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Schooling in the Metropolis: A Comparative View

by Max A. Eckstein - 1972

Article describes educational problems inherent in the modern metropolis. (Source: ERIC)

Education is central to the existence of the great cities of the world, and educational problems are inherent in them. The modern metropolis is a new and peculiar type of settlement which fundamentally affects the educational activity of society.

A metropolis is not simply an overgrown city. It comprises at least one long-established city center and a large suburban expansion. Its population concentration is relatively large compared with the region or nation in which it is set. Furthermore, it dominates whole regions, even a whole nation, by its concentration of manpower, specialized skills, commerce, industry, and by its role as the control center of mass communications and government. It is usually, though not always, a capital city, but in any event, it is also part of an international network of communications: the exchange of people, skills, and ideas. It is a magnet, but also a repelling force, an importer and exporter of people and the products of their minds and behaviors. As a result, it imposes upon its inhabitants a life style which is unique in human history. This setting, already characteristic of the industrialized countries of the world, will no doubt spread to larger and larger portions of the world's population.

The changes accompanying urban growth and the emergence of the metropolitan organism produce effects upon every aspect of social organization and practice: government, the distribution of labor, social services. Not the least of these is education, for what served rural society or the nineteenth century no longer appears adequate, whether one talks of school organization, finance and policy-making, or such pedagogical matters as curriculum, instructional methods, or staffing. The variety of people and activities pressed into a large city is far greater than any particular educational institution of the past could possibly envision. The drama and impact of daily life in Paris, London, or New York are more impressive than any lesson given by the most inspiring classroom teacher. Thus the central tensions of metropolitan life bear upon school problems and educational issues in original and frustrating ways.

It is not, of course, the same the whole world over. And even if it were it is small comfort to those struggling with metropolitan problems to know that others too are facing the same difficulties. But their nature could perhaps be better understood if we accept that such problems are not bound by national borders. A comparative and international perspective may broaden our understanding of the possible alternatives and sharpen our perceptions of the relationships between events. Educational ten­sions are bound up in the flux of metropolitan processes and some of these connec­tions may be illustrated by examples from such major cities as Amsterdam, London, Paris, and New York.


Amsterdam is the smallest metropolis in this group. Nevertheless, it demonstrates the familiar pattern of big-city charac­teristics: economic diversity and concentration, a severe housing shortage, consider­able population mobility both in and out of the city and within its boundaries. Like all well-established centers, it has a magnetic power over people from all over the Netherlands and from other nations as a cultural and educational treasure house. Yet over the last decade the population of Amsterdam has been slowly declining and its proportion of those over sixty-five years old has risen. Notwithstanding the rise of tourism and other economic activities, the municipality has increasing difficulty in finding the money for its growing needs. All of these features are intertwined in a set of educational issues and problems.

In keeping with the small physical scale of the city itself and the compact nature of the nation, the primary schools of Amsterdam are rather small, at least by comparison with American cities. The average size is about 250 pupils between the ages of six and twelve years. Average class size is, however, 30.4 pupils (it was 33.4 seven years ago) with more than 20 percent of primary school classes containing over thirty-six pupils. Overcrowding is the main concern of parents and of many educa­tional administrators, and in recent years parents have become active and vociferous in educational issues. Yet the successful drive for more teachers which has been going on for several years cannot alone solve this problem. Nearly half the primary teachers in Amsterdam are under twenty-nine years of age,1 and the proportion has been gradually rising. Beginning teachers typically move out after a few years. As they marry and have children, they seek more spacious and cheaper housing which they can find only outside Amsterdam.2 In this way they escape the congestion of the city and its pollution problems and, not least important, the detrimental effects of the city environment on the young. Sex shops and an influx of hippies have changed the face of Amsterdam in the last few years. As a colleague said to me, "Is this any place to raise a child?"

