"Policy Initiatives to Improve Urban Schools: An Agenda" By William L. Bainbridge, Thomas J. Lasley, II, and Steven M. Sundre. Education and Urban Society. May 2003.

from Education and Urban Society, May 2003


An Agenda




University of Dayton


The authors address the complex issue of how to improve urban schools. Policy makers have endeavored to use a variety of solutions to help address the problems confronting America’s urban schools. The authors outline some of the panaceas and then proffer 14 strategies that urban educators can consider as they seek to deal with the unique problems confronting the young people they educate. Some of the authors’ recommendations require little or no cost, whereas others would entail funding obligations. All of the solutions are ones that have considerable research support and offer significant opportunity for success.


The "school reform" lessons of the past few years suggest that policy initiatives designed to provide systemic improvements in urban schools are both timely and worth debating. They are worth debating because so many of the problems in urban schools are more attributable to a lack of knowledge about what works and about good ideas than they are to the availability of adequate financial resources. More funds will not solve the urban educational problems unless those funds are invested in ideas that work and are implemented by people who have the skills and expertise to make a difference with urban youth. In essence, the answer is not just dollars and it is not simply ideas. It is, instead, investing the right resources in the right ideas.

A wide variety of solutions have been tested during the past several decades to improve urban schools. These solutions have been an outgrowth of a myriad of different political agendas. During the 1970s, the crisis in urban education was connected to the highly segregated nature of public schools. Solutions proffered included bussing and magnet schools. Neither of these approaches ever achieved the ambitious goals that advocates established. Indeed, by the turn of the 21st century, court-ordered bussing was all but nonexistent as a policy mandate. True, bussing did have an impact. Equally true, the results of bussing were more positive in terms of integration than in terms of enhancing student achievement. And although magnet schools remain in urban school districts, they exist as a mere shadow of what they once promised to be. More than a million students attend several thousand magnet schools. Those magnet schools offer unique educational programs in a wide variety of areas. But after 25 years, the results would suggest that in many cases, the magnet schools have had little to no impact on desegregation and may be only slightly more effective than their nonmagnet counterparts in terms of how students academically perform (Sadker & Sadker, 2000).

During the 1990s, the notion of school choice became politically popular. Such choice could be exercised through either the use of educational vouchers or involvement in newly authorized charter schools. Milwaukee was the first city to have publicly financed voucher initiatives, and the Zelman Supreme Court Decision made vouchers a real option in places such as Cleveland, Ohio, and in other major cities that were attempting to replicate the program that was in place in Cleveland. The number of charters continues to grow rapidly. Some states have limited (or capped) their growth, but almost all states have embraced the notion of using charters as a way of providing options for young people who live in urban areas.

The research on vouchers and charters is just as mixed and unclear as has been the research on bussing and magnet schools. What do we know so far? It appears that African American students may experience modest achievement gains in voucher programs. Why this occurs, however, is unclear. Children from other racial and ethnic groups appear not to benefit from vouchers. The charter school literature is equally unclear. Charter school students in some states (e.g., Arizona) appear to be outperforming their counterparts in conventional schools. Charter schools in other states (e.g., Texas) also may be positively affecting particular student groups (e.g., students at risk). But overall, the charter "message" is not one that suggests a silver-bullet answer has been found (Separating Rhetoric From Reality, 2001).

All of these options (bussing, magnet schools, vouchers, and charters) have been proffered in an attempt to make America’s urban public schools more effective learning environments. Each has stimulated heated political debate. Each has met with mixed success because of a wide variety of factors far too complex for us to detail in the context of this article. Our intention is to show that some efforts at the school level can be put in place that relate directly to the day-to-day operation of schools and can be (and will be) more effective than restricting the entire school environment or adopting politically volatile policy mandates such as bussing. Such efforts can have a real impact on the lives of young people because either they enrich directly and immediately the lives of young people or they make more functional the educational environment within which young people are already educated. Clearly, bussing and charters had this same intention, but just as clearly, they did so within a context of heated political debate.

