A New Era in Urban Education?

Subscribe to governance weekly, diane ravitch diane ravitch nonresident senior fellow - governance studies.

August 1, 1998

  • 15 min read

Many educators have come to realize that poverty and language barriers in urban schools are unacceptable excuses for appallingly low student performance. To write off these districts’ dismal achievement levels as inevitable is to consign a generation of city youth to lives without prospects or hope. Reform’s day has come. The rescue of urban schools entails dismantling entrenched and patronage-driven school board bureaucracies, holding schools accountable for their performance, and encouraging well-planned experimentation with charter and contract schools, and vouchers.

POLICY BRIEF #35

By any measure, student performance in the nation’s urban schools is low. In urban schools that enroll high proportions of poor students, performance is appallingly low. While almost every urban district has some exceptionally effective schools, outcomes for most students and most schools compare unfavorably to those in non-urban districts. School officials usually explain the dismal results by referring to the large concentrations of poor and non-English-speaking students in cities and to the fact that poverty is highly correlated with low academic achievement.

At a conference on urban education at Brookings last May, sponsored by the Brown Center on Education Policy, scholars and school superintendents agreed that urban schools are due for a massive overhaul. The new wave of school reform now underway rejects the idea that the failure of a huge proportion of poor children in the inner cities is inevitable. To accept educational failure on the current scale among poor children in urban public schools is to consign a large segment of the rising generation to lives without hope. The deliberations of the conference, which will be published early next year as the second volume of the Brookings Papers on Education Policy, considered the prospects for a variety of changes to the education system, including the introduction of charter schools, private contracting, and vouchers.

Performance in Urban Schools

Urban schools enroll 24 percent of all public school students in the United States, 35 percent of poor students, and 43 percent of minority students. In a massive survey of urban education, Education Week concluded that “most 4th graders who live in U.S. cities can’t read and understand a simple children’s book, and most 8th graders can’t use arithmetic to solve a practical problem.” Slightly more than half of big-city students are unable to graduate from high school in the customary four years, and many of those who do manage to graduate are ill-prepared for higher education or the workplace. Performance is worst in high-poverty schools, explain the Education Week editors, yet poverty is not the only reason for low performance: “Somehow, simply being in an urban school seems to drag performance down. Students in urban schools where the majority of children are poor are more likely to do poorly on tests than their peers who attend high-poverty schools outside cities.” The odds are against poor students in urban public schools. Equally disadvantaged students in urban Catholic schools outperform their public school peers and are far less likely to drop out.

On tests administered by the federally-funded National Assessment of Educational Progress, students in high-poverty schools in cities fall far behind all others. As Figure 1 shows, 63 percent of 4th grade students in nonurban schools across the nation reach the basic level in reading as compared to 43 percent of students in urban schools. In high-poverty schools in urban districts, only 23 percent of 4th graders meet that minimal standard. The urban-nonurban gap is even larger in some states (see Figure 2). Even more surprising, however, are the large differences between students in high-poverty schools in urban and nonurban districts. Poor children in city schools are far less likely to meet the basic achievement level on NAEP tests than poor children who do not live in cities.

Some Contributing Factors

Urban education suffers from many problems, but worst among them is the spread of dense areas of poverty, where multiple social ills converge. The correlates of poverty—poor health, inadequate housing, high crime rates, single-parent families, substance abuse—create an environment in which heroic efforts are necessary in order to sustain aspirations for the future and a willingness to work hard for delayed benefits. In some cities—such as East St. Louis, Illinois, and Camden, New Jersey, Detroit, New Orleans, Hartford, Miami, Atlanta, Cleveland, and Dayton—more than 40 percent of the children live in poverty. Schools can provide health services, adult education, and a variety of other programs to assist children and their families, but in the end their primary responsibility is to provide a superior education to the children; if they don’t do it, no other institution will. For children in poverty, effective schools are crucial; the schools are their last, best hope for a better life. Schools cannot create economic activity or jobs; what they can do is to teach children the knowledge and skills without which they cannot improve their life prospects.

Urban schools are not meeting this fundamental expectation. Not only is performance strikingly poor, but in many districts, school buildings are in disrepair, supplies are inadequate, and teachers’ salaries are not competitive with neighboring suburbs. Because of what are often poor working conditions and non-competitive salaries, urban districts have trouble attracting and retaining well-qualified teachers. Nationally, 39.5 percent of science teachers lack either an undergraduate major or minor in science and 34 percent of mathematics teachers lack either a major or minor in mathematics. The figures are even higher in urban districts. For example, in urban schools where half or more of the students are poor, 45 percent of the mathematics teachers have neither a major nor a minor in mathematics.

The large bureaucracies that are responsible for urban schools seem incapable of effective management, even when they do have the resources to repair their buildings and pay better salaries. Big-city school bureaucracies often seem to adopt self-serving strategies that protect administrative jobs rather than children. They have mastered the art of continual reform, loudly trumpeting the latest initiative, even though these heralded reforms do not produce significant change in the educational outcomes for children. The track record of these school systems has given rise to suspicion that additional resources will be absorbed by dubious one-shot programs and administrative spending, without any effect on what happens in the classroom.

Many school reformers believe that the current governance system is incapable of improving the achievement of inner-city students or creating the kind of schools that can successfully educate poor children. Urban schools continue to work on the assumption that there is one best way to manage every issue and that those who work in the central offices know best. Regardless of who is superintendent or who are members of the school board, administrators in the central office control the budget, hire and assign staff, and issue directives to the schools. Important decisions are made at central headquarters, not at the school. Compliance with rules and regulations is prized more than performance. Those who are closest to the children—the principals and teachers—are robbed of initiative by the nature of the system. Urban school systems are uncomfortable with the principle of student or teacher choice of assignment; they prefer a system in which all schools are as nearly identical as possible, with students and teachers as interchangeable as widgets. These systems are characterized by their absence of clear standards, acceptance of social promotion, lack of accountability, and administrative bloat. The proliferation of federal and state programs, many designed to correct urban problems, have exacerbated the bureaucratic tendencies of big-city districts by adding new layers of reporting, regulation, and micromanagement.

Challenging the Urban System

The systemic failure of urban education has provoked various efforts by state and local officials to shake up the status quo. Where school failure has been especially abysmal, the state has taken over certain school districts (the most aggressive state has been New Jersey, which took control of the schools in Newark, Paterson, and Jersey City). In Illinois, the legislature transferred charge of the school system in Chicago to the mayor. Some districts have hired non-educators to manage the school system. Others have shut down and reconstituted failing schools with a new staff.

Other promising strategies—charter schools, contracting, and vouchers—rely on market-based principles of competition and choice. Charter schools are public schools that receive a charter to operate outside the immediate control of any local school board. They are answerable to public authorities and must agree to meet state standards. If they do not, they may lose their charter. This is the difference that immediately sets charter schools apart from regular public schools, which may fail to meet state standards for years without any untoward consequences for anyone but the children. Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform, which keeps count of charter schools, estimates that more than 50 percent of all charter schools today are in urban districts. The promise of charter schools is a straightforward exchange: autonomy from regulations in exchange for accountability for results. Some charter schools are regular public schools that opted out of their school district; others are run by nonprofit organizations, parents, or teachers. Fewer than 10 percent are managed by for-profit organizations like the Edison Project. A small proportion are operated by universities, teachers’ unions, or other agencies.

Minnesota passed the first charter law in 1991. By 1998, 34 states had adopted laws permitting the establishment of charter schools. According to the Center for Education Reform, nearly 800 charter schools, serving about 166,000 children, were open by the end of the 1997-98 school year, and 400 more had been approved to open in the fall of 1998. The typical charter school is small (fewer than 300 students), and most have a waiting list. The majority of charter schools are located in Arizona, California, and Michigan, but substantial numbers of schools are also operating in Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Texas. In some states, weak charter laws guarantee that few charter schools will ever open because local school boards have the exclusive right to grant charters. No agency is more hostile to charter schools than local school boards, which correctly see them as unwanted competition.

Charter schools have far more freedom than regular public schools, and one way that they use it is to provide smaller classes than regular schools, usually with fewer resources. Most charter schools are started by people who have a vision of what makes a successful school, and their visions are many. Some are very progressive, others are very traditional. In the Center for Education Reform’s annual survey, one-quarter of the charter schools had a back-to-basics curriculum and another one-fifth employed E.D. Hirsch’s core knowledge curriculum, which stresses a knowledge-rich curriculum. Forty percent served dropouts or students at risk of dropping out, while one-quarter were geared to gifted and talented youth.

