Sunday, June 12th, 2011

On Urban Education

I talk to people all the time about attracting families to want to live in the urban core, and always they bring up the same barrier: school quality. There’s no doubt that far too many urban school systems perform abysmally and that quality of schools can be a huge factor for families deciding where to live. The conventional wisdom would suggest that until we fix the schools, we’ll never attract families back to the city.

But what if that reverses cause and effect? What if rather than improving the schools before we can attract families back to the city, it will be attracting families back to the city that improves the schools.

I think it is more likely the latter and there’s already plenty of evidence mounting out there. I noted a couple years ago that a number of my Chicago friends who had kids were simply unwilling to sacrifice their urban lifestyle in the way that previous generations did by moving out the suburbs. So they’ve pursued a variety of options. Some have gone the Catholic school route, but believe it or not I know several people who have their children in Chicago Public Schools. A few of these are magnet schools, but some are also well regarded neighborhood schools. As I’m preparing to list my condo for sale, I’m noticing that the elementary school district you are located in is now a factor in a way that it wasn’t not all that long ago. Any number of people with pre-school children are actively involved at their local schools, hoping to improve the quality so that when their kids are ready to start, they will feel comfortable sending them there. As more and more “choice consumers” decide on the public schools, quality continues to improve where it is happening.

I’m even seeing this in Indianapolis on a smaller scale. Several upscale professionals who live in downtown Indianapolis send their children to IPS’s Center for Inquiry magnet school. Most IPS schools remain terrible performers – the state is poised to take over several of them – but select magnet and neighborhood schools are starting to see nibbles from parents with choices.

None of this is intended to belie the urgency of education reform. Of course that’s imperative. But ultimately I think that a lot of the improvements in schools are going to be driven as much by bottoms up organic change as by top down structural reform.

Topics: Education

17 Responses to “On Urban Education”

  1. Greg says:

    Great article. This is actually a major issue brewing in Buffalo at the moment. The Buffalo Public Schools have the task of turning around 9 persistently lowest achieving schools. 7 of these schools still have to have plans submitted to the state board of regents by July 31st.

    I don’t feel I’d be segregationist to say this, but I think neighborhood schools were a great thing in cities. Buffalo had gotten rid of them, and from my point of view the social and economic dynamics never fully recovered.

    Schools play a role as a gathering place for a neighborhood. When they are no longer a representation of that neighborhood, it loses a bit of personalization. Teachers and parents become more distant. Parent-Teacher nights are embarrassing (I’ve spoken to many Buffalo Public School teachers on the subject).

    If the argument is to be made that families can move into a neighborhood and positively change a school, I wouldn’t believe it unless a sense of personalization returns to the school environment.

    Even in a bad neighborhood, school personalization won’t perpetuate poverty. Instead, it will be ground zero for social and economic change by adapting to the neighborhood’s culture and identities for the purpose of creating a specified school mission.

  2. Robert Yoder says:

    I applaud you for broaching this subject, because most urban renewal blogs consider talking about impact of substandard schools on revitalizing communities as taboo.

    To often we loose great neighbors because when their child turns four, the house goes on the market.

    What’s the impact of charter schools and intra or inter district choice? On keeping families in the urban core?

  3. chuck says:

    I ended up moving to (no surprise) Hamilton Co. when taking a job in downtown Indy a year and a half ago. We did loads of research since I wanted to be close to work and my wife and I wanted good schools for the kids (we had 4 and private school was not an option financially).

    The big obstacle for the inner-city schools is to tackle the wait times and lotteries for charter schools. If they figure this out, their is real hope.

    I had zero (0) chance of getting my kids into CFI or any downtown magnet school because their was a one-year wait time on applications. And then, at the end of the year wait, I was told by school officials that students are selected by lottery.

    We weren’t willing to play odds, any odds, on school selection. Parents don’t bet on this sort of thing.

