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Which cities are most willing to tackle education reform?

A report released Tuesday ranks cities not in terms of best-performing schools but on their openness to outside ideas and education reform.

By Staff Writer / August 24, 2010

The French Quarter with the city's high rises in the background, is shown in this photo. Education entrepreneurs would do well to head to New Orleans.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor

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Education entrepreneurs – the sort of people who want to open a new charter school, or have an innovative way to get talented new teachers into schools – would do well to head to New Orleans. Or Washington or New York.

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Detroit or Philadelphia? Not so welcoming.

At least that’s the judgment of "America's Best (and Worst) Cities for School Reform: Attracting Entrepreneurs and Change Agents," a study released Tuesday that’s attempting to rank cities in a new way. It doesn't look at how well their students perform, or even on the programs their districts have put in place, but on how welcoming they are to reforms and new ideas. The education version of the World Bank’s annual ranking of the best countries for business, if you will.

“What I’m suggesting is a different way to think about reform than we usually do,” says Frederic Hess, director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute and one of the authors of the report for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Instead of looking at changes that district leaders are pushing, he says, he wanted to see how open cities are to bottom-up changes – a framework that stems from his belief that the best way to change big, established systems is often through outsiders bringing in new tools and new ideas.

The results included some of the usual suspects – cities that are often bandied about among education wonks talking about reform – as well as a few surprises.

Jacksonville, Fla., for instance – a city on very few education radar screens – was fifth on the list of 30 cities (the 25 largest plus five that are often mentioned as “reform” cities). And Charlotte, N.C., and Austin, Texas, were sixth and seventh. Both cities are usually well regarded for student achievement, but not talked about as hotbeds of reform. Philadelphia and San Diego, meanwhile, both cities that are generally looked at favorably, received Ds.

To settle on the grades, Mr. Hess looked at six measures: human capital, financial capital, quality control, political environment, openness to charter schools, and the district environment. He and the other researchers relied extensively on survey data, with standardized surveys issued both to local education operators and national groups, like Teach for America, KIPP schools, and The New Teacher Project.

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