Educators, parents, employers, government officials, and civic leaders are becoming increasingly aware that well-targeted initiatives, implemented with appropriate staff training and the right personnel, can create genuine opportunities for student success. In visits to many urban school systems across the country, the same question arises frequently: What can policy makers do to improve inner-city schools? Although every reform effort has certain political ramifications, we suggest that the following program efforts have sufficient use and research support that they can be offered as value-added options for young people and do not have the same type of political complications.

Because educational problems vary greatly from setting to setting, there is certainly no uniform boilerplate response.We suggest 14 basic policy initiatives that could go a long way in improving our nation’s urban school systems. Civic and educational leaders in America’s major cities should consider extending their policy deliberations to include program efforts from the following 14 suggestions. Although each of these has policy or practical complications (e.g., the specifics of how to deliver the "program"), all are being implemented by educators in some schooling context. They do not constitute the "art of the impossible."

1. Increasing the availability of well-planned early childhood education programs. Too many kindergartners struggle to meet the school readiness standards on individually administered assessments. Policy makers need to take a serious look at universal full-day kindergarten programs and school-based preschool opportunities(Weast, 2001). Many families in urban centers, in particular, lack resources to provide enriching kindergarten readiness skills. For their children, a little extra time on the front end of their educational experience has been proven to be quite valuable. There is an investment involved, but the price to society of doing nothing is much higher. Children from poor home environments miss opportunities for intellectual and social growth, and we as a society reap the results of our dereliction of duty for years to come through less educated workers, higher rates of poverty and crime, and increased medical and insurance costs (Bainbridge & Mee, 2001).

2. Creating initiatives to improve the diets of inner-city students. Although neurologists have documented that high-protein diets are necessary for brain growth and development of young children, the economically disadvantaged continue to be subjected to high-carbohydrate diets. Far too many children come to school either hungry or malnourished. Policy leaders, social service agencies and government officials need to pay careful attention to increasing the ratio of protein in the kinds of meals served in school cafeterias along with limiting access to nonnutritional drinks such as carbonated beverages. One urban superintendent recently offered the authors this observation as a way of illustrating the "diet" problem for urban students. She noted, "The reason I try not to ever call off school during the winter months is simple: For many students, the only nutritional food they receive each day is at school."

3. Limiting the practice of conducting school night interscholastic contests in athletics, music, drama, or other extracurricular activities. The recent ESPN and print media exposure of a parochial high school basketball team from Akron, Ohio, traveling great distances on school nights for games has given focus to excesses in extracurricular activities. Generally speaking, school-year policies should emphasize learning by providing opportunities for students to be home on Sunday through Thursday evenings by 7 pm. Too many students are now sent the message that basketball, soccer, band competitions, and other activities are more important than academic work. Our intention is not to argue that extracurricular activities should not occur or that they are unimportant. For many students, extracurricular activities are the reason they attend school. Rather, we suggest that schools should be organized to emphasize learning during the week and not extracurricular participation and involvement.

4. Increasing student time on task by lengthening the school year. It would be hard to find a school board member, administrator, or teacher educator unfamiliar with the research demonstrating the value of increased "time on task." Nevertheless, most urban school systems in the country continue to operate with the old agrarian-based, 180-day school calendar. Serious attention needs to be given to collaboration between boards and unions to lengthen instructional time for inner-city students but to do so in more innovative ways. Longer school days with more of the same are not the answer. Instead, educators need to identify new ways to "extend" the time and the learning opportunities that they already have available. Some of the new personalized-learning schools represent one positive example (DiMartino, Clarke, & Wolk, 2003). Such models use time in ways that maximizes student motivation without compromising student learning.

5. Developing initiatives to ease tension for children in stepfamilies. With an estimated 50% of inner-city youth experiencing their parents’ divorce or status as single parents, school officials need to take positive actions to make sure their personnel understand that stepfamilies are the norm for many children, not a deviation from the two-parent, one-family standard (Bainbridge & Adler-Bader, 2002). The idea of what a family is in the United States is changing. Schools need to find ways to help students negotiate family relationships in ways that support their learning. Teachers do not need to be social workers; but they do need to understand that value-added instruction requires teachers who understand social conditions.

