted that a comprehensive program be put in place to focus on the issue of student achievement, and then has backed it up with an accountability system that has some bite to it.”

No one these days expects that a single leader can ride in on a white horse and rescue an embattled urban district. The fundamental and wrenching change required to bring the vast majority of city students up to high standard will require long-term, concerted effort from many people: parents, teachers, principals, politicians, community groups, public agencies, businesses, and religious leaders.

States, too, must play a big role--one that many have for too long ignored. Some have taken the lead in setting high academic standards and expecting all students to meet them, but in too many statehouses the attitude remains that urban schools are someone else’s problem.

Solutions exist. But the clock is ticking. The public’s money and patience are running short.

“I’m not sure how much longer I’m going to continue to argue for these large-scale bureaucracies in cities that don’t contribute any value added for student performance,” says Richard Elmore, a professor at Harvard’s graduate school of education. “Unless they get control of that, they don’t deserve to exist.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 08, 1998 edition of Education Week as Barriers To Success