05/07/2013 11:46 am ET Updated Jul 07, 2013

The Urban Advantage in Education

Nearly half the world's population now lives in urban areas. New results from PISA indicate that this could be good news for students who go to school in those areas. An "urban advantage" in student performance is evident in nearly every country and economy that participated in the PISA 2009 assessment.

PISA show that while large cities can be a challenge to educators, they are mostly a boon, particularly when all students can take advantage of the wealth of cultural and social opportunities that big cities offer. PISA results also show that schools in urban areas differ from schools in less-populated areas - in ways that are usually associated with better student performance.

On average, across OECD countries, students who attend schools in cities of more than 100 000 people perform better in PISA than students who attend schools in villages, rural areas, or towns with up to 100 000 inhabitants. This difference in performance translates to about 20 PISA score points - the equivalent of half-a-year of schooling. In many countries and economies, the performance difference between the two groups of students reflects families' decisions about housing and employment, which, in turn, influence how students' socio-economic status is distributed geographically.

In all countries and economies except for Austria, Belgium, Germany, the United Kingdom, Israel, Korea, the Netherlands and the United States, students who attend schools in urban settings come from more advantaged socio-economic backgrounds. In Denmark, on the other hand, students whose parents have high levels of education and high-status occupations are more likely to attend school in rural locations or in towns of up to 100 000 people.

But the socio-economic status of students is only one of the factors that is associated with the better performance among students who attend school in cities. These schools have certain characteristics that PISA shows are positively related to performance. Urban schools are usually larger, enjoy greater responsibility for resource allocation, are less likely to experience staff shortages, are more likely to have a higher proportion of qualified teachers, and have higher student-teacher ratios than schools in rural areas and towns, especially in partner countries and economies.

PISA also shows that in Australia, Dubai (UAE), Estonia, Iceland, Israel, Montenegro, New Zealand, Qatar and Sweden, students who attend schools in urban areas tend to enjoy a better disciplinary climate in their classes than students who attend schools in less-populated areas (though in Brazil, Mexico, Poland, the Slovak Republic, Slovenia and Tunisia, the opposite is true). In 15 countries, students who attend schools in urban settings are more likely to be able to choose among a greater number and wider range of extracurricular activities.

What this tells us is that some of the conventional wisdom about big city schools may be a little off. Given the heterogeneity of the student population, large cities might actually offer students more, not less, stimulation and inspiration; and with more autonomy in allocating resources, urban schools may be better able to meet the needs of all their students.