    The year wait is another deal breaker. We rented the first year here in an area with excellent neighborhood schools–no hassle, no lists, just sign up at the local school, which happens to be excellent. We loved the location (still hate the commute) and bought a home here. Even if we had put our names on the charter school lottery waiting list, what were the chances we would have moved downtown after a year if selected? By that time we had a church, neighbors, routine, stores, and were sold on the burbs. Seems there is a great opportunity to “catch” new move-ins that is being lost. I’m not sure how you do it, but IPS and other inner-cities would be helped by giving new customers the ‘first year free’ (a great, easy school option upon moving in) and then win them over with quality.

  4. Mike says:

    Unless there is an incredible confluence of amazing teachers and administrators, any school is rarely good without supportive, involved parents. Regardless of family income. I’ve taught at an urban, poorer school in Indy that got turned around due to a lot of hard work by teachers and admin, with one of the main goals being to get parents involved in their child’s education. I’ve also worked at a very affluent school where parents aren’t too interested in what goes on, and the students are mostly mediocre–or worse–because of it.

    It’s not like the teachers and admin are generally better in the burbs and terrible in the urban core of cities. I would bet if you swapped out those teachers/admin at the higher performing schools and those at the lower performing, you wouldn’t see that big of a difference over time.

    So, I agree with this post. If you can get families who care and can be involved (very often poorer families don’t have the time or the know how to be involved, but they too want the best for their kids) in any school, usually quality follows.

  5. save_the_rustbelt says:

    The Detroit Public Schools are the primary example of how mismanagement and corruption can destroy an urban system.

    After several years in state receivership the DPS is still barely functional, although much of the corruption has been slowed (off to prison we go…) and an attempt has been made at right sizing, but the board is still a dysfunctional mess.

    Very sad for the children.

  6. Brad says:

    Implementing more “school choice” and decoupling school attendance from where you live could really help with urban redevelopment. Apart from the specifics (Vouchers, magnet schools, etc.) letting people find opportunities for their children’s education other than their under-performing neighborhood school would be refreshing. Bottom line: Why should my address determine the quality of my child’s education?

  7. AdamCO says:

    i think the school ranking system is just nuts. in many communities, the rank merely shows the demographic makeup of the school rather than the quality of instruction. the reasonable impression the parents have is that a student will receive a better education and better instruction at a school ranked at 90 compared with one scoring 70. but that isn’t what the ranking tells us.

  8. Chris Barnett says:

    I agree with the causation arrow, Aaron, though upon reflection Chuck’s comments point out that the IPS magnet system is definitely biased in favor of those of us who already live in IPS territory and are well-acquainted with the options for our kids.

    I do not agree with the previous poster that parents must be (over)involved in the school or with their kids’ schoolwork, hovering constantly. There’s a big difference between parents who are not necessarily involved at school and parents who don’t raise their kids properly (which happens all across the income spectrum). While bad parents are probably not involved with school any more than they are with their children, good parents can and do minimally involve themselves in school and schoolwork.

    I think parents’ responsibility begins and ends with (1) making sure the kids understand that their job is learning and doing schoolwork, and (2)insuring that they are clean, fed, rested, well-behaved and ready to learn when they go to school every day.

    In short, it’s the teachers’ job to teach and the parents’ job to parent. They’re distinct in this case; the main problem with poor urban school systems is that we’re expecting teachers and school staff to parent. The schools’ failures reflect massive amounts of failed parenting more than anything else.

  9. Benjamin Leis says:

    My experience here in Seattle is too much choice can also be harmful. What happened here was that you used to not be guaranteed a spot at any school and everyone went through a application process each year. This made it unpredictable what school you would get and made it less easy to buy into the city. The district switched to a guaranteed spot in the attendance zone of each neighborhood school 3 years ago which has made the process much easier for parents. In the last 5 years attendance rates in kindergarten have increased from 67 to 80 percent of the eligible population. (Note: there are alot of other variables that may have come into play here including the sour economy)

    In sum, As long as good schools are scarce, if you have to gamble that you’ll get into them (even with choice) its hard to buy into a neighborhood. With predictability you can either move to a neighborhood with a good school, buy into an improving one, bank on private school etc.



  10. Mike says:

    I don’t know if I’m the “previous poster” that Chris Barnett refers to, but maybe I needed to clarify what I meant by parents being “involved”. What I meant was pretty much what Chris said: making sure your child knows that school is important and that you should strive to do the best that you can.

