A New Deal For Urban Public Schools

Andrew J. Rotherham & Sara Mead*

While campaigning for president, former Senator John Edwards spoke frequently of there being “two Americas,” one privileged and another struggling to get by. The challenges currently facing America’s urban public schools strikingly illustrate the burdens and obstacles that weigh on those living in the latter America. While suburban schools could certainly improve, especially in terms of the achievement of minority students, it is urban schools that are demonstrably failing at their public charge.

Though there are exceptions, America’s urban school districts fail to educate too many of the youngsters they serve. Forty of the nation’s 100 largest school districts graduate fewer than sixty percent of the students they enroll as high school freshmen.1 Fourth-graders from large cities score fifteen points lower on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in reading than their non-urban peers.2 The statistics are even more troubling for low-income and minority students. To be sure, the data show that minority and poor students lag too far behind in all kinds of communities, but the problems are especially acute in our great cities.

Such poor performance is not just a problem for city dwellers; it is a national crisis with serious economic, social, and moral implications. One in seven American students is enrolled in a large urban school district.3 Our economic growth and standard of living depend on the skills of these future workers. This is a marked demographic shift. For much of the twentieth century, urban schools did not need to educate all kids well to give them a shot at a middle class life in an economy largely built around manufacturing. In today’s service economy, however, opportunity goes more to those with strong minds than those with strong muscles. As a result, failure to obtain a high-quality education can have dire implications for the economic prospects of today’s youth. But it also matters for states and nations because in today’s hypercompetitive and globalized marketplace, standards of living are keenly tied to high skill and high knowledge jobs.

Radically improving urban schools will not solve the various social ills that plague our great cities. But it is virtually impossible for policymakers to successfully address these challenges without dramatic improvements in schooling. Crime, imprisoned populations, welfare enrollment, single-parenthood, and even family dissolution are related to educational shortcomings. And here is where education is personal: skills and knowledge to support one’s self and family are an essential first step towards responsible citizenship and parenthood.

Our schools’ failure to give many disadvantaged and minority students even a basic foundational education – never mind the advanced, technical education they need in today’s world – is a blot on our national conscience. That is why education remains the civil rights challenge for this generation. Earlier generations knocked down the de jure obstacles to full participation in American life. The challenge now is to knock down the de facto ones. In other words, while universal access to public education is a reality today, universal opportunity certainly is not.

Seriously tackling urban educational problems requires dramatic shifts in the culture and performance of urban schools. States and school districts must take on much of the heavy lifting here; Congress should not act as a national school board micromanaging districts. Yet there is plenty Washington can and must do to set broad parameters for state and local reform.

The federal government should not back away from efforts to increase accountability for poor and minority students, most recently incarnated in the federal No Child Left Behind Act.4 At the same time, the federal government should do much more to support reform efforts within urban communities.

Washington should approach urban school districts from the point of view of an investor seeking marginal leverage to drive reform. In other words, Congress should use the leverage of new dollars to force real change by forging a New Deal for urban schools that will provide more resources for urban education in exchange for significant reforms.

There are four key areas where Washington should focus its efforts and create a New Deal for Urban Schools.

Investing in Human Capital

Parents know intuitively, and research shows, that teacher effectiveness is the strongest in-school influence on student achievement. Researchers William Sanders and June Rivers found that students who had effective teachers for three consecutive years scored more than fifty percentile points higher than those who had three years of ineffective teachers.5 Yet disadvantaged and minority students – those who most need good teaching – are the least likely to get it. The Education Trust found that students in high-poverty and high-minority schools are twice as likely to have a novice teacher as students in low-poverty, low-minority schools.6Students in high-poverty, high-minority schools are also more likely to take classes from teachers who themselves do not have deep content knowledge in the subject they are teaching.7

The problem is not an overall teacher shortage, but one of quality and distribution. In fact, many states produce more certified teachers annually than there are open teaching jobs. But too many of these teachers are not certified in the subjects where there are shortages or do not want to teach in the most challenging schools.

The federal government spends just under three billion dollars annually on teachers, but the lion’s share of this funding is spent on professional development and class size reduction.8Substantially bolder approaches are needed to attract and retain teachers in our most challenging schools. The federal government should create incentives for urban districts to overhaul recruitment, training, induction, and compensation for teachers. Despite fundamental changes in the labor market in recent decades, public schools still recruit, train, and pay teachers much as they did in the fifties. These antiquated practices are most pronounced in urban communities and most severely impact students there.