Teacher mobility is, then, an important cause of teacher shortage even where, as often happens, older teachers (over fifty) return to the system. Teachers, characteristically concerned with superior education for their own children, are inclined to move back into or near Amsterdam when their offspring approach college entrance age in order to be near the major and most prestigious institutions of higher learning. In this, as in other respects, the drawing power of the metropolis is evident. But in recent years the annual rate of teacher turnover has been about 25 percent, and to maintain continuity and improve quality in education remains a serious question.

Yet it is not merely in staffing the schools that geographical mobility causes problems. As even the casual tourist may see, much reconstruction is taking place in the old center of Amsterdam. Long established residential pockets are also being displaced in the surrounding city areas, predominantly nineteenth-century housing, where rebuilding for commercial as well as residential use is extensive. Thus while it receives some of those displaced from the old center, the surrounding residential ring is also sending many to the suburbs beyond the administrative boundaries of Amsterdam. The peripheral areas at the receiving end of this centrifugal movement of people are hard put to provide the necessary services for the numbers and variety of their new residents. Mobility of pupils as well as of teachers prevents continuity in the educational sequence and threatens the quality of schooling.

The public and the school administration of Amsterdam concern themselves with class size (parent organizations have set their target as twenty-five pupils per class) and with increasing the supply of teachers. However, a sizeable group of educators is attacking an intricate pattern of social-cum-educational problems in Amsterdam. Two concerns are prominent here: first, the desire to modernize and to innovate (some would say to rationalize) school structures and instructional methods; second, to break into the cycle of deprivation and poor school performance made increas­ingly visible by intra-city mobility. Both are, of course, as much ideological and political issues as educational problems.

In this connection, the municipality provides extra assistance to schools in de­prived neighborhoods in order to increase the number of teachers (the average class size in such areas has been reduced to about 20.3 pupils) and to provide new and additional teaching materials. Teachers are encouraged to depart from the conven­tional and more uniform textbooks and to develop materials more appropriate to the children and the communities in which they live. There is a noticeable move towards less structured and traditional approaches at various places. The ideas of the open classroom, individualized teaching, and integrated instruction are being dis­seminated and in-service teacher courses are devoted to such subjects as the Nuffield mathematics and activity methods. One of Amsterdam's municipal school inspectors observed that it is in the youthfulness of the city's teacher cadre that the hopes for improvement and reform reside. They are not only numerous, he noted, but more flexible and energetic, coming from their teacher training institutions full of ideas. Moreover, they possess a wider range of experiences and more alternatives than previous generations of teachers.

Support for innovation comes from several agencies. Though limited in its resources, an office of instructional services seeks practical ways to build upon this "atmosphere of innovation." Through professional meetings, formal and informal conferences, and study groups, and in collaboration with the educational research institute attached to the University of Amsterdam, efforts are made to define and provide the necessary services to deal with the associated problems of school and home. In the village, it was observed, the school and the home are physically and culturally close; but in the city they are separated not merely by distance, but by the intervention of many other forces. What is needed, and a beginning is just being made, is social insight and specially trained personnel to make the connections between children at school and in their homes. At the same time, teachers must develop new sociopsychological understanding and pedagogical skills. One major research institution is conducting a demonstration action-research project in three primary schools in which considerable resources will be invested to reorder the schoolhouse from top to bottom. Another important project involves longitudinal study of a large sample of primary school children from different social backgrounds in order to examine the relationships among school, community, and pedagogical factors.

At the national policy-making level, the move to introduce a new law which would unify primary and kindergarten schools may be regarded as recognition of the crucial significance of early educational experience for all, but especially for the young in economically and culturally deprived circumstances. It also points out the need to articulate such experiences with the subsequent phases of the school system. In the city of Amsterdam, with its old educational and cultural riches, big-city pressures combine to force re-examination and change in long-standing patterns of educational practice.


At first glance London differs sharply from Amsterdam, even though it is, similarly, a city whose influence spreads well beyond its own national borders. While Amsterdam is small and compact, London sprawls. Whereas Amsterdam grew outwards from its old center by a process of planned land reclamation, London spread like flood waters in every possible direc­tion, first finding the easiest channels for expansion and then engulfing small towns and villages within its compass. The green belt which was to have set some outer limit to London's growth is roughly fifteen miles from the center. But the built-up residential areas where commuters live extend well beyond it. The former County of London no longer suffices as a rational unit for governing the metropolis and since 1965 has been incorporated into the Greater London Council (GLC), covering some 616.4 square miles with about seven and three-quarter million inhabitants.

