School & District Management

Data Tool Allows City-by-City Schooling Comparisons

By Denisa R. Superville — October 04, 2016 5 min read

How do graduation rates in Houston compare with those in Miami? What does the average teacher salary in Cincinnati look like next to the average in Seattle?

Finding comparable data to answer those questions can be a tough slog if you’re a mayor, education activist, or involved parent.

But a new, interactive website from the Dallas-based George W. Bush Institute attempts to make it easier for those with a vested interest in education—particularly mayors and school administrators who have to make decisions about how to spend limited resources—to find key data on how their cities stack up against others.

Called State of Our Cities, the website (www.bushcenter.org/stateofourcities/) is a one-stop shop that provides education data for 114 cities in 49 states and the District of Columbia, and uses more than a dozen different indicators.

Website users, for example, can compare graduation rates, per-pupil spending, teacher salaries, and the availability of early-childhood-education programs in Chicago; Des Moines, Iowa; and San Francisco.

“This country should know the top urban school districts that are improving just like they know who won the Super Bowl last year,” said Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings. “Education is too important to not be clear about it.”

Rawlings, who chairs the Educational Excellence Task Force at the U.S. Conference of Mayors and is a former CEO of Pizza Hut, believes access to education data helps mayors make better decisions and spot successful strategies elsewhere. Those data should be easy to find, he said.

Championed by Dallas Mayor

The website is geared primarily toward mayors, local policymakers, school administrators, and state education officials, but will be valuable to parents, community advocates, and anyone with an interest in education, said Holly Kuzmich, the executive director of the Bush Institute.

The data trove also comes at an opportune time, Kuzmich said, as state and local policymakers will have a lot more say about how schools are run and held accountable under the new federal K-12 education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Paige Kowalski, the executive vice president of the Data Quality Campaign, said the tool fills a void.

“There are so many things that businesses and community leaders and parents hold mayors accountable for, and without mayors having a real grasp on how their city is actually serving kids eight hours every day, it’s hard for them to understand how they can plug in and affect those outcomes,” she said. “So having that data is really important.”

But Betheny Gross, a researcher at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington-Bothell, wrote in a critique that the website presented only a narrow snapshot of the education landscape in cities. By mostly using data from the largest school district, she wrote on CRPE’s blog The Lens, the report misses the fact that multiple school districts sometimes crisscross cities and, in others, including Denver and Cleveland, growing numbers of students attend charter schools, not just traditional district schools.

The website grew from Rawlings’ efforts to expand his footprint in education in Dallas, where he works with the district on some initiatives like a summer internship program. He said that finding data to compare Dallas’ schooling outcomes with those of other cities was difficult.

He approached the Bush Institute about compiling a report card of sorts for big-city mayors who wanted to know more about the educational performance of their cities. The first report, “Mayors’ Report Card on Education,” appeared as a slim publication in January 2015 and included basic education information on 33 cities. More mayors asked to be included in an updated report. “They have to think about how they are going to use their bully pulpit and time in their communities, ... but they don’t really have a sense of where is the biggest effect for me if I lend my time and effort and voice to this issue,” Kuzmich said.

In the past year, institute researchers scoured multiple sources to compile a more comprehensive set of education facts and figures and present it in a way that is simple to update and easy for the public to sort through.

No Grading

The data were not always easy to come by. SAT scores, for example, are not included for all the cities because the Bush Institute had to contact individual districts to obtain that information, and not all responded. It was also difficult to get data on early-childhood education because no single organization collects that kind of information, Kuzmich said. Even when the data existed, they were not necessarily comparable across state lines in some cases, she said.

As a result, the institute did not assign grades to cities.

Among other measures that users can see across cities: percentages of new teachers, chronic student-absenteeism rates, completion of federal financial-aid forms, performance on state tests in reading and math, and middle school algebra-completion rates. Users can further compare cities using filters such as geography, population, race, child-poverty rates, median income, and charter school enrollment.

They can see how their city’s performance in reading and math stacks up on the Global Report Card, an index that ranks districts against 25 developed countries. The tool has results from the Trial Urban District Assessment program, a national report card for a group of urban systems.

The Bush Institute plans to update the dataset every two years. The data were culled from a number of sources, many from within the U.S. Department of Education, including the federal Common Core of Data, the Civil Rights Data Collection, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, EdFacts, and Integrated Postsecondary Education Data. Information from the U.S. Census and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools was also used.

Kowalski of the Data Quality Campaign said the data will help people ask smarter questions. Still, she said, she’d like to see more information on student progress after graduation. “One of the things we have learned over time is the more data that you put out there, the more data people want,” she said. “I have to imagine that this is sparking a lot of conversation, more about what’s not here because people are going to want to know more, and that’s a good thing.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 05, 2016 edition of Education Week as New Data Tool Allows City-by-City Schooling Comparisons

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