Reliable Data Are Essential to Improving Education
It can be challenging to access the city-level data that mayors and local policymakers need to make informed decisions. National and state-level education data are collected and disseminated by numerous organizations and government agencies, but for too long there has not been a single source or system for accessing and comparing city-level education data. As a result, reliable education data are not often reported in consistent and timely manner, or in formats that are easy for city leaders and policymakers to use.
State of Our Cities addresses the critical need for access to reliable, usable city-level education data. This unique tool aggregates the best available city-level data from multiple sources in a single platform. Covering a range of important education topics and performance indicators, State of Our Cities enables users to view comprehensive profiles of the public education system in each of the 114 cities featured, and compare them side-by-side with other city profiles.
Although not all city-level education data easily lends itself to city-to-city comparison, certain key indicators of a city’s education performance and student outcomes can be usefully and reliably compared to demonstrate how cities stack up to one another:
- Student achievement on nationally representative assessments 1
- High school graduation rate
- Advanced Placement (AP) participation rate
- College admission test performance on the SAT and ACT
- Middle school algebra completion rate
- New teachers
- Teacher absenteeism
- Student chronic absenteeism
- Suspension rates
By way of example, San Diego, CA, is a city featured in the tool that shows strong performance across multiple indicators. The city’s schools serve more than 130,000 students—10 percent are black, 47 percent are Hispanic, and 14 percent are Asian—60 percent of whom are eligible for free or reduced price lunch. Providing robust college and career pathways for its students is one of San Diego’s strengths. The city ranks among the top 20 cities in the tool for AP participation and AP passing rates—28 percent and 13 percent respectively.
San Diego also has one of the top five high school graduation rates of all cities included in State of Our Cities, at 90 percent overall. Moreover, graduation rates for black and Hispanic students exceed the national average for all students, at 87 percent and 85 percent respectively, and rank among the top five for all cities included in the tool.
In addition to college and career readiness pathways, San Diego shows strong academic outcomes. San Diego students’ reading and math proficiency rates have exceeded the state average for the past four years. San Diego also ranks among the top ten cities in the tool when it comes to middle school algebra completion, at 62 percent. Despite significant achievement gaps—which, regrettably, are evident even among the highest performing cities—San Diego’s middle school completion rates for Hispanic and black students rank in the top ten among the cities included in the tool.
At the other end of the spectrum, Cleveland, OH, is an example of a city with a struggling public education system. A district of 38,000 students—67 percent are black and 15 percent are Hispanic—where nearly 88 percent of the student population is eligible for free or reduced price lunch, Cleveland ranks among the lowest-performing cities of those included in the tool across multiple indicators. Proficiency rates on state assessments, for both reading and math, have been well below the Ohio state average between 2011 and 2014, and the city’s middle school algebra completion rate places among the bottom 50 percent of the cities included in the tool. Cleveland also has one of the highest rates of teacher absenteeism of all 114 cities in State of Our Cities. In 2013, 84 percent of teachers missed more than 10 days of school.
But, as the data show, Cleveland’s education outcomes also reveal some encouraging trends. The city’s education system, despite its struggles, has made important progress when it comes to supporting more students to complete high school. The overall graduation rate has increased by more than 14 percent since 2010, and, importantly, the graduation rate for black students—who make up more than two-thirds of the overall enrollment in Cleveland—has also increased by 14 percent. When you look at all of the data together, particularly over time, a more complete picture emerges.
A High Quality Education for Every Student
The ability to measure and compare student achievement among cities and across state lines is critical because nationwide school improvement efforts rely on academic outcomes data. Middle school algebra completion rates and state assessment results, for example, provide a general picture of student achievement as well as crucial insights about the scale and severity of the achievement gaps among subgroups that persist in so many of our cities.
Measures of student achievement are especially important to show where cities’ education systems are succeeding and where they need to improve. While state assessment scores are generally not comparable across state lines, there is a to develop more comparable assessments. As the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness For College And Careers (PARCC) and Smarter Balanced assessments are becoming more widely adopted, more reliable and comparable state assessment data may be available. Until that time, there are other, more limited ways to compare student achievement in certain cities. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as “The Nation’s Report Card,” is a nationally representative assessment of what students know in reading, math, and other core subjects. NAEP achievement levels—which are, in many cases, higher than the corresponding performance levels on state assessments—offer a stable and reliable measure for comparing student achievement in different states.
Across the country, 21 cities participate in the Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA), which is the NAEP assessment administered at the district level. TUDA uses assessment instruments and processes that are identical to those used for the regular NAEP and allows for direct city-level comparisons of student performance among the participating cities. As is true for NAEP at the state level, TUDA data represent the best available means for making valid comparisons of student achievement in cities located in different states. Notably, the number of cities that participate in TUDA is limited by federal funding constraints, not by lack of interest on the part of cities themselves.
