Special Report

The Urban Challenge

By The Editors — January 08, 1998 7 min read

It’s hard to exaggerate the education crisis in America’s cities.

Words like scandal, failure, corruption, and despair echo in the pages of the nation’s newspapers. They are words that aptly describe many urban districts and the schools within them.

To be sure, some big-city schools and districts evoke words like heroism, commitment, innovation, and success. But these, for the most part, remain the exceptions. Such islands of achievement serve to make even less tolerable the oceans of failure that surround them.

If one school can succeed under the worst conditions, with the neediest children, how can others be permitted to fail?

That is the implicit question this second edition of Quality Counts poses to policymakers, educators, and the American public. The report focuses on urban education because it is here that most states face the greatest gap between their expectations for students and the current reality.

Quality Counts ‘98 provides the most detailed analysis ever of urban education in the 50 states. Included in this analysis are previously unpublished data from the federal government and a survey of 74 large city districts, conducted in collaboration with the Council of the Great City Schools.

Many of the intractable problems that plague city schools are deeply rooted in the poverty, unemployment, crime, racism, and human despair that pervade the neighborhoods around them. Too often, teachers and administrators are asked to solve problems that the public and its leaders in statehouses and city halls have lacked the will and courage to tackle.

Some urban districts are rising to meet the enormous challenges before them. Here and there, test scores are climbing, dropout rates are falling, order is returning, and children are learning. Invariably, in these pockets of success we found bold leadership, imaginative initiatives, and extraordinary efforts by individual teachers and administrators.

But the problems still overwhelm the progress. And urban schools are fighting a battle they cannot win without strong support from local, state, and federal political leaders, and from voters and taxpayers outside the cities. If the states, in particular, do not accept this challenge, the continuing national movement to improve schools will fail. Today, one out of every four American children--11 million young people--goes to school in an urban district.


  • Urban students are far less likely to graduate on time than nonurban students.
  • Some 43 percent of minority children attend urban schools. Most of them attend schools in which more than half the students are poor and that are predominately, often completely, minority.
  • In about half the states with large cities, a majority of urban students fail to meet even minimum standards on national tests.
  • The poorest students are at greatest risk. In urban schools where most of the students are poor, two-thirds or more of children fail to reach even the “basic” level on national tests.
  • Schools in urban districts tend to be larger, have higher truancy rates, and less involvement from parents than other schools. Urban teachers are twice as likely as other teachers to report that violence is a problem in their schools.
  • Big-city districts are twice as likely a nonurban one to hire teachers who have no license or who have only an emergency or temporary license.
  • Of the 49 urban districts that responded to an Education Week survey, 15 reported that it would take $500 million or more to restore their building to good condition.
  • Statistics tell only part of the story. So, in this report, we look beyond the numbers to a grandmother in Cleveland struggling to get by on welfare and keep her six grandchildren in school. To a 17-year-old Vietnamese immigrant in San Diego who loves computers and hopes to become a doctor. To a Houston elementary school principal who refuses to make excuses for her students.

    As an example of an urban school district in trouble, we looked at Cleveland--a city that in recent years has enjoyed an urban renaissance. We chose the district because it is struggling simultaneously with virtually all of the problems that plague big-city systems.

    To balance that portrait, we also searched for a solidly successful urban district, in which even extremely poor and minority children achieve at high levels. Significantly, there are none. But we found in America’s cities some of the most exciting innovations in education.

    The State of the States. As promised a year ago, this edition of Quality Counts continues to chronicle the progress--or lack of progress--toward education reform in the 50 states. Last year, on average, the states received a solid C in academic standards and assessments, quality of teaching, school environment, and the equity, adequacy, and allocation of their education resources.

    One year later, the states still earn a C. But they are pushing ahead. Many are now working to align their student assessments with their standards, strengthen accountability, increase the choice available to students, and improve the preparation and licensing of new teachers.

    In collaboration with the Council for Basic Education, Quality Counts ‘98 also includes the first evaluation of how state standards in English and mathematics measure up against national standards in those subjects.

    Here is what we found:

    • Achievement: Seven states--Colorado, Connecticut, Indiana, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia--made significant gains between 1992 and 1996 in the percent of their 4th graders who scored at the “proficient” level or above on the math portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
  • Standards: Iowa is now the only state that is not developing statewide standards for what students should know and be able to do. But the rigor of state standards varies widely. Only one state--New Jersey--earned an A for the rigor of its math standards. Only one state--lllinois--received an A for the rigor of its English/language arts standards.
  • Teaching: State are pushing hard to upgrade the quality of the teaching force. Twenty have adopted standards for what new teachers should know and be able to do. And 16 of those are devising new tests for teachers that will assess whether they have the necessary knowledge and skills.
  • Climate: This year, we include new information on parent involvement in schools and the picture is not good. A majority of 8th graders in 19 states attend schools where cshool officials say the lack of parent involvement is a problem.
  • Resources: States remain uneven in whether they distribute school dollars equitably, finance schools adequately, and ensure that the resources reach the classroom.
  • This report also includes the findings of a new survey of parents, teachers, employers, and college professors, prepared especially for Quality Counts by Public Agenda and paid for by the Pew Charitable Trusts. The survey found that the debate about education standards is seeping into communities and classrooms across the nation, but that it has yet to ratchet up expectations on a day-to-day basis. Employers and college professors still have grave doubts about the level of preparedness among high school graduates.

    Organization. Quality Counts ‘98 is divided into four sections. “The Urban Challenge” focuses on our special theme for this year.

    Section two, “Reality Check,” reports on a survey by Public Agenda that looks at how standards are playing out in communities across America. Section three, “The State of the States,” looks at student performance and more than 75 indicators of the health of each state’s public education system. Section four, “State by State,” includes detailed narratives exploring urban education in each state that has at least one significant urban center, based on reporting by Education Week staff members. This section also includes an update on state policies in education. And it includes our state-by-state report cards.

    Some definitions. An “urban” district in this report is defined as one in which 75 percent or more of the households served are in the central city of a metropolitan area. According to this definition, developed for us by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, there are 575 such districts in the United States.

    In addition, we examined in detail 75 cities and their school districts. (See page 62.) These districts represent about 14 percent of all urban district nationwide. We selected the 75 cities so that there would be at least one in every state, with the exception of nine overwhelmingly rural states. In some places, this report refers to 74 rather than 75 districts. That is because Hawaii does not have separate school systems, so it was impossible to break out data for schools in Honolulu compared with the rest of the state.

    We defined “high poverty” schools as those in which more than half the students qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches.

    Quality Counts is produced with support from the Pew Charitable Trusts.
    A version of this article appeared in the January 08, 1998 edition of Education Week as The Urban Challenge