Temple Times Online Edition
    OCTOBER 13, 2005
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Report: Gap between school satisfaction, test scores in suburbs

Temple’s second annual Metropolitan Area Survey examined an array of issues, including attitudes about schools compared with performance.

Are suburban Philadelphians satisfied with mediocre public school performance? Recent data on regional SAT exam scores and perceptions of school quality suggest that they may be.

When asked to rate their local public schools, 82 percent of suburban households ranked them as “Very Good” or “Good.” Yet combined verbal and math SAT scores for the region’s suburban public high schools for the years 2000–2002 averaged 1011, almost exactly the national average of 1012 for all schools — city and suburban — according to Temple’s just-published Metropolitan Area Survey.

“Suburban respondents in Pennsylvania and New Jersey are giving their schools high marks when their children’s performance on the SATs is barely keeping pace with the national average, which includes many urban and rural school districts that generally score well below 1000,” said Carolyn Adams, professor of geography and urban studies at Temple and one of the principal researchers on the project.

What’s troubling, the researchers say, is that suburban New Jersey school districts (in Burlington, Camden, Gloucester and Salem counties) averaged only 996, 16 points below the national average for all schools. In the Pennsylvania suburbs (in Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties), the average SAT score was 1022.

Philadelphia residents expressed less satisfaction with their local public schools than did suburban respondents: only 27 percent of Philadelphians rated their schools as “Very Good” or “Good.” Students in Philadelphia public schools scored 831, well below the national average, as did students in Camden, whose combined scores averaged 762.

Almost half of Philadelphians regard their schools as poor, while fewer than 10 percent of non-Philadelphians hold this view.

The findings, based on analyses of U.S. census and other data and surveys of 1,000 households, are found in the 2005 report “Where We Stand: Community Indicators for Metropolitan Philadelphia.” In addition to Adams, the research team included David Bartelt and Mark Mattson of geography and urban studies; David Elesh, sociology; and Leonard LoSciuto and Peter Mulcahy of Temple’s Institute for Survey Research.

The researchers surveyed the region’s 353 municipalities to assess the social, economic and environmental quality of life in local communities, which they classified in five categories as 1) urban centers; 2) established towns; 3) stable working communities; 4) middle-class suburbs; or 5) affluent suburbs.

In a related analysis, the project found that the 20 communities with the highest-priced housing in the region had SAT scores that averaged above 1100, while the 20 communities with the lowest-housing prices had an average score of 860. The researchers suggest that both socioeconomic status and the education tax base may affect school performance, and that housing prices reflect the desires of residents for educational value as a part of their decisions about where to live.

Their survey also compares the Philadelphia region with eight other major metropolitan areas, four of which are flourishing (Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis and Phoenix), along with two older industrial areas (Detroit and Cleveland) that are similar, and two regional competitors (Baltimore and Pittsburgh). These national comparisons yielded some clues to the lagging achievement levels in the region’s public schools.

Even in many affluent communities with highly rated public schools, some 20 percent of the region’s students attend private schools — a higher proportion than in the eight other metropolitan areas with which Philadelphia was compared. Since private schools typically report higher SAT scores, it is likely that they are drawing away some high-scoring students from public schools.

“Through The Philadelphia Inquirer’s annual Report Card on the Schools and other reports like Philadelphia magazine’s recent rating of regional high schools, we give a lot of attention to comparing the school districts within our region,” Adams said, “but we should also regularly be comparing our region’s schools to national standards.”

Some good news for schools: A majority of all respondents indicated their willingness to pay higher local taxes to improve their schools. More than three-quarters of Philadelphians (77 percent) and 74 percent of residents of other urban centers would agree to pay more taxes for their schools, and smaller majorities (52 percent to 69 percent) of other types of communities appear willing to accept a tax increase to support their schools.

The report also details significant findings about the region on an array of other issues:

  • Political views: Residents of the region are almost evenly divided in calling themselves liberal, “middle of the road,” or conservative, and ideology does not seem to vary much across communities, with the exception of Philadelphia, which is significantly more liberal than the rest of the region. Similarly, Philadelphians regard property, local income and sales taxes as unfair, while residents in other communities generally regard them as fair, even their property taxes.

  • Community connectedness: Despite a commonly held view that city dwellers are less likely to be involved in their community, Philadelphians are in fact more engaged than their suburban counterparts. More citizens in Philadelphia and other urban centers sought to deal with local problems by meeting with neighbors informally, attending a block meeting or a meeting at a place of worship.

  • Employment/where the jobs are: The region’s jobs are very broadly distributed with relatively few employment centers in the suburbs. Within Philadelphia, key employment hubs are found in central and West Philadelphia, as well as in South, Southwest and Northeast Philadelphia. Major employment centers in the suburbs are located in lower and central Bucks County, along the Route 202 corridor at the juncture of Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties and in the Mount Laurel/Marlton area of Burlington County in New Jersey.

  • Employment/what the jobs are: Not surprisingly, manufacturing jobs represent just 9 percent of all jobs in the region, down from 23 percent a decade ago. Several areas of Philadelphia as well as some scattered locations on the periphery of the region remain relatively strong in manufacturing, and among comparable metropolitan areas, Philadelphia falls at a midpoint between Baltimore with the lowest manufacturing share and the cities of the Midwest (Cleveland, Detroit and Minneapolis) with the largest. Biotechnology employment totals may be “less striking” than other sectors, the researchers note, but they underscore the growth potential of the biotech and life sciences industries as strategically important to the region. Travel and tourism employment in the Philadelphia region remained at a flat 8 percent while most other metropolitan areas approached a 9 percent share.
In a special report included with the project results, conducted by researchers from Temple’s Center for Preparedness Research, Education and Practice (C-PREP), investigators Alice Hausman and Brenda Seals analyzed how prepared citizens are to confront emergencies, including natural disasters and the threat of terrorism, and their level of concern for such crises.

“Respondents appear more worried about bombings and contamination of the food and water supply, with the level of concern considerably higher in urban centers,” they reported. “Yet they express relatively high levels of confidence in being prepared to cope with a natural disaster or terrorism event — an attitude that is at odds with their actual preparedness.

“People have actually done less than half of what they could do to be prepared,” Hausman said. “They may stockpile items like food, water and batteries but ignore the need for a plan laying out where their family will go and what each will be responsible for in an emergency.”

The Metropolitan Philadelphia Indicators Project is supported with a $1.27 million grant from the William Penn Foundation.

- By Harriet Goodheart