Throughout American history, the policies and practices that created opportunity gaps from birth have been baked into the ecosystem of local and state systems. It is well documented that many of these policies and practices were rooted in implicit racial bias at best, and explicit racism and hate at worst. Even today, far too often the policies and practices that govern how cities manage and resource housing, education, healthcare, transportation, workforce development, criminal justice, and civic engagement reinforce inequity in outcomes for children and families of color compared to their White peers by creating a system of barriers to success across all facets of a child’s living and learning environments.
Today, our best shot for healing communities of their achievement gap is by addressing the larger living climate opportunity gaps. Likewise, our best chance for supporting healing in communities harmed by practices rooted in hate is through current practices which institutionalize love in systems.
In the midst of our current challenges and unique political moment, it is necessary to declare a new day in America for our young people. America’s new day must start by acknowledging the fact that providing all children an opportunity to learn requires that we start by providing them with the supports they need to thrive outside the school, starting at birth.
We have long known that students thrive in climates with strong social and economic opportunities, with healthy and safe living environments and well-resourced schools. Yet, for decades, city, state and federal systems have built their policy and practice infrastructure around the use of common standards to measure student success, while failing to create common supports to address the gaps in access to healthy living and learning environments. Healthy living environments for students are impacted by a family’s access to affordable healthcare, food, housing, livable wages, transportation, and safe communities, which are all deeply linked to a child’s opportunity to learn. Healthy learning environments inside schools create a culture of academic rigor and success; healthy learning environments are impacted by school resourcing, access to early education, experienced teachers and support staff, economic integration in school districts, advanced curricula and restorative discipline approaches.
In America’s new day, governors, mayors, and school boards cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that gaps in academic achievement are more impacted by opportunity gaps in community and educational environments than shortcomings inside classrooms.
After decades, of robust debates on education standards, assessments, accountability, labor contracts, and traditional versus charter public schools — two facts remain true at a systems level: the public school system remains the primary institution of education for over 90% of students in America; and parental income remains the number one predictor of student outcomes — not type of public school, labor contract or brand of assessment. For far too long, efforts to improve educational outcomes have focused narrowly on the role of schools, classrooms and teachers, while ignoring the large and growing body of research that confirms what parents and families have long known — at the district level, health, housing, and parental employment opportunities are all intimately linked to high school and college attainment. This fact alone should have tremendous implications for how cities and states design policies, practices and programs to provide all students — regardless of race, gender or zip code — an opportunity to learn and succeed.
Over many years, research has quantified the connection between economic and racial opportunity gaps and achievement gaps. Nationally, 42.6% of students of color in the United States attend a high poverty school (where at least 75% of the population qualify as poor or low-income), while only 7.6% of white students are in high poverty schools. The difference in outcomes between high poverty schools and low poverty schools is stark: Stanford University analysis of reading and math test scores from across the country found that “Children in the school districts with the highest concentrations of poverty score an average of more than four grade levels below children in the richest districts.”
A new day requires that we no longer promote the false narrative that the American public education system is a failing proposition, which inaccurately places blame and policy focus on regulating principals, educators, students and parents. In spite of the pervasive opportunity gaps, the U.S. public school system has created success stories from every sector of our society. These individuals sit on corporate boards and the benches of our courts; spark grassroots movements and non-profit organizations; they lead our churches and synagogues and run our colleges and universities, from Ivy League institutions to the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) that most recently gave us mayors of color in cities like Atlanta, New Orleans and St. Paul.
As the only public mandatory network of institutions in our country, the U.S. public school system continues to be our best hub to link families and students to the supports needed to thrive from birth. In the face of significant and growing economic opportunity gaps, for many the U.S. public education system remains a critical contributor in helping to overcome barriers created by our broader living systems in hopes of achieving high school and post-secondary attainment.
Providing students an opportunity to learn from birth is as much — if not more — the responsibility of mayors, county commissioners, and city council members as it is superintendents, school boards, principals, teachers, and parents. Placing the blame at the doors of educators, parents, students and the public school system is the easy route that has proven to do very little to solve the problem.
A new day requires that we take a more student-centered approach and commit to improving living environments as well as learning environments. We must be willing to take the more difficult route of partnership over parting, and building trust over blame. Instead of promoting school vouchers that have proven ineffective, we should dramatically increase housing vouchers to families to provide stable, healthy living environments that help to reintegrate communities and schools. These are the types of opportunities that proclaiming a new day requires us to seize.
Loving Cities have systems at their core that are designed to provide care, stability, commitment and capacity to children and families. Community residents, elected officials, and partners in schools, agencies, and businesses have the power to adopt, implement and support policies and programs that ensure equitable access to the supports and opportunities proven to lead to better academic and economic outcomes. It is time to heed the calls of parents, students, teachers, and organizers, as well as extensive field research, and replace policies and practices that reinforce the status quo of inequity with those that institute loving through a system of support for all children.