TUDA data reveal important insights into the performance of cities’ education systems. In particular, the data demonstrate a large gulf between top performing cities and those at the bottom. The 8th grade reading proficiency rates for the top five TUDA cities all exceed 30 percent. As Figure 1 shows, these rates have increased, some more steadily than others, for each of the top five TUDA cities since 2008.
By comparison, the 8th grade reading proficiency rates for the bottom five TUDA cities range from seven to 16 percent. In Fresno, for example, a mere 13 percent scored proficient on reading, well below the national average of 34 percent and the California state average of 28 percent. Notably, while the bottom five TUDA cities have improved reading proficiency rates since 2008, their gains have not been as strong or as consistent as those made by the top five cities. Philadelphia and Cleveland gained just one percentage point between 2008 and 2014, and no city among the bottom five maintained gains of more than three percentage points.
Spotlight on Achievement Gaps
Charlotte, along with Austin, is among the top performing TUDA cities in the country. In fact, the percentage of students in Charlotte that scored proficient on the 8th grade math assessment exceeds the national average of 33 percent by six points (39 percent). Only two other cities, Austin and Boston, have proficiency percentages that exceed the national average for 8th grade math.
However, like every other TUDA city, Charlotte, Austin, and Boston show stark achievement gaps separating white students and their black and Hispanic peers. In 2014, for example, only nine percent of black students in Austin scored proficient in 8th grade math, just two percentage points higher than black students in Fresno, one of the lowest performing TUDA cities in the country.
Hispanic students in Austin performed significantly better, with a 20 percent proficiency rate in 8th grade math, but were far surpassed by white students in Austin, 66 percent of whom scored proficient. As Figure 3 shows, these gaps have widened since 2008. While proficiency rates for white students have risen steadily, proficiency rates for black and Hispanic students have remained flat or else decreased slightly.
Another indicator of student outcomes that can be compared across city lines is middle school algebra completion. Middle school algebra completion is an important indicator of high school achievement that reflects students’ readiness to progress to upper-level high school math courses and, later, college math. Middle school algebra completion rates are also important because they can point to educational inequities in course-taking patterns during middle school that can intensify in high school (Wang and Goldschmidt 2003). For example, among the five TUDA cities with the highest rates of 8th grade math proficiency in 2014—Charlotte, Austin, Boston, San Diego, and Tampa—the math proficiency achievement gaps that are evident in each city similarly appear in each city’s middle school algebra completion rates. As Figure 4 shows, white and Asian students in these cities complete middle school algebra at much higher rates than their black and Hispanic peers.
Boston is the only one of these five cities with middle school algebra completion achievement gaps of less than 15 percent. Black and Hispanic students are, respectively, 12 and five percent less likely to complete middle school algebra in Boston than white students. In San Diego, by contrast, Hispanic and black students are both 37 percent less likely than white students to complete middle school algebra.
Achievement gaps in these cities extend beyond student achievement to one of the most important educational outcomes, high school graduation. In each city, white students graduate at rates that are at least five percentage points higher than their black peers. In Tampa, the 2013 high school graduation rate for white students was 83 percent; for black students, it was just 60 percent.
Achievement gaps between white and Hispanic students are also prevalent. In Boston and San Diego, the gaps between Hispanic and white graduation rates were greater than the gaps between white and black graduation rates. Figure 5 shows the differences in 2013 graduation rates, by race, in each of the top five TUDA cities for 8th grade math proficiency.
Pathways to College and Career Success
Students must be equipped with the knowledge, skills, and experience required to succeed in college or in a job that offers them the opportunity for economic advancement. Supported pathways to higher education are especially important given the increasing importance of a postsecondary credential as a minimum qualification for employment. By 2018, approximately two-thirds of all jobs will require some postsecondary education, whether in the form of a postsecondary certificate or college degree (Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce).2
Nationally, graduation rates have risen. In 2013-14, 82 percent of high school seniors received a diploma, as measured by the Adjusted Cohort Graduate Rate (ACGR), continuing a four-year trend of rising graduation rates (National Center for Education Statistics).3
Despite the general increase nationally, graduation rates continue to vary widely at the city level and among different racial and income groups. Among the featured cities, the 10 with the highest graduation rates range from 87 percent to 93 percent. At the other end of the spectrum, the 10 cities with the lowest rates graduated between 50 and 61 percent of high school seniors.
