Some urban schools show progress on equity

By: | Issue: December, 2015
November 9, 2015

A first-of-its-kind, 50-city analysis of public education finds that while academic progress remains flat in most urban areas, underserved students in some parts of the country are gaining access to more rigorous learning.

The University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education analyzed educational opportunities offered by districts, charter schools and state agencies. And the researchers examined factors beyond test scoresÑincluding graduation rates, school-level gains in math and reading, and proficiency gaps for students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch.

Poor and minority students face staggering academic inequities in most of the mid- to large-sized cities examined in the October report, “Measuring Up: Educational Improvement and Opportunity in 50 Cities.” With few exceptions, students of color and those eligible for free and reduced-price lunch are less likely than are whites in the same cities to enroll in high-scoring schools, to take advanced math courses or to take the ACT/SAT.

“It’s a huge challenge for public education to try and perform wellÑand do so equitably,” says Michael DeArmond, senior research analyst at the Center on Reinventing Public Education and lead author of the report. “But there are signs of hope.”

And such hopeful signs can be seen in Washington, D.C., where students on free and reduced-priced lunch enroll in top-scoring schools at higher rates than do their more advantaged peers.

Did you know?

1 in 4 urban students don’t graduate from high school in four years.

Source: Center on Reinventing Public Education

And in 20 of the 50 cities, black students take the ACT/SAT at the same or better rates than do white students. A handful of cities also appear to be improving or closing their lowest-performing schools.

Searching for common successes

Researchers examined schools performing in the bottom 5 percent in each city, and found that about 40 percent of the schools in the bottom tier in year one were still there in year three.

But in New Orleans and MemphisÑtwo districts with different approaches to public educationÑnone of the schools that started in the bottom 5 percent stayed there over the three years. In New Orleans, about 90 percent of public school students attend charters. In Memphis, the public voted to disband Memphis City Schools effective 2013, and merge with Shelby County School District.

The report doesn’t identify common factors between more successful urban districts. Leadership continuity and sticking with improvement strategies likely had positive impacts, DeArmond says.

“The big takeaway that I hope the district administrators, mayors, charter leaders and anybody else working every day for kids will take from this is just the enormity of the challenge,” DeArmond says. “It’s an argument for all these folks to double down on the urgency to search for improvements that will work in their context.”

Addressing urban inequities

The results of the “Measuring Up” report show that no single model for structuring schools (such as traditional districts, charters or vouchers) has been a sure solution to address the needs of urban students. Researchers suggest cities and school leaders do the following:

Find ways to improve or replace the bottom 5 to 10 percent of schools with better options. Cities such as New Orleans have done this by having clear, tightly enforced accountability standards, and by investing in new schools to replace low-performers.
Provide all students access to advanced placement and other college-prep coursework. Cities such as Cleveland and Denver are investing in technology-driven models to offer that access.
Reform overly aggressive discipline policies. Los Angeles USD significantly decreased its out-of-school suspensions by banning all suspensions for “willful defiance” in 2013.
Search for evidence-based solutions. Address your weaknesses as a district and a city, and search widely for solutions that have worked elsewhere.
Recognize that schools can’t do the hard work alone. Coordinated support from teacher preparation programs and social and health services are often critical for turning around failing schools.