Urban districts can no longer afford to pay teachers merely based on seniority and degrees. Instead, compensation must also reward teachers who have scarce skills and knowledge, accept challenging assignments, and demonstrate records of performance. Changes in pay are unlikely to spur existing teachers to higher levels of performance and certainly will not turn English teachers into calculus teachers. Modernizing how teachers are paid will, however, foster a culture where excellence is recognized rather than minimized and will help to recruit talented, performance-driven workers to the profession. Across the country, non-profit organizations like Teach For America, the New Teacher Project, and New Leaders for New Schools are showing that there are better approaches to human resources and training than the practices most urban school districts currently employ. Using marginal dollars, Federal policies can help “scale up” improved recruitment, training, hiring, and compensation practices and replicate them in more school districts.

Increase the Supply of Good Public Schools

At the core of the standards and accountability movement of the past fifteen years is the belief that, with clear goals, strong incentives, and sufficiently robust support, educators can improve low-performing schools enough to provide their students an adequate educational experience. But experience with school turnaround efforts shows that no intervention has an unfailing record of success; in other words, there are no silver bullets. Moreover, in many states and communities, the scale of the challenge – the sheer number of low-performing schools and the degree to which they are underperforming – is simply too great to address through accountability alone.

The No Child Left Behind Act tries to improve educational opportunities for children in low-performing schools by offering them opportunities to transfer to better performing public schools.9 But in many cities there are so few spaces available in successful schools that the vast majority of children eligible to transfer under the law have no practical prospect of doing so.

Federal policy should not abandon its emphasis on forcing states and school districts to turn around low-performing schools, but it must also be pragmatic. Improving urban education requires a concerted effort to expand the number of high-quality schools in our nation’s cities by both improving existing schools and creating new, high-performing schools. Federal policymakers should take steps now to build the supply of new, high-quality urban public schools by providing seed capital, helping develop promising school models, and disseminating information about effective approaches to expand the number of high-performing schools.

The most effective lever to accomplish this is already present in No Child Left Behind through the Public Charter School Program (CSP).10 This program, created in the mid-1990s by President Clinton with support from Congressional Republicans, has helped catalyze the growth of public charter schools around the country. The new schools strategy is already paying dividends in cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, Indianapolis, and Washington, DC. The many new public schools opening in these cities are simultaneously providing more public options for parents and spurring local school authorities to reform existing schools more aggressively. Opening new public schools does not take the pressure off of educators to fix currently low-performing schools. On the contrary, it increases it. Accountability is much more powerful when educators know that policymakers and families have viable alternatives to existing schools.

Invest In Research and Development

A lack of political will to take on powerful interests or shake up existing arrangements that serve students poorly but work well for adults is clearly one of the major obstacles to improving urban schools. But it would be far too simplistic to say this is the only – or even the primary – challenge. Even if a political genie gave school reformers the power to implement whatever reforms they wanted to improve urban schools, they would still face the challenge of deciding what to do and executing their reform efforts effectively. This is in large part because American education has for too long under-invested in research. Nationally, only three cents of every educational dollar is spent on research and development, and much of the research that has been done is of little use to teachers or school administrators.

Federal research investments have been the catalyst for many of the scientific breakthroughs of the twentieth century, from aviation to the internet to the medical field. Federal research investments are critical to driving innovation in public education because the profit motive that drives research and development in other fields is largely absent. Despite that, the federal Department of Education currently spends less than one percent of its budget on research and development, far less than other federal agencies such as the Departments of Defense (seventeen percent) and Health and Human Services (forty-two percent).11 This failure to invest in high-quality research in a sustained way seriously undermines efforts to improve public education.

Urban school districts need reliable information about what types of educational practices and interventions are most effective with different groups of students and how to effectively implement promising practices. There is a clear need for significant new federal investments in research to identify promising and effective educational programs and in development work that translates research into practice and helps school districts implement effective and promising programs.

