Achievement in Urban Schools

Christopher B. Swanson and Michael Casserly discussed what the research tells us about education reform in cities, achievement gaps, and the road ahead for urban schools.

May 5, 2008

Achievement in Urban Schools

  • Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, and
  • Christopher Swanson, director of the EPE Research Center.

Sterling Lloyd (Moderator):

Welcome to today’s live chat with Michael Casserly, Executive Director of the Council of the Great City Schools, and Christopher Swanson, Director of the EPE Research Center.

Our guests are set to answer your questions on urban education. Let’s begin the discussion.

Question from Sadie Flucas, Exec Dir, Builiding Capacity for Positive Change:

Do higher test scores mean that students are becoming “educated"; or more that, as the results of the extensive amount of time being spent in test prep (including learning test-taking techniques), they are becoming better test takers.

Michael Casserly:

Sadie--No, I do not think that test scores are the same as being “educated” in its broadest sense. And being “educated, conversely, doesn’t really mean that one is likely to score higher on standardized tests. There is considerable pressure now being placed on schools to raise test scores, in part, because these measures are the only thing that many policymakers and people in the press trust when we claim that our students are doing better. While there is more test prep than there used to be--in both urban schools and suburban schools--I wouldn’t necessarily discount that our urban students are doing better academically than they used to. Thank you for your question.--Mike

Question from Daniel A. Rabuzzi, National Program Director, National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship (

As an organization working primarily in urban schools, NFTE is concerned that a narrow focus on standardized testing may shunt aside other forms of learning, e.g., the arts, social studies, and, yes, entrepreneurship. Given the testing mandates, how best can schools include all kinds of learning in their curricula? Thank you.

Michael Casserly:

Daniel--Thank you for your question. Our urban schools seem to be doing much better in the core subjects of reading and math than they were a few years ago, but we have a long way to go before we are really proud of our results. It also appears to be true that some of this emphasis on reading and math may have squeezed out other vital content areas. We are as concerned about this as you are. Many of our school districts are doing several things in response. Some districts are putting more emphasis on their afterschool programs and how they use art, music, and other subjects. Other districts are working to blend reading and math into their other subjects--both as a way of making sure that students see the connections and as a way of building skills across the board. Hope this helps. You have a good organization, by the way. --Mike

Question from Richard Moore, retired school librarian:

How does that 50% compare with the grad rate one, two, three decades ago? Do you know?

According to census reports overall grad rates have improved every decade for 100 years.

Christopher B. Swanson:

My research uses data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Common Core of Data (CCD), which most researchers would agree is the most comprehensive national source of information currently available on high school graduation. With the CCD, it is possible to go back to the early 1990s (or so) with confidence in the reliability of the data. Based on that information, what we see nationwide is a drop to around 66 percent in the early 1990s, some fluctuation and then a gradual climb to about 70 percent in our most recent data. We haven’t performed the same urban/suburban breakdown as appeared in Cities in Crisis.

As a general caveat: I would caution care when looking at rates based on the Census Bureau, since they often measure educational attainment in the adult population. That’s very different than the public school graduation rates reported in our work.

Question from Durwin Sharp, parent, Houston ISD:

What do you think of rewarding teachers (e.g., up to $7,000) for increased student performance at all levels?

Michael Casserly:

Thank you for your question, Durwin. I generally think the idea of rewarding teachers for extra-effective work has merit. But, like many people, I worry about how to do it. The data systems are not yet in place to make these kinds of reward systems viable, accurate, or fair. For the moment, the best reward systems appear to be school-based. My other concerns, on a practical level, involves what happens when the school district experiences budget cuts and can’t pay the bonuses--even when student achievement goes up. There are still lots of bugs to work out, but I haven’t dismissed the concept out of hand.--Mike

Question from Amy Lovell, CEO, Center for Truancy and Dropout Prevention (new mexico):

Based on the most recent research and findings, is it fair to state that achieving and/or performing to tests, does not ensure graduation? What may be of more importance is parental, familial and commUNITY engagement providing the right support that in turn increases test performance and protective factors supporting good decisions which include graduating from high school?

