Dorothy Shipps. 21st Century Education: A Reference Handbook. Editor: Thomas L Good. Sage Publication. 2008.
This chapter describes how urban education is different from suburban or rural schooling in the students served, its organizational and environmental complexity, and governance. The second part explains criticisms directed at urban education and recent reform efforts. The chapter concludes with suggestions for thinking differently about the dilemmas of urban education.
What is Urban Education?
Urban education is schooling provided to residents who live in cities: dense settlements at the center of economically and socially interdependent regions. In 2004, about 6% of the 14,076 school districts in the United States were urban school systems, but they contained 26% of the nation’s schools and educated more than 14 million, or 30%, of all students (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2007). Urban education differs from suburban or rural education in two ways. High proportions of students labeled poor or minority attend schools in urban districts. Urban education is organized on a large scale in a complex environment and consequently has a distinctive governing structure. These characteristics have been apparent for more than a century.
Concentrations of Students
Urban schools educate many immigrant students. Since the late 19th century, immigrant families and their first and second-generation offspring have constituted a large portion of the minority population of urban schools. They typically speak a language other than English at home and were raised in small towns and villages in poor countries across the globe. Urban schools are expected to socialize them into the pace and intensity of city life, and prepare them for the modern workplace and for citizenship in the American form of democracy.
During a period that coincides with the reorganization of urban school systems into what we recognize today—1890 to 1920—city schools educated the children of nearly 11 million southern, central, and eastern Europeans who arrived before 1924. This massive migration constituted about 17% of the nation’s total population in 1890. Most of these new immigrants worked in low-skill, low-wage industrial jobs, partly because they arrived with an average of 4 to 6 years of schooling at a time when native born Americans averaged 8 to 10 years (Perlmann, 2005).
Children of the new immigrants were several times more likely to record low IQ scores, be held back a grade, and drop out of high school than children of native born Americans. But the second and third generations, numbering 11 to 12 million by 1970, no longer were so stigmatized and had the same likelihood of graduating high school as native-born Americans (Perlmann, 2005). Large education gaps between the new immigrants and other native-born Americans of European origin were erased. Intermarriage helped blur cultural expectations. The Great Depression and subsequent loss of union jobs encouraged the second and third generation to stay in school. And laws in 1924 imposed strict quotas on immigrants, lowering the significance of being the children (or grandchildren) of foreigners. Even as they were being assimilated, Latinos became a new minority of immigrants.
Although Mexicans have been a small proportion of the population since the nation was founded, they now constitute 60% of a wave of Latino immigrants that has expanded the U.S. population by about 8 million since 1970. High birth rates make Mexican Americans the largest single minority group among those born between 1996 and 2000. Like earlier immigrants, they are concentrated in low-skill, low-wage jobs and, in 2004,47% of their children attended urban schools. Second and third generation Mexican Americans, however, are not closing the education gap as fast as the Europeans before them. As recently as 2005, 25% to 28% of Mexican American children did not graduate from high school. Consequently, their economic prospects are lower than their immigrant parents’ (NCES, 2007; Perl-mann, 2005). Slow educational progress is partly explained by the continuing low level of schooling among new immigrants, rising wage inequality that draws school-age youth into work, and the undocumented status of many Mexicans, which discourages contact with government employees, but also the intense segregation of Latinos in public schools.
Many urban school systems also have high proportions of Black students, which began with the Great Migration of emancipated cotton pickers and sharecroppers who were recruited for industrial jobs in Northern cities during World War I. Most Blacks are not voluntary immigrants, but rather the descendents of slaves, a fact that distinguishes their social, economic, and political experience from other Americans. If war-created labor shortages drew them north, Black parents also wanted to raise their children without the burdens of segregation or the strain of being at the bottom of the Southern social hierarchy (Sanjek, 1996). Instead, they found de facto segregation in Northern cities confining them in congested slums where the schools were substandard.
Poverty and debilitative drug epidemics helped to shape a worrisome syndrome of social risks for Black youth that included, by 2000, high rates of unemployment (21%), incarceration (13%), and unwed teenage motherhood (7%; Perlmann, 2005, p. 84-88). Also affecting Black youth are the lower academic expectations that mostly White, middle-class, female teachers have for Black students, lower funding in schools where they predominate, and the misunderstandings between teachers and students that stem from cultural differences. Tracking Black students’ performance over time shows that their high school graduation rates increased in the 1970s, and college enrollment rates grew over the 1990s. Yet gaps between the average test scores of Black students and those of non-Latino Whites on national tests have remained essentially unchanged since 1992. Such achievement gaps are evidence of lingering inequalities in urban education where nearly half of all Black students attend school (NCES, 2007).
