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Urban schools don’t inspire much confidence these days. Politicians and policy leaders routinely bemoan their quality. And media outlets regularly run stories of “failing urban schools.”
Middle- and upper-income parents have expressed misgivings, too. But they’ve done it much less volubly. With relatively little fuss, they’ve simply picked up and moved—departing from city school systems at ever-greater rates. Among expressions of no-confidence, this has arguably been the most significant, because it has reshaped district demography. Each year, it seems, urban schools serve larger concentrations of poor students, racial minorities, and English-language learners. As higher-income families depart, resources go with them, and schools are faced with the daunting prospect of doing more with less.
City schools, by contrast, serve a very different mix of young people. Roughly two-thirds of urban students are nonwhite, and in the 20 largest school districts, that figure is 80 percent on average.
School segregation is one of the great challenges of American education. As decades of failure have made clear, the problem will not be solved easily.
That said, it seems that parents and policymakers might do a great deal to reverse the intensifying segregation of American public education simply by educating themselves about what test scores do and don’t say about school quality. Acting on the perception that schools are far more unequal than they really are, many well-intended parents play a crucial role in turning perception into reality. Questioning what they have long accepted, however, they might begin to create something different.