Five Miles Away, a World Apart

James E. Ryan, Five Miles Away, a World Apart: One City, Two Schools, and the Story of Educational Opportunity in Modern America (New York, NY: Oxford University Press USA, 2010)

Should we give up on school integration? Among reformers, it’s been widely abandoned as politically infeasible; why not just focus instead on raising student achievement? That’s largely the thinking that has undergirded legal and political desegregation decisions since the 1970s: “save the cities, but spare the suburbs,” as University of Virginia’s James E. Ryan puts it in his provocative new book. Using the story of two Richmond high schools (one suburban, one urban, and only five miles apart), Ryan explains that urban and suburban schools, despite a spate of court cases, remain largely disconnected. In other words, we pump resources into urban schools (save the cities) “in ways that do not threaten the physical, financial, or political independence of suburban schools” (spare the suburbs). Ryan says this strategy won’t work. As the last fifty years have demonstrated, simply pouring money into poor areas, especially into poor schools, has had little success in actually alleviating poverty or raising achievement. That’s because we have never successfully addressed the fundamental political reality of poor urban areas: Poor parents do not pressure schools to serve their children better and urban districts do not have the same political clout as suburban ones at the state and federal levels. The only way in which these “education politics” will change, concludes Ryan, is if “school districts become more diverse by race and class.” The good news is that both urban and suburban neighborhoods are becoming more diverse, thanks in part to a booming Hispanic population and increasingly tolerant views about racially diverse neighborhoods. It’s certainly an uphill and politically tricky fight, but Ryan is convinced that cities, their environs, and the school districts therein need to take advantage of this opportunity, or the achievement gap will never be closed. 

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