Has low density hampered America’s educational achievement?

For decades, American high school students’ ranking in global achievement testing have been falling.  Is it possible that the very suburban communities that parents sought to help their children have actually hindered their performances, at least in aggregate?

I have a theory, and only a little circumstantial evidence.  But would welcome tips on actual studies or obtaining access to data to examine this question properly.  Here’s how the theory works:

First, there is a correlation between higher density cities and innovation (as measured by patents). It’s also widely accepted urban theory that this is because higher density places, like cities, force people to be exposed to and interact with new people, ideas and things constantly.  This makes them smarter, so the theory goes.

Second, there is a correlation between higher density cities and economic productivity. Doubling density increases productivity between 10 and 20 percent according to one study.

Third, earlier this week, Ryan Avent, pondering Ed Glaeser’s work, suggested that relocating high tech jobs from high density places like Silicon Valley to lower density locales like Raleigh may have hurt America’s economic productivity.

…is it really so strange to imagine that two decades of migration from productive cities with high average wages to less productive cities with low average wages would have a significant impact on national average labor productivity, on national wages, and on national employment and output growth? Raleigh is innovative, but one of the key’s to Raleigh’s success is the fact that its land is dirt cheap relative to the home base of many of the technology companies that have opened offices there: Silicon Valley.

So, if most American students live in lower density places than their peers in Europe and Asia, could it be possible that this–in part–is a reason for lower performance on science and math tests, which are basically a series of challenges or problems to solve.

Do children in higher density areas encounter informal problem-solving challenges far more frequently than their suburban counterparts and therefore have had more practice, more opportunity to hone their problem-solving skills?  The urban challenge may be how to communicate with someone from another country, or how to navigate a Razor scooter down a busy sidewalk, but it’s still a problem to solve. In one recent series of tests, students from rapidly growing and changing Shanghai were tops in the world. Coincidence?

If density matters for economic productivity and innovation productivity, surely it matters for education productivity.

Certainly, there are other compounding reasons why America has some catching up to do in the global education race.  But maybe a shift toward higher density living could help.  If nothing else, the college-educated, middle-class parents, who previously would have moved to suburbia in search of good schools,  might instead support new schools–or work hard to improve the existing ones–in their newer transit-oriented, higher density communities. This might benefit all children in the area, rich and poor.


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  2. JoVE says:

    I think you have raised some potentially interesting issues. I suspect there are at least 2 things at play in the US case. One is the general issue you address, and like you I’d like to see more attention paid to that.

    But it might also be muddied by the overlay of municipal funding of schools, etc. It is well known that the rise of suburbs also links to lower tax bases for urban schools and greater variation in public schools due to funding levels. And your density issue might also affect the suburban school thing though I’m not sure how.

    These are great questions. And should be raised more in the general debate about density.

  3. Wendy Waters says:

    Good points JoVe. I wonder whether higher density makes public schools more efficient economically to run?

    Certainly, more students (“customers”) in an area could also lead to more choices both from private providers and the public system. Schools could also share resources–whether a band teacher or certain equipment or specialized classroom set ups.

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