Sunday, June 29th, 2008

Hope for Urban Schools – At What Cost?

The poor quality of urban schools has often been viewed as a key barrier to luring families back to the city. Hence the traditional focus of downtown redevelopment efforts on target demographics such as young singles, gays, and empty nesters. I suppose I had always accepted the conventional wisdom that it would take improvements in schools to bring middle class families back to the city.

But what if it is exactly the opposite? Maybe instead it’s middle class families moving back to the city that drives the school improvements. That’s what an article in the Chicago Tribune today suggests, as they cover the exploding phenomenon of urban families in that city. I can speak from experience that the number of children is rising quickly in other major cities as well. Even New York City has neighborhoods that are experiencing stroller congestion.

Having kids in the city isn’t new. But what is new is the number of people who are electing to stay there after the children reach school age. With private school enrollment capacity constrained and extremely expensive, many of them are electing to send their kids to public school. I personally know several couples who have pledged to do so, though to be truthful, only one who has actually done it to date.

Still, this represents an incredible sea change in attitudes. As middle and upper classes send their kids to school, and get involved with improving local schools, supporting better funding, and putting political pressure on for quality, it seems at least plausible that this would drive improvement. Perhaps this is the best hope for renewing our urban schools that has come by in a long time. I’m more optimistic about the future of our urban schools than I have been in a long, long time.

Yet I’m troubled by this as well, because it represents an incredible shift, possibly a breakdown, in the intergenerational compact. Traditionally, parents have endured significant hardship and sacrificed to make sure their children had the greatest potential for success in life, and to have the chance to live better than they themselves were able to. This idea that each generation should bequeath a better life to its successors is heavily ingrained in the American psyche.

But this urban families movement stands this idea on its head. Rather than the parents sacrificing to give the best opportunities to their children, the parents are sacrificing their own children’s education in order to preserve an urban lifestyle for themselves that they are unwilling to part with. It is totally selfish in motivation. The parents want to continue living it up in the city, and if that means junior has to go to an inferior public school, so be it. Even if the city schools improve dramatically, they’ll lack the quality of top suburban districts. With education so key to the 21st century economy, are these parents putting their children’s future at risk? Only time will tell.

This reminds me of another similar item I saw in the news lately. Indiana University is planning to put a full four year medical school program in Northwest Indiana and other places around the state. The idea is that people from the area will go to school near home instead of the main Indianapolis campus or transferring out of state. The reason to do this is so that they will stay to practice medicine in the area where they grew up. It’s an attack on the so-called “brain drain” problem. One person in a previous article put it something like this: “Once these kids get a taste of Broad Ripple, they’ll never want to go back to the farm.”

Wanting to increase the number of physicians in under served parts of the state is admirable. I might suggest two things, however. One, the lights of Chicago are likely to beckon a young doctor in NWI as much or more than those of Broad Ripple will attract them in Indy. Secondly, this again is a deliberate attempt to circumscribe the future of our next generation for the benefit of someone else. It is particularly saddening to see that a university, an institution traditionally devoted to broadening minds and expanding possibilities, would be complicit in this. In effect, what IU is saying is, let’s do what we can to keep our kids from finding out about the world. If they never discover what’s out there, they won’t be tempted to leave home. This is a terrible attitude. Again, this is a matter of values, but I believe that we should be doing what we can do help young people achieve their hopes, dreams, and ambitions, and part of that is making sure they are exposed to enough of what’s out there to find their proper calling, and that they have the broadest possible spectrum of possibilities to pursue.

For some, practicing medicine in their home town is that calling. If so, they’ll find it on their own. My tiny rural hometown community lacked a doctor for many years. But one local left town to go to medical school, practiced elsewhere for a while, then decided there was no place he’d rather be than where he grew up. Today he has a thriving practice as the area doctor where there was previously none. And it didn’t take trying to limit his possibilities to get there.

That’s not to say that there is no place for sacrificing even the personal interest of our children for the good of society. For a republic to endure, it’s citizens must have the civic virtue to understand the need to do their duty to their society when called. The call to serve the community is a powerful one in the human spirit. We see all the time people who answer it. Yes, even for young people, many of whom throughout our history have even been killed while serving the country in times of war.

