Urban Education

Urban education has been the subject of ongoing discussions in the US, with policies aimed at urban school improvement vigorously debated over the last 40 years. Since the 1960s, as cities became increasingly poor and populated by minority groups, urban schools have reflected the problems associated with poverty. Although rural and many suburban schools have similar problems, urban schools represent the most serious challenges. A significant percentage of urban schools have been labeled in need of improvement under federal No Child Left Behind (2002) guidelines, with large city school systems having dropout rates at or above 40 percent and student achievement well below 50 percent proficiency in mathematics and reading. Despite these alarming data, there are significant numbers of high performing urban schools and a number of reform programs that show promise (Tractenberg et al. 2002).

As urban areas became increasingly poor and segregated, their school systems mirrored the problems of urban poverty, including low student achievement, high student mobility, high dropout rates, and high levels of school failure. Due to the concentration of poor and minority populations in urban areas, urban public schools have significantly higher proportions of low socioeconomic and minority students than their surrounding suburbs. Over the past four decades, affluent white families have either moved to the suburbs or sent their children to private schools. In 2003 the enrollments of some of the 12 largest city school districts in the US were overwhelmingly minority, with the percentage of white students ranging from a low of 5.2 percent in Detroit to a high of 16.4 percent in Philadelphia and the percentage of African American and Hispanic students combined ranging from a low of 73.4 percent in New York to a high of 92.9 percent in Detroit (Ladson Billings 2004).

Student achievement in urban schools mirrors the relationship between socioeconomic status (SES), race, ethnicity, and educational performance. Students from lower SES back grounds have lower levels of academic attainment and achievement than students from higher SES backgrounds. African American and Hispanic students also have lower academic achievement than white and Asian American students. Given their high percentage of poor and African American and Hispanic students, urban schools reflect the achievement gaps that NCLB is designed to eliminate.

Since the 1960s the achievement gaps based on social class, race, ethnicity, and gender have been the focus of educational policy, especially in urban areas. These gaps include both group differences in achievement based on standardized tests and grades; attainment based on years of schooling, high school and college attendance and graduation and dropout rates and completion of honors and advanced placement courses; and opportunity based on access to qualified teachers, challenging curriculum placement in special education and investments in education, including state and local funding. The gaps include higher academic achievement by high income students compared to low income students, white and Asian American students compared to African American and Hispanic students, even when controlling for socioeconomic level, and male students compared to female students. There have been some improvements since the 1960s, with the gender gap closing dramatically and in some cases with women outperforming men, and social class, race, and ethnic differences lessening until 1988. However, the social class, race, and ethnic achievement gap widened since 1988, despite continued educational policies aimed at reducing them (US Department of Education 2000).

The reasons for the differences in achievement are complex, including factors both outside and inside the schools. Rothstein (2004) argues that much of the achievement gap is due to factors related to poverty, such as inadequate housing, health care, and environmental problems, including lead paint and other toxins in the urban environment. Although this is the case, it is undoubtedly also true that factors within urban schools contribute to low achievement. These include unequal funding, unqualified teachers, low expectations and dumbed down curricula, and high turnover of teachers and principals.

With respect to investments, in 2001 the nation had an effective funding gap between highest and lowest poverty districts of $1,256 per student, $31,400 for a typical classroom of 25 students, and $502,392 for a typical elementary school of 400 students. These gaps vary by state, with some such as Illinois, New York, and Pennsylvania having large gaps and some such as Delaware, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and New Jersey providing more funding to high poverty districts (Education Trust 2004). These funding gaps are most pronounced in large differences between urban and suburban districts. While some states, most notably New Jersey, have eliminated these differences through court intervention, children in most US cities receive considerably less funding than their suburban neighbors.

NCLB’s requirement that all schools have highly qualified teachers in every classroom highlighted the problem of unqualified teachers in urban schools, many of whom were teaching out of their field of expertise. However, while most teachers meet the highly qualified standards of NCLB, the data indicate significant numbers of classrooms staffed by teachers who are not highly qualified in the particular subject taught. This is the result of the practice called out of field teaching – teachers being assigned to teach subjects which do not match their training or education. This is a crucial practice because highly qualified teachers may actually become highly unqualified if they are assigned to teach subjects in which they have little training or education. At the secondary school level, about one fifth of classes in each of the core academic subjects (math, science, English, social studies) are taught by teachers who do not hold a teaching certificate in the subject taught. The data also show that urban schools, especially low income ones, have more out of field teaching than others.

Problems in staffing urban schools have less to do with teacher shortages and more to do with organizational issues inside schools. Principals often find it easier to hire unqualified teachers than qualified ones and the absence of status and professionalism and poor working conditions in teaching lead to high dropout rates in the first five years of teaching. Therefore, urban districts are constantly replacing teachers, which has significant consequences since it takes years to become an expert teacher. Rates of teacher attrition and misassignment are more prevalent in urban and high poverty schools (Ingersoll 1999, 2003). Ingersoll’s research suggests that programs aimed at solving urban school staffing problems at the supply level through alternative teacher education programs such as Teach for America, the New York City Teaching Fellows Program, and New Jersey’s Alternative Certification Program (all of which allow college graduates with majors in their teaching field to enter teaching without traditional certification through a college teacher education program) fail to address the organizational problems within schools that are responsible for high turnover rates.

