Why has it proven so difficult to create more good urban schools?

My fall semester at Harvard has been a great mental playground. I learned a ton about the enormity of the problems with our national education system while also starting to dream up some potential solutions. I recently wrote a business plan for a national social venture that aims to solve some of our nation’s issues, and below is a portion of an essay that I wrote that catalyzed that plan. The prompt was “Why has it proven so difficult to create more good schools in the US, particularly in urban areas?”

Stronger Schools from Stronger Communities

The exploding growth of the American economy in the past century created a platform for incredible educational opportunities for middle and high-income communities, while simultaneously limiting educational opportunities for those in low-income communities. In his book Savage Inequalities, Jonathan Kozol (1991) gives us a disturbing view of how high poverty East St. Louis was plagued by struggling schools that are choked by a lack of resources. The problems of creating and scaling effective schools in urban America are due to the pervasive social inequities inherent in low-income communities like East St. Louis. In order to tackle this root cause, solutions need to address the social context in high poverty communities. A promising solution lies in building a strong network of support within and around schools in low-income communities to provide a network of comprehensive wrap-around services for students and families, while promoting the school as a community hub.

Critics would argue, however, that creating such a network of services to fight poverty is not only beyond the scope of schools, but also beyond schools’ means. I contend that building this network of support within and around schools in high-poverty urban areas is a small price to pay for positive results. Another solution is to give families school choice so that students can theoretically attend schools that provide a higher level of academic and social support for students and families. Yet because we want sustainable solutions, we must build scalable solutions that start at the local community level. By building a strong network of support within and around schools, students will do better academically and families will have more access to the services they need to lift themselves—and their communities—out of the shadow of poverty.

Poverty Bleeds into Schools

In urban communities, students bring the most pervasive social issue—poverty—into school everyday. As stated in the Coleman Report (1966), “A school’s poverty level is a stronger predictor of how a child will fare in school than any other factor save the child’s own socioeconomic (SES) background.� Attending a high poverty school likely means that the student comes from a high poverty family and community. As Traub described, “educational inequality is rooted in economic problems and social pathologies too deep to be overcome by school alone� (2000). The current educational system cannot handle and sustain the heavy case management required to help students and their families deal with the plight of poverty. When students face problems, like health and dental issues, poor nutrition, violence, gangs, and drugs, school becomes a low priority (Kozol 1991). Because the problems are so commonplace and the interventions are “so slow and heavily encumbered with red tape�, teachers and administrators’ perceptions of normalcy have become skewed; they learn to operate and live with the glaring social issues (Kozol 1991, 21).

We can see then that high poverty urban schools are unable to swiftly address student needs outside of the classroom because they lack capacity and, furthermore, it has not been the schools’ responsibility or goal to lift students and their families out of poverty. Our society has drifted away from the common school movement of the 1800’s when “spreading prosperity and ending poverty� was an important aspect of creating public schools (Wirt and Kirst 2005, 32). In this day and age there is no unified expectation for schools to address student needs that stem from poverty, and thus schools have no incentive to do so. However, if students’ basic needs—like housing, health care, nutrition, and safety—are not adequately met, we also cannot expect schools alone to compensate for the consequences of poverty (Warren 2005).

A Network of Community Partnerships

It is interesting to note, however, that in any given urban community, a myriad of external service providers already exists to support low-income students and families. The issue seems to not stem from the dearth of social services, but rather from a lack of direct links between schools and the necessary service providers. In my own work experience at BUILD, a college access nonprofit organization, we provided direct services to students in low-income communities like East Palo Alto and Oakland, California. I observed that while there were a plethora of service providers in the East Palo Alto and Oakland, they almost never collaborated or shared resources with schools and with each other. Furthermore, many of the service providers had only marginal relationships with the surrounding schools. While the service providers perceived that they were doing good work in the community, there was only a tangential relationship with surrounding schools during the fall recruitment season.

By consciously partnering with community development organizations, schools can work together with the community to directly raise the level of social and economic health of families. By addressing problems that students face in a holistic manner (e.g. if students had adequate healthcare, received proper nutrition, and were safe from violence and drugs), students would be healthier and safer and schools would thrive. However, there is a link missing between service providers because oftentimes schools do not build relationships with them.

By strengthening the schools’ relationships with external service providers and also connecting service providers with one another, we strengthen the network that can support not only students, but also families. It is not enough for external service providers to fill a void that schools are unable to because teachers and counselors often do not have the capacity to research service providers, pick out ones based on a student’s need, and refer them to the appropriate one. However, if a school is the hub of a community, we can create a centralized and organized system that connects teachers, students, families and service providers in an efficient manner with one another. This centralized system could serve as an efficacious information-sharing process that students and their families can use to access services—like homeless shelters, job training programs, and food banks—that will likely improve their livelihoods.


A lack of resources and dysfunctional school accountability structures are the main opposing factors standing in the way of schools being active participants in a network of wrap-around services. “Urban schools suffer from a lack of resources tied to their location in poor communities… they often have less-qualified teachers, overcrowded classrooms, older buildings in need of serious upgrading, inadequate textbooks, and outdated facilitiesâ€� (Warren 2005). In order to create a healthy network of wrap-around services, schools should invest in building relationships with service providers. However, relationship building is a time-, money- and resource-intensive process that schools cannot monetarily prioritize. Because NCLB is punitively tied to funding, low-performing urban schools and districts are more focused on assessments and interventions that raise student assessment scores. In a high-stakes testing environment, students get “a narrower curricular experience and a steadier diet of test preparation activities that distract from the larger goals of educating students with the more complex skills and habits to compete in the global economyâ€� (Supovitz 2009, 221). In her book Tested, Linda Perlstein gave a thorough account of how one school in a high poverty community transformed from failure to success by inadvertently sacrificing activities and materials that did not inherently support an increase in test scores, like social studies, expository writing, and career fairs (2007). Schools thus have little to no incentive to create partnerships if there is no immediate benefit for them – i.e. if partnerships with external service providers do not turnaround and help students increase test scores instantaneously.

I argue, nevertheless, that actively participating in a network of wrap-around services can actually save schools time and money, while increasing the relative livelihoods of students and families. Social and community resources, like neighborhood clubs, political organizations, churches, and nonprofit organizations, can play a role in school reform, and Bryk argues that improving schools requires support from these external entities (2010). One of the pieces of Bryk’s framework of essential supports for successful school reform is parent-school-community ties, where teachers have knowledge about students’ home cultures and schools partner with community health, recreation and social service agencies (2001). Because teachers and counselors can rely on a network of support, instead of researching or finding solutions to students’ problems that are outside of the realm of the school, they are freed up to focus on and improve their jobs. Within a network of wrap-around services, teachers and counselors are empowered to refer students to the centralized system, which can, in turn, refer students and families to the appropriate service providers in the community. The incentive for schools to strengthen the network of support, thus, becomes more effective teachers. Investing in relationships with already existing service providers is a small price to pay for freeing up teachers to focus on improving instruction

A Promising Solution: Strengthening the Community

Creating and strengthening a network of wrap-around services for students and families has the potential to best address the issues that are beyond the scope of the school system. When students and families from low-income communities are faced with homelessness, hunger, unemployment, poor health, and many other social factors, it is unfair to expect that schools can support these issues alone. Nonetheless, if we create a new system where the school is at the center of the community and where all of the support services collaborate and communicate with one another, we start to do more than just improve school and student performance and outcomes. We, most importantly, start to address the root cause of poverty while fortifying a foundational aspect of a community that supports itself in the fight against poverty.

Reference List

Bryk, Tony et al. 2010. Organizing Schools for Improvement. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Chubb, John and Moe, Terry. (1990). Politics, Markets and Schools. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.
Elmore, Richard. (2004). School Reform from the Inside Out. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
Kozol, Jonathan. 1991. Savage Inequalities. New York: Crown Publishers. (pp 7- 39).
Payne, C. (2008). So Much Reform, So Little Change: The Persistence of Failure in American Public Schools. Cambridge: Harvard Education Press.
Perlstein, Linda. (2007). Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade. New York: Henry Holt
Supovitz, Jonathan. 2009. “Can high stakes testing leverage educational improvement? Prospects from the last decade of testing and accountability reform.� Journal of Educational Change. 211-227. E-resource: http://www.springerlink.com.ezp- prod1.hul.harvard.edu/content/86mj551n23l72047/fulltext.pdf
Tough, Paul. “What it Takes to Make a Student,� New York Times Magazine, Nov. 26, 2006.
Traub, James. “What No School Can Do,� New York Times Magazine, Jan 16th 2000. E- resource: http://www.nytimes.com/library/magazine/home/20000116mag-traub8.html
Warren, Mark. 2005. “Communities and Schools: A New View of Urban Educational Reform.� Harvard Education Review. E-resource: http://tinyurl.com/265ynad
Wirt, Fred and Michael Kirst. 2005. Political Dynamics of American Education. Richmond: McCutchan.

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