Michael Casserly:

Thank you for your question, Amy. I think it is fair to say that higher test scores do not ensure high school graduation. The truth is that we are not seeing much gain in either one, however. We are seeing improvements at the elementary school level, but they are not yet showing up in a systemic way at the secondary level. I agree with you completely that parental, family, and community involvement is critical if our students are going to do well. I hope you can help us with all of that. Thank you.


Question from Marty Solomon, Lexington Kentucky:

Question for Chris Swanson: Your recent study of the 50 largest cities claimed to “measure” dropout rates. But when digging into your report, you have actually computed the “probability” of a 9th grader actually completing high school. Since the probability of graduating is not at all the same as actual graduation rates, how can you claim that you have measured dropouts?

Secondly, you estimate that about 70% of high school kids graduate, but the latest NCES report 2007-024 estimates an 87% high school completion rate. Can you explain that? Christopher B. Swanson:

I would like to first clarify that Cities in Crisis (and other work from the EPE Research Center) focuses on public high school graduation rates, not dropout rates. That might seem, to some, like a fine hair to split. But those who follow the debates in this area, know that dropout rates are not the inverse of graduation rates. The situation tends to be more complicated than that. While the Cumulative Promotion Index (CPI) indicator that we use to measure graduation rates is an estimate, that would be true of the vast majority of the graduation statistics you find reported by the states or federal government.

NCES (the National Center for Education Statistics) released a number of reports that include various ways to measure graduation and dropout rates (some calculated by NCES using educational data and others based on Census Bureau data). I do not know off the top of my head which NCES report and statistics you are referencing. But NCES’s new “official” method for calculating public high school graduation rates (the Average Freshman Graduation Rate – or AFGR, for those of you who like a little alphabet soup) comes much closer to our CPI results than the statistic cited in your question.

Question from Elie Gaines, Administrative Intern, Grayhawk Elem, Scottsdale, AZ:

Why are students scoring higher on state and national tests and then not graduating from high school, or find they are required to enroll in remedial, college-level courses? Is it that state standards and tests are better aligned and perhaps expectations are easier to meet, that teachers are teaching to the test rather than to a comprehensive, defined, research-based curriculum and students are required to develop a deep understanding of content, or perhaps that scoring methods have been adjusted to the ability of today’s student?

Michael Casserly:

Thank you, Elie. What a great question. And you offer a number of viable hypotheses. For one thing, I think the research is better on how to improve reading and math achievement for elementary students than it is for secondary ones. We still know precious little about how to improve adolescent literacy, for instance. There may be alignment problems, as you suggest, but if that were the case one might see better secondary achievement in states with better alignment and I’m not sure that’s the case. I suspect the heart of the problem lies in one of your questions--that is, elementary students aren’t making the bridge between basic skills instruction in the early grades and more complex subject matter in the late elementary and early secondary grades. There is more and more evidence to suggest that students’ access to more complex vocabulary and comprehension skills is not happening, so students will find themselves behind more often than not when they hit the ninth grade level. At that point, if students slip behind in any core course their chances of dropping out are extremely high. My personal feeling is that we need much more research and much more instructional emphasis on these late elementary and early secondary grades rather than so much attention to rearranging the structure of high schools per se. Hope that helps a little. A great question. Thank you. --Mike

Question from Belvin Liles, Director, Highland Park Career Academy, Highland Park, MI:

Does the study take into account the various social situations that preclude urban students from graduation? If not, graduation rates will continue to drop.

Christopher B. Swanson:

The Cities in Crisis report does not look directly at the various social, economic and educational factors that affect the graduation rate. The report documents very low graduation rates in the urban cores of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas and stark urban-suburban divides in many of those regions. These patterns mirror, in many ways, the city-suburb gaps historically found in educational research, across a variety of outcomes, including tested achievement. And we can likely attribute to the graduation gaps to many of the same factors, principal among them high rates of poverty, crime and other social problems, legacies of socioeconomic and racial segregation, and chronically underperforming and under-supported school systems.