What is particularly appealing about charter schools is that they are public schools that rely on choice (by parents and teachers) and accountability (to public authorities). When a charter school fails—some have been closed for mismanaging funds, one in the District of Columbia was closed after the principal assaulted a news reporter—the very fact of the charter’s termination is evidence that public officials take seriously their responsibility to monitor the financial and academic integrity of the school.

Given their short history, it is too soon to gauge whether charter schools will improve student test scores or graduation rates. In both urban and suburban districts, local school officials have disparaged charter schools for taking away students and dollars. Nonetheless, the establishment of charter schools often causes the regular public schools to act forcefully when faced with competition for students, using resources more wisely and focusing on student performance. Charter schools may be the wake-up call that spurs sluggish school systems to adopt effective reforms.

Contracting is another form of competition and choice that has the potential to change urban education. Paul T. Hill, Lawrence C. Pierce, and James W. Guthrie in their book Reinventing Public Education proposed that every public school should have a contract with public authorities that would allow the individual school to control its budget and staff. Basic to their argument is the belief that schools succeed when they have an integrative principle, a set of clear goals that describe what makes the school a community and that focus the school on student learning. In their scheme, schools would be self-governing, making most of the decisions that affect them. Unlike the current urban school system, which tends to level out differences among schools, contracting would encourage schools to pursue their own purposes so long as they agree to meet the academic standards established by public authorities. Local school boards like contracting, especially when it allows them to find an agency willing to take responsibility for hard-to-educate children. Some urban districts have contracted with for-profit organizations like the Edison Project to manage schools, and a few others (Seattle and Riverside, California) are considering contracting as an overall reform strategy. There are about half a dozen for-profit organizations and numerous not-for-profit organizations that offer their services as contractors to school districts. However, in some states—New York, for example—it is actually illegal for a school board to contract out instruction.

The proposal that generates the most passionate support and the most passionate opposition is vouchers. The original idea for vouchers came from Milton Friedman in 1955, who wanted to break up the public school monopoly by enabling every family to spend its education dollars at will. Over the years, voucher proposals have won the allegiance of free-market enthusiasts, but have been bitterly opposed by public employee unions and others who prefer the current system of public education run exclusively by government agencies.

In recent years, the voucher debate has shifted to focus primarily on low-income students. Dozens of privately-funded voucher programs are operating in the nation’s cities. They are intended to induce demand for publicly-funded programs. Currently, the only public voucher programs are in Milwaukee and Cleveland, where low-income students receive public grants to attend private schools, including religious schools. Both programs were challenged in state courts by the teachers’ union, the American Civil Liberties Union, and other plaintiffs who oppose not only the use of public money in nonpublic schools but specifically the inclusion of religious schools. In June 1998, the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the Milwaukee program, including the participation of religious schools, stating that the choice program has a secular purpose, will the primary effect of advancing religion and would not lead to excessive entanglement between church and state. Eventually, either the Milwaukee program or the Cleveland program will reach the U.S. Supreme Court, which will resolve the issue.

Perhaps because of despair over the dire condition of urban schools, public opinion is shifting toward support of vouchers. According to a Gallup Poll, 74 percent of the public was opposed to vouchers in 1993; by 1997, opposition had dropped to 52 percent. The highest level of support for vouchers was found among blacks (72 percent), 18-to-29-year-olds (70 percent), and urban residents (59 percent). In a poll by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, vouchers received the endorsement of 57 percent of blacks, and 86 percent of blacks between 36 and 50. The greatest support (70 percent) came from blacks with the lowest income (under $15,000). What is more, prominent black leaders such as former Democratic Congressman Floyd Flake in New York and former schools superintendent Howard Fuller in Milwaukee are stepping forward to not have support vouchers, charter schools, and other fundamental reforms.

Fig. 2. Student Achievement: Biggest Gaps Between Urban and Nonurban Districts

Percent of students scoring at “basic” level or higher on NAEP, ranked by percentage point difference

Source: Education Week. Published tabulations from 1994 NAEP reading test and 1998 mathematics and science tests.

The Direction of Education Reform

By now, there is general agreement that there is no silver bullet or panacea that will solve the problems of urban schools, but certain allied strategies are emerging as fundamental to lasting change. No one of these should be seen as free-standing, but rather as parts of a coordinated effort to redirect urban schooling.

  • Urban school systems, and their states, must adopt clear and rigorous academic standards so that everyone knows what students are expected to learn.
  • They must have high standards for those who teach in their schools, hiring only those teachers who have an academic major in the subject they intend to teach, and who have passed a qualifying examination, like people in other professions.
  • Valid and accurate information about student performance must be readily available to the public. This information should be drawn from tests and assessments that gauge what children should know and be able to do, rather than norms that merely define average performance. One way to do this would be to allow school districts to have access to their NAEP scores in reading, mathematics, and science.
  • Districts that have been starved for resources for capital improvements and teachers’ salaries should get them. Those that suffer from mismanagement and misallocation of resources need governance reform.
  • Individual public schools should have far greater authority over resources and staffing. The academic standards should be set by city or state officials, but the school should be free to determine how to meet the standards, whom to hire, where to purchase supplies, services, and meals, and how to manage its schedule and organization, so long as it produces satisfactory educational results.
  • Schools must be held accountable for student performance. Public officials must audit schools for educational and fiscal performance and be ready to reconstitute failing schools, suspend charters, and do whatever else is necessary to make sure that persistent failure is not tolerated.
  • Choice should be encouraged by public authorities to stimulate higher performance and customer satisfaction. Families should be able to send their children to the school of their choice.
  • Competition among schools should be encouraged by state and local officials by promoting charter schools, contracting, and low-income vouchers. Good schools will thrive.

In different cities and to different degrees, all of these changes have begun to happen. Tectonic plates are moving slowly but inexorably to change public education, especially where change is needed most. Responding to a concerned public, policymakers in most states are ready to try any reasonable alternative that offers hope of saving the rising generation in our nation’s cities.

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Education in Central Asia pp 171–194 Cite as

Urban Education: Challenges and Possibilities

  • Carlo Raffo 4 ,
  • Kirstin Kerr 4 &
  • Alan Dyson 4  
  • First Online: 15 September 2020

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Part of the Education, Equity, Economy book series (EEEC,volume 8)

Urban education needs a set of conceptual tools that go beyond the simple description of particular urban phenomena, give due acknowledgement to macro-level forces, and also explore local variations in urban contexts that have the potential to expose local possibilities for action. This chapter articulates a newly synthesised discursive conceptual argument about what urban education might mean and how such an argument should become a central way of understanding some of the similar and yet distinct dynamics of education in urban contexts. In essence the broad argument developed in this chapter details a theory of the urban that appreciates the global dynamics of urban processes but does so through a historically and locally understood and articulated sense of place. Then such thinking is embedded in our critique of much of the urban education research literature and is exemplified through an exploration of our thinking with regard to a recent empirical study of young people’s educational aspirations in two urban contexts in Wales, a constituent country of the UK. Building on our exemplified theory of urban education developed in this chapter, we then explore in brief and schematic ways how such thinking might contribute to the challenges and possibilities of education in Central Asia documented in this book. We do so by focusing on educational pathways to labour market transitions in the city of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, as a particular case in point. In summary, the chapter argues for the importance of foundational urban theorising, appropriately contextualised, as a way of understanding the social, economic, and cultural foundations upon which young people and urban schooling operate.

  • Urban education
  • Labour markets
  • Transition pathways
  • Urban habitus
  • Theory of the urban
  • Nature of the urban
  • Policy borrowing
  • Educational disadvantage
  • Educational inequalities
  • Urban schooling

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The authors of this chapter work in the Disadvantage and Poverty Research Group at the Manchester Institute of Education, a group that is also affiliated to the Manchester Urban Institute’s Spatial Inequalities and Poverty signature theme.

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Our gratitude goes to Ruth Lupton, Helen Gunter, Wolff-Michael Roth, Kevin Ward, Philipp Schröder, and Denise Egéa for their perceptive comments on earlier drafts of this chapter.

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Raffo, C., Kerr, K., Dyson, A. (2020). Urban Education: Challenges and Possibilities. In: Egéa, D. (eds) Education in Central Asia. Education, Equity, Economy, vol 8. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-50127-3_11

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Urban school reform in the united states.

