The common view of most large city schools is of an educational wasteland with uniformly poor student achievement. A new study of 10 urban school systems, however, says that "there is no consistent pattern of underperformance in urban areas when they are compared to suburbs, small towns or rural areas".

"Differences in student performance do not appear to be caused by the urban environment," said Darvin M. Winick, chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, the congressionally recognized body responsible for the NAEP [National Assessment of Educational Progress] tests. "The perception that urban students cannot learn as well as other students is not borne out by the data."

The NAEP study of 10 urban school districts showed that African American fourth- and eighth-graders in Charlotte, Houston and New York performed better on math and reading tests than a nationwide sample of black students. Black students in Cleveland, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles and the District of Columbia generally performed worse.

Although I have a very healthy suspicion of studies (always look at who’s paying the bills), this one at least brings up one incredibly important point the folks with the cookie cutters always seem to miss. Trying to generalize something as complicated as educational achievement across many different communities, no matter how similar they may appear, is stupid at best. Every school system (and every school for that matter) has many unique qualities based on it’s students, parents, teachers, administrators and community support. There are some factors for success that can be duplicated (a national curriculum, for example – if we had one) but they still need to be adapted to fit the local situation.

One other important point.

Katie Haycock, director of the Education Trust, a D.C.-based think tank that seeks greater accountability in schools, said that the NAEP results are "proof positive that big urban districts can educate students as well as other districts . . . but also a reminder of how far some of our biggest districts have to go to realize the learning potential of their students."

Agreed! However, the key to a good education for students in "big urban districts" (or any other place) is not massive testing. The key is highly-trained and supported teachers and administrators, working with informed and involved parents.