CRPE’s new cross-city analysis shows that basic indicators of academic achievement are on the rise. However, to keep moving forward, cities need to double down to meet family preference for more high-quality school options in their neighborhoods, provide better information to families about their options, and be more responsive to parent concerns.
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. CRPE’s new report 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.
Drawing on school performance data; interviews with district, charter, and community leaders; and a survey of parents, researchers looked across both district and charter schools to examine student and school outcomes and recent reform strategies. The cross-city analysis, Stepping Up: How Are American Cities Delivering on the Promise of Public School Choice? 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—which is tentative but good news for urban centers working to overcome the challenges of poverty.
However, these cities’ 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 and advanced educational opportunities: in only one-quarter of the cities were all racial and ethnic groups represented equitably in advanced math coursework.
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.
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.
CRPE policy director and lead author Christine Campbell said: “We hope this research can provide commonsense information for cities that want to 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.”