  • Tiffanie Lewis-Durham Tiffanie Lewis-Durham School of Education, University of North Carolina at Greensboro
  •  and  Craig Peck Craig Peck University of North Carolina at Greensboro
  • https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190264093.013.27
  • Published online: 29 March 2017
  • This version: 18 October 2023
  • Previous version

In the United States, policymakers have exhibited a resilient confidence in the idea that reforming urban schools is the essential key to improving the life chances of children, especially Black and Latino youth. Since the mid-1960s in particular, this resonant belief, as articulated in different forms by politicians, interest groups, local communities, and the broader public, has served as motivational impetus for small- and large-scale school change efforts. Despite such apparent unanimity regarding the importance of city schools, disputes have emerged over the proper structural and systemic alterations necessary to improve education. Often at issue has been the notion of just who should and will control change efforts. Moreover, vexing tensions have also characterized the enacted reform initiatives. For instance, urban school policies created by distant, delocalized outsiders have routinely engendered unanticipated local effects and fierce community resistance. In addition, particular urban school reforms have manifested simultaneously as a means for encouraging social justice for marginalized youth and as mechanisms for generating financial returns for educational vendors. Regardless of such tensions, faith in urban school reform has persisted, thanks to exemplary city schools and programs that have helped students thrive academically. For many reformers, such success stories demonstrate that viable routes toward enabling academic achievement for more children living in urban areas do indeed exist.

  • achievement

Updated in this version

The author has made substantial revisions to this article, including an updated section on School Discipline and Safety. The references reflect current scholarship around the topic.

Introduction

Policymakers in the United States have exhibited a resilient confidence in the idea that reforming urban schools is the essential key to improving the life chances of children, especially Black and Latino youth. Since the mid-1960s in particular, this resonant belief, as articulated in different forms by politicians, interest groups, local communities, and the broader public, has coalesced into a sustaining motivational force in both policy and practice. The concept that schools can and do matter substantially for youth from historically marginalized groups has helped compel successive school improvement efforts intended to induce greater equity in access to effective educational programs and generate increased equality in academic and life outcomes. In some ways, the pursuit of urban school reform has become symbolically tantamount to constructing paths necessary to enable more children to realize a quintessential American dream of prosperity, stability, democracy, and security.

Despite such apparent unanimity regarding the importance of city schools, essential reform actors have engaged in intense disputes over the proper structural and systemic alterations necessary to improve education. Often at issue has been the notion of just who should and will control change efforts; politics, in various forms, appears as a necessary condition and an inevitable calculation in urban school reform. Moreover, vexing tensions also have characterized the enacted improvement initiatives. For instance, urban school policies created by distant, delocalized outsiders have routinely engendered unanticipated local effects and fierce community resistance. In addition, particular urban school reforms have manifested simultaneously as a means for encouraging social justice for marginalized youth and as mechanisms for generating financial returns for educational vendors.

This article provides an introduction to urban school reform in the United States, with particular emphasis on how it has progressed since the 1960s. We begin with a brief historical overview that provides a general sense of context and terrain. Given the limited length of this work, our main intent is conceptual rather than comprehensive. Accordingly, we describe several key concepts and factors that have helped define urban school reform over the past several decades. We also discuss several enduring reform tensions that have remained unresolved in city school improvement efforts. Despite these tensions, faith in urban school reform has persisted, thanks to exemplary city schools and programs that have helped students thrive academically. For many reformers, such educational success stories demonstrate viable routes toward enabling academic achievement for more children living in urban areas.

From the “One Best System” to the Struggle for Something Better

As the United States began emerging as an urbanized, industrialized global power in the late 1800s, city schools became a focal point for change. The consolidation of rural schools into city districts led alliances of business representatives and educational professionals to develop complex educational systems marked by increased specialization of pedagogical and support functions ( Rury, 2012 ; Tyack, 1974 ). In the 1800s, a simple, one-room village schoolhouse under community oversight signified American education; by the 1920s, the prevailing symbol had become the “one best system”: urban, factory-style, multiservice institutions arranged into city-based districts controlled by a “corporate-bureaucratic model” ( Tyack, 1974 , p. 6). One main purpose was assimilation of the increasing number of immigrants arriving in cities. If part of the expressed intent of the preferred governance model was “taking the schools out of politics” ( Tyack, 1974 , p. 6), the imposed order in fact attempted to nest control in the hands of elites at the sake of local community voices. As accounts of schools in cities like Chicago demonstrate ( Lipman, 2011 ), over time, the “corporate-bureaucratic” model engendered as much politics, often in the form of community dissent and protest, as it prevented. Moreover, the new order generated extensive bureaucracies based on the principles of organizational science and efficiency ( Tyack, 1974 ). By the latter half of the century, urban educational bureaucracies in places like New York City struck some observers as Byzantine empires that perpetuated the entitlements of existing professional educators and solidified the status quo in terms of educational services delivered and withheld ( Rogers, 1968 ).

Beginning in the 1950s and accelerating in the latter half of the 20th century , the idea that urban schools represented a “best” system came under challenge as the socioeconomic context in urban areas changed dramatically ( Kantor & Brenzel, 1992 ). After World War II, African American migration from the South to northern cities, as well as influxes of new immigrants from Central America and the Caribbean, preceded urban deindustrialization and increased suburbanization in the 1960s and 1970s. Complicating matters, after the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 rendered school segregation unconstitutional, efforts to desegregate city schools attacked de jure (by law) segregation in the South and de facto (in effect) segregation elsewhere. Although desegregation achieved some notable gains in the South, by the 1970s, White flight to the suburbs in resistance to busing to implement integration in other parts of the United States coupled with lowered economic prospects to signify that urban areas were in stark decline ( Kantor & Brenzel, 1992 ; Lytle, 2007 ). As educational historian John Rury (2012) explained, by the 1990s,

Destitution and isolation contributed to an atmosphere of nihilistic self-destruction. . . . Drop-out rates among urban teenagers came to be as high as 50% in many large American cities, with thousands of adolescents turning to the street in the absence of any real prospects of stable and meaningful employment. . . . In this fashion, the crisis in education can be linked to the economic crisis in inner-city minority communities. (p. 16)

In cities across the United States, socioeconomic and demographic change has had profound effects on urban schools and schooling ( Anyon, 1997 ; Cuban, 2010 ).

Amid such stark community realities, actors across the sociopolitical spectrum began to frame schools as central elements of the problems plaguing cities. Caustic exposés of educational conditions accentuated the idea that urban schools were in deep crisis, while accounts from principals and other educational professionals, many of whom were White, decried the effects of socioeconomic and cultural forces on their schools ( Irwin, 1973 ; Kozol, 1967 ; Miller & Smiley, 1967 ; Wasserman, 1970 ). Meanwhile, scholars questioned the degree to which schools could help youth overcome the effects of poverty, race, and other socioeconomic factors ( Coleman et al., 1966 ; Jenks, 1972 ). As a consensus was emerging that urban schools were dysfunctional, studies like these suggested that they were also ineffective tools for increasing equity and social justice for students of color. Tyack (1974) described the contemporary situation as “the one best system on fire” (p. 269), while Cuban (1976) portrayed urban superintendents as “school chiefs under fire” (p. iii).

By the late 1960s, as educational policymakers and others responded to this troubling context, enduring contours also emerged in urban school reform. First, scholars and programs identified and disseminated core characteristics of educators and institutions that have successfully served urban students of color ( Edmonds, 1979 ). Second, initiatives like the Comer School Development Program and, later, the Harlem Children’s Zone sought to establish symbiotic connections among urban schools, families, and communities ( Comer, 2009 ; Payne, 2008 ; Tough, 2009 ). Third, some reformers championed systemic improvement efforts as the way to take change to scale through means such as improving whole districts, using state control of local districts as a lever for broad-based change, and increasing federal funding and involvement ( Lytle, 2007 ; Stone et al., 2001 ). Finally, some advocates demanded new approaches to schooling, such as district-run alternative schools with unique operational norms and innovative pedagogy. More radically, proponents in what became known as “the choice movement” have encouraged the development of publicly funded charter schools that operate outside direct district oversight and tax-funded vouchers that enable parents to send their children to private schools ( Berends, 2014 ). Thus, today we have several general urban school reform modes that gestated initially in the 1960s and 1970s: effective pedagogy, educators, and schools as replicable examples; school–community connections; systemic change efforts; and market-based educational choice. In addition, reforms generally have been oriented toward two general entry points: changes intended to occur inside the school building and classrooms, as well as changes intended to occur in governance structures and community settings outside the school building. The unit of analysis is an important factor, then, when considering school reform.

