Researchers find that basic indicators of academic achievement are on the rise. However, cities need to double down on meeting family preference for more high-quality school options in their neighborhoods, providing better information, and being more responsive to parent concerns.
Seattle, WA - As school choice evolves in cities across the country, the heated debate among advocates and critics is too often disconnected from the reality for families on the ground. In a new report, the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) at the University of Washington Bothell goes beyond the rhetoric to provide evidence about how public school choice is playing out in 18 cities, including Atlanta, Cleveland, Oakland, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C. Findings from Stepping Up: How Are American Cities Delivering on the Promise of Public School Choice? were the subject of a panel discussion at the Brookings Institution today, featuring DC Public Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson and CRPE Director Robin Lake.
Drawing on school performance data; interviews with district, charter, and community leaders; and a survey of parents, CRPE researchers looked across both district and charter schools to examine student and school outcomes and recent reform strategies. The cross-city analysis addresses three questions: Is the city’s education system continuously improving? Do all students have access to a high-quality education? Is the education strategy responsive to community needs?
The analysis finds that public school choice is, for the most part, working well and resulting in new opportunities for families in these cities. Most cities have strategies in place that support school quality, ranging from strong charter authorizing and replication strategies, to autonomy policies for district schools. District and charter school choices have expanded because families are eager to enroll. And schools are increasingly offering a wide variety of programs.
There are promising signs of improvement in student and school outcomes:
- In a majority of cities, low-scoring schools typically moved out of that status within three or four consecutive years.
- Over the 2011-12 to 2014-15 school years, 11 of 17 cities gained ground on their states in high school graduation rates.
- In the same time frame, 5 of 14 cities showed statistically significant improvement in reading and math proficiency rates, tentative but good news for urban centers working to overcome the challenges of poverty.
However, graduation and math proficiency rates still lag behind state averages. Low-income families who could benefit most from choice face inadequate access to quality school options. This is also true of advanced educational opportunities: in only one-quarter of the cities were all racial and ethnic groups represented equitably in advanced math coursework. This increases the urgency to find ways to eliminate barriers for all families, especially with overall performance on the rise in many places.
While national leaders argue whether school choice is good or bad, CRPE has long contended that public school choice is here to stay and it can work well, but it has to be done right.
CRPE director Robin Lake said education leaders at the city, state, and national level should be paying attention: “It’s not enough to be in favor of school choice, to say parents should be able to choose the right schools for their kids. Cities need to provide the systems that ensure equity, accountability, and support to enable families to make good choices. We are at an important moment to correct and reset as parents continue to demand quality public school options amid divisive political debates.”
The report calls out three common challenges cities must address to make complex school systems work better for all families:
- Improving how families are informed and supported, so that all have real choices and can find the best school for their child.
- Being more strategic about improving school quality and fit so schools meet students’ needs and family preferences for schools in their own neighborhoods.
- Improving communication and relationships with community members, so they can be part of building a sustainable, responsive education strategy.
New Orleans stands out as having the most comprehensive results across all three areas of challenge. Schools are making proficiency rate gains, graduation rates are on par with the state, and low-income students have improved their performance in math and reading relative to peers nationwide. The city has invested heavily in parent information, transportation, and a single application system for all charter and district schools. New Orleans still has far to go, especially in addressing equitable access to educational opportunities, ensuring schools are a good fit for families, and being more responsive to families. But it may provide valuable lessons for solving the inevitable challenges in high-choice cities and continuing the search for better options.
CRPE policy director Christine Campbell, lead author of the analysis, said, “Our hope is that this research can provide common sense information for cities that want to move beyond the rhetoric and get to work finding solutions for families. We urge city leaders and policymakers to dive into the data, see what is and isn’t working, and take action to maximize quality options and minimize barriers.”
In addition to the cross-city analysis, individual Citywide Education Progress Reports provide data and recommendations for accelerating local progress, while the project website features city comparisons and promising strategies from leading cities.
Stepping Up: How Are American Cities Delivering on the Promise of Public School Choice? by Christine Campbell, Georgia Heyward and Betheny Gross is available at crpe.org.
The Center on Reinventing Public Education is a nonpartisan research and policy analysis center at the University of Washington Bothell developing systemwide solutions for K-12 public education.