For all its size London retains two features indicative of its special nature as a metropolis: first, its parks, extensively used and proudly kept even in the heart of the city; second, its neighborhoods. As one moves away from the theatre and shopping centers of the West End and the commercial and financial districts of the City, the distinctive characters of different residential communities become appar­ent. And it is these two features, the spread (encompassing heterogeneity) and the localism (encouraging homogeneity), which are at the root of London's educational scene.

The Inner London Educational Authority governs the schools for over four hundred thousand pupils. Like other local educational authorities in England, it has traditionally had considerable autonomy, though unlike many it has also long en­joyed a liberal and progressive reputation. Though a large bureaucratic organization, it has encouraged innovation and has been tolerant of diversity. It has also been sensitive to those social and economic differences within the city that impose special problems on the educational system. The ILEA was early in developing comprehen­sive secondary schools and extensive evening programs for further education. For all its efforts, though, London is more seriously concerned than ever before about both its teachers and its pupils.

The supply of teachers was so inadequate some years ago that a rationing system was devised to distribute fully qualified personnel fairly among London's school districts. The situation appears to have eased, and the quota system now serves to set minimum standards. The shortage, however, has not entirely abated. The turn­over of teachers is extensive (about 18 percent in 1969), and a large proportion of the teaching cadre is relatively young (42 per cent under twenty-nine years of age).3 The average primary classroom size is 26.2 pupils but the range is wide and primary classes with forty children are not uncommon. The mobility of teachers is a serious matter, for, as in Amsterdam, well-qualified young teachers are attracted to London and have little difficulty in obtaining posts. A recent study showed, in fact, that science and mathematics teachers in London possess qualifications well above the national average. However, many do not stay very long. Industry may attract the scientists by higher salaries, and the suburbs attract young teachers irrespective of subject or level of instruction as they begin to raise their own families. The extra salary increment (the London allowance) does not compensate for the fact that house prices are, on the average, £2000 higher in London than outside it.

Intra-city mobility of teachers is also considerable, but in this teachers are no different from others. The entire population of the metropolis is highly mobile because of changing expectations and patterns of employment, housing shortages, and upheaval due to urban redevelopment on a large scale. London too is a magnet for people from all over the British Isles and abroad, and immigration is itself a stimulus to more mobility within the city and from it. Neighborhoods changing under the influx of East and West Indian migrants are a prominent part of the London scene. Thus pupils, as well as teachers, within the ILEA are highly mobile.

While London retains its reputation and drawing power due to its wealth and variety of educational institutions, it no longer prides itself for consistently high standards in public education. Standardized achievement testing in the primary schools has shown a decline in pupil performance on the average, and a high correlation between achievement and socioeconomic background of pupils and of schools. Li its own internal research, London demonstrates similar patterns to those shown in the Coleman study in the United States and sees that its own problems are not remote from those of major American cities.

It is in large cities that social and economic conditions most dramatically and oppressively combine to inhibit effective schooling. The poor and the immigrant embody a set of society's unsolved problems, and the schools, in England as else­where, are expected to spearhead efforts to ameliorate them. About 15 percent of the children in the public schools of Inner London are immigrants themselves or children of recent immigrants. In some districts they may comprise 20 to 25 percent, and in some schools an even larger proportion of the population.4 Compensatory efforts ("positive discrimination," as it was called in the Plowden Report on primary education) have grown and will no doubt continue. Extra money, staffing, materials, and services are provided and new projects are common, and it is possible that more of this will help. Teacher centers which are being established in each London district with strong support from the administration provide instructional resources, a cen­ter for discussion and debate, and a place for in-service study. But whether these efforts are pursued with enthusiasm, cynicism, or apathy (and all these are to be found in London as well as in New York or Philadelphia), all agree that positive results will be long in coming and that without the integration of efforts from other social service agencies, the schools can have only limited effects.