Just as differences in the substance and points of entry of change efforts have helped define urban school reform, so have differences in determining what is meant by the word urban . At its essence, urban suggests certain geographical features, like a city’s population size and density. Prominent urban education researcher H. Richard Milner IV described three elements in what he called “an evolving typology of urban education”: “urban intensive” (major cities like New York and Chicago), “urban emergent” (large cities like Austin, Texas), and “urban characteristic” (smaller cities that encounter issues parallel to those in the intensive and emergent urban areas) ( Milner, 2012 , p. 560). Increasingly, urban also implies demographics characterized by significant populations of Blacks, Latinos, and other groups distinct from the country’s predominant White racial demographic ( Foster, 2007 ). Distinguished urban education scholar Pedro Noguera (2003) noted that “the term urban is less likely to be employed as a geographic concept . . . than as social or cultural construct used to describe certain people and places” and that the people the term described “are relatively poor and, in many cases, non-White” (p. 23). The word urban has increasingly taken on a negative connotation, suggestive of entrenched crime and poverty ( Dixson et al., 2014 ).

In this text, we rely on Milner’s conception of urban as an organizing mechanism, and we use the word city synonymously with urban to achieve some semantic variety. Disproportionate attention is paid in the existing research literature toward what Milner calls “urban intensives”; hence, the examples here reflect some geographic diversity while highlighting reforms in major cities such as Chicago and New York. Also, it is fair to assert that urban school systems in the United States typically serve diverse populations that include significant numbers of youth from historically marginalized groups who live in poverty. We remain mindful that urban can evoke negative connotations—but such is not our intent. In our view, urban areas have been, are, and will be the lifeblood of the United States. They are the complex places where different people can and do meet, struggle, make democracy over again and again, and aspire. Moreover, we agree that too often, urban community pathologies are overemphasized and urban community strengths neglected ( Dixson et al., 2014 ). Cities are perfect American imperfections, and the ongoing quest for urban school reform is part of that perfect imperfection.

Importantly, although common themes and experiences have surfaced in reform efforts as they have occurred across different urban areas in the United States, historian David Tyack (1974) asserted that “ the city school does not exist, and never did” (p. 5). Urban schools and the communities that they serve have always been unique places with distinct histories, cultures, and sociopolitical contexts ( Johanek & Puckett, 2007 ; Lightfoot, 1983 ). Given this reality, wide-scale improvement efforts predicated on generic, one-size-fits-all approaches have failed to make any significant, lasting impact inside (or outside) of individual schools and classrooms ( Tyack & Cuban, 1995 ). The idea that local context consistently matters joins the issue of outsider-led reform and the cyclical nature of change as key concepts and factors in urban school reform.

Key Concepts and Factors in Urban School Reform

While it is beyond the scope of this article to provide a comprehensive engagement of concepts and factors related to urban education reform, it is fair to assert that certain issues and elements, across time and city spaces, have disproportionately affected the effort to improve schooling. We consider several of these key concepts and factors below.

Race, Ethnicity, and Poverty

By the 1960s, race was the dividing line in city schooling: In the South, school systems in cities like Greensboro, North Carolina, became the settings for intensive desegregation efforts that attempted to overcome decades of separate schooling ( Batchelor, 2015 ; Chafe, 1981 ). Elsewhere, Whites still controlled the “one best” systems that were increasingly under challenge, often by Black community members who had long been excluded from meaningful input in local schooling. In subsequent decades, disputes and negotiations around race became an indelible aspect of urban school district reform efforts ( Lipman, 2011 ).

Meanwhile, in urban classrooms, teachers (many or most of them White) taught students from backgrounds different from their own. Given this context, by the 1970s, some Black people in urban areas outside the South advocated for holding city teachers directly accountable for student standardized test scores as a means to counteract the negative expectations and outright racism that faculty may have directed toward Black children ( Spencer, 2012 ). In more recent decades, scholars and advocates have identified ways that teachers might better reach and teach students of color through approaches that acknowledge, honor, and engage student cultural backgrounds ( Delpit, 2012 ; Gay, 2010 ; Howard, 2010 ; Ladson-Billings, 1994 ; Milner, 2010 ). As a general point, it remains a shameful American fact that after the widespread failure of desegregation to take hold as a mandated reform, the White majority has failed to enable sustained school improvement for multiple generations of urban Black people. To paraphrase Cornel West (1992) , race has mattered and does matter in urban school reform.

Ethnicity has also proved to be an important factor in education in cities. As urban schools consolidated and grew into large bureaucracies from the late 1890s into the 1920s, immigrants entered cities in vast numbers. Schools became the way that the dominant society attempted to acculturate these new ethnic populations at the same time that immigrant groups attempted to assert control over their children’s education by fighting for instruction in their native languages ( Tyack, 1974 ). These previous efforts extended into the latter part of the century. In the 1970s, for instance, Mexican Americans in Houston, Texas, fought for recognition as a minority group. They did so in order to defy Anglo-American efforts to evade desegregation edicts by deeming Mexican Americans “White” and putting them with African Americans in so-called desegregated schools that were separate from Anglo-American schools ( San Miguel, 2001 ). More recently, the issue of how to reform schools and engage communities in order to better educate Latino immigrant children has become a persistent concern in cities ( Lowenhaupt, 2014 ; Noguera, 2008 ).

Poverty is an additional factor that consistently matters in urban education. As cities deindustrialized and lost high-wage, stable jobs in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, chronic, multigenerational poverty became a common condition in many urban communities ( Kantor & Brenzel, 1992 ; Rury, 2012 ; Wilson, 1987 ). In cities like Newark, New Jersey, increasingly negative economic conditions coincided with school system decline ( Anyon, 1997 ). Poverty and urban school reform became inextricably linked in initiatives like the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which was signed into law in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson. ESEA’s Title I delivered funding for supplementary educational services as a means to reallocate resources to those most in need ( Lytle, 2007 ; Spencer, 2012 ). More recently, some popular professional development programs have decoupled poverty and race in ways that concern advocates who consider these factors deeply intertwined ( Delpit, 2012 ).

While race, ethnicity, and poverty have consistently mattered in urban school reform, it is important to note that there is fluidity in how each concept is defined and interrelates. For instance, Asian Americans represent significant populations in major cities, especially in the West, yet they are often neglected in the national public discourse, which tends to focus less on an emerging notion of the United States as a multicultural nation and more on the enduring notion of it as two nations—one Black and one White ( Takaki, 2008 ). In addition, since race and ethnicity are social constructs, just who counts in a particular demographic category can change ( Smedley & Smedley, 2005 ). For instance, throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th century , Irish Americans, Italian Americans, and Jewish Americans were considered distinct ethnic groups, but by the latter part of the 20th century , they were considered White ( Roediger, 2006 ).

Politics and Power

Significant disputes have emerged over the proper structural, systemic, and curricular alterations necessary to improve urban schools. Hence, the phenomenon of urban school reform has repeatedly encountered a central question of urban politics and power: Who should and will control school change efforts? In the 1960s in New York City, for example, tensions boiled over as parents and activists from the predominantly Black community of Brooklyn’s Ocean Hill–Brownsville sought and asserted control over their local schools. Their actions included teacher dismissals, leading the predominantly White, Jewish teachers to embark upon a citywide strike through their union ( Perlstein, 2004 ). In subsequent decades, decentralization of the New York City school system devolved power to local communities to determine educational actions in their children’s schools, although it also left some uncertainty as to who actually controlled the schools ( Lewis, 2013 ). In the 2000s, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration persuaded New York State to recentralize the system and give him final control over it. In turn, Mayor Bloomberg invested his hand-chosen educational chief, Chancellor Joel Klein, with significant executive authority ( Lewis, 2013 ; Ravitch, 2010 ). As New York City’s example suggests, politics and power play an influential role in urban school reform.

In recent years, other issues of power and control have surfaced in local urban districts over who gets to regulate curriculum at the K–12 level. School boards and other elected officials across the country have taken up the call to control what teachers can or cannot say in classrooms, what books can be stocked in school libraries and media centers ( Kim, 2022 ), and how settled topics like slavery or the Holocaust can be discussed ( Dallacqua, 2022 ). In 2020 , as a response to the racial reckoning making its way across the United States ( Chang et al., 2020 ), the White House under the order of Donald Trump released a memo to condemn diversity trainings, which were alleged to be inherently racist toward White people ( White House, 2020 ). Politically conservative groups lobbied school boards and politicians to take action against these trainings ( Williams, 2022 ). This led to bitter fights between different groups of parents, educators, and school boards over topics like critical race theory (CRT), a theoretical ideology and analytical lens that centers racial explanations to make sense of common phenomena like political disenfranchisement and poverty ( Kamenetz, 2021 ).

