Monday, April 6, 2009

Sunday Commentary: How to Fix Urban Schools: Just Wait?

Time heals all wounds. Or so they say. What about urban schools? Will time heal the problems so evident there?

A century ago, urban schools were the best in the nation. Now they are anything but. Everybody offers their own solution to the problem, but sometimes the simplest solution is best. In this instance, waiting. Give it a couple decades and see what happens.

Why would a couple decades of doing nothing make any difference? Because the most important part of any school's success is the families that send their kids there. And the neighborhoods in many urban areas are changing. As David Villano wrote today, many think that poverty will be concentrated in the suburbs a quarter century from now. In the 20th century white flight meant that many of the well-to-do moved out of the city while many of those with the least were left behind -- both literally and in school.

But the 21st century has seen a rebirth of many urban neighborhoods. Developers have raced to build the latest and greatest condo tower, walkability is ever more desirable, and gentrification is rampant. Indeed, over the last decade the neighborhoods in Nashville experiencing the steepest increase in home values are those clustered near downtown.

The first wave of new urban dwellers consisted mostly of people too young or too old to have school-age children. But as neighborhoods transform, that will likely change. And as more and more families with more wealth and more education move into a neighborhood, the local schools will inevitably change as well. Many of the first arrivals will send their children to private school, but that too will likely change with time.

In other words, by the time we think urban schools have been fixed the larger problem may actually lie in suburban schools.

I am, of course, not seriously suggesting that we simply do nothing. Waiting for neighborhoods to gentrify might help a number of individual schools, but would do little to solve larger societal problems.


Rachel said...

I guess the question this raises for me whether we're yet at a point where either the quality of schools themselves, or our means of measuring school quality, are even remotely disentangled from the economic status of the families that send their children to those schools?

Roger Sweeny said...

For forty years, I have been hearing well-meaning people say that "the cities are coming back." They have (largely) been wrong for 40 years and they will continue to be wrong.

Cities can be great for empty nesters and cool singles. But as soon as kids come along, most people want a yard and places that are easy to get to with a car. These are the people who send well-prepared children to school. They will not be returning to the cities any time soon.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

Rachel: I think there are very few ways we can conceive of measuring quality that are not

RS: I guess time will tell

tft said...

I'm with both Rachel and Roger on their 2 points.

The minute I had a kid, I wanted a yard.

SES is the only stable corollary of student outcomes.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

I'm not sure why we think living in an urban area automatically excludes the possibility of having a yard.

john in nc said...

My experience in Atlanta was much as you describe in Nashville - and that included young couples with small or elementary aged children. The test is -- do they begin to move out of the inner city when the kids hit 10-12... or opt for private/protected schools? What's the Nashville experience been like in that regard?

Roger Sweeny said...

I'm not sure why we think living in an urban area automatically excludes the possibility of having a yard.

Well, there is urban and there is urban. When I think urban, I think of density high enough to make some sort of mass transit system feasible. That means no yards or small yards or shared yards (i.e., you live in a duplex or a triple-decker.).

I also think of density high enough to make parking a car at night at least a little difficult.

It is not difficult to find yards and parking in the suburbs of an urban area.

This is usually also true of one or more areas within the central city boundary. People with kids who would otherwise go to the suburbs may live there if the local schools are good. Of course, whether the local schools are good is largely a matter of whether the kids come from families who require them to do well in school.`

Corey Bunje Bower said...

RS: I think that's a misconception of urban environments. Certainly, there are urban areas where people simply don't have yards -- or, at least, only a few of the wealthiest families do.

Most areas more than about a mile from downtown Nashville and Pittsburgh have yards. I rented part of a house in the Bronx with a yard -- though there are fewer of those there. So, yes, in some places most people who live in the city do not have yards -- but in many places they do.

Roger Sweeny said...


There are certainly suburb-like areas in many cities, where most of the houses are detached and they all have fairly large yards. I just don't think that's what most people think of when they think of "urban" areas. And I don't think that's what David Villano was thinking of when he was talking about "urban schools."

BTW: You might be interested in Joel Kotkin's "The American Suburb is Bouncing Back."

Corey Bunje Bower said...

There are tons of areas in cities that consist of single or multi-family homes with yards that are neither suburban nor wealthy neighborhoods. Anybody who says these aren't "urban" areas is flat-out wrong.

And I don't think that Villano was excluding these neighborhoods when he wrote about the rising popularity of places that are "dense, walkable, diverse, mixed-use neighborhoods in and around city centers".

Roger Sweeny said...

dense, walkable, ... in and around city centers

Since I don't know how Villano defines these, I can't be sure exactly what he means. Above a certain density, you are obviously urban, and yards are small or non-existent--definitely not what parents mean when they say, "I want a yard for my kid to play in."

Below a certain density, people won't call you urban--even if you are within the city limits--and there is lots of space for yards.

We're talking past each other about something in the middle. If something is "walkable" and "in and around city centers," I'm guessing it's more likely to be near the urban end of my scale. But I could be wrong.