The underlying factors that created these city-suburb gaps have been around for a long time. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t be changed. But it’s hard to generate motivation for change if people don’t know (or forget) that these disparities exits. One of our hopes is that research such as Cities in Crisis will raise the profile of the graduation challenges being faced in many communities around the nation.

Question from B. Bailey:

Please describe the common characteristics of successful urban schools.

Michael Casserly:

Thank you for your question. I think successful urban schools--or maybe faster improving urban schools--are often marked by a clear sense of direction, explicit goals, coherent, well-aligned, differentiated and rigorous curriculum, focused professional development, caring staff and involved parents, clear accountability for results, a well thought-through strategy for working with the lowest achieving students--and lots of focus.--Mike

Question from Andrew Forbes, Writing Coordinator, Berkeley College:

Is it safe to assume that in response to standardize testing and testing overall, today’s generation of students feel unmotivated to invest the time necessary to obtain a high school diploma?

Christopher B. Swanson:

I wouldn’t draw that connection, at least not in a very direct way. It’s true that since the 1980s (or so) we have seen the rise of stronger state and (more recently) federal accountability systems. Testing, of course, tends to be a major part of those systems, if not very nearly the whole ball of wax. Some have argued that high-stakes, one way or another, tends to drive down graduation rates. One of those ways might involve lessening student motivation.

However, others argue (and I would tend to agree) that the situation is more complex than that. Although states might introduce stronger accountability, this is often accompanied by programs and other efforts that are intended to provide students with additional supports to help them achieve to the higher expectations being set. Does that always happen exactly as planned? Probably not. But my reading of the research literature on accountability suggests that high-stakes accountability doesn’t have a consistent effect on high school completion (in either direction).

I would also add that when you look at national surveys of high school students conducted over the past three or four decades, student aspirations have consistently risen. So, at some level, students get that finishing high school is important to their future. The real challenge for educational leaders is understanding what might lead students who wants and expects to earn a diploma to dropout instead, and to provide the supports necessary to keep those students in school and on track.

Question from Nick Wilson, Behavior Specialist, Harrisburg School District, PA:

How much emphasis do successful urban school districts put on School-wide positive behavior support programs and school culture given this era of high stakes testing?

Michael Casserly:

Good question, Nick. In my opinion, many urban schools--and maybe many others--don’t put enough emphasis on positive behavior support programs when there is clear evidence that they can have a beneficial impact. We often see these programs used in special education programs, but we don’t see them often enough in the general education setting, particularly in the early grades where they could really make a difference. I’m a big supporter of these programs. --Mike

Question from Diane Proctor, first grade teacher, Providence, RI:

Some high schools in urban areas reported proficiency rates as low as 3, 2, even 1 percent, a troubling indication of the low level of math instruction occurring in those schools and the weak preparation many low-income and minority students receive in elementary and middle school.What can we do to improve the teaching and learning in schools when we have so many low-income and minority students coming in and expecting to graduate without the proper preparation?

Michael Casserly:

Thank you for your question, Diane. The proficiency rates of too many of our high school students are way too low. I think the critical challenge for urban schools starts well before high school. We have still not translated how to boost the achievement of our students beyond the basic skills in a way that creates better access to academic vocabulary and more complex conceptual skills. The research on how to do this continues to be very thin. We also have a resource and staffing issue, but that doesn’t help you at the first grade level. In the early elementary grades, I would put a combined effort on your students’ basic reading skills but also on their conceptual and understanding--as early as you can do it. --Mike

Question from Rochelle Gutierrez, Associate Professor in Curriculum and Instruction, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign:

A focus on the achievement gap (which many of us refer to as “gap gazing”) offers little more than a static picture of inequities; supports deficit thinking and negative narratives about students of color and working-class students; perpetuates the myth that the problem (and therefore solution) is a technical one; ignores the data we have from successful schools and places that build excellence in such students; and promotes a narrow definition of learning and equity. So, how can educators and researchers make sense of your findings in ways that move beyond this “gap” focus?

Christopher B. Swanson:

I have to admit that sometimes I do feel like a constant bearer of bad news. The nature of much of the work that we do at the EPE Research Center is descriptive in nature. And, more generally, we view providing accessible and objective data on key educational issues as a key piece part of our mission and a way we can make a contribution to the field.