But what I see in these cases is not a call to duty. It’s one group of people pursuing its own self-interest at the expense of another. I only know one couple who has said they are sending their kids to Chicago Public Schools because they feel it is their obligation to take a stand in their neighborhood and not take the easy road by leaving those who don’t have the option behind and moving to the suburbs. Everybody else just talks about how much they love the city.

Perhaps I’m sounding a bit too negative. The benefits of reviving our urban schools and ensuring a supply of doctors for all our communities are big. And I feel good about the hopeful signs there. It’s just that I’m a bit troubled at some of the underlying rationales behind both things. When people started packing up and moving to the suburbs, the negative consequences of that weren’t readily foreseen. Perhaps likewise the negatives of the return are yet to manifest themselves in unexpected ways. Having had their own education short changed for the benefit of their parents’ lifestyle, will these children down the road be so willing to sacrifice their own lifestyle to care properly for those parents in old age? We’ll see.

17 Comments
Topics: Education
Cities: Chicago

17 Responses to “Hope for Urban Schools – At What Cost?”

  1. mordant says:

    A very thought-provoking (if blunt) post that should generate plenty of commentary.

    I also know a number of couples with young children who are – for now – living near downtown. However, my expectation is that most of them will be joining me in Carmel before or soon after their kids hit IPS. On the other hand, there may be other incentives coming into play that will contribute to the phenomenon you describe, namely the increasing cost of commuting. I work downtown with a number of folks who travel rather long distances, at least by Indiana standards, to get to work. It’s got to be a major expense, measured now in dollars as well as time, that one might think would have an effect on their benefit-cost calculus.

  2. spiderweb1977 says:

    Interesting post, but I think the premise is based upon a common misconception about education. If a school district is successful its usually not because of the a great educational and administrative staff rather its more dependent upon things such as parental involvement and the simple expectation from the family for the child to succeed.

    In this area, HSE schools are seen as the best schools around, but do they really offer that much more quality or is it the simple expectation of success that drives them to succeed? Many of the families in that district have chosen to live 20-30 miles away from where they work to send their children to the best school district in the area. When families are so driven that they make those sacrifices for the betterment of their children of course the district perform well.

    On the flip-side a school district like IPS will always perform poorly because it acts as a “catch all” in education. As you wrote in your own posting the families who live in the district don’t make the sacrifices that the suburban families have. Obviously you’re going to have more than your fair share of families that are not involved in their child’s education.

    What I’m basically saying is that the idea of “good” school districts and “bad” school districts is an illusion. If a parent that expects success from their child and sends them to IPS that child will succeed and get a very good education. If a parent that is indifferent about the education of their child sends them to HSE that child is likely to fail. It has very little bearing on where they actually go to school.

    I also think that this illusion has delivered a major blow to many cities across this country. Many of our urban area in this country are cash-stripped without the means to maintain their own infrastructure. Many of the things that you support in this blog (high density cities, walkable, bike paths etc) are impossible to have in traditional suburbs and many improvements can’t be made in our cities because they have no money to make the improvements.

    I’m a firm believer that a family should not change their geographic location because of school districts. Doing so naturally puts many of of communities in a weak position and has a very trivial effect on a child’s education on the micro scale.

  3. John M says:

    I think you overrate the quality of suburban school districts. Certainly, many of them do a fine job, but as one of the other commenters notes, schools’ performance in objective measures such as test scores and grad rates is almost purely demographic. I think that every parent has to make an assessment of whether a school offers sufficient academic opportunity and safety for one’s child to attend the school. Where this post and your prior posts on education fall short is that you presume that the “average” educational experience in a school is somehow applicable across the board. Let’s set aside IPS for a moment. Consider the less-affluent Marion County districts, such as Warren and Wayne townships. Unquestionably, the test scores and grad rates of Warren and Wayne aren’t nearly as high as those in places like Carmel, Zionsville, and HSE. But both Ben Davis and Warren Central have loads of AP classes and other academic offerings that would be expected in a donut county school, nice facilities, excellent fine arts programs, and the like. Certainly, those schools have more kids who based on income and parental involvement would be expected to do more poorly. But you seem to presume that poor overall numbers mean that the school is achieving poor results with all kids. I don’t think that’s true.