6. Monitoring the low expectations of teachers who provide high grades that reward inferior schoolwork. Grade inflation is computed by establishing a correlation between achievement on standardized tests and earned grade point average. In recent years, many inner-city teachers have been known to inflate report card grades to keep students and parents quiet and happy. It simply does not work and, in fact, has the opposite effect when students are unable to perform well in advanced courses and on college entrance exams.

7. Eliminating social promotion. Simply stated, social promotion is the process of advancing students to the next grade level when they have not mastered the minimum academic content of their current grade. A symptom of this practice is the unacceptably high drop-out rate in many big-city secondary schools as students become less and less able to compete as they get older. Some school systems have had a good deal of success with mandatory summer school for academically at-risk students. Others have implemented in-school tutoring and after-school skill development programs. Whatever the plan, ensuring that targeted supports and services are available for students when they are needed is critical (Darling Hammond, 1998).

8. "Benchmarking" student achievement of students with similar demographics. Research indicates that children with highly educated parents in high socioeconomic homes have a huge advantage in learning potential over those living in poverty: They enter school with more social capital because they come from homes where things such as reading and books tend to be the norm rather than the exception to the norm. Expectations of high performance can best be achieved when fair comparisons are established and used as the measuring stick. Setting attainable goals enables students and schools to experience and celebrate success, encouraging all students to work toward even higher levels of achievement.

9. Instituting data-based decision making. Urban school systems are frequently operated with a heavy emphasis on current fads and personal agendas. The rapid turnover of administrators in urban contexts exacerbates the problem because faculty and staff members never really develop capacity—they are in a constant state of transition. Recently, many studies have shown that using effective data analysis and communication can result in setting appropriate performance baselines and in identifying more effective instructional interventions. Performance measurements within such contexts then become more accurate. Experience shows school systems that "mine" data routinely have improved results (Cawelti & Protheroe, 2001). More important, schools that know how to use that data to inform instructional decisions truly create value-added opportunities for their students.

10. Providing access to technology for students. Recent studies show the great value of providing students with extensive access to learning technology (Berg, Ridenour-Benz, Lasley, & Raisch, 1998). On average, students with computers in their homes develop better math comprehension and reading skills than do those without this resource. School priorities need to include resource access programs such as loaned computers and/or software—sometimes called "E.T.(Educational Technology) goes home" (U.S. Department of Education, 2001). The "technology divide" is more than a trite reference used to document the need for more computers in American elementary and secondary schools. Rather, the lack of access to technology for many urban youth constitutes a genuine educational disadvantage.

11. Expanding Advanced Placement programs. To stretch the capacity of every high school’s climate for those students who will be tomorrow’s intellectual leaders, school systems need to do a better job of developing and funding Advanced Placement courses and testing. Local corporations that support education are excellent sources for funding such programs, but where such funds are not available, school districts need to make funding reallocation decisions that make Advanced Placement programs available.

12. Initiating marketplace pay for teachers in areas of critical shortage. The human resource practices of urban school systems need to more closely resemble those of higher education and businesses. In a recent study commissioned by the American Association of School Administrators, the author pointed out that "highly qualified teachers are in short supply, particularly in schools that serve large concentrations of poor and minority students" (Prince, 2002, p. 2). In addition, she indicated that "for tens of thousands of students in these schools, a highly qualified teacher can be a life-altering investment" (Prince, 2002, p. 37). Schools currently have serious shortages of teachers in fields such as mathematics, the physical sciences, foreign languages, and special education. Policy leaders and unions need to join in breaking the current salary schedule grid in favor of pay scales that are more sensitive to marketplace demands. One way to accomplish this would be through the establishment of state-level registries on advanced teaching criteria. Such systems would provide differentiated pay based on marketplace demand and/or responsibilities. Programs calling for ongoing training and professional development of master teachers to help train other teachers are also worthy of consideration (Thomas, Burkholder, Bainbridge, & Mason, 2002).