My experience is that while researchers who study these disparities in detail or educators who live the reality day-in and day-out are familiar with the storyline, that’s not necessarily the case for the more casual observers of the public schools, parents without access to reliable information, or even policymakers. Data of the kind we produce, although it may repeatedly paint a rather gloomy picture, provides those latter groups with a helpful grounding in the nature and scope of a problem and can also help to generate demand for change. It’s also my experience that policymakers are more likely to act if they see these kinds of results repeatedly.

But I would agree that “defining the problem” is only the first step. So we do hope that researchers, educators, and other leaders will explore these issues further to help identify promising solutions and “break-the-mold” schools that succeed despite challenges.

Question from Darla Beamon, Instructional Coach, Lowell Elementary:

Since we know that you cannot put a Band-Aid on this, what in your opinion is the most beneficial act that an urban school can do to decrease the achievement gap, and increase the number of students graduating from high school?

Michael Casserly:

Thanks, darla. Great question but hard to answer in a simple sentence because there is no one thing that a school can do to decrease the achievement gaps or to improve the number of students graduating from high school. Many urban school districts are using more multi-pronged strategies with each of these issues. To address both issues, I would suggest putting much more emphasis on developing better student access to academic vocabulary and comprehension in the earliest grades and on recruiting and retaining the most effective and highest quality teachers. I would love to suggest that these issues are solved by buying some off-the-shelf program, but the truth is that these problems are much more systemic--and much less programmatic. --Mike

Question from Kathy von Duyke, PhD student, Univ. of Delaware:

Are there any researchers looking at and isolating educational theories that may address the thinking styles and emotional complexities of kids living in poverty?

Is there a way to restructure schools to incorporate and bridge to these styles and complexities?

Michael Casserly:

Thank you, Kathy. I am still not confident that there is much of a link between “thinking styles” and the academic achievement of students at any grade level. Consequently, I suspect there is not much of a way to restructure a high school based on “thinking styles"--and probably not the point. In general, there is not much evidence--yet--that restucturing high schools boost achievement unless you couple the reforms with an explicit instructional strategy.--Mike

Question from Julia Cline, Dir. of Education, ProMusica Chamber Orchestra:

Has involvement in school arts/music programs shown to have any connection to the graduation rate?

Christopher B. Swanson:

The benefits of participating in arts and music programs have often been discussed, as has the narrowing of the curriculum (and extracurriculum) that many see as an by-product of high-stakes accountability systems where most of the weight is focused on a limited number of subjects.

Cities in crisis doesn’t examine the effects of arts/music programs or extracurriculars on graduation rates. However, years ago in some of my first research, I did a lot of work on this very issue. I found that extracurriculars (music/arts among them) had a strong beneficial effect on academic outcomes such as graduating from high school, college attendance, and getting into a more competitive college. And that was after first taking into account the effects of a variety of other factors, including performance on achievement tests.

Question from Terry Gates, President/CEO, The Hoenny Center, St. Louis:

Why did the Council of the Great Cities Schools drop the Urban Teaching Academy Program (UTAP)? Even though your collaborator Recruiting New Teachers is no longer around, I was disappointed that the Council didn’t keep it going in some form or other.

Michael Casserly:

Great question, Terry. The short answer is that the grant ran out, but I share your disappointment because we learned a great deal about how to recruit teachers. We also learned a whole lot about how to grow our own teachers. You have spurred me to see if we could bring it back. Thank you so much. --Mike

Question from Evelyn Cruz, Teacher, Long Branch High School:

Excellent report! I am interested in this dilemma as my possible dissertation topic. I have not read “Cities in Crisis” but I will look into it as soon as I finish sending these questions. Who are the students whose scores are increasing? Are they the same students who are not graduating from high school? I am predicting that this is not the case. Are the students who are not graduating from high school, low socioeconomic and Hispanic students? Are their (low socioeconomic and Hispanic students’) scores staying the same and/or decreasing while the “other” students testing scores increase? Is testing just another method of distinguishing the “have and the have not” in our society?