On one side of the argument are politicians and some parents who contend that CRT is a divisive topic that should not be taught in K–12 schools because they claim it faults all White people for racism and discrimination. On the other side are politicians, educators, and parents who clarify that CRT is not an ideology taught in K–12 schools but one that is often discussed in law schools and graduate-level courses. They argue that topics peripheral to CRT, like the transatlantic slave trade, are factual parts of U.S. history and should be staples of the K–12 curriculum. Despite the split in perspectives, several state legislatures across the country have introduced laws that would ban teaching topics like racism and slavery ( López et al., 2021 ). Some states have even introduced parents’ rights bills, which give parents power to access and influence curricular decisions and school-level policies ( Pogarcic, 2022 ). These parents’ rights bills have set the stage for school choice campaigns that seek to provide public funding to private schools via vouchers ( Kim, 2022 ), and some give parents a legal right to know if their child changes their name or gender pronouns ( Granados, 2023 ). Although some see these recent conflicts as new or more vigorous fights to control schools, these battles reflect the constant turmoil that shapes public education in the U.S. school system ( Tyack & Cuban, 1995 ).

Furthermore, these clashes may serve as an entry point to rationalize and deepen critiques of urban school systems, where Gamson (2019) argues schools “provide the blend of expertise, breadth of scope, concentration of cultural resources, and supply of social services necessary to prepare students for life in an increasingly complex world” (p. 2). Urban school districts are often magnets for historically marginalized groups, in which educators often compete for resources and face the challenge to educate children in large, very complex systems.

School Discipline and Safety

Scholars argue that there is a distinction between the terms school discipline and school violence ( Adams, 2000 ). Yet, the two phrases are often used interchangeably to describe delinquent and punishable offenses that take place in schools. Urban schools have perennially faced questions about discipline and violence, and in recent years, these questions have become more politically charged ( Justice, 2018 ). To examine the history of violence in schools, one could go back to colonial times when educators frequently used corporal punishment as a means to control students ( Spring, 2018 ). However, contemporary use of terms like school violence only became prevalent in the 1960s and 1970s when media outlets coined the phrase to describe social protests led by Black, Native American, Latinx, and Asian American students in urban schools ( Fuentes, 2011 ).

In the 1980s and 1990s, political leaders campaigned on promises to improve schools and reduce violence. For example, in 1994 , President Bill Clinton signed the Gun Free Schools Act, which required states to adopt zero-tolerance policies in schools. These policies often included increased surveillance and punishment similar to that seen in prisons ( Adams, 2000 ). Some scholars have argued that these measures have had an outsized impact on urban schools where large numbers of Black and Latinx students are enrolled ( Mallett, 2016 ), thus leading to racial disproportionality in the justice system ( Irby, 2014 ). Parents, educators, and community groups have pushed back against exclusionary practices and harsh discipline like zero tolerance ( Dunbar & Villaruel, 2002 ). Yet terms like school violence have become a mainstay given the horrific prevalence of school shootings and the inability of decision makers to agree on possible solutions. Educators have experimented with popular models like positive behavior intervention and supports, which refer to a tiered system to address offenses that run the gamut between minor and serious ( Carr et al., 2002 ). More progressive approaches include restorative practices, which focus on a communal approach to give offenders an opportunity to repair harm and address transgressions ( Gregory & Evans, 2020 ; Schiff, 2018 ). While the issue of school safety is not one that solely affects urban schools, the presumption that violence and crime are tantamount to the urban school experience is persistent and intractable.

Trust is an underlying factor that can propel or frustrate urban school reform ( Bryk & Schneider, 2002 ). In essence, there must be mutual, sustaining relational faith between those leading reform and those experiencing reform (or, less charitably, those who are being reformed). Hence, it is crucial that teachers, for instance, believe that legislators mandating standards-based reforms have their interests and the interests of their students in mind. However, due in large part to the interplay of the other crucial factors discussed here (like race, poverty, and power), trust in urban education is difficult to develop and hard to maintain ( Bryk et al., 2010 ). In addition, a long-established truism in school reform (regardless of its specific geographic location) is that teachers and students are the most frequent intended recipients of reform, but teachers and students rarely have authentic voices in developing reforms ( Tyack & Cuban, 1995 ). Their question becomes, “Why reform if we have no say in the reform’s design and implementation?” Teachers, moreover, often have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, which has served them adequately, rather than making considerable changes that might put their careers at risk—a situation that can complicate and frustrate the implementation efforts of reform advocates ( Payne, 2008 ). Trust is an elusive and often endangered element in urban education, and it is further complicated by a second key concept in city school reform: the outsider issue.

The Outsider Issue

Compounding the problematic nature of trust is the fact that policymakers and policy influencers with access to the financial and political power necessary to leverage significant change have developed and implemented urban education reforms—from district reorganizations to charter school startups to alternative teacher training initiatives—that have routinely engendered unanticipated local effects and fierce community resistance. Cultural, racial, and socioeconomic differences among reform advocates, school personnel, and community members have often produced a perception gap: Delocalized reformers assert only good intentions, while established locals discern only questionable motives.

Given such conditions, a reform approach like school closure can become a highly contested issue ( Berger, 1983 ; Lipman & Haines, 2007 ). Where supporters may frame a closing of a school as a necessary step toward improved educational options, the local urban community may experience it as a form of “social and civic death” ( Johnson, 2013 , p. 233). Given such experiences, it is easy to see why, as sociologist and urban educational reformer Charles Payne (2008) explained, “Outsiders coming to ‘help’ are going to be rejected, just for being Outsiders, so it seems” (p. 25).

On the other hand, the way outsider has been framed in recent years has garnered support from those looking for new or different ways to educate children outside of the typical district structure. Families in urban districts have seen and sometimes welcomed the influx of charter schools in their communities ( Houston, 2023 ). Many of the charters have been framed as viable alternatives to district schools, even though the large organizations that run these schools are often distant and sometimes disconnected from the communities they serve. Still, outsiders may not be rejected outright if they provide services that are desired or if their agenda aligns with the reform priorities of local communities ( Henig et al., 2019 ).

Urban School Reform as a Cycle

A final key concept in urban school reform is that it represents a perpetuating cycle ( Cuban, 1990 ; Hess, 1999 ; Payne, 2008 ; Tyack & Cuban, 1995 ). Under this dynamic, dispiriting accounts of urban school academic failure accompany calls for reform, while dispiriting accounts of urban school reform failure accompany calls for more reforms ( Tyack, 1974 ). Through initiatives such as teacher accountability systems, elected policymakers offer symbolic evidence of their efforts to improve the life chances of urban children through strong legislative action ( Lipman, 2002 ). The short tenures of urban superintendents, meanwhile, help encourage “policy churn” instead of actual change, ensuring that perpetual reform is the new status quo ( Hess, 1999 , p. 52). If a specific program proves successful in a small number of schools, expansion of that program brings risks. Charles Payne (2008) explained, “As they go into more and tougher schools, they find that their earlier experiences did not fully prepare them for dealing with the array of problems urban schools present. . . . The same people who encouraged rapid expansion—the policymaking community, the foundations, the media—become disappointed” (p. 184). Or successful programs can just fade away, succumbing to the demoralized, irrational nature of the status quo in urban education. Yet a lasting sociopolitical imperative to provide at least some symbolic evidence of efforts to improve urban schools virtually ensures that a new reform will soon be on its way ( Payne, 2008 ). In this way, urban school failure and urban school reform always go together.

Five Tensions in Urban School Reform

While several concepts and factors have routinely influenced urban education change efforts, some reform tensions have remained unresolved in city school improvement campaigns. These lasting dilemmas often emerged after common desires to improve urban schools progressed to polarized means of reform action. Next, we examine five enduring urban school reform tensions that have emanated around problems and solutions, schools and community, top-down and grassroots efforts, social justice and financial returns, and small-scale and large-scale reforms.

Problems and Solutions

In what has become an enduring tension in urban education reform, ideas and initiatives that some frame as solutions to urban school difficulties, others frame as problems that may exacerbate conditions. Stated in shorthand, solutions are problems and problems are solutions. Two phenomena that help illustrate this dynamic are accountability and charter schools. With accountability, schools and educators are professionally and publicly judged in terms of their ability to help students meet established academic standards, a measurement usually established through student performance on yearly, state-sanctioned, standardized tests ( Mehta, 2013 ). State-funded, independently operated charter schools are intended to increase educational options for children and families ( Berends, 2014 ).

