Can City Schools Address the Achievement and Opportunity Gap?

In a recent report, we looked at how public education is delivering on the promise of educational opportunity in 50 mid- to large-sized cities in the United States. The project grew out of a practical problem we encountered when studying big city school systems: in many cities, the public school “system” is actually a collection of systems: school districts (often more than one), charter schools, and even state agencies. When city enrollments are spread across multiple agencies, city leaders can struggle to see the health of schools citywide. That makes identifying problems and searching for solutions that affect all families and students harder than it should be.

So, our project looked at how well all of the schools in a city—whether they are district- or charter-governed—are serving their city’s children and how a city’s schools compare to those in other cities. Importantly, we also wanted to expand the conversation about school quality to include a range of indicators that go beyond test-scores and proficiency rates.

Results from Measuring Up: Educational Improvement and Opportunity in 50 Cities

What seemed like a simple exercise turned out to be profoundly complicated. Despite a national push around improved transparency in reporting student outcomes, the data from 27 states that we used in the report required over a year of cyclical data collection, cleaning, and reduction. Once we wove together the data, finding ways to look across cities presented its own challenges. At the end of the day, the results highlight some stark, and unfortunately, familiar challenges in urban education. Across the 50 cities:

• One-in-four students who started high school in 2009 didn’t graduate four years later. On average, around 10 percent of all high school students in 2011-12 enrolled in an advanced math course across the 50 cities.
• Only eight percent of students in the cities were enrolled in schools that “beat the odds” by outperforming schools with similar observable characteristics elsewhere in the state.
• Among city schools that performed in the bottom five percent of their state in the first year of our data, 40 percent remained stuck in the bottom five percent in the next two consecutive years of data.

The results underscore a host of academic inequities, especially for black students:

• With few exceptions, students eligible for free and reduced-priced lunch and students of color in the cities were less likely than white students to enroll in high-scoring elementary and middle schools, take advanced math courses, and take a college entrance exam.
• Achievement gaps between students eligible for free and reduced-priced lunch and their peers were present in nearly every city.
• Black students were twice as likely as white students to receive out-of-school suspensions.

This report is not the first to present evidence of deep achievement and opportunity gaps between racial and socio-economic student groups. Some view an analysis like ours and conclude that poverty and racial inequities are conditions that public school systems can’t overcome.

Inequity in education is not inevitable

That reaction is understandable, but the report also suggests that inequity is not inevitable. Some cities are addressing inequity, by finding ways to give more students access to challenging curriculum, reducing the use of disproportionate exclusionary discipline, and improving access to the best schools. For example:

• In Washington, D.C., we found that students eligible for free- and reduced price lunch enrolled in top scoring schools at around the same rates as their more advantaged peers.
• In New Orleans, Memphis, and Washington D.C., we found that no school that started in the bottom five percent in the first year of data remained in the bottom five percent for three years running.
• In Newark and Cincinnati, “beat the odds” enrollments are many times the 50-city average.

The descriptive nature of the report means we can’t say what’s behind any of these results—good or bad—but they do reinforce the progress some cities are making in addressing achievement and opportunity gaps. Researchers and policymakers need to double-down on efforts to learn from the successes—and limitations—of these bright spots.

– Michael DeArmond, Robin Lake and Ashley Jochim

Michael DeArmond is a senior research analyst at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, where Robin Lake is the director and Ashley Jochim is a research analyst. This first appeared on the Brown Center Chalkboard.

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