Michael Casserly:

Thanks, Evelyn. I assume that you are referring to our “Beating the Odds” report. The report tracks the performance of students at each grade level on state reading and math tests. We also aggregate the results for just the fourth and eighth grade students, since these are such critical benchmark grades. We seem to be showing improvements in fourth grade reading and math, and eighth grade math. Our eighth grade reading results are more questionable. The state data suggest that we are improving.; the NAEP data says we are not. This eighth grade reading data are critical because the research is pretty clear that if students are not reading well in the early secondary grades, then they are really going to struggle at the high school level--probably even drop out. The other part of your question seems to be asking about the gaps. Our data suggests that the low-income and African American students are actually improving the fastest. --Mike

Question from Margaret Sorensen, PhD Candidate, Walden University:

I wonder if you could comment on disparities between schools within urban systems? It seems that a part of the problem is getting the right resources to the kids with greatest need--something we don’t always do very well.

Michael Casserly:

Thank you for your question, Margeret. You have asked an important question. Many urban school systems that have made substantial progress academically are ones that address these resource disparities--and I am referring to disparities in funds, teachers, materials, and other resources. There are still huge disparities within schools and across states, but school districts can often make substantial progress when they ensure that the disparities across their schools are reduced. This is an important issue and often much more complex than many policy makers understand. I urge you to keep working on this issue in your doctoral studies. --Mike

Question from Shelley Skinner, JC Families for Better Schools:

Whole school reform programs such as Success for All were implemented to improve academic achievement for districts designated as “at-risk.” Do you think these whole school reform programs like Success for All, have been effective?

Michael Casserly:

This is a great question. Thank you, Shelley. I think the evidence on the efficacy of most “whole school” reform models is not very strong. Many urban school districts tried these models in the 1990s when there were resources from Annenburg and the federal government to implement them. But, all reform models are not created equal. There was some evidence that models like SFA could be effective, particularly in the early grades, when implemented properly.But many of the reform models did not have very strong research behinf them, and most did not have clear instructional content or components. It didn’t surprise me that many of these models did not work very well. --Mike

Question from Mary Beth McNulty, education consultant, Vermont DOE:

How do you see teacher preparation making a difference in urban schools?

Michael Casserly:

Thank you, Mary Beth. High quality teaching is the most important factor in raising student achievement in urban schools. We still know precious little about what makes a teacher effective, consequently it is hard for colleges of education and others to create or produce them. We do know that many teachers arrive in our classrooms unprepared to handle reading--regardless of the subjects they teach; classroom management and discipline; and differentiated instruction. I wish that many schools of education focused less on theoretical issues and more on the practical challenges that their graduates will face when they get to our schools. We need to be working much more closely together on these issues. Thank you. --Mike

Question from Reginald L. Lawrence II, Principal, Ninety-Fifth Street School, Milwaukee Public Schools, Milwaukee, WI:

Without reference to any specific, research-based programs that are currently being used, what other interventions, procedures, or instructional practices are common among the schools that have shown a close in the achievement gap between African-American students and their white counterparts?

Michael Casserly:

Thank you, Reginald. A number of schools and school districts use commercially available intervention packages to address the needs of students who are slipping behind. Many schools, however, don’t necessarily check to see if these intervention strategies align with what the students really need help with. This mismatch often has special implications for students who are the furthest behind. Most districts who make particularly good progress on this front do so because of their sustained--not just one-time or periodic--focus on working with students who have fallen behind. The schools and districts who also make progress here make special use of their data, and are constantly assessing where the kids are and what needs to be done to address their needs. Success here is really an iterative process where schools continue to focus on these students year after year, subject after subject, teacher after teacher. --Mike

Question from Judith Stein of the National Institute for Educational Options, Nova Southeastern University:

Since High School graduation rates are very low in urban schools on the most part, how are these schools utilizing the small school and or career academy strategy to curb this trend?