13. Using technology to improve communication between parents and teachers. Modern technology can do much to increase the flow of information between parents and teachers. Classrooms should be equipped with outbound telephone lines for teachers to contact parents during the school day. Voice mail systems and school-related programming on cable television can be put to much greater use in monitoring student progress. Well-informed parents are in a better position to help students by assisting them with homework, advising them on course selection, and partnering with educators in helping them set goals. Teachers must also be trained to ensure they know how to interact with parents in objective (e.g., Susie does not understand her number facts) rather than subjective (Susie is not good in math) ways. The former provides direction and information; the latter fosters parental defensiveness. In essence, parents need access to knowledge about how to use technology and teachers need to know how to use information in ways that truly inform parents about student behavior and learning.

14. Carefully examining school governance structures. Many large urban or county school systems are too large to operate effectively under one board of education. In many school systems, board members sometimes abuse their policy-making role through headline-seeking behavior focused on elections to other offices or carrying out vendettas against unpopular school leaders. Former school employees and teachers’ unions have been known to "pack" school boards with groups of people whose motivation is unrelated to student achievement. In many urban school systems, the governance issue needs a thorough review. A number of policy analysts are now beginning to explore governance options for urban schools. No clear answers are emerging, but the adults who currently govern urban schools need to be ever aware of the need to find new ways to make decisions that translate more immediately into instructional interventions and less immediately into political debate and acrimony.

If increasing student success is the goal, then this 14-point agenda can be a good research-based starting point for school reform. There are no silver bullets in educational reform, but there are ideas that now have sufficient research grounding to suggest schools and school administrators who know how to put the right resources into the right ideas will begin to see student achievement grow.


Bainbridge,W. L.,&Adler-Bader, F., (2002, September/October). Back-to-school means back-n- forth. Your Stepfamily, p. 41.

Bainbridge, W. L., & Mee, J., (2001, October 21). Success by six: helping pre-schoolers succeed. Sarasota Herald Tribune, p. 3.

Berg, S., Ridenour-Benz, C., Lasley, T. J.,&Raisch, C. D. (1998). Exemplary technology use in elementary classrooms. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 31, 111-122.

Cawelti, G., & Protheroe, N. (2001). High student achievement: How six school districts changed into high performance systems. Arlington, VA: Educational Research Service.

Darling-Hammond, L. (1998). Alternatives to grade retention. The School Administrator, 55(7), 18-21.

DiMartino, J., Clarke, J., &Wolk, D. (2003). Personalized learning. Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press.

Prince, C. D. (2002). Higher pay in hard-to-staff schools: The case for financial incentives. Arlington, VA: American Association of School Administrators.

Sadker, M. P., & Sadker, D.M. (2000). Teachers, schools and society. Boston: McGraw-Hill. Separating Rhetoric From Reality: Vouchers and Charter Schools. (2001). Primer, 4(3), 1-6.

Thomas, M. D., Burkholder, S., Bainbridge, W., & Mason, W. R., Jr. (1999, September/October). We need state level registries on advanced teaching criteria. AASPA Perspectives, 3-6.. U.S. Department of Education. (2001). The secretary’s conference on educational technology: Measuring impacts and shaping the future. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Weast, J. D., (2001). Why we need a rigorous, full-day kindergarten. Principal, 80(5), 26.


William L. Bainbridge currently serves as president of SchoolMatch and as a distinguished research professor at the University of Dayton. He is the former superintendent of three school systems. He has served as a lead consultant in audits of educational effectiveness in school systems in more than 30 states. He earned his Ph.D. at Ohio State University.

Thomas J. Lasley, II, is the dean of the School of Education and Allied Professions at the University of Dayton. He is the author of numerous articles and several books, all of which deal with educational policy and practice. He is past editor of the Journal of Teacher Education and has served on numerous advisory boards and commissions that deal with issues around improving P- 12 education.

Steven M. Sundre currently serves as the executive vice president of SchoolMatch and as a distinguished research professor at the University of Dayton. He is a former executive director of the Accrediting Commission on Education for Health Services Administration. He earned his Ph.D. at Ohio State University, where he received the Thomas Holy Award in educational research.