London, then, undoubtedly has greatness as a metropolis. It is a world city which dominates its own nation and where events take place that determine affairs all around the globe. It possesses some of the greatest treasures available to men, to delight their minds and their senses. Great cultural wealth, powerful educational forces, and outstanding schools are collected in London. But so too are poverty and the web of social constraints which prevent large minorities from making use of those facilities to improve the quality of their own existence. In this sense, London is the prototype of the modern metropolis.


Paris, on the other hand, as many French­men will avow, is unique. It is the heart of metropolitan France. It does not so much differ from France as represent the distillation of all that is superior. In reply to the question, how does public education in Paris differ from that of the rest of the country, the initial reply is, "II n'y a aucune difference!" In one sense, this is quite true. Because the national system is highly centralized, in principle such matters as teacher training and qualifications, curricula, pupil requirements for given levels, and types of schooling are standard throughout the nation. But there are differences, imposed upon the system by the demographic, social, and cultural facts of life. Some are metropolitan phenomena common to all modern industrial societies; some are peculiar to France.

The Paris agglomeration possesses over 16 percent of the nation's total popula­tion, a quarter of its "fonctionnaires," a third of its large businesses. The professions and the arts are disproportionately represented: one-third of all students and two-thirds of all artists and men of letters are to be found in Paris. An appointment to the capital will normally be seen as the apogee of a career in the civil service or in teaching. The Parisian is rewarded not simply by living there, but also by having at his disposal all the jewels in France's crown. Differences do exist, but in a nation which has enjoyed the longest history in Europe of a centralized government exert­ing extensive power within essentially unchanging national boundaries, it is difficult to detect their influence upon educational phenomena.

However, inferences may be drawn from a number of general facts. In the six years from 1962-68, the population of the city of Paris has declined by 7.1 percent, while its suburbs have grown by over a quarter. Immigration from North Africa and Southeast Asia, though now reduced, has been so extensive in the recent past that ethnic neighborhoods have developed in the city (though in 1969 the largest group of immigrants was from Portugal). Paris, while it is an advantaged place, neverthe­less has a goodly share of the disadvantaged, that is the immigrant from non-European cultures and the poor. In the short run too, the problem is complicated by the social and economic disjunctions caused by extensive urban renewal on a regional basis, especially the attempts to counteract the overwhelming dominance of Paris by decentralizing commerce, industry, and housing.5

Against this backdrop, the educational facts require close scrutiny. With all its assets and concentration of prestigious institutions, one might expect the Paris school system to rate highly in comparison with other regions of France on measures of educational quality and attainment. Most informants insist that Paris is best. While it does appear that Parisian teachers on the whole have slightly better creden­tials for the posts they hold than the national average, other indicators of success place Paris in the middle range. In the public examinations and admissions to selective programs of study at various levels, rates for Parisian students are neither high nor low compared with the other parts of France. The picture is, of course, not clearcut. Wide-ranging national reforms in education have not yet been completed, and their results are obscure. In particular, the efforts to expand opportunity and improve facilities have probably had greater impact outside Paris where the need was greater. National policy, moreover, has always been sensitive to the need to spread rewards equitably throughout the country. For all these reasons comparisons must be tentative.

Despite all the evidence, there is apparently as yet no official response within the Paris school system to the metropolitan facts of life. True there is the organizational attempt to decentralize higher education by expanding institutions around Paris and further afield. There is a growing body of literature on social problems, directed at informing policy on urban development. But the public forums, adaptations, and innovations, with which the residents of London and New York are so familiar, have not yet engaged the attention of the Parisian community.

