For a nation hungry for good news about its schools, some promising results are emerging where they're least expected: large-city school districts.
While reading scores for fourth graders are dipping nationwide, they are on the rise in such cities as Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, and New York. Some urban districts are even starting to exceed the performance of suburban schools on certain test scores, when students are sorted by demographics and race.
The latest evidence of a modest urban education renaissance is contained in the 2003 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), a widely watched federal report card on school performance released Wednesday. While big-city schools are hardly uniform in their progress - and serious problems remain - the gains reflect two decades of reform in the nation's urban classrooms that are helping to erase some of the "blackboard jungle" perceptions of the 1970s.
"The common perception that students in urban public schools do not achieve is not supported by the NAEP results," says Darvin Winick, chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the NAEP. "The real story is that students in these urban school districts can compete."
Perhaps the most striking improvement is that urban city school districts were willing to be compared on a national test, education experts say. The pattern, especially in the South, had been to obscure huge achievement gaps with the rest of the nation by setting testing standards low.
"It was a courageous thing for urban schools to agree to do this. It marks a sea change of attitude," says Mark Musick, president of the Southern Regional Education Board and former NAEP chairman. "Ten or 12 years ago, you cannot have imagined urban schools saying, 'Measure us by the NAEP ruler.' They knew the results would not be good, and there would be further piling on."
Exhibit A for the urban success story is Charlotte-Mecklenburg, where students exceeded national public school averages in mathematics and matched those in reading. The nine other school districts participating in the 2003 Trial Urban District Assessment fell below overall national averages, but scored about the same when results were sorted by income and demographics.
Unlike most urban success stories, these results also measure systemwide change, not just "miracle" results at a single inner-city school, education experts say. It's a much tougher job to improve a system than to show gains in a single school.
"The districts that show sustained gains are those that had a clear focus and a coherent strategy for getting there," says Michael Cohen, president of Achieve Inc., a bipartisan non-profit organization led by governors and CEOs to improve public education.
In Charlotte-Mecklenburg, school officials set "very aggressive" goals for poor students, including requiring principals to ensure that black and Hispanic students gained access to higher-level math classes. They centralized reading instruction around basic phonics, and required all classrooms to teach it.
"There is no mandate that a student will be ready at a certain age for algebra; [the] question is, How has the school system been engineered so students are ready?" says Eric Smith, former superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg public schools, now superintendent in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. "It's the system's fault - and not the student's fault - if schools fail to bring students to an appropriate level of coursework."
Still, for urban schools, that appropriate level is a long reach. Even at a national level, only 31 percent of students are "proficient" in fourth grade mathematics, according to NAEP, which defines proficiency as "competency over challenging subject matter" - a higher standard than most state tests.
Fourth-grade math proficiency for public schools averages 21 percent in large central cities, ranging from a high of 41 percent in Charlotte to 7 percent in the District of Columbia. Gaps in reading are as striking: While 30 percent of the nation is proficient in fourth grade reading, only 20 percent of large central city schools meet that standard.
Still, NAEP results show that represents a jump from 17 percent in 2002, while national results over the same period stayed flat. In the eighth grade, the gap is 11 percentage points, representing about a grade level.
"It makes sense to be able to compare Houston with Boston and the rest of the country. It points the way to where the whole country should be going," says Chester Finn, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and an early advocate for national testing. "But with the fascinating exception of Charlotte-Mecklenberg, they are doing worse than the national average, and the national average is dismal."
Looming budget cuts could make closing those gaps even more of a challenge for big city school systems. The District of Columbia projects cuts of 545 teachers and 226 administrative staff by year's end, to help cut a $38 million budget deficit.
Baltimore expects cuts of between 800 and 1,000 school personnel.
"The money does count. The money is critical. Those who think it can be done without an investment are inaccurate," says former Charlotte school chief Smith, who now faces cutbacks of his own in suburban Maryland.