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date: 25 June 2017

Urban School Reform in the United States

Summary and Keywords

In the United States, policymakers have exhibited a resilient confidence in the idea that reforming urban schools is the essential key to improving the life chances of children, especially African American and Latino youth. Since the mid-1960s in particular, this resonant belief, as articulated in different forms by politicians, interest groups, local communities, and the broader public, has served as motivational impetus for small- and large-scale school change efforts. Despite such apparent unanimity regarding the importance of city schools, disputes have emerged over the proper structural and systemic alterations necessary to improve education. Often at issue has been the notion of just who should and will control change efforts. Moreover, vexing tensions have also characterized the enacted reform initiatives. For instance, urban school policies created by distant, delocalized outsiders have routinely engendered unanticipated local effects and fierce community resistance. In addition, particular urban school reforms have manifested simultaneously as means for encouraging social justice for marginalized youth and as mechanisms for generating financial returns for educational vendors. Regardless of such tensions, faith in urban school reform has persisted, thanks to exemplary city schools and programs that have helped students thrive academically. For many reformers, such success stories demonstrate that viable routes toward enabling academic achievement for more children living in urban areas do indeed exist.

Keywords: Urban, schools, reform, students, achievement


Policymakers in the United States have exhibited a resilient confidence in the idea that reforming urban schools is the essential key to improving the life chances of children, especially African American and Latino youth. Since the mid-1960s in particular, this resonant belief, as articulated in different forms by politicians, interest groups, local communities, and the broader public, has coalesced into a sustaining motivational force in both policy and practice. The concept that schools can and do matter substantially for the future of urban youth of color has helped compel successive school improvement efforts intended to induce greater equity in access to effective educational programs and generate increased equality in academic and life outcomes. In some ways, the pursuit of urban school reform has become symbolically tantamount to constructing paths necessary to enable more children to realize a quintessential American dream of prosperity, stability, and security.

Despite such apparent unanimity regarding the importance of city schools, essential reform actors have engaged in intense disputes over the proper structural and systemic alterations necessary to improve education. Often at issue has been the notion of just who should and will control change efforts; politics, in various forms, appears as a necessary condition and inevitable calculation in urban school reform. Moreover, vexing tensions also have characterized the enacted improvement initiatives. For instance, urban school policies created by distant, delocalized outsiders have routinely engendered unanticipated local effects and fierce community resistance. In addition, particular urban school reforms have manifested simultaneously as means for encouraging social justice for marginalized youth and as mechanisms for generating financial returns for educational vendors.

This article provides an introduction to urban school reform in the United States, with particular emphasis on how it has progressed since the 1960s. I begin with a brief historical overview that provides a general sense of context and terrain. Given the limited length of this work, my main intent is conceptual rather than comprehensive. Accordingly, I describe three key concepts—certain factors consistently matter, the outsider issue, and the cyclical nature of reform—that have helped define urban school reform over the past several decades. I also discuss several enduring reform tensions that have remained unresolved in city school improvement efforts. In spite of these tensions, faith in urban school reform has persisted, thanks to exemplary city schools and programs that have helped students thrive academically. For many reformers, such educational success stories demonstrate viable routes toward enabling academic achievement for more children living in urban areas indeed exist, thereby helping sustain the impulse to reform urban schools.

From the “One Best System” to the Struggle for Something Better

As the United States began emerging as an urbanized, industrialized global power in the late 1800s, city schools became a focal point for change. The consolidation of rural schools into city districts led alliances of business representatives and educational professionals to develop complex educational systems marked by increased specialization of pedagogical and support functions (Rury, 2012; Tyack, 1974). In the 1800s, a simple, one-room village schoolhouse under community oversight signified American education; by the 1920s, the prevailing symbol had become the “one best system”: urban, factory-style, multiservice institutions arranged into city-based districts controlled by a “corporate-bureaucratic model” (Tyack, 1974, p. 6). One main purpose was assimilation of the increasing number of immigrants arriving in cities. If part of the expressed intent of the preferred governance model was “taking the schools out of politics” (Tyack, 1974, p. 6), the imposed order in fact attempted to nest control in the hands of elites at the sake of local community voices. As accounts of schools in cities like Chicago demonstrate (Lipman, 2011), over time the “corporate-bureaucratic” model engendered as much politics, often in the form of community dissent and protest, as it prevented Moreover, the new order generated extensive bureaucracies based on the principles of organizational science and efficiency (Tyack, 1974). By the latter half of the century, urban educational bureaucracies in places like New York City struck some observers as Byzantine empires that perpetuated the entitlements of existing professional educators and solidified the status quo in terms of educational services delivered and withheld (Rogers, 1968).

Beginning in the 1950s and accelerating in the latter half of the 20th century, the idea that urban schools represented a “best” system came under challenge as the socioeconomic context in urban areas changed dramatically (Kantor & Brenzel, 1992). After World War II, African American migration from the South to northern cities, as well as influxes of new immigrants from Central America and the Caribbean, preceded urban deindustrialization and increased suburbanization in the 1960s and 1970s. Complicating matters, after the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 rendered school segregation unconstitutional, efforts to desegregate city schools attacked de jure (by law) segregation in the South and de facto (in effect) segregation elsewhere. Although desegregation achieved some notable gains in the South, by the 1970s White flight to the suburbs in resistance to busing to implement integration in other parts of the United States coupled with lowered economic prospects to signify that urban areas were in stark decline (Kantor & Brenzel, 1992; Lytle, 2007). As educational historian John Rury (2012) explained, by the 1990s:

Destitution and isolation contributed to an atmosphere of nihilistic self-destruction . . . Drop-out rates among urban teenagers came to be as high as 50% in many large American cities, with thousands of adolescents turning to the street in the absence of any real prospects of stable and meaningful employment . . . In this fashion, the crisis in education can be linked to the economic crisis in inner-city minority communities.