Large numbers of low-income families also send their children to urban schools. In 2004, for example, 47% of children attending city schools were living in poverty or near it, including 57% of the nation’s poorest children (NCES, 2007). High proportions of low-income families reflect another historical pattern; extreme poverty plagued many immigrant families in the early years of the 20th century. Since 2004, concentrated poverty has been growing again in cities. Children from low-income families are, on average, less healthy than children in wealthier families because they have less nutritionally balanced diets; uneven access to preventative health care; live in congested, polluted neighborhoods; and often have unstable housing. Lead poisoning, which increases aggressive behavior and learning difficulties while lowering intelligence test scores, is one such poverty-related health problem disproportionately affecting city children.
Learning is, therefore, a challenging activity for low-income children, requiring unusual commitments from parents and teachers. But parents living in poverty also read less to their children and engage them in adult conversations less often than their middle-class counterparts (Rothstein, 2004). And urban schools serving poor families are less likely to have highly qualified, experienced teachers than suburban or rural schools (NCES, 2007). Nor do they have the school psychologists, nurses, social workers, speech therapists, and library aides of suburban or rural schools.
These student characteristics make up one pattern that distinguishes urban schools from others. Nearly half of all urban students live in poverty and most of them are immigrants or Blacks. Urban students also score lowest on all national tests (NCES, 2007), and the odds are so stacked against them that schools with predominantly low-income, minority students only have a 1 in 300 chance of getting good test scores (Harris, 2006). The question this pattern raises about urban education is, Why do race, class, and status matter so much in urban education?
Urban Education Size, Organization, and Governance
Urban education is large-scale schooling. In 2004, 64 of the largest 100 school systems in the United States encompassed cities of at least 50,000. The smallest of these big city school systems had 46,600 students, 98 schools, and over 3,100 teachers, while the largest, New York City, had 1.25 million students, 1,225 schools, and over 70,000 teachers. In contrast, the typical school district had fewer than 2,500 students and little more than five schools (Dal-ton, Sable, & Hoffman, 2006). This too is a longstanding pattern in education: urban districts have historically been the largest in the nation.
At the end of the 19th century, urban school systems began sorting and ranking employees and students and adopted the technology of time and product measurement to pursue efficiency. These changes were explicitly modeled after the corporation, widely believed at the time to be the most efficient form of social organization. For example, the “platoon system” in Gary, Indiana, educated large numbers of diverse students by keeping every classroom and outdoor space in continuous use (“100% efficiency”) and educating children based on “a process of scientific measurement leading to a prediction as to one’s future role in life” (Kliebard, 1987, p. 99). Today’s urban school systems inherited the value of efficiency and bureaucracies as a means to achieve it. They still have more specialized positions and more subunits than smaller systems, and they continue to perfect the methods of measurement to determine educational productivity. The corporate model remains an organizational template; in the biggest cities, top school bureaucrats are paid like corporate executives, some much more than the highest paid state governor.
Some research suggests that large, bureaucratic districts are educational innovators because their expert employees interpret new laws, develop guidelines for change, and solicit program funding. But these same systems often are unresponsive to parents, requiring specialized knowledge to accomplish basic tasks like enrolling a child or locating a particular district official. This is a particular problem for low-income, Black, and immigrant families, who often lack the social capital needed: shared understandings of how the system works, trust of system leaders, and the ability to work in concert without the need of an incentive payment or coercion (Clarke, Hero, Sidney, Fraga, & Erlichson, 2006; Orr, 1999).
Urban education’s complexity—the interrelatedness of the school system, other city agencies, and private groups with one another—means that educational decisions often have unintended and unforeseen consequences, and policies enacted elsewhere affect what the schools can do. For example, lax enforcement of environmental standards by health departments increases the challenges of teaching students exposed to toxins such as lead. Similarly, housing authorities that fail to provide enough safe and stable housing for low-income families encourage frequent moves and make it harder for children to maintain academic progress. Further, the culture of second chances in many urban school systems can conflict with law enforcement’s no excuses approach to disruptive youth. Social agencies may also expect urban schools to be one-stop service centers for their low-income and immigrant clients (Fong, 2004).