    Your outlook on education is fairly depressing. With rare exceptions, a socioeconomically diverse school district will never match the test scores or grad rates of an affluent, predominantly white school district. You come close to suggesting that choosing any school district other than Carmel or Zionsville is parental negligence. I strenuously disagree with that. I think parents need to make a more specific assessment.

    Even returning to IPS, it’s certainly possible, considering magnet programs, neighborhood schools, and the like, to create excellent educational opportunity for college-bound children that may not be obvious based on averaging test scores and grad rates. I don’t know enough about what IPS is doing to know the truth. But I disagree with, and frankly, resent the implication that any parent who doesn’t seek the most prestigious school district is failing.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I’ll jump in here with a real-world take in support of Urbanophile’s post. First, I’ll note that there are certainly some excellent schools, teachers and students in IPS (even though I’m relatively new here in Indiana and not as informed as I’d like to be). However, we checked out all of the school districts and their programs very closely before moving here a year ago, and it seems indisputable that certain school districts (such as Carmel-Clay and Zionsville) provide offerings that aren’t matched in IPS. For just one example, there’s the International Baccalaureate program at Carmel High School (yes, I know there’s one at North Central HS also). There are many other examples also, such as the 21st Century quasi-Montessori program at Cherry Tree Elementary in Carmel. In short, when it’s your own children whose future you are considering, the abstract arguments in favor of supporting inner-city public schools go out the window (at least for this college professor, who attended inner-city public schools out West).

  5. The Urbanophile says:

    Well, you should note that the Tribune article is specifically about Chicago. There are some top magnet schools in Chicago Public, as well as some decent elementary Schools such as the one they cited, but these are the exception. The difference between CPS and many suburban districts is immense. The average CPS school is terrible. Note that there are also suburban districts that are of mixed race and socio-economics that nevertheless have very good schools with top programs.

    For Indianapolis, the township district schools don’t have nearly the gap versus the collar counties that you would see between your average IPS school and say New Palestine. North Central HS, for example, is arguably one of the best in the area.

    Nobody suggests that you can’t make an assessment of the qualities of each individual district. I won’t even suggest that one should necessarily follow the “anything for the children” mantra, either. But the people I know in Chicago who have said they are sending their kids to CPS made it clear to me that their primary goal is to avoid giving up the urban lifestyle they love. It’s not about anything else than that.

  6. thundermutt says:

    LOL. Let’s call this one “The Thundermutt Principle”.

    I have long advocated that other college-educated, middle-class parents (like me) should live in city neighborhoods (like me) and seek out the magnet programs in IPS (like me), and that will improve IPS.

    I have advocated this for so long, in fact, that my son just graduated from the IPS math-science-technology magnet at Arsenal Technical High School after attending a K-8 magnet.

    Tech has only a few dozen students in each grade in the magnet, and a handful of dedicated teachers. They are dedicated in both senses: they teach only the magnet students, and they care very much about doing their jobs well. To a person, they EXPECT the kids to do assignments and to learn.

    It should be pointed out that one of the main instructors in that program has an earned PhD in physics. (How many math or science teachers in HSE or Carmel have earned PhD’s in an actual academic discipline?)

    It should also be pointed out that I’m a single custodial parent, and have been since my son’s middle-school years. By most measures, he’d be considered “at risk”, along with many of his classmates.

    I agree with spiderweb and john: the main (or maybe sole) determining factor in a child getting a good education is his/her parents’ expectations. It can, will, and does happen in IPS.

    Alas, it’s not the easy choice, and it’s not a “default” choice. Parents have to make active choices.

    I’ve always perceived the suburban choice by parents in the opposite way: I think THAT is the “selfish” choice, to live the comfortable suburban SUV life.

    After all, the extra time spent commuting comes out of family time. Growing up as I did in whitebread suburbs like Carmel all over the country, I saw lots of kids whose absent parents made up for absence with “things”: car on 16th birthday, two or three luxury vacations a year, etc. Those kids may have learned their book lessons, I think they got defective lessons in what life is really about.