(p. 16)

In cities across the United States, socioeconomic and demographic change has had profound effects on urban schools and schooling (Anyon, 1997; Cuban, 2010).

Amid such stark community realities, actors across the sociopolitical spectrum began to frame schools as central elements of the problems plaguing cities. Caustic exposés of educational conditions accentuated the idea that urban schools were in deep crisis, while accounts from principals and other educational professionals, many of whom were White, decried the effects of socioeconomic and cultural forces on their schools (Irwin, 1973; Kozol, 1967; Miller & Smiley, 1967; Wasserman, 1970). Meanwhile, scholars questioned the degree to which schools could help youth overcome the effects of poverty, race, and other socioeconomic factors (Coleman et al., 1966; Jenks, 1972). As a consensus was emerging that urban schools were dysfunctional studies like these suggested that they were also ineffective tools for increasing equity and social justice for students of color. Tyack (1974) described the contemporary situation as “the one best system on fire” (p. 269), while Cuban (1976) portrayed urban superintendents as “school chiefs under fire” (p. iii).

By the late 1960s, as educational policymakers and others responded to this troubling context, enduring contours also emerged in urban school reform. First, scholars and programs identified and disseminated core characteristics of educators and institutions that have successfully served urban students of color (Edmonds, 1979). Second, initiatives like the Comer School Development Program and, later, the Harlem Children’s Zone sought to establish symbiotic connections among urban schools, families, and communities (Comer, 2009; Payne, 2008; Tough, 2009). Third, some reformers championed systemic improvement efforts as the way to take change to scale through means such as improving whole districts, using state control of local districts as a lever for broad-based change, and increasing federal funding and involvement (Lytle, 2007; Stone, Henig, Jones, & Pierannunzi, 2001). Finally, some advocates demanded new approaches to schooling, such as district-run alternative schools with unique operational norms and innovative pedagogy. More radically, proponents in what became known as “the choice movement” have encouraged the development of publicly funded charter schools that operate outside direct district oversight and tax-funded vouchers that enable parents to send their children to private schools (Berends, 2014). Thus, today we have several general urban school reform modes that gestated initially in the 1960s and 1970s: effective pedagogy, educators, and schools as replicable examples; school-community connections; systemic change efforts; and market-based educational choice. In addition, reforms generally have been oriented toward two general entry points: changes intended to occur inside the school building and classrooms, and changes intended to occur in governance structures and community settings outside the school building. The unit of analysis is an important factor, then, when considering school reform.

Just as differences in the substance and points of entry of change efforts have helped define urban school reform, so have differences in determining what is meant by the word urban. At its essence, urban suggests certain geographical features, like a city’s population size and density. Prominent urban education researcher H. Richard Milner IV described three elements in what he called “an evolving typology of urban education”: “urban intensive” (major cities like New York and Chicago); “urban emergent” (large cities like Austin, Texas); and, “urban characteristic” (smaller cities that encounter issues parallel to those in the intensive and emergent urban areas) (Milner, 2012, p. 560). Increasingly, urban also implies demographics characterized by significant populations of African Americans, Latinos, and other groups distinct from the country’s predominant White racial demographic (Foster, 2007). Distinguished urban education scholar Pedro Noguera (2003) noted that “the term urban is less likely to be employed as a geographic concept . . . than as social or cultural construct used to describe certain people and places,” and that the people the term described “are relatively poor and, in many cases, non-White” (p. 23). The word urban has increasingly taken on a negative connotation, suggestive of entrenched crime and poverty (Dixson, Royal, & Henry, 2014).

In this text, I rely on Milner’s conception of urban as an organizing mechanism, and I use the word city synonymously with urban to achieve some semantic variety. Disproportionate attention is paid in the existing research literature toward what Milner calls “urban intensives”; hence, the examples here reflect some geographic diversity while highlighting reforms in major cities such as Chicago and New York. Also, it is fair to assert that urban school systems in the United States typically serve diverse populations that include significant numbers of students of color who live in poverty. I remain mindful that urban can evoke negative connotations—but such is not my intent. In my view, urban areas have been, are, and will be the lifeblood of the United States. They are the complex places where different people can and do meet, struggle, make democracy over again and again, and aspire. Moreover, I agree that too often, urban community pathologies are overemphasized and urban community strengths neglected (Dixson et al., 2014). Cities are perfect American imperfections, and the ongoing quest for urban school reform is part of that perfect imperfection.

Importantly, although common themes and experiences have surfaced in reform efforts as they have occurred across different urban areas in the United States, historian David Tyack (1974) asserted that “the [sic] city school does not exist, and never did” (p. 5). Urban schools and the communities that they serve have always been unique places with distinct histories, cultures, and sociopolitical contexts (Lightfoot, 1983; Johanek & Puckett, 2007). Given this reality, wide-scale improvement efforts predicated on generic, one-size-fits-all approaches have failed to make any significant, lasting impact inside (or outside) of individual schools and classrooms (Tyack & Cuban, 1995). The idea that local context and certain other factors consistently matter joins the issue of outsider-led reform and the cyclical nature of change as three key concepts in urban school reform.

