Our Take

Today, education policymaking and implementation has primarily shifted from the federal level to states and cities. As a result, mayors, education officials, school boards, and state leaders have a bigger role to play than ever before in improving our nation’s schools.

Accountability in education has four principles at its heart: high standards for student performance, high quality measurement of student performance, accountability for outcomes, and use of outcome data to improve performance. That final element — the use of outcome data — is why State of Our Cities exists. This tool, first released in September 2016 and updated in January 2019, serves to help city and state leaders and stakeholders use reliable data to improve educational outcomes for all students.

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 115 cities featured and compare them side-by-side with other city profiles.

The comparison features of the tool — both in the City Profiles and in the Explore section — help users ask the questions that can drive action in their city or region. There are many topics to investigate, including:

  • Are my city’s high school graduation rates and state assessment data aligned? In other words, are our students graduating on track academically for future success?
  • Do our students have access to AP coursework and are they passing those courses? Are other cities having more success?
  • What does the data about our city’s teachers tell us — from salary to percentage of new teachers to absenteeism?
  • What conclusions can we draw from comparing our city’s TUDA data with our state assessment data? Are our students ahead nationally or falling behind?
  • What achievement gaps exist in our city across all the data points? Our all our students on track, or are certain subgroups falling behind?

Of course, identifying gaps and connecting data points to pinpoint root cause issues is only the first step for city and state leaders. Identifying — and implementing high quality interventions — is where impact happens and outcomes for kids and their families improve. The tool’s Spotlight section shares research and case studies around five key issues to support that work: College and Career Readiness, Chronic Absenteeism, Afterschool, Middle School, and Principal Talent Management.

Users may also benefit from reading the A Word: Accountability — The Dirty Word of Education Reform series which features the wisdom and experience of leaders at the Federal, State, and District levels. These practitioners and leaders use accountability policy and practices — including data — to ensure that students are on track for prosperous self-determined lives. The Big Idea of School Accountability captures the important history that lead us to today’s policies and debates.

Why does all this matter so much? Because we know that today’s young people can only achieve economic independence and become engaged citizens if they have genuine choices for their own futures.

Today, we can only reasonably predict 50 percent of the jobs that will exist in 25 years. We will say farewell to jobs that can easily be routinized — like paralegals, loan officers, and cashiers. Companies are starting to pay attention to this coming transformation. For example, in 2018, AT&T announced a billion-dollar effort to “retool” half its workforce to upgrade employees’ skills for the future.

So how do our education systems prepare for that kind of uncertainty? What types of schools, instruction, and curriculum are needed to set kids up for success? And what does this mean for the hundreds of thousands of young Americans who today attend low-performing schools?

Too often, the students attending those low-performing schools are children of color who live near or below the poverty line. They end up in low-skill, low-wage jobs because of their subpar educations and the subsequent lack of choices about their futures. Those students are also the ones who will be first and disproportionately impacted when those low-wage jobs begin to disappear.

This leads to some big questions with both moral and policy implications. What does this mean for the ever-growing divide between America’s haves and have-nots? What does this mean for America’s global competitiveness?

This is not a Republican or Democratic issue — this is an American issue.

The George W. Bush Institute believes that accountability matters because it supports the conviction that all kids — regardless of race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status — can learn and succeed. That is not the case in every school around the country. When visiting struggling schools, we sometimes hear things like “some kids just won’t do as well” or “it’s just too difficult to catch those kids up.” President George W. Bush meaningfully described this phenomenon of setting different standards for certain kids as the soft bigotry of low expectations. It was a powerful phrase then, and it remains powerful now.

We believe in helping city and state leaders understand and embrace strong accountability in their education practices and policies. We are not interested in playing a cruel game of “gotcha” with teachers, but we are interested in ensuring that all kids in their communities and states have access to a great education and real choices about their futures.

People will need to read, write, do math, and solve problems whether they are a plumber or an investment banker or a teacher, so it makes sense to measure if students are on track in these areas.

There is much still to discover about how children learn and how we can meaningfully measure success over time. But, as we anticipate what education will look like in the future, we should hold fast to what we know works while we investigate new approaches. That disciplined approach will ultimately better serve all of America’s young people.