Urban studies

by Marilyn Achiron
Editor, Directorate for Education

To many people, the phrase “inner-city schools” is synonymous with crumbling buildings, frustrated teachers, disengaged students, truancy and violence. In some urban areas, though, city schools and the students who attend them flourish. In fact, three of the top five performers in reading in the PISA 2009 survey—Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore—are large cities. So are big cities a boon or a bane for education?

The latest edition of PISA in Focus presents new analyses suggesting that, in some countries, students in large cities—defined as those with over one million inhabitants—score on a par with their top-performing peers in PISA. For instance, students in urban areas in countries like Portugal and Israel, countries that tend to perform around the OECD average in PISA, compare favourably with students in Singapore; and the performance of students in Poland’s urban areas compares easily with that of students in Hong Kong.

But in Belgium, the United Kingdom and the United States, the performance of students in large urban areas drags down overall country scores in PISA. This might be because, in these countries, not all students can enjoy the advantages—including a rich cultural environment, more school choice and good job prospects after leaving school—that large urban centres offer. Some of these students may come from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, speak a different language at home than the one spoken at school, or have only one parent to turn to for support and assistance.

However, these new analyses of PISA data also show that an urban environment’s impact on learning is not just related to socio-economic advantage or disadvantage. Even when comparing students of similar backgrounds in OECD countries, those attending schools in urban areas in Chile, the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, Mexico and Turkey scored more than 45 points higher—the equivalent of more than one year of formal schooling—than their peers in rural schools. In Hungary, the performance gap between the two groups of students was more than 70 score points wide.

What these analyses tell us is that in order to join the ranks of PISA best-performers, countries may have to provide targeted support to isolated rural communities to ensure that students attending schools in these areas reach their full potential, while those countries whose city-based students underperform will have to figure out how to both embrace a heterogeneous student population and enable these students to tap into the cultural and social advantages that large urban areas offer.

For more information:
on PISA: www.pisa.oecd.org
PISA in Focus: Are large cities educational assets or liabilities?
Photo credit: City student / Shutterstock

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