Equity & Diversity

Suburban Schools Have Changed Drastically. Our Understanding of Them Has Not

By Corey Mitchell — January 26, 2021 2 min read
Image of a suburb.
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What comes to mind when you picture an urban school district? How about a suburban district?

If those images are completely different, you may need to re-evaluate your answer.

Suburban school districts were once mostly white and affluent spaces outside of city boundaries, but those spaces have undergone significant demographic shifts—and yet our public understanding of them has not kept up, argues a leading scholar on race in education.
Differences between urban and suburban districts are less distinct than people think, John Diamond, a sociologist of education and the Kellner Family Distinguished Chair in Urban Education at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and two colleagues explain in their recently released study, Reframing Suburbs: Race, Place and Opportunity in Suburban Educational Spaces.
Schools in the suburbs are not havens from issues, such as poverty and educational inequity, that city schools have long grappled with. Diamond said that makes them ideal locations to study key issues that communities must confront: economic inequality, white supremacy and why school segregation still persists nearly 70 years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision.

While much of the focus on school segregation focuses on divides across district borders, the in-district boundaries also play a major role in the schools and opportunities that students have access to, the researchers argue. Public resistance to local school integration plans has emerged as an issue in suburban districts across the country.

“Racial inequality is built into the bedrock of suburbia, and this understanding of suburban schooling necessitates understanding how place and race intersect,” the authors wrote in their analysis.

Overall, the focus on the urban-suburban divide continues to shape research funding, how school leadership is studied and what undergraduate and graduate courses aspiring teachers and school administrators, Diamond said. In those contexts, ‘urban schools’ is often shorthand for districts that are majority non-white, have a significant number of families living in poverty and have sizable immigrant and English-language learner populations.

“There’s a fascination with city schools,” Diamond said in an interview with Education Week. “The way that people study leadership and education is often focused on urban leadership and urban schools. There may be courses on rural education, because that tends to be a category that people pay attention to, but suburban often gets overlooked.”

That is despite the fact that the majority of the nation’s K-12 public school students attend suburban schools.

While a growing body of research has begun to document the demographic shift and inequities in suburban education, more work remains.
To better understand the shifts in suburban education, Diamond and his colleagues also call for more researchers to push beyond the binary Black-white view of race to examine how Latino, Asian and indigenous students and their families experience education in racially diverse suburbs and how educators have adapted to change.

Teachers and principals are working in districts “that don’t look like they did 15 years ago and they’re grappling with issues that they may not have thought they were have to going to understand,” Diamond told Education Week. “The demographic shifts that people experience make them anxious and hungry to find out more information about how to respond to those changes.”

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