New York

New York, as any visitor will insist and as residents increasingly admit, demonstrates the stresses and the evils of unremit­ting urban dynamism to a high degree: bureaucratization and balkanization in the city's administration on the one hand, deterioration of basic services (sanitation, transportation, social services, housing, police, and the courts) on the other. Migra­tion from other cities and from rural areas continues, adding to the number of the poor, under-educated, and unskilled, while the flight to the suburbs and beyond continues, draining the city of the skilled, the aspiring middle class, and business capital. Private incomes, though still relatively high in New York, are less and less adequate to meet the costs of living which have been rising faster than in most other parts of the nation; public costs are soaring so that the city is hard put to find funds to maintain, let alone improve, necessary services. Add to these ingredients such factors as heightened ethnic tensions and unbearable environmental deterioration, and the result is a web of circumstances which, many say, makes the city ungoverna­ble and unimprovable. Certainly, as compared with other cities, the quality of life in New York is very poor.

New York City now contains a population of a little over 8 million, but the urban agglomeration, with over 16 million, ranks as the largest population in the world. While the total numbers have increased only slightly in recent years, the ethnic and geographical distributions within and around the city have changed appreciably. The population of Manhattan has decreased while that of other boroughs and the suburban areas has grown considerably. Migration, ethnic heterogeneity, and ethnic ghettos are well established features of New York City's demographic history. What may be new is the extent to which the center of the city has been left to the very wealthy and the very poor who are largely, though not exclusively, Black and Puerto Rican.

New Yorkers pay almost one-fifth of all income taxes collected by the Federal government, and account for some 5Vi percent of the nation's job total. Unemploy­ment rates in New York City have fluctuated about half a percentage point above or below the national average over the last few years, yet pockets of high unemploy­ment in the large ghetto areas, the growth of welfare rolls, and the increase in the number of families which are third generation welfare recipients all point to the seriousness of economic deprivation amidst great wealth. The out-migration not only of middle-class families, but also of industrial and commercial concerns does not brighten prospects for the future.

The dimensions of the school system are themselves awe-inspiring. About 1.1 million pupils attend over 900 public schools at an average per capita cost of some $1,330 per year. (This does not include some one-third of a million pupils in Catholic schools and another estimated 95,000 in other private and parochial schools.) Blacks and Puerto Ricans are a majority in the public schools of New York accounting for 33.6 percent and 22.2 percent respectively of the city's total school register.6 Given the linguistic problems of migrants, whether from non-English speaking back­grounds or from the rural south, and the cultural problems of integration, it is small wonder that schooling in the inner city is the leading obsession of all connected with public policy and education, indeed with the public at large. The quality of schooling generally and the success of schools in maintaining adequate levels of achievement are both seen to be deteriorating. While local issues (changes in school administra­tion and levels of policy making) are important, they are surrounded by more general national social and political tensions. Student demonstrations, random violence, and vandalism are so common that schools and teachers are demanding an increase in daily police protection. Not for the first time in the history of the United States, the schools are a microcosm of local and national strife and tension—ideological, politi­cal, economic, and social.

Notwithstanding all the dissension, disorder, and even deterioration of the city school system, the shortages in qualified teaching staff of several years ago have been eased. Two factors probably account for the city's ability to find teachers: a relatively high pay scale, and a considerable strengthening in the morale and sense of unity of the teaching cadre (represented by the growth and success of the United Federa­tion of Teachers). Of the 75,000 or so teachers in the city, only a small proportion (about 5 percent) lack full qualifications for the posts they hold (a little below the New York State average and about the same as the national average) and most are locally trained (about 57 percent in the City University of New York). However, teachers are quite young and mobility is quite high.7 Some 32 percent are under 25 years of age (in New York State the figure is 27 percent while the national average is 16.2 percent), yet about 60 percent have over three years of teaching experience in New York City, suggesting a perhaps surprising holding power. Nevertheless, though the number of teaching posts the city provides may be filled, there is still a shortage of teachers if one uses average class size as an indicator (New York City —27, New York State—20.4, United States—22.7).