In terms of accountability, the idea that urban schools and educators must be held responsible for student performance is a long-standing one. In 1874 , for example, a superintendent in Portland, Oregon, introduced a uniform curriculum and tested all students to see if they had mastered its material. For good measure, he published the results in the newspaper for full public view ( Tyack, 1974 ). Although this early case lasted only a few years, nearly a century later, test-based accountability began to gain more traction as states such as Michigan generated statewide assessments to gauge student performance ( Mehta, 2013 ). By the 1980s and then into the 2000s, test-based accountability for public schools became one of the nation’s operational school policy paradigms. Initial accountability systems in places like Texas and North Carolina gave way to federally mandated, state-designed yearly testing as sanctioned under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), signed into law in 2002 , which represented reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) ( Mehta, 2013 ). By the late 2000s, the reigning definition of a good public school was a school whose students performed well on state-delivered standardized tests ( Chenoweth, 2009 ).

Still, a case can be made for accountability as a positive development for urban schools. At accountability’s infancy in the 1970s, some Black intellectuals championed test-based systems and community-based involvement in school governance as ways to ensure that Black children and other urban youth received proper educational services ( Peck, 2014 ; Spencer, 2012 ). Others emphasized the notion of shared accountability between a community and its schools as the only way forward in urban education ( Spencer, 2012 ).

Pursuing a different route forward, the effective schools movement identified a specific core of practices that helped urban students of color succeed academically ( Edmonds, 1979 ). By the 2000s, a rich tradition of scholarship replicated the effective schools idea by demonstrating those specific conditions and approaches that led to academic improvement in urban schools ( Bryk et al., 2010 ). Well-supported, teacher-driven professional learning communities examined formative student assessment data in ways that generated substantive student and school improvement ( Delpit, 2012 ).

In these ways, accountability as it manifested over the past few decades provided core attention to academic performance in urban schooling, ensured that personnel in the schools bore responsibility for the performance of their schools and students, and demonstrated replicable approaches designed to encourage greater student achievement. As Payne (2008) explained, “In the 1960s . . . it was nothing for a teacher, with a guest in the classroom, to spend a class period reading the paper or doing the crosswords.” Thanks to accountability, however, “from superintendents to classroom teachers, people are at least putting more effort into the work.” He cautioned, though, “I share the general concern with an overreliance on test scores. . . . The best we can do is be cautious in our interpretations and look at other measures where possible, particularly graduation rates and postsecondary activities” (p. 7).

As Payne’s caution suggests, accountability can resonate as a problem in urban education reform. For instance, the enduring presence of standardized testing has generated a high-stakes, narrow educational ethos that can negatively affect the socioemotional lives of children and adults in schools; devolves the complex act of schooling into mere test preparation; neglects to acknowledge (or even denigrates) the cultural backgrounds of students; and has encouraged adult-led cheating scandals ( Delpit, 2012 ; Ravitch, 2010 ; Vasquez Heilig et al., 2014 ). In high-stakes turnaround schools, teachers with unsupportive principals can feel pressure to focus narrowly on test score improvement to the detriment of other educational goals. Such pressure can also put them at risk of burnout and departure ( Cucchiara et al., 2015 ). What is even more concerning is that accountability pressures have even begun to shape teacher preparation programs, which focus almost solely on test preparation and the technical aspects of instruction ( Sleeter, 2008 ). Given the lack of compelling evidence that high-stakes testing has succeeded in improving urban student outcomes at scale, Vasquez Heilig et al. (2014) asserted that the NCLB system functioned as a means of colonial-style social control—including privileging of culturally exclusive knowledge through state-mandated standards and ongoing surveillance through testing—imposed by the dominant White society on urban people of color.

Just as accountability has constituted both a solution and a problem in urban school reform, so have charter schools. By the late 1960s, Dr. Kenneth B. Clark, a African American psychologist and public intellectual, articulated a vision for an alternative to the existing public school system. Clark, whose testimony was a key factor in the Supreme Court’s Brown decision in 1954 , insisted on pursuing desegregation, by then long delayed. At the same time, he called for alternative public school systems to provide improved educational opportunities for Black students and other marginalized youth. Declaring that “public school systems are protected public monopolies with only minimal competition from private and parochial schools,” he called for “realistic, aggressive, and viable competitors” in the form of schools operated outside the traditional district structures by states, the federal government, and businesses ( Clark, 1968 , p. 111). For Clark and others like him, expanding the educational options available to urban families was an important solution to larger issues, including poor schooling, poverty, and political disempowerment.

By the 1990s, beliefs in encouraging more competition and choice had propelled the development of charter schools, publicly funded but independently controlled institutions that by the 2000s were situated mostly in urban areas and served students who were primarily Black and Latino ( Berends, 2014 ; Chapman, 2014 ). As scholar and educational advocate Lisa Delpit (2012) noted, “In their first iteration, charter schools were to be beacons for what could happen in public schools. They were intended to develop models for working with the most challenging populations” (p. xv). Programs like the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), a charter school started in the 1990s in Houston, Texas, by two White Ivy League graduates who were also Teach For America alumni, gained significant exposure and praise from some quarters as a viable means to improving urban education as the organization opened schools nationwide ( Mathews, 2009 ). Advocates touted charter schools as innovative and tailored to the particular needs of urban students. By the 2000s, charter schools had gained such popularity as a school reform that major urban districts like Chicago, New Orleans, New York, and Philadelphia operated as portfolio districts that offered parents an array of choices, including traditional district schools, alternative and magnet district-run schools, and charter schools that ran independently of the districts ( Buckley et al., 2010 ; Dixson et al., 2014 ). Extensive waiting lists at individual charter schools offered symbolic evidence that parents remain enamored with the concept, while federal policy during the administration of President Obama provided strong financial backing for charter school expansion ( Berends, 2014 ; Chapman, 2014 ).

Despite such apparently strong support, charter schools have also raised substantial concerns. Charter school academic performance as measured through state-mandated testing, for instance, has been mixed. While some studies have demonstrated that urban charter schools show positive effects on academic performance, little is known about what particular organizational features led to those results ( Chapman, 2014 ). Another issue is that certain charter schools have failed to offer proper services for children who needed special education ( Delpit, 2012 ). In addition, the fact that programs like KIPP required parents to sign a behavior contract for their children and provide required hours of volunteer service may have led to selection bias in the types of parents attracted to the schools ( Chapman, 2014 ). Delpit (2012) asserted, “I am angry because of the way that the original idea of charter schools has been corrupted . . . because of the ‘market model,’ charter schools often shun the very students that they were intended to help” (pp. xv–xvi). Private interests, such as foundations that support charter schools, provide startup institutions with funding to help give them the best possible chance to outperform traditional public schools, which may in turn promote the further privatization of public schooling ( Lipman, 2011 ). Just as with accountability, then, charter schools have engendered open admiration and fierce criticism. In the end, we are left with this enduring tension in urban school reform: Solutions are problems and problems are solutions.

Schools and Communities

A second enduring tension in urban education is as follows: Improving urban schools can improve their students’ educational and life opportunities, but educational outcomes in urban communities are inextricably linked to the community’s socioeconomic conditions. On the one hand, some have positioned schools as the main route available to a city’s students who may be growing up in poverty. In this way, a good education constitutes an urban student’s sanctioned vehicle toward future success. Also, under this construct, the “one best system,” although often racially exclusive, provides some form of structured opportunity to urban immigrant youth through its rights of open access. Through the 1950s, urban schools helped the assimilation of ethnic immigrants and provided means for individual and group social mobility ( Noguera, 2003 ; Tyack, 1974 ). By the 1960s and 1970s, new, racially diverse populations arrived in cities to find depleted socioeconomic conditions. Yet, faith that schools could help youth overcome the effects of poverty remained. The effective schools movement, for instance, rejected the notion that a child’s socioeconomic background determined their poor academic performance. School leader and academic Ronald Edmonds, a major figure in the movement, stated that “repudiation of the social science notion that family background is the principal cause of pupil acquisition of basic school skills is probably the prerequisite to successful reform of public schooling for the children of the poor” ( Edmonds, 1979 , p. 23). He stated further that believing that family background determined academic outcomes “has the effect of absolving educators of their professional responsibility to be instructionally effective” (p. 21). By the 2000s, advocates offered strong testimony to those high-performing schools “that demonstrate that schools can educate all children—even children burdened by poverty and discrimination” ( Chenoweth, 2009 , p. 1). The record is clear that urban schools can and do make a difference for urban youth of color and immigrant youth.