Three Key Concepts in Urban School Reform

Certain Factors Consistently Matter

While it is beyond the scope of this article to provide a comprehensive list of factors that facilitate or inhibit the progress of urban education reform, it is fair to assert that there are certain issues and elements that, across time and city spaces, have disproportionately affected the effort to improve schooling. Some factors that consistently matter besides local context include race, ethnicity, and poverty; politics and power; and trust.

Race, Ethnicity, and Poverty

By the 1960s, race was the dividing line in city schooling: In the South, school systems in cities like Greensboro, North Carolina, became the settings for intensive desegregation efforts that attempted to overcome decades of separate schooling (Chafe, 1981). Elsewhere, Whites still controlled the “one best” systems that were increasingly under challenge, often by African American community members who had long been excluded from meaningful input in local schooling. In subsequent decades, disputes and negotiations around race became an indelible aspect of urban school district reform efforts (Lipman, 2011).

Meanwhile, in urban classrooms, teachers (many or most of them White) taught students from backgrounds different than their own. Given this context, by the 1970s, some African Americans in urban areas outside the South advocated for holding city teachers directly accountable for student standardized test scores as a means to counteract the negative expectations and outright racism that faculty may have directed toward African American children (Spencer, 2012). In more recent decades, scholars and advocates have identified ways that teachers might better reach and teach students of color though approaches that acknowledge, honor, and engage student cultural backgrounds (Billings, 1994; Delpit, 2012; Gay, 2010; Howard, 2010; Milner, 2010). As a general point, it remains a shameful American fact that after the widespread failure of desegregation to take hold as a mandated reform, the White majority has failed to enable sustained school improvement for multiple generations of urban African Americans. To paraphrase Cornel West (1992), race has mattered and does matter in urban school reform.

Ethnicity has also proved to be an important factor in education in cities. As urban schools consolidated and grew into large bureaucracies from the late 1890s into the 1920s, immigrants entered cities in vast numbers. Schools became the way that the dominant society attempted to acculturate these new ethic populations at the same time that immigrant groups attempted to assert control over their children’s education by fighting for instruction in their native languages (Tyack, 1974). These previous efforts extended into the latter part of the century. In the 1970s, for instance, Mexican Americans in Houston, Texas, fought for recognition as a minority group. They did so in order to defy Anglo American efforts to evade desegregation edicts by deeming Mexican Americans “White” and putting them with African Americans in so-called desegregated schools that were separate from Anglo American schools (San Miguel, 2001). Presently, the issue of how to reform schools and engage communities in order to better educate Latino immigrant children has become a persistent concern in cities (Lowenhaupt, 2014; Noguera, 2008).

Poverty is a third factor that consistently matters in urban education. As cities deindustrialized and lost high-wage, stable jobs in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, chronic, multigenerational poverty became a common condition in many urban communities (Kantor & Brenzel, 1992; Rury, 2012; Wilson, 1987). In cities like Newark, New Jersey, increasingly negative economic conditions coincided with school system decline (Anyon, 1997). Poverty and urban school reform became inextricably linked in initiatives like the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which was signed into law in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson. ESEA’s Title I delivered funding for supplementary educational services as a means to reallocate resources to those most in need (Lytle, 2007; Spencer, 2012). More recently, some popular professional development programs have decoupled poverty and race in ways that concern advocates who consider these factors as deeply intertwined (Delpit, 2012).

While race, ethnicity, and poverty have consistently mattered in urban school reform, it is important to note that there is fluidity in how each of the concepts are defined and how they interrelate. For instance, Asian Americans represent significant populations in major cities, especially in the West, yet they are often neglected in the national public discourse, which tends to focus less on an emerging notion of the United States as a multicultural nation and more on the enduring notion of it as two nations—one African American and one White (Takaki, 2008). In addition, since race and ethnicity are social constructs, just who counts in a particular demographic category can change (Smedley & Smedley, 2005). For instance, through the 19th century and well into the 20th century, Irish Americans, Italian Americans, and Jewish Americans were considered distinct ethnic groups, but by the latter part of the 20th century, they were considered White (Roediger, 2006).

Politics and Power

Significant disputes have emerged over the proper structural, systemic, and curricular alterations necessary to improve urban schools. Hence, the phenomenon of urban school reform has repeatedly encountered a central question of urban politics and power: who should and will control school change efforts? In the 1960s in New York City, for example, tensions boiled over as parents and activists from the predominantly African American community of Brooklyn’s Ocean Hill–Brownsville sought and asserted control over their local schools. Their actions included teacher dismissals, leading the predominantly White, Jewish teachers to embark upon a citywide strike through their union (Perlstein, 2004). In subsequent decades, decentralization of the New York City school system devolved power to local communities to determine educational actions in their children’s schools, though it also left some uncertainty as to who actually controlled the schools (Lewis, 2013). In the 2000s, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration persuaded New York State to recentralize the system and give him final control over it. In turn, Mayor Bloomberg invested his hand-chosen educational chief, Chancellor Joel Klein, with significant executive authority (Lewis, 2013; Ravitch, 2010). As New York City’s example suggests, politics and power play an influential role in urban school reform.