The quality of teachers is, of course, less easy to identify. Formal qualifications are high compared with the rest of the nation, and comparable with, if not better than, other large cities. However, public judgments of the quality of teachers are increasingly based on pupil performance rather than on teacher credentials (or even teacher performance). The call for "teacher accountability" is a direct result of the knowledge that pupil achievement in standardized tests of reading, comprehension, and mathematics is (on the average for the city school system) below the national norms and that in the higher grades of compulsory schooling the gap is even greater than in the lower grades. While this fact is evidence of serious failings, it says little about the successful students. High achievers are no doubt at least as numerous and as successful in New York as in other parts of the country. But it is the failings which test the energies of teachers and the efforts of the school system and excite public criticism and pressure. From these have come heavily subsidized programs such as Headstart, More Effective Schools, and Project Discovery, to mention some of the better known attempts to ameliorate school conditions, and a host of smaller but noteworthy efforts. While each of these has had its successes, their effectiveness in improving the school system at large is questionable.

Comparative Perspective      

The four cities described are in many respects quite different from one another. Factors such as size, social and ethnic composition, and economy, as well as unique national settings and history, distinguish each of these world cities. Yet they have in common the strong links between their educational problems and the broader metropolitan processes— demographic, economic, social, and political—at work within them. Mobility of teachers, pupils, and entire social groups lies at the center of one group of school problems. Closely connected is the combination of great economic and social heterogeneity with increasingly homogeneous enclaves, another peculiarly met­ropolitan phenomenon creating serious difficulties for school systems. The dimen­sions differ, of course, but whether in New York or in relatively minuscule Amsterdam, it becomes more and more evident that such educational problems as staffing the school, maintaining satisfactory levels of pupil achievement, and secur­ing "quality schooling" for all are not amenable to school-based solutions alone. They can be approached successfully only by a comprehensive array of social and educational agencies and expertise.

While there are similarities in the social conditions and the educational problems, the patterns of response by city governments and educational systems do differ from country to country. Cities may be hamstrung by existing administrative arrange­ments. They may be restricted or aided by the degree to which they are subject to regional or national control. Their responses may depend on the extent to which they are politically progressive or open to local initiatives. The degree to which the public voice is heard in educational matters is probably an important factor. Clearly, public approval or criticism of the schools is an excellent barometer of the social climate of the metropolitan community. And when it falls low enough, the barometer is held responsible for the weather. If the readings (or reading scores) fall, they will be criticized, which encourages tampering with the instrument. This may be necessary, but it may not be central to solving the problem.

Efforts to maintain stability in metropolitan school systems and to improve them appear to be valiant and extensive in many places, but remain intellectual before a rising tide of demographic and social change. We need to acquire a greater capacity to forecast change and a more profound understanding of how conditions in large cities interact with educational forms and functions. The central distinction of the modern metropolis is its traffic in goods and services, in people and ideas. But those very qualities that attract serve also to diminish the city's capacity to satisfy all those who must be served. The promise of the metropolis is infinite, but as the city grows big the promise cannot easily be fulfilled. And big-city school problems will not be solved until we develop and execute policies in which the management of educational change is at the center of plans for economic and social improvement on a metropoli­tan scale.


1   Sixty-four percent of primary teachers are women; 46 percent of them and 43.8 percent of the men are under thirty.

2   There is a national salary scale for teachers based on age and qualifications. Unlike London, for example, there is no cost of living increment for Amsterdam's teachers.

3   About 70 percent of London's teachers are female. Forty-nine percent of these and 30 percent of the men are under twenty-nine years of age.

4   West Indians are the largest group by far, comprising 56 percent of London's immigrant pupils.

5   Perhaps the best-known example is the removal of the central markets, Les Halles, to the outskirts of the city.

6   Officials statistics give the Black community about 15 percent of the city's total population (probably underestimated).

7   About 15 percent. Pupil mobility is at the rate of 11 percent.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 73 Number 4, 1972, p. 507-518
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1602, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 5:10:47 AM

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About the Author
  • Max Eckstein
    Queens College, C.U.N.Y.
    Max A. Eckstein is professor of education at Queens College, C.U.N.Y. Together with Harold J. Noah, professor of economics and education at Teachers College, he is engaged in a comparative research study of "Metropolitanism and Education," sponsored by the Institute of Philosophy and Politics of Education at Teachers College under a grant from the Ford Foundation.
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