    It’s hard to ignore the lives of people less fortunate when they sit next to you in school.

  7. Graeme says:

    oh boy… this is the kind of post that bugs me. I think your argument is logically consistent, but I think you aren’t supporting it with any facts. Let’s see some numbers before you accuse parents of sacrificing their children.

    Can you prove what you are saying?

  8. John M says:

    I don’t know, Urb. That may be your experience, but the parents in the article didn’t seem at all flippant about their children’s education. It sounds like the elementary schools in question are improving and are being responsive to a critical mass of educated and involved parents. I’m sure their test scores don’t measure up to New Trier, but I disagree that such is the standard. Involved parents are smart enough to figure out if their kids are getting a good education.

    I won’t go as far as Thundermutt. I subjectively prefer living in the city and intend to stay here. We will probably send our kids to our economically diverse Catholic grade school with average test scores. Every parent has to make that decision for his or her own kids. If someone gets a job at an office park in Westfield, what can you do?

    But I do think that just as school quality is demographically driven, so are many relocations decisions. There are 8 public high schools in greater Indianapolis that offer the IB diploma. Two are in Hamilton Co. (Fishers and Carmel). Five are in suburban Marion co. (North Central, LN, LC, Pike, Ben Davis) and one is in IPS (Northwest). While no single IPS school may offer everything that a 4000-student high school like Carmel offers, there are pockets of excellence, and hopefully those pockets will continue to grow.

  9. Anonymous says:

    As someone that teaches ecology for a school/camp that different school districts send students to for a 2-3 day hands on experience; I can tell you that all the people on here that think the students in Hamilton County (Carmel,HSE,Fishers) are going to the best school districts around are sadly mistaken.

    We absolutely dread those districts coming. For the most part the kids are very ill mannered, they have a entitlement attitude that is so unbelievable it often times prevents them from learning anything. On average I would not say they are above or ahead (educationally) as any of the schools we get here.

    On the other hand, we have seen some great groups from IPS. Generally speaking though the best schools are either rural or sububran schools that aren’t on the north side of Indy.

  10. Carla says:

    This is purely antedotal, but I’ve known many lower-income parents who have made sacrifices (using pretend addresses or moving their child during the school week) to get their kids out of IPS. Their kids were being brutalized socially.

  11. NotSoAnonymous says:

    I think that your argument that parents staying in the city is selfish isn’t necessarily valid. Based of this logic, it could be inferred that to be unselfish one would have to move away from the city, contributing to sprawl and suburbanization. Since sprawl systematically moves outwards, so would the ability of the school districts, which would essentially maintain the current school situation: poor performance in the inner city, above average in the suburbs. However, this defies the continuously evolving nature of life; at some point, the current distribution of education will be modified.

    Today, many of us lament the deterioration of inner city schools into a haven of high school dropouts, breeding grounds for gangs, and substandard test scores. Those with the ability to move out of these troubled areas, leaving the natural progression of life to fix things in these locales. More often than not, those that leave are college-educated people who instill in their children the value of a proper education; those who stay behind lack higher education and do not teach their children the necessity of education.

    However, some of these people staying behind in the city may not be selfish but instead are actively trying to change the situation in schools. Since their children are already in the district, the parents can then take up positions on the school board and implement programs that turn around the failure of these schools. This is quite unlike what many others are “actively” doing by bashing the administration of failing districts while concurrently being one of the aforementioned who fled the city for the ‘burbs.

    But most of all, many seem to be missing the most important facture in failure: motivation. No matter what school a child goes to, failure means a lack of effort. There is no use in advocating the betterment of a school when children are not demonstrated the value of education. With the flight of college-educated people with steady and profitable jobs, undoubtedly a big draw to a child will be gangs that promise easy money and “brothers” who care about each others’ well being.