Such complex interactions between urban schools and social service providers began at the turn of the 19th century when both institutions were being formed. Women’s groups and settlement house workers saw that the children of immigrants were unsupervised during long stretches of the day and judged them vulnerable to radical ideas and gangs. To dissuade children from such temptations, they created, paid for, and operated kindergartens, playgrounds, afterschool activities, and vacation schools—all of which were eventually absorbed into the educational system or other city agencies. Worries about unsupervised youth also lead to mandatory education laws that made American city schools the only ones in the world to offer free secondary education to everyone by 1900. Massive school building programs designed to inspire high-minded thinking and reverence for learning, “far superior to the European school” of the era, involved urban education in neighborhood development (Teaford, 1984, p. 263-265). Contemporary neighborhood and religious organizations follow in their predecessor’s footsteps, providing ancillary services, seeking curricular changes, and demanding high-quality facilities for their students (Warren, 2001).
Urban school systems are woven into the economic fabric of the city. This began when the American Industrial Revolution benefited from what has been called “the great leap forward in power, speed, energy, and adaptability” (Warner, quoted in Abu-Lughod, 1999, p. 116), creating huge assembly line factories and revolutionizing work. The same period drew millions of European immigrants whom industrial leaders assumed would be laborers. Vocational programs and schools were envisioned to give these youngsters the technical skills and workplace discipline needed for the industrial workplace. Shops and scientific and homemaking laboratories replaced desks and slates in many classrooms. Today, many urban children attend similar programs in high schools dedicated to preparing them for a vocation instead of managerial or professional work.
City schools are also important consumers. They contract with a large variety of businesses for services and supplies. School systems have long depended on educational firms for textbooks and tests, but in the last two decades the variety of core educational services being purchased from private vendors has increased dramatically in urban school systems. Preschool, afterschool, and special education services, business audits, performance assessments, and the management of groups of schools are all recent examples.
Foundations, guiding the decisions of wealthy patrons for a fee, and business associations, investing in product and market development, seek social change and an economic edge by influencing how schools are run and what they teach. Both have influence and use it to gain the attention of policy makers. Between them, they have recently catalyzed substantial change in urban school organization, structure, and curricula (Shipps, 2006).
State and federal officials choose to locate experimental programs in urban schools where students are performing least well, citizens have complaints, large-scale adoption permits study their effects, and the results receive media attention. For example, charter schools— publicly funded schools governed by an outside organization under contract with the state that are permitted to ignore some rules to innovate—constituted only 4% of all schools in 2005, but more than half of them were located in cities. States also punish urban schools. Journalists report on urban education as part of the city political beat, sometimes finding sufficient evidence of financial corruption or professional malfeasance to justify state takeover or fiscal receivership. Not only is urban education embedded in the local economy and politics through a range of interagency relationships, economically-oriented programs, private contracts, well-heeled reformers, and highly publicized state and federal demands, city schools are also influenced by unions through direct action campaigns and collective bargaining. City teachers were the first to unionize, a process that began in 1895 in Chicago (Murphy, 1990). Since collective bargaining was achieved in New York City in 1962, urban teachers’ unions have been more assertive than suburban or rural unions in easing workplace conditions for teachers, initiating peer review of teachers instead of (or in addition to) supervision by principals, demanding a say in school decisions, and most recently, negotiating to operate individual schools (McDonnell & Pascal, 1988).
Urban politicians also want a say in the future of the system. To ensure it, they sometimes agree to alter who makes decisions. In the early decades of the 20th century, mayors supported laws that replaced school trustees, each representing one of the city’s immigrant neighborhoods, with a much smaller, elected school board. Centralizing decision-making authority was one way to make school board service attractive to the city’s elite, whose advice (and financial contributions) were important to city hall (Tyack & Hansot, 1982). A few cities went further, insisting that the mayor handpick those who would run the schools (Shipps, 2006). Today, the boundaries between city government and school decision making remain blurred. Cities have contentious educational politics partly because local politicians believe their performance ratings and re-election prospects are tied to the school system’s reputation.
These organizational and governance characteristics comprise a second pattern that distinguishes urban education: large size helps ensure that educational bureaucrats are skilled, but also adds rules and regulations that make routine tasks difficult. The number and variety of outsiders influencing educational processes and outcomes, and the often competing interests among them, makes city school systems most complex. Combined, these attributes raise a second question: Have size and competing interests made urban education ungovernable?