Others have contended, however, that drastic socioeconomic conditions in an urban community limit the potential for significant educational improvement in schools. For instance, as did many American cities, Newark, New Jersey, rose as a major industrial center before World War II and thereafter experienced a steep decline in economic fortunes through the 1990s. The school system itself traversed an analogous, connected pattern of rise and decline, suggesting that only an alleviation of deleterious economic factors could lead to alleviation of school ills ( Anyon, 1997 ). By 1995 , the state of New Jersey took control of Newark’s school district due to its pervasive corruption and sustained student academic performance issues ( Russakoff, 2015 ).

The close connection between a city’s financial interests and its educational interests has caused a call for systemic reform in the form of coordinated efforts to align a city’s economic initiatives and social service activities (including schools) through political means ( Stone et al., 2001 ). Others, however, have discussed how urban school improvement initiatives coincide with economic development efforts and housing policies that do not operate in the best interests of current residents. In neighborhoods in Chicago, for instance, reforms like public school closings and replacement by charter schools have encouraged gentrification of neighborhoods by middle-class White parents. Their arrival displaced working-class Black and Latino families and increased an area’s housing values ( Lipman, 2011 ; Lipman & Haines, 2007 ). Researchers who identified several characteristics associated with effective urban schools underscored that the social capital latent in children’s home community networks is an important element in determining the viability of a school to overcome the effects of poverty ( Bryk et al., 2010 ). In these ways, educational conditions in an urban community are inextricably linked to the community’s socioeconomic conditions.

Importantly, educators have navigated the tension between urban school improvement and urban community socioeconomic conditions by establishing authentic connections with students and their parents. Under the “one best system” in New York City in 1935 , for example, principal Leonard Covello sought to nurture relationships with his Italian American, Puerto Rican, and Black students in ways intended to “bring the people of the neighborhood into the school and to extend the school into the community” ( Tyack, 1974 , p. 240). In 1960s Philadelphia, African American principal Marcus Foster enacted the idea of “total school community,” in which “not just the principal and his teachers, but also families, politicians, economic institutions, and taxpayers” would “be accountable for student achievement” ( Spencer, 2009 , p. 292). Accordingly, he led 6,000 community members to agitate for improved facilities or providing clothing for students in need.

In the late 2000s, Geoffrey Canada gained national attention when he established a multiservice charter school in Harlem that provided extended community-based services for local community members, from infants through parents ( Tough, 2009 ). In Chicago, a White female facilitator organized parents in a predominantly Black school in Chicago through the Comer School Development Program. She overcame initial skepticism to earn abiding trust ( Payne, 2008 ). Illustrative of how the goal of school–community connections remains resonant, scholarship has provided guidance regarding how educators can engage parents and engender community-based accountability ( Khalifa et al., 2015 ; Vasquez Heilig et al., 2014 ; Warren & Mapp, 2011 ).

We can also define the notion of community by the people within it and their experiences. For urban schools, this has also meant an entangled and complicated relationship with aspects of gentrification ( Freidus, 2019 ) and social unrest ( Bell & Sealey-Ruiz, 2023 ). For example, the deaths of individuals like Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd were harsh reminders of the volatility in American society. Their deaths deepened questions related to the value of Black lives, but they also sparked protests and proposals for policy changes. Schools have often operated within larger policy contexts that myopically focus on “fixing” students and their communities rather than removing structural obstacles like “the employment opportunity gap . . . [and] the affordable housing gap” ( Irvine, 2010 , p. xii). Some urban districts have thus responded with what they see as humane educational policies that focus on human development and “human dignity, equity, growth and solidarity over any alternative set of values—religious, ideological, economic or national” ( Aloni, 2011 , pp. 35–36). For example, cities like Chicago, Oakland, San Francisco, New York City, Portland, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, have established community schools that provide wraparound services like health clinics, afterschool programs, legal services, and social supports for students and families ( Maier et al., 2017 ). These kinds of practices push back against neoliberal ideologies that strategically frame economic problems as essentially education problems—or, in other words, the result of poor-quality schools ( Baltodano, 2012 ; Slater, 2015 ). Rather, they attempt to invest more resources to redress systemic inequality and social oppression.

A lasting tension, then, exists between the ideas that improving urban schools can enhance urban students’ educational and life opportunities. It is notable that educational conditions in an urban community are inextricably linked to the community’s socioeconomic conditions. But, there are emerging examples of how some educators try to address the systemic issues affecting communities on a daily basis through authentic community engagement and the provision of tangible and necessary material resources.

Top-Down and Grassroots Efforts

Another tension in urban school reform resonates in locating the proper fulcrum of change: Can a school district be transformed from new leaders at the top, or must change occur from community constituents agitating from inside and outside local schools? In summary, urban school reform orients both as top-down and as grassroots efforts. Toward the former, as districts consolidated into the “one best system” at the turn of the 20th century , administrative progressives (i.e., groups of elite professionals and businesspeople) attempted to consolidate power to ensure control over educational progress in cities ( Tyack, 1974 ). The notion of generating improvement through tight control at the top reemerged in the 1990s and into the 2000s. Educational leadership and reform experts Larry Cuban and Michael Usdan (2003) explained,

Business, political, and educational leaders . . . defined the problem as quarrelsome school boards; inept management that couldn’t clean buildings, deliver supplies, or help teachers do their jobs; and little accountability for producing satisfactory academic outcomes among administrators and teachers. . . . In city after city, these business and civic leaders urged district officials to restructure their control of schools and apply sound business principles in order to improve students’ academic performance. (p. 147)

This dynamic has led some cities to hire superintendents without backgrounds as professional educators who engaged in combat with what they framed as entrenched educational interests. In the late 1990s, for instance, U.S. attorney Alan Bersin was hired as superintendent of schools in San Diego, California. He pursued an aggressive, top-down improvement agenda that led to what reform scholar Frederick Hess (2005) called an “often stormy tenure” (p. 1). In New York City, former U.S. assistant attorney general Joel Klein, at the outset of his tenure as chancellor of schools in the early 2000s, employed a closed-ranks, business-minded approach in an effort to tame, subvert, and evade the city’s notorious school bureaucracy ( Peck, 2014 ; Ravitch, 2010 ). Echoing this perspective, some superintendents with a professional background in education approached their positions much as those superintendents without professional backgrounds in education did. In Washington, D.C., for instance, Michelle Rhee gained national notoriety for her willingness to hold accountable (i.e., dismiss) principals and teachers whose students performed poorly on standardized tests ( Whitmire, 2011 ). In these ways, urban school reform has proceeded in a top-down fashion.

At the same time, significant energies and efforts have been exerted toward grassroots reforms. Even as business and professional elites attempted to consolidate power in the “one best system” in the early 20th century , community representatives, ethnic power brokers, and others fought to maintain degrees of local control and input in each city’s educational affairs and governance ( Tyack, 1974 ). In the 1960s and 1970s, decentralization emerged as a notable effort to deconsolidate central districts and distribute more school-governing power to local communities ( Edwards & DeMatthews, 2014 ). Later, in the 1980s and 1990s, site-based management emerged as an educational leadership concept and coupled with a quest to provide parents with more direct input in the operation of their children’s schools. The most notable example of this fundamental devolution of power were Chicago’s local site councils, which gave an elected body of parents the authority to hire and dismiss principals and determine how to use discretionary funds. Importantly, as the Chicago Public Schools experienced top-down reforms under potent superintendents in the late 1990s and 2000s, local site councils of schools that performed poorly lost much of their authority or their management was outsourced entirely ( Edwards & DeMatthews, 2014 ). In the end, urban school reform orients as both top-down and grassroots efforts.