Trust is an underlying factor that can propel or frustrate urban school reform (Bryk & Schneider, 2002). In essence, there must be mutual, sustaining relational faith between those leading reform and those experiencing reform (or, less charitably, those who are being reformed). Hence, it is crucial that teachers, for instance, believe that legislators mandating standards-based reforms have their interests and the interests of their students in mind. However, due in large part to the interplay of the other crucial factors discussed here (like race, poverty, and power), trust in urban education is difficult to develop and hard to maintain (Bryk, Bender Sebring, Allensworth, Luppescu, & Easton, 2010). In addition, a long-established truism in school reform (regardless of its specific geographic location) is that teachers and students are the most frequent intended recipients of reform, but teachers and students rarely have authentic voices in developing reforms (Tyack & Cuban, 1995). Their question becomes, “Why reform if we have no say in the reform’s design and implementation?” Teachers, moreover, often have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, which has served them adequately, rather than making considerable changes that might put their careers at risk—a situation that can complicate and frustrate the implementation efforts of reform advocates (Payne, 2008). Trust is an elusive and often endangered element in urban education, and it is further complicated by a second key concept in city school reform: the outsider issue.

The Outsider Issue

Compounding the problematic nature of trust is the fact that policymakers and policy influencers with access to the financial and political power necessary to leverage significant change have developed and implemented urban education reforms—from district reorganizations to charter school start-ups to alternative teacher training initiatives—that have routinely engendered unanticipated local effects and fierce community resistance. Cultural, racial, and socioeconomic differences among reform advocates, school personnel, and community members have often produced a perception gap: Delocalized reformers assert only good intentions, while established locals discern only questionable motives.

Given such conditions, a reform approach like school closure can become a highly contested issue (Berger, 1983; Lipman & Haines, 2007). Where supporters may frame a closing of a school as a necessary step toward improved educational options, the local urban community may experience it as a form of “social and civic death” (Johnson, 2013, p. 233). Given such experiences, it is easy to see why, as sociologist and urban educational reformer Charles Payne (2008) explained, “Outsiders coming to ‘help’ are going to be rejected, just for being Outsiders, so it seems” (p. 25).

Urban School Reform as a Cycle

A final key concept in urban school reform is that it represents a perpetuating cycle (Cuban, 1990; Hess, 1999; Payne, 2008; Tyack & Cuban, 1995). Under this dynamic, dispiriting accounts of urban school failure accompany calls for reform, while dispiriting accounts of urban school reform failure accompany calls for more reforms (Tyack, 1974). Through initiatives such as teacher accountability systems, elected policymakers offer symbolic evidence of their efforts to improve the life chances of urban children through strong legislative action (Lipman, 2002). The short tenures of urban superintendents, meanwhile, help encourage “policy churn” instead of actual change, ensuring that perpetual reform is the new status quo (Hess, 1999, p. 52). If a specific program proves successful in a small number of schools, expansion of that program brings risks. Charles Payne (2008) explained, “As they go into more and tougher schools, they find that their earlier experiences did not fully prepare them for dealing with the array of problems urban schools present . . . The same people who encouraged rapid expansion—the policymaking community, the foundations, the media—become disappointed” (p. 184). Or successful programs can just fade away, succumbing to the demoralized, irrational nature of the status quo in urban education. Yet a lasting sociopolitical imperative to provide at least some symbolic evidence of efforts to improve urban schools virtually ensures that a new reform will soon be on its way (Payne, 2008). In this way, urban school failure and urban school reform always go together.

Five Tensions in Urban School Reform

While several concepts—certain factors consistently matter, the outsider issue, and the cyclical nature of reform—have routinely influenced urban education change efforts, several reform tensions have remained unresolved in city school improvement campaigns. These lasting dilemmas often emerged after common desires to improve urban schools progressed to polarized means of reform action. Next, I examine five enduring urban school reform tensions that have emanated around problems and solutions, schools and community, top-down and grassroots efforts, social justice and financial returns, and small-scale and large-scale.

Problems and Solutions

In what has become an enduring tension in urban education reform, ideas and initiatives that some frame as solutions to urban school difficulties, others frame as problems that may exacerbate conditions. Stated in shorthand, solutions are problems and problems are solutions. Two phenomena that help illustrate this dynamic are accountability and charter schools. With accountability, schools and educators are professionally and publically judged in terms of their ability to help students meet established academic standards, a measurement usually established through student performance on yearly, state-sanctioned, standardized tests (Mehta, 2013). State-funded, independently operated charter schools are intended to increase educational options for children and families (Berends, 2014).

In terms of accountability, the idea that urban schools and educators must be held responsible for student performance is a long-standing one. In 1874, for example, a superintendent in Portland, Oregon, introduced a uniform curriculum and tested all students to see if they had mastered its material. For good measure, he published the results in the newspaper for full public view (Tyack, 1974). Although this early case lasted only a few years, nearly a century later, test-based accountability began to gain more traction as states such as Michigan generated statewide assessments to gauge student performance (Mehta, 2013). By the 1980s, and then into the 2000s, test-based accountability for public schools became one of the nation’s operational school policy paradigms. Initial accountability systems in places like Texas and North Carolina gave way to federally mandated, state-designed yearly testing as sanctioned under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), signed into law in 2002, which represented reauthorization of the ESEA (Mehta, 2013). By the late 2000s, the reigning definition of a good public school was a school whose students performed well on state-delivered standardized tests (Chenoweth, 2009).