We know that many graduates leave high school unprepared to tackle the challenges of college and career. NAEP results for 12th grade students, which represent a useful measure of college and career readiness, show that more than 60 percent of students nationally have not scored at college and career ready levels, a percentage that has remained largely unchanged since 2013 (NPR).4
Another meaningful way to understand how well cities are preparing students for post-high school success is to evaluate the courses of study required to graduate from city schools. Graduation requirements offer valuable insight into whether students are gaining the knowledge and the skills they need to thrive in life. Approximately 47 percent of high school graduates, in 2013, did not complete a college-ready or a career-ready course sequence before graduating (Education Trust).5
Among the featured cities in State of Our Cities, an analysis of graduation rates shows that more rigorous college and career ready requirements do not result in lower graduation rates. In fact, cities whose graduation requirements demonstrate greater rigor have higher graduation rates than those with less rigor, as Figure 7 shows.
The 47 cities that either offer a college and career-ready diploma only, as defined by Achieve, Inc.—or else offer such a diploma with the ability to opt-out—average a 76 percent graduation rate, compared to the 74 percent average graduation rate for cities that do not offer college and career-ready diplomas (or else make college and career ready diplomas available on an opt-in basis).6
Additionally, student participation and performance in Advanced Placement (AP) courses and on AP tests is another important measure of how well cities are preparing their students for success after high school.
Six of the 10 cities with the highest AP Participation rates—Arlington Heights, IL: Arlington, VA; Seattle, WA; San Jose, CA; Frederick, MD; and Lexington, KY—rank among the top 10 cities with the highest AP Passing rates as well. All six of these cities, with the exception of Seattle, also rank among the top 20 for high school graduation rates. In each of these cities, the high school graduation rate in 2013 was at least 85 percent. Frederick, MD had the highest graduation rate at 93 percent. Seattle, by contrast, had a graduation rate of 76 percent in 2013.
Student achievement on college admission tests, such as the SAT and the ACT, is another key indicator of college and career readiness. This kind of achievement data is critical to our understanding of how well city schools are preparing their students for success, but such data are difficult to access. As a result, city leaders and policymakers too often have no way of knowing how well, or poorly, their cities are supporting student achievement and college and career readiness.
Cities that are strong in other college and career readiness pathways, such as high school graduation rates and AP participation and passing, also tend to have higher average scores on the SAT and ACT. For example, Frederick, MD ranks among the top 10 cities on three college and career pathways indicators—high school graduation rate, AP participation, and AP passing—in addition to having the third highest average ACT score and the ninth highest average SAT score.
Other cities that are among the top 10 for high school graduation rates and SAT/ACT performance include Arlington, VA; Arlington Heights, IL; Chandler, AZ; Burlington, VT; Seattle, WA; Lexington, KY; and San Diego, CA.
School Environment Matters
School environment is a major factor in our education systems and one that can have a significant impact on student outcomes. Positive school environments are associated with increased academic achievement and higher graduation rates, as well as improvements to numerous dimensions of students’ educational experience, including engagement, social and emotional well-being and development, and student mental health (National School Climate Center, 2012).7
One measure of school environment is the suspension rate, which can reflect how district and school disciplinary policies impact students’ educational experience. This is particularly true for minority students, who are often disproportionately affected by school disciplinary policies. Black students are almost four times more likely to be suspended than their white peers; nationally 18 percent of black males and 10 percent of black females were suspended at least once, compared to five percent for white males and two percent for white females (Office of Civil Rights, 2016).8
Notably, disciplinary policies and their respective enforcement differ across the country, and some cities have elevated suspension rates as a result. Chicago, IL, for example, has an overall suspension rate of 14 percent. This rate is more than twice the national average of six percent and is significantly higher for black males. Thirty-five percent of black males in Chicago were suspended at least once compared to just six percent of their white counterparts. Similarly, 19 percent of black females in the district received at least one suspension, compared to two percent of white females.
In many other cities, suspension rates are even higher. Fort Wayne, IN has a 26 percent suspension rate, the highest of any city in State of Our Cities. It also has one of the highest rates of suspension for black males, more than two-thirds (67 percent) of whom were suspended at least once, compared to 26 percent for white males.
By contrast, suspension rates and disciplinary inequities in Miami, FL are significantly smaller; eight percent of black males and five percent of black females were suspended at least once—compared to three percent and one percent, respectively, for white males and females.
In Chicago and Fort Wayne, student outcomes for black students, those most likely to be affected by the disciplinary policies in both cities, significantly lag behind outcomes for white students. Performance in math on 2014 state assessments show that just 12 percent of black students in Chicago, compared to 49 percent of white students, scored proficient in math black students are also 53 percent less likely to complete middle school algebra and 13 percent less likely to graduate.