Schott created the Loving Cities Index to assess local systems as a whole and quantify the level of supports being delivered and, when possible, the level of equity in access to those supports. The Index framework draws from the wisdom of communities and a strong research base to identify 24 indicators that represent supports associated with academic and economic success. These indicators reflect key city policies and practices needed provide care, stability, commitment and capacity, and ultimately provide all students with the healthy living and learning environments needed to learn. We believe that, by prioritizing these measures, over time cities can significantly accelerate educational outcomes, particularly for students of color.
To quantify how close a local system is to being a loving city, we set ideal benchmarks for each of 24 indicators based on what we believe is needed to be a loving city, and used those benchmarks to apply points across indicators. We divided total points earned by total possible points to calculate the level of supports in place, or level of love in local systems.
Ideally, we believe cities should achieve a minimum of 80% of the possible points for indicators of healthy living and learning to be considered a model Loving City, or meet the “platinum standard.” We consider cities at the “gold standard” if they achieve at least 70% of the points, “silver standard” for 60% of the points, and “bronze standard” for at least 50% of the points; those with under 50% of the points are considered “copper standard.”
This Loving Cities report collects and synthesizes data on an initial 10 American cities that are at different points on the trajectory to institute systems that create Loving Cities and have been central to the national conversation on “education reform.” We scored each of these cities using the Loving Cities Index to quantify and compare the supports being delivered, and looked qualitatively at how each of these 10 cities are taking action in their own ways to create positive change for children.
The ten cities on average have 42% of the supports needed to be a Loving City as measured by this Index (ranging from 34% to 52%). This mid-range of scores suggests that there are policies and practices in place across these cities to provide access to some supports, but there are still significant gaps in delivering the full system of supports that are needed for all students to thrive. We would expect that the trends in access to resources and supports in these ten cities are predictive of trends we would see across most cities around the country serving large numbers of low-income and young people of color.
The cities of Minneapolis, Long Beach and Buffalo demonstrated the highest levels of supports among the ten cities included, achieving “bronze standard” (50%+) on the Loving Cities Index, while the other seven cities are at the “copper standard” level (<50%). These scores reflect the reality that many of the 10 cities are taking action to improve living and learning environments and seeing the results in educational outcomes, though there is still tremendous need for additional policies and practices that institute love and support for all students both in and outside the classroom to ultimately increase rates of graduation and post-secondary attainment.
Overall, there are some areas where most cities are succeeding in providing supports, and areas where there are tremendous gaps across the 10 cities and all other communities across the country. In terms of providing healthy living environments, most cities are providing fairly strong access to pre-natal services and health insurance, but need to vastly increase access to clean air, healthy food and mental health services to provide Care for all families. Providing Stability will require more progressive steps to dramatically increase civic participation and correct for the damage of historically racist policies that instituted segregation and ensured inequitable access to affordable housing, livable wages and public transportation that persist today.
In terms of providing healthy learning environments, based largely on the work of local advocates, we see some momentum within cities to reduce school suspensions, expulsions and referrals to law enforcement though many cities continue to have large disparities in rates of suspension for Black students compared to White, Latino and Asian. Additionally, access to early childhood education is still largely unattainable for the majority of families across all 10 cities. Within Capacity, we see that school resourcing formulas and school district zoning (in conjunction with broader community segregation) are setting schools up to keep students separated by race and income, maintaining the relic of separate and unequal learning environments initially designed by segregationist agendas.
When we look at all the data across these indicators together, as the Loving Cities Index is designed to do, we can see the ways in which our systems are still deeply impacted by historical policies rooted in racism and hate, and how that is creating a system of barriers for students of color and low-income students, instead of a system of supports. This report provides details for the most and least accessible supports across cities, why these matter and what we can do to improve access to supports, based on research and recommendations from leaders across sectors.
Several of the cities in this report should be highlighted for their efforts to swim upstream against a purely standards-based agenda and do the more difficult work of instituting a supports-based agenda and building the types of community partnerships necessary to deliver critical supports for students to have an opportunity to learn. In key areas, their efforts to shepherd in a new day for students, parents, educators and for their community have begun to yield positive outcomes. Data in this report should not be used to damage or discredit cities for their performance today, but rather to guide priorities on policies and practices that can create Loving Cities that have systems in place to improve community outcomes in the future.
This is a new day, with unique needs, which requires city leaders to behave in new ways to create systems of partnership that provide students with the care, commitment, stability and capacity to thrive. We hope to inspire a new generation of leaders to create the type of cross-sector loving systems which allow all young people, regardless of race, ethnicity or economic background to claim that they live in a loving city from birth.