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Big Cities, Big Opportunities

Worldwide, big cities often mean big educational opportunities for students. Not so in the United States.

Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Singapore are respectively the top-, second-, and fourth-ranked school system in the world according to OECD's 2009 PISA study. Some argue that it's impractical to compare a city or city-state's education system to that of an entire country. Put aside for a minute the fact that Shanghai's city population is roughly equal to the population of the continent of Australia: the critics do have a point.

Other cities in places such as Portugal and Israel do just as well as Singapore. And cities in Poland tend to do as well as Hong Kong. In these countries, rural students' scores brings down their overall rankings to somewhere in the middle of the list of the 70 school systems evaluated.

In the United States, the opposite is true: urban school systems tend to do poorly in the PISA evaluation, thereby bringing the U.S. average rankings down. We are not alone; the same thing can be made about the United Kingdom and Belgium.

Socio-economic context of these students, whether in Krakow or New York City, plays a part, but does not explain the achievement gap in its entirety according to Andreas Schleicher in the monthly policy publication PISA in Focus (No 17, June 2012).

In some cases, urban school systems have important advantages, namely more school choice and more competitive teacher salaries. The disadvantages of U.S. urban populations include linguistic barriers, single-parent homes, and other traits often related to poverty.

"Countries need to address inequities and inequity in their educational outcomes," says Schliecher, "[including] the distribution of educational resources."

The United States has over a dozen cities with populations greater than Krakow or Jerusalem. Every one of them offers another advantageous trait of highly successful urban school systems: that of a rich cultural environment. Schools that tap into museum, community, university, and business resources translate to big educational opportunities for every student.

School districts and stakeholders should not overlook the value of urban centers and demographics. They offer richness in ways that funding alone cannot provide.

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