Can Gateway City innovations close the achievement gap?

Last month MassINC released a major research report examining changes in public education in the 15 years following passage of the landmark 1993 Education Reform Act. The report’s findings and conclusions place Gateway Cities at the center of the debate about what to do next.

While the report did not set out to examine the experience of individual districts, in reviewing the data, it was impossible to ignore the dramatic increase in poverty in the state’s urban communities, many of them Gateway Cities. The average Gateway district went from less than half low-income students in 1992 to nearly two-thirds in 2008 (see table below). These 11 regional cities, urban centers vital to the Commonwealth’s economic future, now represent seven of the 10 highest poverty districts in the state.

Lowincome

Matching the percentage of low-income students in Gateway City districts with graduation rates and test scores shows a strong correlation remains between poverty and lower levels of student performance. Ranked by the share of students who are low-income, graduation rates and test scores decline in nearly a straight line (see below). To give students a chance to succeed in the New Economy, clearly, more must be done in Gateway Cities to address the effects that poverty can have on academic performance.

Gradrates

Making real gains will require resources + new innovation

Data generated by rigorous testing ushered in with Ed Reform have taught us a lot about what low-income students need — quality early education, more time in the classroom, and access to the best teachers. Getting them what they need will cost money. Given the severe fiscal constraints both the state and local governments are likely to face for the foreseeable future, cost-saving efforts are urgently needed. This means moving more employees to the GIC, transferring retired employees to Medicare, maximizing Medicaid reimbursements for special education, reducing procurement costs, and working with energy companies to reduce utility costs.

Setting funding aside, there is still much to be discovered about scaling initiatives to improve access to quality early education, recruit the best teachers, and provide more time for structured educational activity. Midsize systems in Gateway Cities offer excellent opportunities to pilot these interventions district-wide with new federal funds.

The US Department of Education has included several grant programs in their FY2010 budget request that could help support new pilots. The What Works and Innovation Fund, for example, will provide $100 million for school districts that partner with nonprofit organizations that have a proven track record narrowing the achievement gaps. The Teacher Incentive Fund will deliver $517 million to support the implementation of performance-based compensation programs that increase student achievement in high-needs schools. The FY 2010 budget also includes funding for the Early Learning Challenge Fund ($300 million), resources to raise the quality of early learning programs. MassINC looks forward to following the innovative programs Gateway Cities will devise to compete for these grants.

Meet the Author

Ben Forman

Research Director, MassINC

About Ben Forman

Benjamin Forman is MassINC’s research director. He coordinates the development of the organization’s research agenda and oversees production of research reports. Ben has authored a number of MassINC publications and he speaks frequently to organizations and media across Massachusetts.

About Ben Forman

Benjamin Forman is MassINC’s research director. He coordinates the development of the organization’s research agenda and oversees production of research reports. Ben has authored a number of MassINC publications and he speaks frequently to organizations and media across Massachusetts.

Where do charters schools fit in?

Independent charter schools were one of the most controversial aspects of the Ed Reform law. While they have certainly not all had success, over the last 15 years, a number have been able to demonstrate approaches that can help low-income students reach the highest levels of achievement. Gov. Patrick’s recent legislation to lift the cap on charter schools in the lowest performing districts provides another new opportunity Gateway Cities should embrace. This legislation will help districts partner with the most successful charter organizations to bring their energy and effective models to more students. Gateway Cities can also take advantage of the lifting of the charter cap to link new schools to neighborhood revitalization efforts. Many urban communities have found this approach highly effective as a neighborhood transformation strategy. Simply providing families with greater school choice through expanded enrollment in charter schools will also, we believe, make a positive difference.

If we could look forward in time another decade and a half, what would a scan of the state’s Gateway Cities reveal? Would we see strong businesses and vibrant neighborhoods? The answer depends largely on whether we find resolve during these challenging times to take the steps we know are necessary to give Gateway City families access to high-performing schools.