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Why the Movers and Shakers in Cities Should Use the New State of Our Cities Report

The new State of Our Cities report, released today at a mayors’ roundtable at the Bush Center, is a comparative tool prepared by the Bush Institute to help leaders (and average citizens, for that matter) make sense of city level education data.

Article by Beth Ann Bryan September 20, 2016 //   5 minute read
The interactive resource, designed to help mayors better engage in their city’s education landscape, was previewed this morning at a Mayors Roundtable hosted by the Bush Institute, which welcomed mayors and superintendents from across Texas for a discussi

How many times have business, civic, or media leaders in a city seen data on the city's schools and wondered exactly what it means or how it compares to other cities? Is it a good thing that 78% of our students graduate high school? What about the fact that 85% of our city's kids pass reading at a basic level in 8th grade according to state tests – but only 33% of those same 8th graders are proficient in reading according to a national test.  Which number is right?  Are they measuring the same thing? How does our average teacher salary compare to other cities? How are leaders supposed to navigate these numbers, put them into context, and then make decisions?

The new State of Our Cities report, released today at a mayors’ roundtable at the Bush Center, is an explanatory and comparative tool prepared by the George W. Bush Institute to help leaders (and average citizens, for that matter) make sense of city level education data.

The report pulls together publically available information (more than 30 different data points) for 114 large US cities. The information ranges from the number of schools and students, median family income and child poverty rate, teacher salaries, and after-school programs. But, potentially the most insightful data is the student academic competency data.  The tool includes state test data, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data – which includes TUDA data (a special NAEP for 22 specific large urban cities/districts), and data on graduation rates and measures of college readiness. This information can then be easily compared across cities and across demographic groups within a city to get a very broad picture of what is happening in a particular city’s schools.

 One of the most helpful comparisons is that between state test results and the results on the NAEP. State tests vary greatly from state to state, but NAEP, a national test, helps show how students perform across the country. State of Our Cities reveals that some cities have very similar "passing at basic" scores on their state tests AND on their NAEP scores. The results corroborate each other, as we would hope they would.

But it is surprising (and discomforting) that some cities show, say, 87% of their students passing at basic 8th grade reading when the NAEP data shows only 55% of their students passing basic 8th grade reading. Reading scores at the 8th grade level are a decent predictor of a student’s performance in high school and beyond – so it is important that cities really understand proficiency of their respective students.

Let's take a mythical city as an example - Pleasantville, USA. You can use State of Our Cities and review Pleasantville’s city report to see data on academic outcomes, district trends, school finance, college and career pathways, school characteristics and environment.  You can pull up cities that are similar to Pleasantville and discover that cities with similar average family incomes and racial makeup, in fact, do much better than Pleasantville on NAEP's TUDA evaluation. This tells you that other similar cities have managed to do a better job educating their students, comparing apples to apples. However, you do see that Pleasantville has a fairly high average teacher salary and a stronger early childhood program compared to other similar cities. You also notice that Pleasantville has a lower percentage of minority students taking Advanced Placement courses than other similar cities.   

These kinds of comparisons reveal the questions we should be asking of ourselves and our city’s education leaders.  What cities can we learn from?  What successes should we celebrate and encourage?  Where does my city need to focus significant resources (people, money, policies and time) to improve?  

A small warning to the leaders who delve into this tool: it is fairly addictive. The ability to make the various comparisons is compelling, and it is easy to get lost doing things like comparing your current city to the one where you were raised, looking for the cities who seem to be doing a very good job in certain areas - certainly good news for the children who live there- versus other cities with similar demographics.

The challenge for all of us is to bring all of our cities up to the level of those that are doing the best. Hopefully, this tool will help city leaders do exactly that.