The Nation’s Best (and Worst) Cities for School Reform

(This post also appears on Rick Hess Straight Up.)

The answer: New Orleans, Washington, D.C., New York City, Denver, and Jacksonville.

The question: Which cities are in the mix when it comes to being the “Silicon Valley” of K-12 schooling? Or, more simply: If you’re a problem-solver with some successes under your belt, where will you be most welcome?

Cities rounding out the top ten include Charlotte, Austin, Houston, Fort Worth, and San Francisco.

What’s all this about? Check out my new study, America’s Best (and Worst) Cities for School Reform: Attracting Entrepreneurs and Change Agents, coauthored with the talented Stafford Palmieri and Janie Scull and published today by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. It reports the fruits of an extensive effort to gauge reform environments by rating the nation’s 25 biggest cities (and five smaller cities touted as reform hotbeds) in the areas of human capital, financial capital, quality control, municipal environment, charter school environment, and school district environment.

Reform means many things. As I’ve long argued, I don’t believe that embracing the latest instructional, curricular, or pedagogical fad constitutes “reform.” This study starts from the premise that transformative, sustainable reform is about creating room for problem-solvers to more effectively serve students, teachers, and systems–freeing “nontraditional” providers from spending all their time and energy overcoming bureaucracies or getting permission to proceed. This is in line with my focus on creating dynamic ecosystems where ventures can leverage newly available talent and tools in smarter ways (for more on all of this, check out Education Unbound, published by ASCD this spring).

That’s not the way we usually talk about school reform, of course. Instead, we focus on test scores and graduation rates–and every once in a while someone ranks states based on data systems or statutes. While those measures are good and useful, they’re also incomplete. Though it may strike some as peculiar to rank cities on ecosystems rather than test scores, it shouldn’t. Outside of schooling, analysts gauging the best places to open or expand new ventures don’t just measure GDP or unemployment rates but routinely compare countries, states, and cities on business climate, transportation, universities, the labor market, and the legal and political environment. What’s peculiar is how little attention we devote to such considerations in schooling.

Internationally, the World Bank conducts its Doing Business report. Nationally, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce compares states on business and legal environment. Magazines routinely rank states and cities on such measures. Richard Florida has creatively and influentially ranked cities based on the appeal they hold for the “creative class.” In education, however, neither magazines nor analysts have followed this lead (an exception is the Leaders and Laggards report that the U.S. Chamber, the Center for American Progress, and I published last year).

One of the nice things about this exercise is that it broadens the focus from the school district and our fascination with heroic superintendents. Rather than obsessing about what the superintendent has done, the emphasis is on whether a confluence of forces–state law, civic leadership, philanthropy, advocacy, collective bargaining, and district reforms–have made the city a promising place for nontraditional problem solvers to demonstrate their mettle. This offers a chance to get past oversized personalities and to take a fresh look at the cities in question. While many results were consistent with what one might expect, others were not. I was surprised to see how well Jacksonville, Charlotte, and Fort Worth fared, and to see how poorly Philadelphia and San Diego did.

The metrics we used are relatively novel (at least in the world of schooling) and proved challenging to assemble. We employed a national survey of nontraditional providers and funders, obtaining an 81% response rate. We also ran a survey of targeted positional local respondents in each of the 30 cities, tallying a 61% response rate. We used third-party metrics where available. And we found ourselves coding everything from editorial page coverage in the major local paper to whether a state houses a statewide school reform advocacy organization.

Are these results inviolable? Of course not. But they can prompt smart discussions as to why a given city did or didn’t do well. The neat thing about asking professionals across the land to rate cities on various dimensions (from how focused districts are on results to the commitment of the mayor) is that it gets us past statutes, reform agendas, or test scores and into the judgments of pros who work in and with these cities. A district may think it’s focused on performance or accessible to nontraditional providers, but, if the results suggest otherwise, it should be cause for reflection. If the local business or philanthropic community thinks it is stepping up, and observers say it’s not, that would seem a good time for reassessment and reflection.

A bunch of cautions and caveats are in order (page five of the report includes a sidebar titled “Big Fat Caveat”). If you reject our starting premise, you’ll find the whole exercise problematic. Even if you buy the premise, it’s fair to question our decisions regarding particular criteria. And, if you think the criteria are on target, it’s still reasonable to argue that the various other measures are flawed or imprecise. But, for all the inevitable imperfections, I’m comfortable with how the exercise came out and think we’ve taken an important first step in helping municipal leaders, educators, and funders on a face of school reform that’s long been overlooked.

I hope you’ll find the results fresh, interesting, and good fodder for thinking about what it means to promote transformative educational improvement. And I’d be interested to hear your thoughts, reactions, and criticisms.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College