When urban education’s bureaucratic and complex governance is combined with high proportions of low-income, Black, and immigrant students, the result is a two-tiered school politics. White, middle-class natives can influence urban education in ways that the majority of families served cannot. For example, Blacks living in well-established urban communities who seek educational improvements may call upon abundant social capital, which they use to influence policy makers. But if the improvements require support from other groups with which these Blacks have no history of cooperation and few common networks or interests, then intergroup social capital is required. In its absence, changes may occur but not benefit Black children (Orr, 1999). In multi-ethnic cities where different immigrant communities live in isolated enclaves and misunderstand one another, competition among them limits each to second-tier gains. One community or another might benefit from an affirmative action program, but their leaders do not determine which problems are attended to or how policy is formed (Clarke et al., 2006). Thus, a third question arises: How can the politics of urban education be harnessed to overcome the obstacles of race, class, and social standing?
Criticism and Reform of Urban Education
Urban education is often criticized and frequently reformed. It is faulted for lingering gaps between the school completion and performance gaps between low-income, Black, and immigrant children and non-Hispanic Whites. Urban schools are criticized for being too bureaucratic, inefficient, and costly. And city politics may overly influence educational decision making.
Closing Performance Gaps
Some critics argue that attendance and achievement gaps were closed within three generations for southern, central, and eastern Europeans in the early 20th century, proving that continuing low performance by urban immigrants and Blacks is an avoidable disgrace. If allowed to continue, they argue, cities will become permanently divided between middle-class Whites who live well because they have earned college degrees and those with a high school education or less who are confined to dense, badly maintained neighborhoods with inadequate services. This critique of urban education argues for equalizing the educational opportunities among different communities so the two-class city does not become American’s future, and fundamentally is a call for educational equity (Roth-stein, 2004).
In Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court declared state-mandated school segregation unconstitutional because it deprives minority children of an equal education. After two decades of massive public resistance and civil rights demonstrations, the court extended its rulings to encompass northern cities in 1973, and allowed test scores and performance gaps to be used as evidence of discrimination in 1977. The resulting urban education desegregation plans involved busing (mostly Black) children from one school to another, redrawing school district boundaries, permitting intra- and interdistrict student transfers, and providing schools with extra services and programs. By the 1990s, few White children remained in city systems. The high costs of mandated services and the continuation of tracking (sorting) students within schools led to new court rulings that released urban school districts from court-ordered desegregation efforts if they had made a “good faith” effort at compliance (Tatel, 1992-1993, p. 63). Urban schools were rapidly resegre-gated. Low-income students returning to their neighborhood schools lost access to the middle-class social capital that affects college-going, job prospects, and housing options.
The effective schools approach to urban education’s performance gaps had a different impetus. A 1966 federally commissioned study, known as the Coleman Report, concluded that the resources of schools did not influence student learning as much as students’ socioeconomic and family characteristics (Coleman et al., 1966). But some educators were unwilling to accept the problems this created for urban education. They had studied a few poorly resourced urban schools with large numbers of low-income, Black, and Latino students that nevertheless produced respectable test scores. Most had strong principals with high expectations for student success and teachers who valued teamwork; these schools had disciplined classrooms and orderly halls, and they emphasized basic skills and regularly monitored student progress (Purkey & Smith, 1983). This approach encouraged whole school reform rather than programs designed for disadvantaged children. Although the strategy proved successful in a few schools, it was difficult to transfer or sustain, thereby failing to make a difference on a scale necessary to improve urban education as a whole (Elmore, 1996).
With desegregation having been abandoned and the whole school reform approach too limited, another approach emerged. Deteriorating education standards were blamed for poor performance. The standards movement, initiated by the national report “A Nation at Risk” in 1983, won over some civil rights advocates, who embraced common standards, believing that different standards for different student groups simply justifies existing inequalities. Common standards have meant rigorous national standards, or failing that, the close monitoring of state standards to ensure their basic comparability. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001 embodied these principles. It withheld federal antipoverty education funds from states (and consequently cities) that did not hold all children to the same high expectations, test their performance yearly in Grades 3 through 8, and publicly report the results. But NCLB did not specify which student services states were required to provide for struggling students and overtaxed school systems, and the largest proportion of schools failing to meet state performance standards were in cities. The law has been criticized for insufficient attention (and funding) to predominantly Black, Latino, and low-income schools (Rebell & Wolff, 2007) and for educational inflexibility in the face of diversity. Reauthorization was postponed in 2007 because Congress was uncertain whether the law should be scrapped, strengthened with new mandates, or better funded.