Christopher B. Swanson:

As observers of high school reform during recent years will know, many have looked to small-schools approaches as a major strategy for turning around low performing schools and school systems. These approaches would include breaking up large comprehensive schools or starting up new small schools from scratch. Career academies can be related tactic – where academies may be used to bring focus to a small school or may be implemented as a schools-within-schools type of model. Both attempt to provide rigorous academics along with relevant experiences (especially career academies), and strong relationships with teachers and other adults in the school.

These strategies – small schools and career academies – are most prevalent in urban schools. In many cases, a prime motivation for adopting those models may be low graduation rates. Research on the widespread small schools movement of recent years is still very much in progress. Longer-standing research on career academies tends to show positive effects at least on some outcomes. And for those concerned that career academies may water down academics – there is little if any convincing evidence that they have negative impacts on academic outcomes.

Question from megan mellone, researcher, mills college:

While many programs seek to improve student achievement, a key factor in student success is teacher quality. How does the persistent challenge to find high quality teachers to work in and stay in urban school communities affect our ability to help students achieve? What is currently being done to address this challenge, especially in the face of persistent budgetary challenges?

Michael Casserly:

This question is critical. We can not make progress in urban education unless we make progress raising the quality of classroom teaching. Money is a factor here, but it is mostly a factor in supporting and sustaining good mentoring, induction, and other supports--particularly for new teachers. There is more and more evidence suggesting that these strategies can be effective, but many schools and school districts fall down on how these strategies are implemented. We often see programs that pass for induction not really providing teachers the supports they need to be effective. We need more research on these questions, but prelimiary data suggest that these strategies can be helpful in improving the tenure and longevity of teachers. --Mike

Question from Kevin Brezler, Project Manager, City High:

What role do you think new alternative principal/administrator certification programs play in the future of urban education? What do you think the programs like Uncommon Schools or New York City Leadership Academy have on urban schools?

Michael Casserly:

Principals are critical to the success of schools and students. They are also critical to the success of teachers. I wish there was better evidence on these alternative certification programs. There is every reason to think that they can be effective and successful, but most have not really been put to the test. Be that as it may, I think the evidence is pretty good that devoting time and effort to improving the skills of both teachers and principals is worth the effort. --Mike

Question from Sarah Hollister, Policy Analyst, Pa Department of Education:

So many of the issues in urban education stem from poverty issues. Is there any city that has been succesful in creating a collaboration among systems (Child welfare, schools, health, etc.) to address all of the issues affecting children’s ability to learn? What made the collaborations succesful?

Michael Casserly:

No--and I wish there were. Great question. --Mike

Question from D. Dyson, Doctoral Candidate, Political Science, Wayne State University:

Hello. My research suggests that successful education achievement and poverty are negatively correlated. Do you agree with this finding? If so, how can we improve an educational system that is structured to fail poorer students under NCLB, in both urban and rural areas?

Michael Casserly:

The research is quite clear--and has been for a long time--that student achievement and poverty are related. But our job in urban education is not to reflect and perpetuate these inequities but to overcome them. Otherwise, we are part of the problem. --Mike

Question from Greg Ryan, English Teacher, Chopticon High School:

Why not end compulsary education after the 9th grade like higher achieving European countries such as Italy and Germany? Only the top attend ‘university,’ while the rest are educated in either technical or military schools.

Christopher B. Swanson:

One of the things that we learned from our 2007 Diplomas Count report last June is that adults without a high school diploma are likely to be relegated to the very worst, lowest-paying jobs in the economy. And economists will also tell you that most of the growth in the economy (especially in the more desirable positions) is expected to come in jobs that require at least some amount of formal education or training past high school.

So, if the 21st century economy will require more (not less) education, then strategies that limit educational attainment (one way or another) would arguably weaken the nation’s standing in a competitive global economy. If anything, there seems to be growing interest in raising the compulsory attendance age in recent policy discussions.

And just a final factoid. Recent data from OECD show that among industrialized nations, there are only two countries where the younger generation is less educated than the older generation of adults. Those are the United States and Germany. Educational attainment rates in up-and-coming nations, particularly in Asia, have skyrocketed in the past couple decades and are now rivaling or surpassing those in the U.S. So we’re already on the slippery downward slope of this particular educational trend.

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