Ryan Examines Urban, Suburban Educational Disparities in New Book

August 11, 2010

Despite decades of attempted education reforms, urban and suburban school systems remain largely segregated and separated by a considerable achievement gap, Professor James Ryan writes in a new book from Oxford University Press.

Update, July 2011:"Five Miles Away, A World Apart" earned honorable mentions for the Scribes Book Award and the Law and Society Association's Herbert Jacob Book Prize .

In "Five Miles Away, a World Apart," Ryan determines that reforms from Brown v. Board of Education to the modern school choice movement contain measures designed to preserve the sanctity of affluent suburban schools, and that these measures can stand in the way of integration and improvement in urban schools.

"I come down pretty squarely on the view that if poor and minority students continue to be separated from white and middle-income students, then educational opportunities aren't going to be equal," Ryan said."I don't mean to suggest by this that you can't have successful schools in urban areas — there are some. It's more that the ingredients for successful schools are less likely to be found in urban districts today."

The book takes an in-depth look at two Richmond-area high schools separated by only five miles: Thomas Jefferson High School in the city and Freeman High School in nearby Henrico County. Ryan conducted numerous interviews with students, teachers and administrators at the two schools, and looked at metrics such as demographics, standardized test scores, dropout rates and college attendance.

Jim Ryan

The schools exemplify a common dynamic, Ryan said. Though neither school is at the extreme end of student achievement, Ryan found that Freeman students as a group perform better on standardized tests than the state average; most of them go to college. The school's student body is 73 percent white and most students come from middle-class families.

Thomas Jefferson, or "Tee-Jay," was originally a segregated high school that catered to Richmond's affluent white families, but is now 82 percent black. Though 90 percent of students pass the state's standardized tests, that number is still below the state average. Dropout rates are higher and college attendance rates are lower than at Freeman.

"The striking thing about it is that students at these schools play against each other in some sports, but they have no other contact with each other," Ryan said."They are five miles apart, but some of the kids in each of the schools had no idea where the other school was."

During his research, Ryan found that teachers, administrators and students at the two schools view the standardized tests very differently. Educators at Freeman see the state tests as a low standard that students should easily accomplish during the course of their larger education. At Thomas Jefferson, the tests are the focal point of the curriculum and are seen as incredibly important, he said.

The concept behind the No Child Left Behind Act was that states would create challenging standards that students would be tested on, Ryan said, and that through this approach students would all be brought up to the same level.

"But as it's played out, you effectively have a system where the tests cover the basics," Ryan said."Some schools struggle to meet the basics and other schools zip right past. It's not to say that in some schools bringing kids up to the basics wasn't an improvement; it was. Getting kids to learn how to read and do basic math, although not a shocking development, was certainly an improvement in some schools where even that wasn't happening. But we're kidding ourselves if we think that the standards and testing movement is creating equal opportunities in different schools."

Ryan said the schools illustrate a common thread in educational reform since American public schools were desegregated. Efforts to help struggling urban and minority schools have been carefully packaged with safeguards to protect suburban school districts, which tend to have with political and economic power, he said.

"The schools that need the most have the least political clout, and I don't think that's going to change unless the politics change. And I don't think the politics are going to change unless the demographics of school districts change," Ryan said.

These protections for suburban schools include the preservation of geographic school districts: even the school choice provisions in No Child Left Behind often prevent students transferring from failing schools from leaving their school districts, he said.

Though Ryan said school district boundaries aren't likely to change anytime soon and courts are equally unlikely to tackle the issue of school segregation again, he said new trends and demographic changes offer some unprecedented opportunities.

One factor is that suburbs are becoming more diverse, both racially and socioeconomically, and more middle-income families are willing to stay in cities even when their children reach school age. Ryan also points to a host of studies by social scientists suggesting that young middle-class parents increasingly say they view racial diversity as a desirable attribute for an area.

"In my own view, this combination of factors creates an opportunity that hasn't existed before. It would be wise for school district leaders to think hard now about how to take advantage of these changes. Diversity is coming, whether school districts want it or not. I think they ought to embrace it. Either way, they're going to have to deal with it, and they should be thinking now about how to do so."

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

News Highlights