Study Ranks Top 30 School Reform Cities

Published October 14, 2010

New Orleans, Washington, DC, and New York City are the U.S. cities most hospitable to education reform, a study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute finds. The report, “America’s Best (and Worst) Cities for School Reform: Attracting Entrepreneurs and Change Agents,” examined 30 major U.S. cities, concentrating on a half-dozen elements that the organization says set a reform-friendly municipality apart from other cities.

“What we tried to do was bring to thinking about urban school reform the same insights that we bring to studying what makes a country, state, or city a vibrant place for entrepreneurs,” said Frederick Hess, director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the Fordham report’s lead author.

“The first thing it does is get reformers into a concrete discussion of what they should be changing and what they should be working on,” Hess added.

Six Criteria
Hess and his coauthors developed six criteria for reform-friendliness: Prevalence of “human capital”; availability of financial capital; transparency and quality control; school district environment; municipal environment; and how amenable the city is to charter schools.

“We asked, ‘Is [the city] more bureaucratic or flexible and focused on institutional quality and results?” explained Hess. “We also wanted to know if strong leadership in the city supports reform and if the editorial page of the major local paper supports school choice, merit pay, and so forth.”

To define transparency, Hess explained, “We mean, does the state have a strong assessment system that lets you make sure providers are competing on quality? Is the state assessment giving parents and voters an accurate read of proficiency when you compare it to NAEP [the National Assessment of Educational Process].”

‘Moving in the Right Direction’
Each city received a letter grade. Although none earned an “A” grade, nine earned a “B”—including New Orleans, New York, the District of Columbia, Denver, Charlotte, Jacksonville, Austin, Houston, and Fort Worth. Detroit, Philadelphia, San Diego, Albany, and Gary, Indiana bottomed out the list.

“Those places struck me as plausible,” said Matthew Ladner, vice president of research at the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix.

“New Orleans is a place where they experienced a profound change, moving away from the old school district model to something very different,” Ladner explained. “A lot of people have noted that the New Orleans school district was a disaster many years before Katrina. Their schools are moving in the right direction.”

Hess says he has attempted to answer several objections since the report first appeared in August. Most of the complaints concern why some cities with high test scores didn’t rank higher.

“Frankly, there is no reason why I would expect a city’s openness to the problem-solvers of 2010 to correlate with citywide achievement of 2010,” Hess said, adding he would expect high-ranking cities to see results the longer they continue pushing reforms. “I would be surprised if this study didn’t correlate in important ways with student learning in 2020,” said Hess.

Traditional vs. Nontraditional Reform
Jeff Passe of Towson University’s College of Education didn’t question the outcome of the report but objects to its source.

“My concern with many reports coming from Fordham is that they hold themselves out as a non-ideological organization but they have some very specific goals and ideological biases,” explained Passe. “Being critical of a school system because of how few charter schools they have is biased.”

But Hess makes his institution’s stand clear in the report and in other writings. “If you reject our starting premise, you’ll find the whole exercise problematic,” Hess said. “Even if you buy the premise, it’s fair to question our decisions regarding particular criteria.”

Hess said he believes cities do best when they embrace a mixed school system open to nontraditional providers.

“Smart people, particularly in schools of education, have long championed that kind of capacity-building, top-down reform,” Hess said. “But our report starts with the premise that most breakthrough improvements in the world are not the product of efforts to wrench large, established bureaucracies into new ways of acting but are usually the product of small, agile problem-solvers who emerge and grow.”

Rob Goszkowski ([email protected]) writes from San Francisco, California.

Internet Info:
Frederick M. Hess, Stafford Palmieri, and Janie Scull, “America’s Best (and Worst) Cities for School Reform: Attracting Entrepreneurs and Change Agents,” Thomas B. Fordham Institute: