As the unprecedented push to improve American education enters the midpoint of its third decade, reformers can claim some success. Yet no one would argue that the job is done, particularly in the nation’s cities. Even the most successful urban school districts, the winners of the Broad Prize for Urban Education, would acknowledge that they have a long way to go toward ensuring that every child receives an excellent education and develops the knowledge and skills needed for a fulfilling and productive future.
There is no shortage of ideas for improving urban education, and there are efforts under way in nearly every city to improve schooling for urban youths: New schools are proliferating, high schools are being redesigned, new curricula are being developed and implemented, accountability systems are being strengthened, and much more. But there is also a growing recognition that improving schools and school systems, while essential, is not enough. Ensuring that every child becomes proficient and beyond will require the support and active engagement of organizations and agencies outside of schools as well.
The role of out-of-school factors in educational success has sparked heated debate. But the debate over whether in-school or out-of-school factors are more salient in children’s learning—a debate that has raged at least since the 1966 publication of James S. Coleman’s Equality of Educational Opportunity—is in many respects a false one. Both factors are important, and both must be addressed if the nation is to fulfill its 60-year-old promise of equal educational opportunity, and its more recent pledge to ensure that all children learn to high levels.
The experiences of middle-class and affluent children make this proposition clear. To be sure, relatively affluent students tend to have schooling advantages that support higher levels of learning. Numerous studies have documented the disparities in school facilities, teacher quality, and curriculum offerings that favor more-advantaged students.