On the one hand, a case can be made for accountability as a positive development for urban schools. At accountability’s infancy in the 1970s, some African American intellectuals championed test-based systems and community-based involvement in school governance as ways to ensure that African American children and other urban youth received proper educational services (Peck, 2014; Spencer, 2012). Others emphasized the notion of shared accountability between a community and its schools as the only way forward in urban education (Spencer, 2012).

Pursuing a different route forward, the Effective Schools movement identified a specific core of practices that helped urban students of color succeed academically (Edmonds, 1979). By the 2000s, a rich tradition of scholarship replicated the Effective Schools idea by demonstrating those specific conditions and approaches that led to academic improvement in urban schools (Bryk et al., 2010). Well-supported, teacher-driven professional learning communities examined formative student assessment data in ways that generated substantive student and school improvement (Delpit, 2012).

In these ways, accountability as it manifested over the last few decades provided core attention to academic performance in urban schooling, ensured that personnel in the schools bore responsibility for the performance of their schools and students, and demonstrated replicable approaches designed to encourage greater student achievement. As Payne (2008) explained, “[I]n the 1960s . . . it was nothing for a teacher, with a guest in the classroom, to spend a class period reading the paper or doing the crosswords.” Thanks to accountability, however, “from superintendents to classroom teachers, people are at least putting more effort into the work.” He cautioned, though, “I share the general concern with an overreliance on test scores . . . The best we can do is be cautious in our interpretations and look at other measures where possible, particularly graduation rates and postsecondary activities.” (p. 7)

As Payne’s caution suggests, accountability can resonate as a problem in urban education reform. For instance, the rise of standardized testing has generated a high-stakes, narrow educational ethos that can negatively affect the socioemotional lives of children and adults in schools; devolve the complex act of schooling into mere test preparation; neglect to acknowledge (or even denigrate) the cultural backgrounds of students; and encourage adult-led cheating scandals (Delpit, 2012; Ravitch, 2010; Vasquez Heilig, Khalifa, & Tillman, 2014). In high-stakes turnaround schools, teachers with unsupportive principals can feel pressure to focus narrowly on test score improvement to the detriment of other educational goals. Such pressure can also put them at risk of burnout and departure (Cucchiara, Rooney, & Robertson-Kraft, 2015). Given the lack of compelling evidence that high-stakes testing has succeeded in improving urban student outcomes at scale, Vasquez Heilig et al., (2014) asserted that the NCLB system functioned as a means of colonial-style social control—including privileging of culturally exclusive knowledge through state-mandated standards and ongoing surveillance through testing—imposed by the dominant White society on urban people of color.

Just as accountability has constituted both a solution and a problem in urban school reform, so have charter schools. By the late 1960s, Dr. Kenneth B. Clark, an African American psychologist and public intellectual, articulated a vision for an alternative to the existing public school system. Clark, whose testimony was a key factor in the Supreme Court’s Brown decision in 1954, insisted on pursuing desegregation, by then long delayed. At the same time, he called for alternative public school systems to provide improved educational opportunities for African American students and other marginalized youth. Declaring that “public school systems are protected public monopolies with only minimal competition from private and parochial schools,” he called for “realistic, aggressive, and viable competitors” in the form of schools operated outside the traditional district structures by states, the federal government, and businesses (Clark, 1968, p. 111). For Clark and others like him, expanding the educational options available to urban families was an important solution to larger issues, including poor schooling, poverty, and political disempowerment.

By the 1990s, beliefs in encouraging more competition and choice had propelled the development of charter schools, publicly funded but independently controlled institutions that by the 2000s were situated mostly in urban areas and served students who were primarily African American and Latino (Berends, 2014; Chapman, 2014). As scholar and educational advocate Lisa Delpit (2012) noted, “In their first iteration, charter schools were to be beacons for what could happen in public schools. They were intended to develop models for working with the most challenging populations” (p. xv). Programs like the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), a charter school started in the 1990s in Houston, Texas, by two White Ivy League graduates who were also Teach For America alumni, gained significant exposure and praise from some quarters as a viable means to improving urban education as the organization opened schools nationwide (Mathews, 2009). Advocates touted charter schools as innovative and tailored to the particular needs of urban students. By the 2000s, charter schools gained such popularity as a school reform that major urban districts like Chicago, New Orleans, New York, and Philadelphia operated as portfolio districts that offered parents an array of choices, including traditional district schools, alternative and magnet district-run schools, and charter schools that ran independently of the districts (Buckley, Henig, & Levin, 2010; Dixson et al., 2014). Extensive waiting lists at individual charter schools offered symbolic evidence that parents remain enamored with the concept, while federal policy during the administration of President Obama provided strong financial backing for charter school expansion (Berends, 2014; Chapman, 2014).

Despite such apparently strong support, charter schools have also raised substantial concerns. Charter school academic performance as measured through state-mandated testing, for instance, has been mixed. While some studies have demonstrated that urban charter schools show positive effects on academic performance, little is known about what particular organizational features led to those results (Chapman, 2014). Another issue is that certain charter schools have failed to offer proper services for children who needed special education (Delpit, 2012). In addition, the fact that programs like KIPP required parents to sign a behavior contract for their children and provide required hours of volunteer service may have led to selection bias in the types of parents attracted to the schools (Chapman, 2014). Delpit (2012) asserted, “I am angry because of the way that the original idea of charter schools has been corrupted . . . because of the ‘market model,’ charter schools often shun the very students that they were intended to help” (pp. xv–xvi). Private interests, such as foundations that support charter schools, provide start-up institutions with funding to help give them the best possible chance to outperform traditional public schools, which may in turn promote the further privatization of public schooling (Lipman, 2011). Just as with accountability, then, charter schools have engendered open admiration and fierce criticism. In the end, we are left with this enduring tension in urban school reform: Solutions are problems and problems are solutions.