Social Justice and Financial Returns

A fourth enduring tension manifests itself in the ideas that urban school reforms promise social justice for marginalized youth, but they often fall short of their goals. In a sense, the quest to improve urban schools is, at its essence, a moral one. In calling for reform action and school improvement, individuals have highlighted the socioeconomic and racial injustices in the urban educational status quo. In 1967 , for instance, Jonathan Kozol described his exposé Death at an Early Age as providing insight into “the destruction of the hearts and minds of Negro children in the Boston public schools” ( Kozol, 1967 , p. iii). A decade later, Ronald Edmonds (1979) asserted, “Inequity in American education derives first and foremost from our failure to educate the children of the poor” (p. 15). Two decades later, Noguera (2008) explained,

There is no reason why we shouldn’t be able to educate all children, even those who are poor, who are homeless, who don’t speak English, who are emotionally and physically distressed, who come to us from single-parent households or from homes where no parent is present. We should be able to serve these children because we are a great nation, a nation with extraordinary talents, skills, and resources. (p. vii)

Urban school leaders have recognized that in order to center social justice or “equitable participation of people from all social identity groups in a society that is mutually shaped to meet their needs” ( Bell, 2016 , p.1), they must also ensure that the educators who work in the schools have the will and capacity to see it through. In New York City, former school chancellor Richard Carranza mapped out an agenda for “Equity and Excellence” ( NYC DOE, 2018 ), which, among many things, included widespread equity-centered professional development for all school-based staff. In Hartford, Connecticut, the district developed a “vision for equity and anti-racism,” which sought to “actively and mindfully oppose and dismantle cultural messages, institutional policies, practices and all systems of advantage based on race” ( West Hartford Public Schools, 2021 ). The district’s educational equity policy specifically includes recruitment and retention of educators who reflect the diversity of their schools and professional development as a mechanism to achieve their goals. In Portland, Oregon, the district’s Race, Equity, and Social Justice Department developed a framework and plan to “support all employees as they develop their competencies in Racial Equity and Social Justice” ( Portland Public Schools, 2023 ). As these examples and statement suggest, an underlying desire for basic social justice for children of color has consistently fueled the quest for urban school reform and improvement.

At the same time that social justice has remained a fundamental animating goal in urban school reform, initiatives to improve urban education have also generated substantial moneymaking opportunities. As urban districts consolidated in the late 1800s, for instance, “textbook scandals rocked the country as huge firms collided in conflict over the vast school market” ( Tyack, 1974 , p. 95). Suggesting the close connection between education funding and corporate interests, a lobbyist from the audiovisual manufacturers’ lobby was able to negotiate funding for audiovisual equipment into the first three titles in the approved ESEA legislation in the 1960s ( Davies, 2007 ). In the 2010s, as a state-appointed superintendent attempted to reform the Newark public schools with the help of $200 million in philanthropic funds, $21 million of that went to pay educational consultants who worked for the district ( Russakoff, 2015 ). A Newark school leader described the situation as the “school failure industry,” while a community leader stated, “Everyone’s getting paid, and Raheem still can’t read” ( Russakoff, 2015 , pp. 71–72). Given the close connection between urban school reform and moneymaking opportunities, Delpit (2012) explained, “I am left in my more cynical moments with the thought that poor black children have become the vehicle by which rich white people give money to their friends” (p. xv).

Tension continues, then, as urban school reforms promise and make good-faith efforts to center social justice but also deliver financial returns to educational vendors.

Small-Scale and Large-Scale Reforms

A final tension resonates in the idea that small-scale reforms have demonstrated success, but policymakers and external funders still prize large-scale reforms. Under a corresponding dynamic, what works to improve one school or a few schools in one location becomes promoted as an exportable, expandable solution that, in reformers’ minds, can help improve many schools. In recent decades, foundations have helped drive this quest for scalability as they seek returns on their significant investments. In Chicago, for instance, when funders asked Dr. James Comer to begin his school development program in 16 schools, he suggested that 2 schools would be more appropriate. As Payne (2008) noted, “The compromise reached was that the program started with four schools the first year and added four more the second year, and even that proved to be too many” (p. 174). Such pressure to act big with reforms has persisted, as is apparent in efforts at systemic reforms that have sought broad solutions to city problems that run across different socioeconomic and political domains ( Stone et al., 2001 ). As Payne (2008) explained, however, “the magic word systemic . . . seems to mean ‘Let’s pretend to do on a grand scale what we have no idea to do on a small scale’” (p. 169).

The progress of turnaround, a school reform approach that gained national prominence in urban education in the late 2000s, provides insight into the tension between small- and large-scale reform. Originating in the business sector, turnaround referred to rapid school improvement achieved through dramatic interventions such as staff reconstitution ( Duke, 2012 ). After NCLB was signed into law in 2002 , the search for and promotion of schools that demonstrated quick academic growth intensified. Major policy action soon followed. In 2009 , the U.S. Department of Education added $3 billion of stimulus funding to over $500 million in existing appropriations in the Title I School Improvement Grant (SIG) program and formally announced plans to use the funds to encourage the turnaround of 5,000 of the persistently lowest-performing schools throughout the United States ( Duke, 2012 ).

Although turnaround—as reform idea and enacted policy—appeared to provide a clear, generic, and scalable prescription for the improvement of failing schools, it proved problematic upon implementation in urban areas. It had a poor success rate as an improvement strategy in the business sector ( Murphy & Meyers, 2008 ), leading to open questions as to why it would succeed as a strategy in the education sector. Also, a central element of many turnaround efforts, staff reconstitution, had proven ineffective when implemented as an improvement strategy in the 1990s in cities such as Chicago and San Francisco ( Trujillo, 2012 ). At the same time, empirical studies demonstrated minimal evidence that turnaround strategies have led to demonstrable school improvement ( Aladjem et al., 2010 ; Stuit, 2010 ). In these ways, the prospect of turning around an urban school or a few urban schools remained plausible, but turning around thousands of urban schools seemed unlikely at best.

In the end, the temptation to do grandly what was successful locally has endured in urban educational reform. Unfortunately, as Payne (2008) stated, “When even good ideas are understood out of context, when they are reduced to The Solution, they become part of the problem” (pp. 5–6). Scholars have demonstrated that making incremental changes to schools is possible, but the fundamental changes often promoted in reform rhetoric rarely materialize. Hence, the idea that U.S. schools—urban or otherwise—are perpetually “tinkering toward utopia” holds sway ( Tyack & Cuban, 1995 ). A final tension, then, resonates in the idea that small-scale reforms have demonstrated success, but policymakers and external funders prize large-scale reforms.

Urban schools and reform have historically proceeded together, and this dynamic has deepened since the 1960s. Despite so much reform, however, some believe there is still too much “failure.” As Payne (2008) explained, “There is a mammoth disconnect between what we know about the complex, self-reinforcing character of failure in bottom-tier schools and the ultimately simplistic thinking behind many of the most popular reform proposals” (p. 46). Moreover, there appears an assertive, pervasive unwillingness from American society to engage fully with the fact that sociocultural factors such as race, ethnicity, and poverty can and do matter greatly in urban schools. You cannot simply “fix” city schools in order to “fix” city communities and people.

Still, we must perpetually question why the notion of failure has been so easily attached to urban schools. The idea that urban schools are too complex, too political, too Black, or too Brown frames urban schools as incapable of educating a large portion of students in the United States. These flawed perspectives typically only account for quantitative measures like high-stakes test performance and are often situated alongside neoliberal notions of the relationship between schools and the workforce ( Lakes, 2008 ). However, if we assume that these measures accurately reflect our collective definitions of “success,” then we would still be able to find countless examples of urban schools that effectively facilitate learning, like duPont Manual High School in Louisville, Kentucky, where students create tech devices to detect cancer cells ( Schanie, 2023 ); Masterman High Schools in Philadelphia, which was twice named a National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence ( Calhoun, 2022 ); or the Bronx High School of Science in New York City, which has graduated eight Nobel Prize winners ( Bronx High School of Science, 2023 ). As Welsh and Swain (2020) state, “Urban is success as well as failure” (p. 95).

The challenge for urban schools, as it is with schools across the United States, is to figure out how to learn from and manage successes and failures. As noted, there are exemplary city schools and programs that have helped students thrive academically. For many reformers, such success stories demonstrate that viable routes toward enabling academic achievement for more children living in urban areas do exist. Indeed, latent in each of the tensions explored in this article is the belief that circumstances can improve precipitously for all students, especially if districts can address the sociocultural and economic forces that may challenge or complicate improvement. In 1973 , Kenneth B. Clark responded ferociously to a study contending that poverty essentially negated schooling’s transformative potential. He wrote, “If education itself is of no value then there can be no significance in the struggle to use the schools as instruments for justice and mobility . . . the last possibility of hope for undereducated and oppressed minorities has been dashed” ( Clark, 1973 , p. 117). Ronald Edmonds, the leader of the effective schools movement, emphasized three points:

(a) We can, whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us; (b) We already know more than we need to do that; and (c) Whether or not we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven’t so far. ( Edmonds, 1979 , p. 23)

In such a context, a successful school, program, or student is not merely a “small victory” but rather a symbolic triumph that demonstrates the idea that better achievement is indeed possible.

In the end, urban school reform follows a cycle of start, try, fail, and try again, simply because it must be sustained. And one day, the belief continues, school reform will succeed at a significant scale . . . that has been and remains the hope in urban education, a hope as deeply aspirational and uncompromisingly complicated as American hope can be.

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