    Likewise, what thundermutt says about teachers with PhD’s is incorrect. A high-level degree in a subject matter does not translate over to a high-level teaching ability. For example, consider a scientist with a PhD in Physics newly hired to teach high-school physics and that his students have come across a problem they can’t solve. Since the teacher is experienced with a PhD, this high-school level problem is easy for him and he quickly writes the solution on the board. The only problem is, since the problem is so easy, the teacher does not include the many steps he solved in his head, of which one of them happened to be a spot the students did not understand. In essence, if a teacher cannot explain what exactly is happening, the PhD is less than worthless…

  12. Anonymous says:

    TO comment on the med school plan…I am a Hoosier from Da Region who went med school in PA and returned to Indy to practice. From experience and knowing the choices my colleagues have made, I will tell you that this plan will cause more top level med school candidates to pass on IU. Say you have the options of living in Chicago, NYC, Phila., D.C. or accepting IU not knowing whether you will be in Indy or the Haute. It is pretty obvious that IU will not be the choice. Thus, IU will land lower level candidates. This is not the way to “convince” more med students to move to Terre Haute or Evansville. One thing will work…don’t let students acquire six figures in med school debt.

  13. Lynn Stevens says:

    Among my peers, schooling for the kids has usually been the reason for leaving Chicago for the suburbs. What the Trib article does not say is that the Lakeview is perhaps one of the most suburban/small town feeling neighborhoods of Chicago. It also, along with the Lincoln Park neighborhood, is one of the least ethnically diverse and highest income areas of the city. These are folks who can afford to have one parent stay home and “work” for the school’s improvement, or donate resources for the schools.

    Median sale price (2006? dollars) for a single family home in Lakeview is $1,035,000; median income is $66K. For Lincoln Park it’s $1,450,000 and $84K. Compare that to my Logan Square neighborhood where it’s $603,000 and $46K.

    I don’t reach the same conclusion that parents are being selfish. There’s much to be said for being in a more (than most suburbs) diverse environment, of availing your family to all the city has to offer, of commuting less and having more time to spend with your kids, and, when they get older, for your kids having some freedom to get around without the family car.

  14. all-day breakfast says:

    I know plenty of educated, relatively well-off parents who choose to send their kids to IPS magnets or other affordable Center Township schools. And I’m quite sure that selfishness is, in none of these cases, their motivation.

    Seems a very misinformed assertion to me…

  15. Anonymous says:

    One thing that is missing in this conversation is the potential benefit of living in a city for the child. Among them: growing up among a wide variety of people, living in proximity to not only parks, but museums, monuments, seats of government and college campuses, living in inter connected neighborhoods where the family can walk to the restaurant or store, living close to a parade route or festival. In other words, a city can really act as an extended school if taken advantage of. And living in the city is the easiest way for that to happen.

  16. Anonymous says:

    To the person who used the International Baccaulaureate and montessori programs in Carmel as an example of offerings that IPS does not provide, I respectfully disagree. IPS has an IB program at the high school level at Northwest. In addition, IPS has a Primary/Intermediate years IB program at the 2 Center For Inquiry Schools. IPS also has 3 k-8Montessori Schools, one of which my son attends. In case you do not know, Rousseau McClellan Montessori magnet (referred to as school 91 by those of us whose children attend) has been nominated for the Blue Ribbon School award; this school has been successfully educating a wide range of students for the past 25 years! IPS is also opening the Sidener Academy for High Ability students this school year – this is a k-8 school for gifted students. IPS has many strong options for families who want to stay in the city.

  17. John Morris says:

    I haven’t read your post in depth and haven’t read the links yet but the general idea that school improvements follow neighborhood improvements is my experience in NYC.

    The statement about urban vs suburban schools is way off base. First of all, truely urban schools cannot be compared to suburban schools on a district basis. High density levels in cities like NY, or Chicago, enable the posiblity of many competing schools in a small area. Many NY kids go to magnet schools that they can get to by subway and there is usually the posibility of substantial competion with private schools and among schools.

    The lower density levels of suburban districts pretty much mandate one size fits all schools or major, major transportation issues develop.

    Also, I think many of these parents consider the diverse, stimulative environment of a city in which thier kids can walk or take mass transit to libraries, museums and all kinds of other educational and cultural activities very important.

    Really just a dumb statement

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