Expand Access to High Quality Pre-Kindergarten Programs

Everyone knows that urban school districts work with a student population that is significantly more challenging to educate, including more low-income students, more minority students, more students with disabilities, and more non-English speakers. But this cannot be an excuse for poor performance. As outgoing Boston Superintendent Tom Payzant told Washington Post columnist Fred Haitt, “I’ve never gotten into the debate about how much can schools do, because you’ve got to keep people focused and moving and not give them excuses by saying, ‘I wish we had better kids.”12

Yet there is a difference between making excuses and acknowledging that many students attending urban schools enter them facing distinct educational disadvantages. While urban public schools often exacerbate the problems, researchers estimate that as much as half of the educational achievement gap between white and black or affluent and poor students exists before students even begin first grade.13 On average, disadvantaged urban children are read to less, have fewer books in their homes, and hear substantially fewer words and verbal conversations than more affluent youngsters. As a result there is a keen need for early interventions that narrow these gaps early on and help disadvantaged youngsters enter school ready to learn.

The federal Head Start program was started in the 1960s as part of the War on Poverty for just this purpose, but it has fallen short of its lofty goals. Head Start serves fewer than half of the children who are eligible for its services,14 and critics argue that many Head Start programs provide too little educational content to reduce poor children’s learning deficits. Research has shown that high-quality preschool programs – which meet more stringent quality standards than most Head Start centers – can help narrow achievement gaps for low-income children and improve their educational and other outcomes later in life.15 Over the past several years, many states have invested in preschool programs to prepare youngsters for school, but these programs still serve fewer than one in five four-year-olds,16 and many are not of adequate quality.

The federal government can play a critical role in narrowing early educational gaps by making high-quality preschool available to every poor and low-income child in America’s cities and ensuring that these programs are aligned with the local K-12 system. Washington should create a program of competitive, targeted grants to help states, school districts, and cities offer high-quality preschool to all three- and four-year-olds living in high-poverty neighborhoods with low-performing schools. By funding high-quality preschool programs that have qualified teachers, small classes, and an educational focus, the federal government can help close the achievement gap for the youngest urban students. Los Angeles’s Universal Preschool program, which uses tobacco tax money to offer high-quality preschool to four-year-olds living in Los Angeles County, is a good model.


The appalling outcomes in urban schools are arguably the most pronounced social policy problem facing leaders today. Yet there is still not enough urgency about attacking the problem and not enough support at the federal level. More support should not mean simply more of the same, more money down the same drains. Instead, the federal government must more aggressively promote real educational change in urban communities.

There are too many examples of good urban public schools to argue that demographics and poverty are destiny. Yet there are not nearly enough. Changing that is one of the defining social policy and civil rights issues of our time. Doing so requires much more intensive and concerted effort and, as with other great social struggles, the federal government must play a leadership role.

* Andrew J. Rotherham is co-founder and co-director of Education Sector and previously served at The White House as Special Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy. Sara Mead is senior policy analyst with Education Sector.
[1] JAY P. GREENE & MARCUS A. WINTERS, MANHATTAN INST., LEAVING BOYS BEHIND: HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATION RATES (2006), available at http://www.manhattan-institute.org/html/cr_48.htm.
[2] NAT’L ASSESSMENT OF EDUC. PROGRESS, TRIAL URBAN DISTRICT REPORT CARDS IN READING AND MATHEMATICS (2005), http://nationsreportcard.gov/tuda_reading_mathematics_2005/.
[3] Council of the Great City Schools, About the Council, http://www.cgcs.org/about/about.html.
[4] Pub. L. No. 107-110, 115 Stat. 1425 (2002) (codified as amended primarily in scattered sections of 20 U.S.C.).
[7] Id. at 8.
[8] U.S. DEP’T OF EDUC., FISCAL YEAR 2008 BUDGET SUMMARY AND BACKGROUND 5 (2007), available at www.ed.gov/about/overview/budget/budget08/summary/08summary.pdf.
[9] 20 U.S.C. § 6316 (2003).
[10] 20 U.S.C. § 7201 (2003).
[11] Testimony submitted by Jim Kohlmoos, President, National Education Knowledge Industry Association, to the Aspen Institute’s Commission on No Child Left Behind (2006), available athttp://www.nekia.org/files/Testimony_Aspen_NCLB_Commission2.pdf.
[12] Fred Hiatt, A Case Study for Washington’s New Mayor, WASH. POST, November 6, 2006, at A21.
[13] THE BLACK WHITE TEST SCORE GAP 248 (Christopher Jencks & Meredith Phillips, eds., 1998).
[14] KATIE HAMM & DANIELLE EWEN, CTR. FOR LAW AND SOC. POL’Y, STILL GOING STRONG: HEAD START CHILDREN, FAMILIES, STAFF AND PROGRAMS IN 2004 (2005),available at www.clasp.org/publications/headstart_brief_6.pdf.

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