Equity & Diversity

The Perception of Suburban Schools as White and Wealthy Needs to Change, Researchers Say

By Libby Stanford — November 29, 2023 3 min read
Peggy Carr, Commissioner of the National Center for Education, speaks during an interview with The Associated Press about the National Assessment of Education Process on Oct. 21, 2022, in Washington.
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Suburban schools have become notably more diverse over the past decade, to the point where they roughly mirror the racial composition of the nation’s public school students.

But the view of suburban communities as wealthy, white enclaves persists.

That view has to change if suburban schools are to equitably serve their students, according to a group of researchers who spoke Wednesday at a conference on suburban schools at Johns Hopkins University’s new Bloomberg Center here. If educators and policymakers maintain this traditional view of suburbs, they risk not serving well the student body that actually attends suburban schools, they said.

“I would actually argue the image of the suburbs as private, as property, as white, as the American dream in that fashion, is dead,” L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy, an associate professor of sociology of education at New York University, said in a speech at the conference. “But the suburbs themselves are vibrant.”

Nearly 40 percent of American students attend school in a suburban area, which means suburban communities now account for the largest share of the nation’s students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, a division of the U.S. Department of Education.

In recent years, that population has grown increasingly diverse, NCES data show.

In 2022, 46 percent of the students in suburban schools were white, down from a majority, or 55 percent, in 2011. Meanwhile, 27 percent of students at suburban public schools were Hispanic, up from 22 percent 11 years earlier. Thirteen percent of suburban students were Black, compared with 14 percent in 2011, and 8 percent were Asian, up from 6 percent in 2011.

“It used to be … the suburbs are mostly white, the urban areas are mostly Black and brown, but you can forget that,” NCES Commissioner Peggy Carr said at the conference, which was titled “Suburban Schools, Urban Realities.” “That’s not really the way it’s trending anymore.”

And the traditional perception of suburban schools as being immune from some of the challenges present in urban and rural schools doesn’t apply, either.

Suburban schools have experienced challenges with chronic absenteeism, declines in academic achievement, student mental health problems, and staffing shortages in recent years, just as schools in other settings have. In some cases, the challenges in suburban schools have been more pronounced.

While all students saw a historic decline in math and reading performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2022, suburban schools saw a particularly steep drop in math achievement, with their students’ average score dropping by five points from the 2019 assessment. That placed suburban schools at the same level as rural schools, which they previously outperformed.

The shifting demographics can’t be ignored, and they could have massive implications, researchers said during the conference.

What diversity means for the future of suburban schools

Since the creation of suburban neighborhoods, views of the suburbs have been tied to the prosperity of white people, said Karyn Lacy, a sociology professor at the University of Michigan and a conference panelist.

That has led to some tension in suburban communities as they grow in diversity. For example, in one community Lacy has studied, she witnessed white residents argue that the school district should ban curriculum and instruction related to critical race theory and the 1619 Project, a curriculum tied to a New York Times Magazine initiative that makes slavery central to the teaching of U.S. history.

“Many of the white residents who spoke out really spoke about Black people and Latinx kids as sort of guests in their space, not as legitimate members of their community,” Lacy said.

As people continue to operate under preconceived notions of suburban schools as mostly white and wealthy, students of color feel abandoned, said James Earl Davis, the chair in urban education at Temple University.

“Where there’s this kind of dream and nostalgia of achievement, what suburbia means to people in suburban schools, that same dream is not being experienced by many Black families and Black students in the classroom,” he said.

Schools and policymakers can combat racial divisions in increasingly diverse suburban schools by being aware of their growing diversity in the first place, the researchers said.

Policymakers also need to commit to strategies to increase the diversity of teachers in suburban schools, Davis said.

“There’s a kind of perfect storm around achievement that we’re seeing, where schools are becoming more diverse and the teaching workforce is becoming less diverse,” Davis said.

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