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.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
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.

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.

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.

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.

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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