Schools and Communities

A second enduring tension in urban education is as follows: improving urban schools can improve their students’ educational and life opportunities, but educational conditions in an urban community are inextricably linked to the community’s socioeconomic conditions. On the one hand, some have positioned schools as the main route available to aiding a city’s students who are growing up in poverty. In this way, a good education constitutes an urban student’s sanctioned vehicle toward future success. Under this construct, the “one best system,” though often racially exclusive, provides some form of structured opportunity to urban immigrant youth through its rights of open access. Through the 1950s, urban schools helped the assimilation of ethnic immigrants and provided means for individual and group social mobility (Noguera, 2003; Tyack, 1974). By the 1960s and 1970s, new, racially diverse populations arrived in cities to find depleted socioeconomic conditions. Yet, faith that schools could help youth overcome the effects of poverty remained. The Effective Schools movement, for instance, rejected the notion that a child’s socioeconomic background determined his or her low academic performance. School leader and academic Ronald Edmonds, a major figure in the movement, stated that “repudiation of the social science notion that family background is the principal cause of pupil acquisition of basic school skills is probably the prerequisite to successful reform of public schooling for the children of the poor” (Edmonds, 1979, p. 23). He stated further that believing that family background determined academic outcomes “has the effect of absolving educators of their professional responsibility to be instructionally effective” (p. 21). By the 2000s, advocates offered strong testimony to those high-performing schools “that demonstrate that schools can educate all children—even children burdened by poverty and discrimination” (Chenoweth, 2009, p. 1). The record is clear that urban schools can and do make a difference for urban youth of color.

Others have contended, however, that drastic socioeconomic conditions in an urban community limit the potential for significant educational improvement in schools. For instance, as did many American cities, Newark, New Jersey, rose as a major industrial center before World War II and thereafter experienced a steep decline in economic fortunes through the 1990s. The school system itself traversed an analogous, connected pattern of rise and decline, suggesting that only an alleviation of deleterious economic factors could lead to alleviation of school ills (Anyon, 1997). By 1995, the state of New Jersey took control of Newark’s school district due to its pervasive corruption and sustained student academic performance issues (Russakoff, 2015).

The close connection between a city’s financial interests and its educational interests has caused a call for systemic reform in the form of coordinated efforts to align a city’s economic initiatives and social service activities (including schools) through political means (Stone et al., 2001). Others, however, have discussed how urban school improvement initiatives coincide with economic development efforts and housing policies that do not operate in the best interests of current residents. In neighborhoods in Chicago, for instance, reforms like public school closings and replacement by charter schools have encouraged gentrification of neighborhoods by middle-class White parents. Their arrival displaced working-class African American and Latino families and increased an area’s housing values (Lipman, 2011; Lipman & Haines, 2007). Researchers who identified several characteristics associated with effective urban schools underscored that the social capital latent in children’s home community networks is an important element in determining the viability of a school to overcome the effects of poverty (Bryk et al., 2010). In these ways, educational conditions in an urban community are inextricably linked to the community’s socioeconomic conditions.

Importantly, educators have navigated the tension between urban school improvement and urban community socioeconomic conditions by establishing authentic connections with students and their parents. Under the “one best system” in New York City in 1935, for example, principal Leonard Covello sought to nurture relationships with his Italian American, Puerto Rican, and African American students in ways intended to “bring the people of the neighborhood into the school and to extend the school into the community” (Tyack, 1974, p. 240). In 1960s Philadelphia, African American principal Marcus Foster enacted the idea of “total school community,” in which “not just the principal and his teachers, but also families, politicians, economic institutions, and taxpayers” would “be accountable for student achievement” (Spencer, 2009, p. 292) Accordingly, he led 6,000 community members to agitate for improved facilities or providing clothing for students in need.

In the late 2000s, Geoffrey Canada gained national attention when he established a multiservice charter school in Harlem that provided extended community-based services for local community members, from infants through parents (Tough, 2009). In Chicago, a White female facilitator organized parents in a predominantly African American school in Chicago through the Comer School Development Program. She overcame initial skepticism to earn abiding trust (Payne, 2008). Illustrative of how the goal of school-community connections remains resonant, scholarship has provided guidance regarding how educators can engage parents and engender community-based accountability (Vasquez Heilig et al., 2014; Khalifa, Witherspoon Arnold, & Newcomb, 2015; Warren & Mapp, 2011).

A lasting tension, then, exists between the ideas that improving urban schools can improve urban students’ educational and life opportunities, but educational conditions in an urban community are inextricably linked to the community’s socioeconomic conditions. Some urban educators attempt to address this tension in their work on a daily basis through authentic community engagement.