Spotlight on Chronic Absenteeism
Chronic absenteeism is another key indicator of school characteristics and environment. Troublingly, as many as 6.5 million students were chronically absent in 2013-14, meaning that 13 percent of all students enrolled in American public schools missed at least 15 days of school (Office of Civil Rights).9 Chronic absenteeism is linked with diminished academic outcomes and elevated risk of high school dropout. Simply put, students cannot succeed academically if they do not regularly attend school.
Nationally, chronic absenteeism rates vary for students of different races and ethnicities. Compared to their white peers, minority students are, on the whole, more likely to be chronically absent. Whereas white students are chronically absent at a rate of 12 percent, 16 percent of black students and 13 percent of Hispanic students are chronically absent, while American Indian and Pacific Islander students are chronically absent at much higher rates, 22 and 21 percent, respectively (Office of Civil Rights).10 This means that black students are 30 percent more likely to be chronically absent than white students, Hispanics nine percent more likely, and American Indian and Pacific Islander students over 50 percent more likely to be chronically absent.
Higher rates of chronic absenteeism for minority students are also paralleled by teacher absenteeism. Notably, black students make up approximately 15 percent of students in our nation’s schools, but they make up 21 percent of chronically absent students who attend a school where at least 50 percent of the teachers are absent for more than 10 days. In Paterson, NJ, for example, 34 percent of black students were chronically absent in 2013—compared to 20 percent of white students—while 60 percent of teachers missed more than 10 days.
These disproportionate rates of minority student chronic absenteeism are not restricted to cities with particularly high rates of teacher absenteeism. Even in cities where the teacher absenteeism rate equals the national average of 27 percent—for example, Memphis, TN; Green Bay, WI; and Boston, MA—there are high rates of chronic student absenteeism, especially among minority students but also across the broader student population.
In all three cities, overall proficiency rates in reading and math on state assessments did not exceed 45 percent in 2014 and large achievement gaps are present in each. While not necessarily causal in nature, it is not surprising to see low achievement in the same cities that also have high rates of chronic absenteeism. Similar disparities are also evident in both cities’ high school graduation rates and middle school algebra completion rates.
Effective Educators are the Backbone of Our Education System
A substantial body of research shows that teachers are the single most influential school-based factor that impacts student achievement.11 One strategy schools use to recruit and retain effective teachers is compensation. More and more cities—like the District of Columbia; Dallas, TX; Columbus, GA; and Denver, CO—now incorporate pay-for-performance models that link teacher compensation with student outcomes.
Overall teacher compensation is just one component in a complex system and, while important, does not necessarily lead to improved academic outcomes for students. For example, in one of the lowest performing cities, Cleveland, the average teacher salary, $73,402, is among the highest of all 114 cities, but student achievement is low. By contrast, the average teacher salary of $41,092 in Charlotte, the highest performing TUDA city, is 56 percent less than in Cleveland and well below the national average of $56,385 (adjusted for cost of living).
Another important factor in building a strong teacher workforce is teacher experience. Research shows that, on average, teachers begin to perform at their best once they have at least three years of classroom experience.12 Cities face an ongoing challenge of ensuring that they have a balance of experienced and new teachers, who will continue to develop their skills as their careers progress. Among the cities included in State of Our Cities, an average of 12 percent of teachers in any given district were in their first or second year of teaching in 2013.
Some cities have higher concentrations of new teachers who are in their first or second year of teaching. In Milwaukee, WI, for example, approximately one in four teachers has fewer than two full years of teaching experience, and, in Jacksonville, FL, 36 percent of teachers are in their first or second year of teaching.
In both Milwaukee and Jacksonville, 2013 high school graduation rates were significantly lower than the national average: 74 percent for Jacksonville and 61 percent for Milwaukee. Additionally, achievement gaps between are wide in both cities. In Milwaukee, just 58 percent of black students and 59 percent of Hispanic students graduated in 2013, compared to 70 percent of white students. While not causal, it is once again not surprising to see low student achievement graduation rates and large populations of new teachers in the same cities.
Moreover, in Jacksonville, student achievement in math on state assessments has decreased a total of three percentage points over the past three years. In 2014, just 50 percent of students in the city scored proficient in math, putting the city below the state average. Similarly, both cities have low middle school algebra completion rates. In Milwaukee just 29 percent of students completed middle school algebra in 2013. The middle school algebra completion rate for Jacksonville was 47 percent in 2013.