Data from the Education Trust (2004) indicate that many urban schools do not have rigorous academic curricula for all of their students, often track a significant number into non academic programs, and have low expectations for success for a majority of their students. Bryk et al. (1993) argue that one of the reasons that urban parochial schools have higher academic achievement for low income students of color is that these schools require a rigorous academic college preparatory curriculum for all of their students.

Despite these problems, there are also numerous examples of highly successful urban schools (Education Trust 2004). For example, in Newark, New Jersey, taken over by the New Jersey Department of Education in 1995 for, among other things, low student achievement, there are a number of district and public charter schools with high poverty and high minority populations that perform not only above the state averages, but also at the same levels as those in the highest socioeconomic districts (Barr 2004). Over the past 15 years a variety of educational policies have been implemented to replicate these schools and to improve urban schools. These include school finance litigation, comprehensive whole school reform programs, effective school models, school choice (including charter schools and private school vouchers), and state takeover of failing urban districts (Tractenberg et al. 2002).

These educational reforms have the potential to improve urban schools; however, by themselves they are limited in reducing the achievement gaps (Anyon 2005; Rothstein 2004) unless they also address the factors outside of schools responsible for educational inequalities. In addition to school based programs such as early childhood programs, summer programs, and after school programs, Rothstein (2004: 129–50) calls for economic programs to reduce income inequality and to create stable and affordable housing, and the expansion of school community clinics to provide health care and counseling. He also warns that although school finance suits are necessary to ensure that all children receive an adequate education, without addressing the economic forces outside of schools they will not be sufficient. Rothstein (a liberal) and Anyon (a radical) both conclude that school reform is necessary but insufficient to reduce the achievement gaps without broader social and economic policies aimed at reducing the effects of poverty.

These descriptions of US urban education and urban educational reforms are mirrored internationally. For example, research in the UK (Mortimore & Whitty 1999; Walford 1999; Power et al. 2001) indicates that students living in urban areas and disadvantaged minorities achieve at lower levels than more affluent students. Mortimore and Whitty (1999) and Power et al. (2001) describe similar policies aimed at improving urban education and argue that although school reforms can make a difference, policies aimed at eradicating poverty must complement these. Whitty (1997), Walford (1999), Ladd (2002), and Plank and Sykes (2003) have examined the impact of school choice policies internationally to improve urban schools. Their research suggests that these policies have mixed success at best. Similar problems and policies have been described in Australia (Singh 2005) and numerous other countries (Cookson et al. 1992).


  1. Anyon, J. (2005) Radical Possibilities: Public Policy, Urban Education and a New Social Movement. Routledge, New York.
  2. Barr, J. (2004) A Statistical Portrait of Newark’s Schools. Cornwall Center for Metropolitan Studies, Newark, NJ.
  3. Bryk, A., Lee, V., & Holland, P. (1993) Catholic Schools and the Common Good. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
  4. Cookson, Jr., P. W., Sadovnik, A. R., & Semel, S. F. (1992) International Handbook of Educational Reform. Greenwood Press, Westport.
  5. Education Trust (2004) Education Watch: Achievement Gap Summary Tables. Education Trust, Washington, DC.
  6. Ingersoll, R. (1999) The Problem of Underqualified Teachers in American Secondary Schools. Educational Researcher 28: 26-37.
  7. Ingersoll, R. (2003) Who Controls Teachers’ Work? Power and Accountability in America’s Schools. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
  8. Ladd, H. F. (2002) Market Based Reforms in Urban Education. Economic Policy Institute, Washington, DC.
  9. Ladson-Billings, G. (2004) Landing on the Wrong Note: The Price We Paid for Brown. Educational Researcher 33(7): 3-13.
  10. Mortimore, P. & Whitty, G. (1999) School Improvement: A Remedy for Social Exclusion. In: Hayton, A. (Ed.), Tackling Disaffection and Social Exclusion. Kogan Page, London, pp. 80-94.
  11. Plank, D. N. & Sykes, G. (2003) Choosing Choice: School Choice in International Perspective. Teachers College Press, New York.
  12. Power, S., Warren, S., Gillborn, D., Clark, A., Thomas, S., & Coate, K. (2001) Education in Deprived Areas. Institute of Education, University of London, London.
  13. Rothstein, R. (2004) Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic, and Educational Reform to Close the Black White Achievement Gap. Teachers College Press, New York.
  14. Singh, P. (2005). Urban Education, Cultural Diversity and Poverty: A Case Study of Globalization: Brisbane, Australia. In: Kincheloe, J. & Hayes, K. (Eds.), Metropedagogy: Power, Justice, and the Urban Classroom. Sense Publishers, Rotterdam.
  15. Tractenberg, P., Holzer, M., Miller, G., Sadovnik, A., & Liss, B. (2002) Developing a Plan for Reestablishing Local Control in the State Operated Districts. Institute on Education Law and Policy, Rutgers University, Newark, NJ. Online. http://ielp.rutgers.edu/docs/developing_plan_full.pdf
  16. US Department of Education, National Center for Educational Statistics (2000) The Condition of Education: National Assessment of Educational Progress. Office of the Under Secretary and Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, Washington, DC.
  17. Walford, G. (1999) Educational Reform and Sociology in England and Wales. In: Levinson, D. L., Cookson, Jr., P. W., & Sadovnik, A. R. (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Sociology and Education. Routledge, New York, pp. 211-20.
  18. Whitty, G. (1997) Creating Quasi-Markets in Education: A Review of Recent Research on Parental Choice and School Autonomy in Three Countries. Review of Research in Education 22: 3-48.

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