    Hovering parents, or over-involved parents aren’t great either, though I guess it’s the lesser of two evils if the other choice is completely uninvolved.

  11. Donna says:

    Brad, that’s exactly the question: if your address determines your school, are you going to work harder to make sure your school is a good one? Or are you going to let your local school fail because you have no vested interest in it and therefore in the neighborhood? I’m in a magnet that is overwhelmingly local families and it is *definitely* more than just a school – it’s a community resource, gathering spot, and identity feature.

    A guaranteed entry into a school based on address also drives up real estate values for those in the catchment zone – I saw this in a demonstration school I worked on in Philadelphia, whose neighborhood saw an immediate leap in home prices when the zone was announced. The rumor I have heard is that real estate value near IPS’ magnets is going up. Whether a rise in real estate value is an overall good thing or not is another complex discussion, of course.

    As Mike says: amazing teachers are really, really amazing, but even the best of them have a hard time teaching kids whose parents aren’t holding up their end of the deal by providing a supportive educational environment at home.

  12. Alon Levy says:

    The flip side of address-based schooling is that people who do not live in the favored neighborhoods have to make do with substandard schools.

  13. Jeff says:

    Just a few things about the IPS magnet system that I hope will keep some families with kids in the city. Firstly, I don’t believe that CFI 2 kindergarten was full this year, meaning that everyone who applied for kindergarten at 2 this year got accepted. Also, in addition to existing options like the Project School, IPS is opening a new CFI in the Herron/Morton area and a Reggio-influenced school that will be operated in conjunction with Butler University in the Mapleton-Fall Creek area. As far as the application process goes, you “pre-register” for the magnet programs in October and find out your placement in February. All of my friends’ children who applied for a magnet got accepted at one of the schools (2, 84, Project), although many who applied at 84 were disappointed (apparently 200 families were applying for 42 spots!).

  14. John Morris says:

    Just like with any other product or service, just increasing the density level and having a connected street grid allows a greater number of potential choices to potentially develop–at this point just for those who can afford them.

    Private schools are the dirty little secret behind the revival or survival of many wealthier neighborhoods.

  15. Maisyn says:

    Many many qluaity points there.

  16. Tim says:

    My wife and I have been working with an urban school in Austin for two years that our daughter will start attending next year. The year before we started helping out at the school it was rated academically unacceptable. Last year was the second year it was rated exemplary. It was an amazingly fast turn around just by getting a group of about 20 parents working together to fix the school. I’m interested in figuring out how we can use technology to facilitate this kind of community building across the city. Elementary schools are trivial to turn around due to their size and if you turn around the elementary schools the rest will follow.

    That said, Austin does have a fairly liberal transfer policy. It’s a double-edged sword. On one had it gets families back into the urban core because they don’t have to worry about schools, on the other it allows parents to avoid doing the hard work (until the “good schools” close to transfers). Also it will destroy your traffic. 10k unnecessary trips during rush hour in a city of 800k, eek! I think ultimately Austin’s policy would be better if it only allowed transfers from better performing to lesser performing and from overcrowded to undercrowded, and I would recommend that to any city looking to implement transfers use such a plan.

    Charter schools are interesting, but I don’t see how they can be used to solve problems in the long term. They’re fiscally inefficient and under-regulated. I imagine in less than a decade we’ll have a few scandals that will completely destroy their popularity. They are interesting as a way to bring back children to urban neighborhoods, however.

  17. David says:

    Thanks Aaron. Another thoughtful piece. I have had many arguments with friends who simply assume, based on extremely broad (and unsupported) generalizations, that all public schools are inferior. Clearly, in Indy, IPS has many challenges and too few successes, but my wife and I stayed in downtown Indy, searched for public school options and, finding CFI, were extremely happy with the option (as another post above notes, even with the lottery, there were sufficient spaces available at our school). I agree you with you that there is a dynamic and mutually-reinforcing relationship between families choosing to remain in a city and the success of the schools. Look forward to more discussions on this topic, inasmuch as the success of neighborhoods and cities depends, in large measure, on being able to attract and retain families and a broad, socio-economic middle class, to the city; and successful schools are a key component.

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