The Office of Civil Rights notes that there are certain race-based inequities related to student access to experienced teachers. Black and Hispanic students are 75 and 57 percent (respectively) more likely than white students to attend schools where at least 20 percent of teachers are in their first year (Office of Civil Rights, 2016).13
Additionally, high rates of teacher absenteeism in many cities across the country are a significant cause for concern. In light of the impact that teachers have, not only on student achievement but also on school climate, absenteeism represents a major learning disruption and an operational challenge. On average, more than one in four teachers across the country misses more than 10 days during the school year. In many districts, teacher absenteeism rates exceed 50 percent, affecting approximately 6.5 million students across the country (Office of Civil Rights, 2016).14
In more extreme cases—such as in Buffalo, NY; Cleveland, OH; and Fort Wayne, IN—75 percent or more of teachers miss more than 10 days. Buffalo and Cleveland both have very low proficiency rates on state assessments and have low rates of middle school algebra completion, 10 percent for Buffalo and just six percent for Cleveland, and both cities have low high school graduation rates—56 and 64 percent respectively. In Fort Wayne, by contrast, 87 percent of students graduated in 2013. However, white students were eight percent more likely to graduate than their black or Hispanic peers.
Early Childhood Learning Sets the Stage for Success
Early childhood education programs, such as high quality preschool and early reading experiences, can help children overcome the obstacles to learning that poverty and other disadvantages present.
Early childhood program availability varies by state; some states have multiple state-funded programs while others do not have any. Across 42 states and the District of Columbia, there are 57 state-funded preschool programs, 33 of which have a family income requirement for program eligibility (National Institute for Early Education Research, 2016).15 Idaho, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming do not have state funded pre-k programs. Enrollment in preschool programs is increasing across the country and state pre-k funding increased by upwards of $553 million in 2014-15. Despite these gains, only 29 percent of four-year-olds are enrolled in preschool programs.16
At the city level, 98 of the 114 cities included in State of Our Cities offer early childhood programs for which low family income is an eligibility requirement. Additionally, 82 districts offer full-day early childhood programs and 80 offer half-day programs; 53 districts (46 percent) offer both full and half-day programs.
Seat availability ranges broadly in city early childhood programs, from high levels of availability in cities like the District of Columbia and Baltimore, MD, to the relative scarcity of program seats in cities like Memphis, TN. In 2013-14, the most recent year for which city level data are available, the District of Columbia enrolled 5,565 children in early childhood programs—equal to 12 percent of the district’s overall student population of 44,916. In Memphis, a district that serves 149,832 students, early childhood program enrollment was as low as 2,994, equal to less than two percent of the district’s overall enrollment.
The District of Columbia’s high pre-K capacity is a result from the city’s Pre-K Enhancement and Expansion Act of 2008, which committed the city to providing universal pre-K to all three-year-olds and four-year-olds. The District of Columbia now has the highest participation rate in the country among state-funded pre-K programs, equal to 86 percent of the city’s three-year-olds and four-year-olds.17 By contrast, Memphis voters rejected a 2013 referendum to increase funding for pre-K.18
To address the need for more seats in early childhood programs, an increasing number of cities are considering new funding streams for pre-K programs that will dramatically expand access to these vital services. In recent years, cities such as San Antonio, TX; Memphis, TN; Seattle, WA; and Denver, CO have all held ballot initiatives for voters to decide whether to fund pre-K programs. With the exception of Memphis, voters approved the proposed funding streams. Additionally, in Boston, MA, the city government has dedicated city funds to expanding pre-K access. Similarly, in San Francisco, CA, the city has implemented a universal pre-K program approved by voters.
The Future State of Our Cities
States and cities now have significant responsibility to create and implement policies that ensure the success of all of their students. The city and education leaders who embrace this responsibility, and use data to better understand what is happening in their schools, will be best positioned to make decisions that improve student outcomes.
Our hope is that State of Our Cities will provide mayors, policymakers and other stakeholders with the information they need to better assess their city’s schools and student outcomes and then draw their own conclusions about the most effective ways to make improvements. By understanding the major factors that impact city education systems, as well as their most prominent challenges, local policymakers can more effectively engage with key stakeholders to implement solutions that close achievement gaps and improve public education for all students.
These data are only available for 21 of the 114 cities included in State of Our Cities.
Methodology for categorization of diplomas based on: http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2015/06/04/412093161/the-truth-behind-your-states-high-school-grad-rate
See, for example: Darling-Hammond, Linda. Teacher Quality and Student Achievement. Education Policy Analysis Archives, v. 8, p. 1, Jan. 2000. http://epaa.asu.edu/ojs/article/view/392
For a review of the research on teacher experience, see: https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/sites/default/files/product-files/Teaching_Experience_Report_June_2016.pdf