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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.

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It’s a methodology that, he acknowledges, is somewhat subjective, but that seems to give a clear indication of some areas where cities and districts are both welcoming to reform and come up severely short.

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New Orleans ranked first in the survey and received a B. It earned impressive marks for its human and financial capital and its charter and district and environment. Under Superintendent Paul Vallas, the district has actively sought outside philanthropic dollars and courted new teacher talent for its Recovery School District, and the district is open to bold ideas. On the other hand, harsh criticism of former Mayor Ray Nagin pushed the city’s score on municipal environment to 18th of 25.

Washington, a city often in the crosshairs of controversial reforms under Superintendent Michelle Rhee – who has pushed merit pay and firing teachers based on performance – ranked second (though again, with poor comments about the city’s political support).

“Movements toward results-based accountability and greater school choice over the past decade … have drawn widespread attention, additional resources, and a pool of talented, educational entrepreneurs to the scene,” the report says.

In some cases, state laws seem to play a key factor. Jacksonville’s presence near the top may be largely due to laws pushed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. (Miami, not one of the largest cities despite the size of its district, wasn’t included.) But in other states – like California and New York – cities varied widely in their rankings.

“Nobody gets an A yet,” notes Chester Finn, president of the Fordham Institute. “Not even DC or New Orleans or New York, which are almost poster children for entrepreneurial reform.” Mr. Finn, like Hess, hopes that the rankings will be a call to action to even those cities that score relatively well to look at what they can change.

Some of those things – simply having a more welcoming attitude to entrepreneurs and nontraditional providers or beginning to court more philanthropic dollars – are relatively easy for a district and city to change. They don’t cost money or require new laws.

Others are tougher for a city to change by itself. Teacher certification laws in Ohio are so onerous that big players like Teach for America and the New Teacher Project have simply stayed out of the state, notes Finn.

The rankings, says Finn, are likely to cause some pushback from cities that didn't score well, and will also trigger a lot of discussion about how to fine-tune the methodology for the future.

“But I also think that when you look at the lineup of cities in the rank order we’ve got them, there’s something intuitively right about how they line up based on what we know about what’s going on in those places,” he says.

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