Top-Down and Grassroots Efforts

Another tension in urban school reform resonates in locating the proper fulcrum of change: Can a school district be transformed from new leaders at the top, or must change occur from community constituents agitating from inside and outside local schools? In summary, urban school reform orients both as top-down and as grassroots efforts. Toward the former, as districts consolidated into the “one best system” at the turn of the 20th century, administrative progressives, i.e., groups of elite professionals and businesspeople, attempted to consolidate power to ensure control over educational progress in cities (Tyack, 1974). The notion of generating improvement through tight control at the top reemerged in the 1990s and into the 2000s. Educational leadership and reform experts Larry Cuban and Michael Usdan (2003) explained:

Business, political, and educational leaders . . . defined the problem as quarrelsome school boards; inept management that couldn’t clean buildings, deliver supplies, or help teachers do their jobs; and little accountability for producing satisfactory academic outcomes among administrators and teachers . . . In city after city, these business and civic leaders urged district officials to restructure their control of schools and apply sound business principles in order to improve students’ academic performance.

(p. 147)

This dynamic has led some cities to hire superintendents without backgrounds as professional educators who engaged in combat with what they framed as entrenched educational interests. In the late 1990s, for instance, U.S. attorney Alan Bersin was hired as superintendent of schools in San Diego, California. He pursued an aggressive, top-down improvement agenda that led to what reform scholar Frederick Hess (2005) called an “often stormy tenure” (p. 1). In New York City, former U.S. assistant attorney general Joel Klein, at the outset of his tenure as chancellor of schools in the early 2000s, employed a closed-ranks, business-minded approach in an effort to tame, subvert, and evade the city’s notorious school bureaucracy (Peck, 2014; Ravitch, 2010). Echoing this perspective, some superintendents with a professional background in education approached their positions much as those superintendents without professional backgrounds in education did. In Washington, D.C., for instance, Michelle Rhee gained national notoriety for her willingness to hold accountable (i.e., dismiss) principals and teachers whose students performed poorly on standardized tests (Whitmire, 2011). In these ways, urban school reform has proceeded in a top-down fashion.

At the same time, significant energies and efforts have been exerted toward grassroots reforms. Even as business and professional elites attempted to consolidate power in the “one best system” in the early 20th century, community representatives, ethnic power brokers, and others fought to maintain degrees of local control and input in each city’s educational affairs and governance (Tyack, 1974). In the 1960s and 1970s, decentralization emerged as a notable effort to deconsolidate central districts and distribute more school-governing power to local communities (Edwards & DeMatthews, 2014). Later, in the 1980s and 1990s, site-based management emerged as an educational leadership concept and coupled with a quest to provide parents with more direct input in the operation of their children’s schools. The most notable example of this fundamental devolution of power were Chicago’s local site councils, which gave an elected body of parents the authority to hire and dismiss principals and determine how to use discretionary funds. Importantly, as the Chicago Public Schools experienced top-down reforms under potent superintendents in the late 1990s and 2000s, local site councils of schools that performed poorly lost much of their authority or their management was outsourced entirely (Edwards & DeMatthews, 2014). In the end, urban school reform orients as both top-down and grassroots efforts.

Social Justice and Financial Returns

A fourth enduring tension manifests itself in the ideas that urban school reforms promise social justice for marginalized youth, but they end up delivering financial returns for educational vendors. In the former sense, the quest to improve urban schools is, at its essence, a moral one. In calling for reform action and school improvement, individuals have highlighted the socioeconomic and racial injustices in the urban educational status quo. In 1967, for instance, Jonathan Kozol described his exposé Death at an Early Age as providing insight into “the destruction of the hearts and minds of Negro children in the Boston public schools” (Kozol, 1967, p. iii). A decade later, Ronald Edmonds (1979) asserted, “Inequity in American education derives first and foremost from our failure to educate the children of the poor” (p. 15). Two decades later, Noguera (2008) explained,

There is no reason why we shouldn’t be able to educate all children, even those who are poor, who are homeless, who don’t speak English, who are emotionally and physically distressed, who come to us from single-parent households or from homes where no parent is present. We should be able to serve these children because we are a great nation, a nation with extraordinary talents, skills, and resources.

(p. vii)

As these statements suggest, an underlying desire for basic social justice for children of color has consistently fueled the quest for urban school reform and improvement.

At the same time that social justice has remained a fundamental animating goal in urban school reform, initiatives to improve urban education have also generated substantial money making opportunities. As urban districts consolidated in the late 1800s, for instance, “textbook scandals rocked the country as huge firms collided in conflict over the vast school market” (Tyack, 1974, p. 95). Suggesting the close connection between education funding and corporate interests, a lobbyist from the audiovisual manufacturers’ lobby was able to negotiate funding for audiovisual equipment into the first three Titles in the approved ESEA legislation in the 1960s (Davies, 2007). In the 2010s, as a state-appointed superintendent attempted to reform the Newark public schools with the help of $200 million in philanthropic funds, $21 million of that went to pay educational consultants who worked for the district (Russakoff, 2015). A Newark school leader described the situation as the “school failure industry,” while a community leader stated, “Everyone’s getting paid, and Raheem still can’t read” (Russakoff, 2015, pp. 71–72). Given the close connection between urban school reform and money-making opportunities, Delpit (2012) explained, “I am left in my more cynical moments with the thought that poor black children have become the vehicle by which rich white people give money to their friends.” (p. xv)

Tension continues, then, as urban school reforms promise social justice for marginalized youth but they also deliver financial returns to educational vendors.