Fixing the System
Other critics focus on the organization of urban districts, arguing that they are too bureaucratic, held hostage by union contracts, or disorganized. These structural characteristics are the reason why, no matter how hard educators try to close performance gaps, little is accomplished. Those focusing on bureaucracy believe Black, Latino, and low-income families’ educational needs are thwarted by school administrators who monopolize information and aspire to expand their sphere of influence (Peterson, 1985). Those who identify teachers’ unions as the main problem facing urban education believe the unions curtail managerial decision making through collective bargaining, use member dues to lobby against change, and buy influence with lawmakers. Others focus on organizational complexity, which they believe is in need of intergovernmental coordination to lessen the effects of unintended negative consequences (Smith & O’Day, 1991).
Most critics of urban school bureaucracy look to current best practices in large corporations for the antidote. If school administrators’ jobs were modeled after managers in the 19th-century corporation, then updating them in modern management techniques should alleviate problems. Restructuring—a term borrowed from the corporate sector—means focusing on the customer, identifying the core business, holding everyone accountable for outcome targets, and devolving decisions about how to meet targets to unit managers. Some envision business as the ultimate customers since they employ school graduates. Focusing on core services encourages outsourcing—contracting with firms or consultants to provide noncore services for a fee. They want teachers and students held accountable for performance targets and view school principals as the key decision-making managers. But restructuring is not a silver bullet. Not everyone agrees that the business of education is workforce preparation (Cuban & Shipps, 2000). Some see too much self-interest by business leaders who stand to benefit from contracts that are weakly enforced. Others argue that restructuring allows business leaders to abandon their own responsibility for poor economic conditions by blaming educators (Cuban, 2005).
In the early 1990s, systemic reform, as it became known, aimed to align state and national laws with local instructional policies by coordinating state-mandated curriculum frameworks, student assessments, instructional materials, and teacher professional development opportunities (Fuhrman, 1993). Some advocates wanted to jump-start broad change by initially narrowing the focus to one set of laws or relationships; others would be added later when success was demonstrated in the first. Another group of advocates redefined the responsibilities of different governing authorities to keep them from conflicting and created new intergovernmental coordinating roles for policy makers. But systemic reform proved unwieldy. Implementation was presumed to follow if the laws and rules were aligned—a belief that proved unfounded, partly because relatively little thought was given to how nongovernmental actors would react (Cohen & Ball, 1990).
Privatization and Choice
Teachers’ union critics want collective bargaining curtailed, but most believe this cannot be done without also injecting market discipline in the schools. If markets provided the ultimate standard, then parents would avoid schools with a poor reputation while seeking out good ones, thereby spurring more like them (Chubb & Moe, 1990). In one version, schools are funded with educational vouchers—tuition certificates that families cash in for either private school tuition or public school costs. Targeted voucher experiments became common in the mid-1990s through statewide options or urban programs for low-income, Black, and immigrant children. Yet vouchers have not become widespread, partly because they have the potential to “erase municipal boundaries, dissolve neighborhood ties, lower housing prices, and upset student enrollments” in suburban schools, but also because the student performance results are mixed (d’Entremont & Huerta, 2007, p. 40). Charter schools, first proposed by teachers’ unions and other educators as a voucher alternative, are a more popular parental choice in urban school districts; such schools can pilot new approaches but do not challenge the traditional organization of urban education.
Changing Decision Makers
Some say that the wrong decision makers have been in charge; consequently, urban education policy is overly influenced by city politics, particularly by city elections. Mayoral machines, in which the mayor controls policy by offering tangible benefits to each constituency in exchange for their loyalty, depletes city resources without improving services. Today, the argument goes, urban education reflects the vestiges of machine politics because it employs the largest workforce in the city and has the biggest budget, making it an attractive place to employ political appointees, purchase goodwill from businesses and community-based organizations with sole-source contracts, and hide deficits (Mirel, 1993). Education decision making is centralized and distorted. Low-income, Black, and Latino students are being failed by urban schools because their parents’ votes can be more easily (and cheaply) purchased with jobs in the system (Rich, 1996). In this critique, poor school performance characterizes urban education because mayors are not focused on improving them.
