School & District Management

Report Paints ‘Sobering’ Picture of Urban Education, With Some Bright Spots

By Denisa R. Superville — October 07, 2015 7 min read
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A new report released Wednesday by the Center on Reinventing Public Education paints a stark picture of public education in some of the nation’s cities, particularly for those students who are low-income and students of color.

But the report also points to some promising results around specific indicators in some cities.

“Measuring Up: Educational Improvement & Opportunity in 50 Cities” takes a comprehensive look at the health of the public education enterprise citywide—across all public schools in the cities—and does not separate traditional district schools from charter schools in its analysis.

In each of the cities examined, a complicated mix of district-run schools and charter schools co-exist.

The report looks beyond academic achievement, and also takes into account nine indicators around school improvement, including high school graduation rates, the share of students who were enrolled in “beat the odds” schools, and the share of schools that stayed in the bottom 5 percent of schools on state proficiency for the three years of the study.

Among the factors considered for low-income and students of color were rates of out-of-school suspensions, the percentage taking ACT/SAT tests, and their enrollment in the highest- and lowest-scoring elementary and middle schools.

Among the findings:

Lagging performance

  • Less than a third of the cities examined made gains in math or reading proficiency over the three years relative to their state performance;
  • The average high school graduation rate across all cities was 75 percent;
  • One in four students in 9th grade in 2009 did not graduate from high school in four years;
  • 40 percent of schools across the cities that were in the bottom 5 percent of schools in their state stayed there for three years;
  • Less than 10 percent of all high school students enrolled in advanced math classes each year in 29 of the 50 cities; and
  • Less than 15 percent of all high school students took the ACT/SAT in 30 of the 50 cities.

Low-income and minority students are left behind

  • Low-income students and students of color were less likely to enroll in high-scoring elementary and middle schools than students who did not qualify for free- and reduced-priced meals or white students. (In Los Angeles, for example, Hispanic students were nearly seven times as likely as white students to be enrolled in elementary or middle schools with low math achievement, according to the report.)
  • On average, 8 percent of students in the cities examined were enrolled in “beat the odds” schools—schools that got better results than others with similar demographics in the state.
  • On average, there was about a 14 percentage-point achievement gap between students who were eligible for free and reduced meals and those who were not.

Bleak picture for black students

  • Black students were almost twice as likely to receive an out-of-school suspension as white students

With the U.S. school population now believed to be majority-minority, those numbers have far-reaching implications.

“We’ve found those results really sobering, and, in some ways, all too familiar, especially for students from low-income households and for students of color,” said Michael DeArmond, a senior research analyst at CRPE and one of the report’s authors.

“There were, though, some bright spots that I think should give people some hope,” he continued. “Our hope, with the report, is that it’s a conversation starter and that folks may use it to expand the conversation about urban schools to include not just the marquee district in a city, but more broadly all the schools. "

DeArmond also said that he hopes that it will be an urgent call to action and for cities to look at what others are doing and what lessons may be gleaned from them. Those city officials could ask questions about how New Orleans and others got a handle on their lower performing schools or what accounts for the high rate of participation of black students in Advanced Placement courses or the SAT in Chicago or Memphis, according to the report.

Despite the pullouts showing the bleak results, the authors also highlighted cities that had positive outcomes in certain areas.

Take Santa Ana for example, a city in Orange County, Calif., with both traditional and charter school sectors, and which serves a predominantly minority population. Ninety percent of students graduated from high school in four years, and the city’s students had among the smallest achievement gaps in math and reading of all those studied, according to the report. (Detroit and Los Angeles were the other two noted.)

Baton Rouge, La., was the only city in which black students were not more likely to be suspended than white students. Newark, N.J., had a higher-than-average percentage of students enrolled in “beat the odds” schools. And in the District of Columbia, students eligible for free and-reduced-price meals enrolled in top-scoring schools at higher rates than their more advantaged peers.

The report is descriptive and does not analyze the reasons for the disparate results or dissect what policies or reform efforts may be behind them. For example, it does not examine the reason for the low overall suspension rates in Los Angeles or why Hispanic students in the city were less likely to be suspended than white students, according to their numbers. (We know that Los Angeles Unified, for example, has amended its disciplinary policies, including eliminating willful defiance as a reason for out-of-school suspensions.)

DeArmond said that CRPE researchers will pick apart a few of the findings, including enrollment in “beat the odds” schools in some of the cities with higher than average numbers and dig deeper to see how those schools are distributed across the cities. They will also look at what happened to the schools that were no longer listed in the bottom five percent of their state’s schools: Did they improve? Did they close? One post will look at the technical difficulties in pulling the data together for the report. (The report uses federal and state data. The state data covers years 2012 to 2014 in the majority of cases.)

Those follow-ups will be published on the center’s website,

Some of the cities included in the report were ones that don’t normally figure prominently in the education reform debate. The authors wanted to move beyond the big-name urban centers‐including New York, Washington, and Chicago—and to others where the public education system was also in flux.

Among them: Toledo, Ohio; St. Paul, Minn; Fort Wayne, Indiana; San Jose, Calif.; Raleigh, N.C.; and Wichita, Kan.

In the report’s introduction, Robin Lake, the center’s director, wrote that it should be an urgent call to action.

“Rather than be distracted by dogfights over Common Core, testing, choice, teacher evaluations, charter schools, and other policy debates, our city school system leaders need to aggressively hunt for and be open to new solutions, and respond quickly and meaningfully to shifting demographics and other challenges,” she wrote.

DeArmond said that the report highlights the need for a citywide approach to keeping track of the vast array of public educational opportunities in cities, whether accomplished through a single tracking system or a cabinet-level position in a mayor’s office.

“We can’t improve cities without improving schools,” DeArmond said. “And I think that mayors and civic leaders, in a lot of these places, are in a position to be responsible for the whole city...This isn’t a suggestion for mayoral control at all, but the more complicated these systems get the more there is a need for some function to try to get a handle on the different pieces of the puzzle.”

UPDATE: Jacqueline Cooper, the president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, said in a statement that the report “paints a bleak picture of educational opportunity for black students around the country. But there are glimmers of hope in places like Newark and Memphis, where black students are more likely to be in advanced math courses; Nashville, where black students are more likely to take college entrance exams; or Los Angeles, where modified disciplinary policies have helped more black students stay in school.”

She continued: “This report shows that no single educational model is a silver bullet for black families. Instead, city and state leaders need to develop plans tailored to the needs of the families they serve, and the best plans are likely to include a blend of educational solutions, including traditional public schools, public charter schools and private schools, that will give low-income and working-class black families high-quality options for their children.”

Since the report’s publication, CRPE has released revised data for Minneapolis.

Image source: Measuring Up: Educational Improvement & Opportunity in 50 Cities

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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.