Small-Scale and Large-Scale Reforms

A final tension resonates in the idea that small-scale reforms have demonstrated success, but policymakers and external funders still prize large-scale reforms. Under a corresponding dynamic, what works to improve one school or a few schools in one location becomes promoted as an exportable, expandable solution that, in reformers’ minds, can help improve many schools. In recent decades, foundations have helped drive this quest for scalability as they seek returns on their significant investments. In Chicago, for instance, when funders asked Dr. James Comer to begin his school development program in sixteen schools, he suggested that two schools would be more appropriate. As Payne (2008) noted, “The compromise reached was that the program started with four schools the first year and added four more the second year, and even that proved to be too many” (p. 174). Such pressure to act big with reforms has persisted, as is apparent in efforts at systemic reforms that have sought broad solutions to city problems that run across different socioeconomic and political domains (Stone et al., 2001). As Payne (2008) explained, however, “the magic word systemic . . . seems to mean ‘Let’s pretend to do on a grand scale what we have no idea to do on a small scale’.” (p. 169)

The progress of turnaround, a school reform approach that gained national prominence in urban education in the late 2000s, provides insight into the tension between small- and large-scale reform. Originating in the business sector, turnaround referred to rapid school improvement achieved through dramatic interventions such as staff reconstitution (Duke, 2012). After NCLB was signed into law in 2002, the search for and promotion of schools that demonstrated quick academic growth intensified. Major policy action soon followed. In 2009, the U.S. Department of Education added $3 billion of stimulus funding to over $500 million in existing appropriations in the Title I School Improvement Grant (SIG) program, and formally announced plans to use the funds to encourage the turnaround of 5,000 of the persistently lowest-performing schools throughout the United States (Duke, 2012).

Although turnaround—as reform idea and enacted policy—appeared to provide a clear, generic, and scalable prescription for the improvement of failing schools, it proved problematic upon implementation in urban areas. It had a poor success rate as an improvement strategy in the business sector (Murphy & Meyers, 2008), leading to open questions as to why it would succeed as a strategy in the education sector. Also, a central element of many turnaround efforts, staff reconstitution, had proven ineffective when implemented as an improvement strategy in the 1990s in cities such as Chicago and San Francisco (Trujillo, 2012). At the same time, empirical studies demonstrated minimal evidence that turnaround strategies have led to demonstrable school improvement (Aladjem et al., 2010; Stuit, 2010). In these ways, the prospect of turning around an urban school or a few urban schools remained plausible, but turning around thousands of urban schools seemed unlikely at best.

In the end, the temptation to do grandly what was successful locally has endured in urban educational reform. Unfortunately, as Payne (2008) stated, “when even good ideas are understood out of context, when they are reduced to The Solution, they become part of the problem” (pp. 5–6). Scholars have demonstrated that making incremental changes to schools is possible, but the fundamental changes often promoted in reform rhetoric rarely materialize. Hence, the idea that U.S. schools—urban or otherwise—are perpetually “tinkering toward utopia” holds sway (Tyack & Cuban, 1995). A final tension, then, resonates in the idea that small-scale reforms have demonstrated success, but policymakers and external funders prize large-scale reforms.


Urban schools and reform have historically proceeded together, and this dynamic has deepened since the 1960s. Despite so much reform, however, there is still too much failure. As Payne (2008) explained, “There is a mammoth disconnect between what we know about the complex, self-reinforcing character of failure in bottom-tier schools and the ultimately simplistic thinking behind many of the most popular reform proposals” (p. 46). Moreover, there appears an assertive, pervasive unwillingness from American society to engage fully with the fact that sociocultural factors such as race, ethnicity, and poverty can and do matter greatly in urban schools. You cannot simply “fix” city schools in order to “fix” city communities and people. Finally, it is too easy to find and agree with accounts that suggest that urban schools and districts, despite some documentable improvements in some cities and programs in the 2000s in particular, too often remain stultifying arenas of dysfunction. “Small Victories,” the title of a 1980s account of a teacher in a diverse New York City high school, neatly expresses the sentiment that good news in urban education is entirely too hard to come by Freedman (1990).

Faith in urban school reform, though, has persisted thanks to exemplary city schools and programs that have helped students thrive academically. For many reformers, such success stories demonstrate that viable routes toward enabling academic achievement for more children living in urban areas do exist. Indeed, latent in each of the tensions explored in this article is the belief that circumstances can improve, even if sociocultural and economic forces may challenge or complicate that improvement. In 1973, Kenneth B. Clark responded ferociously to a study contending that poverty essentially negated schooling’s transformative potential. He wrote, “If education itself is of no value then there can be no significance in the struggle to use the schools as instruments for justice and mobility . . . the last possibility of hope for undereducated and oppressed minorities has been dashed” (Clark, 1973, p. 117). Ronald Edmonds, the leader of the Effective Schools movement, emphasized three points:

(a) We can, whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us; (b) We already know more than we need to do that; and (c) Whether or not we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven’t so far.

(Edmonds, 1979, p. 23)

In such a context, a successful school, program, or student is not merely a “small victory,” but rather a symbolic triumph that demonstrates the idea that better achievement is indeed possible.

In the end, urban school reform follows a cycle of start, try, fail, try again, simply because it must be sustained. And one day, the belief continues, school reform will succeed at a significant scale . . . that has been and remains the hope in urban education, a hope as deeply aspirational and uncompromisingly complicated as American hope can be.


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