Initially, decentralization was intended as an alternative to desegregation stalled in cities by White backlash against integration (or “White flight”). These early plans involved creating new administrative subunits between the central board (dominated by city elites) and the schools, which were mostly serving low-income Black and immigrant children. The new organizational units were meant to involve minority parents in decision making. Some community activists envisioned community control as a way to build the social capital of low-income Black and Latino communities. But the first wave of decentralization was soon criticized for its own neighborhood-level patronage and cronyism, and a lack of democratic participation (Ravitch, 1988). A second wave in the 1990s made parents decision makers in their own children’s schools, where it was presumed they had the most at stake and would avoid unwise decisions (Bryk, Sebring, Kerbow, Rollow, & Easton, 1998). But these local school councils proved to be most effective in schools where the parents were already middle-class. Principals co-opted many parent councils, and councils themselves seemed to legitimize decisions that central officials had already made, while failing to equalize resources across the system (Malen, Ogawa, & Kranz, 1990).
Paradoxically, the latest effort to change the governance of urban schools is to formalize the informal power of the mayor. When made the head of the school system, the mayor’s educational decisions are a matter of public record. Each voter’s task is theoretically simplified; every vote cast is a referendum on the mayor’s educational performance. This is said to be more democratic because more citizens vote for mayor than for school boards. Mayors can better coordinate city services and schooling than superintendents, it is argued, because mayors have longer tenure than the typical urban superintendent and are not beholden to an educational bureaucracy. Mayors may also call upon sources of funding not available to school boards for balancing school budgets and to avoid teachers’ strikes. And some argue, mayors have incentive to do whatever is needed to post test score gains (Wong, Shen, Anagnostopolous, & Rutledge, 2007). But mayors in charge of the schools keep a tight lock on information and spin the education coverage to their advantage, often failing to release bad news. They avoid sharing authority; some even turn formerly public school board meetings into private advisory councils. With one person in charge, his or her talents become paramount. And voting for mayor is not a single-issue choice, so citizens may get the mayor they want for policing or property taxes, but not the education mayor they need (Henig & Rich, 2004).
Urban Education in the 21st Century
Urban education in the 21st century inherited most of its defining characteristics from a century ago. Those characteristics—a preponderance of immigrant, Black, and low-income students and a large bureaucratic organization in a complex and highly political environment—have become its defining problems. If the poor performance data on the urban education cited at the beginning of this chapter is adequate evidence, decades of reform have left these problems largely intact. This combination of sticky problems and slippery solutions suggests that we may need to take these defining characteristics as inevitable and routine, and reframe the problems instead.
We might reconceptualize race, class, and economic status differences as inevitable, even desirable, tackling instead the negative social consequences they have for children in urban schools. We might focus less on minority group behavior, performance, and distinctiveness using a standard measurement ruler, and more on how Whites, Blacks, Latinos, and other immigrants experience the categories that define them. The goal would be to give more responsibility for fixing the negative consequences of race, class, and ethnic differences to the most powerful without lowering expectations for anyone. As one researcher writes, “everybody [currently] blames the teachers, parents, and students … toiling in city schools … rather than the parents moving out to the suburbs, governors, or presidents” (Pollack, 2004, p. 51). Shifting the emphasis would mean distinguishing between the effects of racial and ethnic classifications on Blacks, Whites, and Latinos and how these terms are used as categories of personal identity. Since the students to whom the term minority refers are beginning to predominate in suburban school systems (NCES, 2007), this definitional characteristic of urban education may soon become a characteristic of American public education in general. Sooner rather than later, we may define urban education by its organizational and political characteristics more than its students’ socioeconomic status.
Standards, systemic reform, and mayoral control all suggest ways that 21st century urban schooling can reconceptualize size, bureaucracy, and complexity too. Standards reveal the power of high expectations and goals to guide reform in a big system. Systemic reform acknowledges the importance of prioritizing some activities across the bureaucracy and between levels of government, so they do not work at cross-purposes. Mayoral control focuses on the leadership needed to sustain a coalition of action in the face of bureaucratic inertia, complex motives, and unintended consequences. All three implicitly acknowledge that politics is required to change urban education. Coalitions must be built and sustained, leadership identified, laws passed, and implementation monitored by citizens with a stake in the outcome. Acknowledging the political importance of urban education may help us get beyond comparisons of social and economic capital without denying their real consequences. The politics of building civic capacity, for example, involves cooperation across boundaries of race and class, economic status and neighborhood (Stone, Henig, Jones, & Pierannuzi, 2001). It focuses attention on coordinating the many local interconnected civic institutions that are needed to improve schooling, but also on the full and equal participation of low-income, Black, Latino, and other immigrant parents. It is simultaneously a grassroots process of community organizing and an elite effort to mobilize resources and clarify goals. Those looking for civic capacity in urban school reform have generally found it lacking so far, but it may be the one overlooked resource for improving urban education.