America's best (and worst) cities for school reform

Reform via entrepreneurialism is all the rage in education circles, at least as revealed by magazine articles and conference keynotes. Think of Teach For America and New Leaders for New Schools, of KIPP and Uncommon Schools, of Wireless Generation, K12, EdisonSchools, SchoolNet, and so many more players that scarcely existed a few years back.

But how widespread is this spirit of innovation and enterprise in America’s major metropolises? Alas, not so much. Too few of our big cities turn out to have the talent, leadership, infrastructure, culture, and resources—both human and financial—to beckon enterprising reformers and then help them to succeed there.

That’s the core finding of Fordham’s newest study, America’s Best (and Worst) Cities for School Reform: Attracting Entrepreneurs and Change Agents, authored by AEI’s Rick Hess and two stalwart Fordham staffers, Stafford Palmieri and Janie Scull. But they found some positives, too: A handful of communities have succeeded in creating healthy reform environments. The actual, as Kant observed, proves the possible. If a few places can begin to resemble Silicon Valley when it comes to education reform, others could, too. Be warned, however, that it isn’t easy.

Let us be clear: This is a study of cities, not just school systems. We’re interested in the “conditions” that make education reform apt to gain traction in entire communities. It’s what Hess has previously coined an education “ecosystem,” the myriad factors that make education change likely to take root and blossom. He and his teammates examined thirty U.S. cities in search of seventy-some such factors (amassed into six areas) through public data sources and novel national and local surveys.

Nine cities rose to the top of the reform-friendly heap: New Orleans; Washington D.C.; New York City; Denver; Jacksonville; Charlotte; Austin; Houston; and Fort Worth. They all earned Bs. (There were no As. Everyplace we looked, there was room for improvement!) At the bottom were six cities with Ds and Fs: San Jose; San Diego; Albany; Philadelphia; Gary; and Detroit.

What to make of these results? On the one hand, they aren’t too shocking. Everybody knows about exciting reforms underway in New Orleans, Washington, New York, Houston, and Denver. And everybody rues the plight of unyielding education systems in declining communities such as Detroit and Gary.

But not everybody would have predicted that Austin, Charlotte, Jacksonville, and Fort Worth would turn out to be hotbeds—well, warmbeds—of edupreneurship. Austin apparently benefits from the long and successful run of superintendent Pascal “Pat” Forgione as well as the general spirit of innovation that pervades that community—not to mention a relatively weak teachers’ union. Charlotte has a well-run countywide school system with lots of middle-class support, and a labor environment conducive to reform. Jacksonville profits from the aggressive reforms of the Jeb Bush era in Florida as well as a burgeoning, reform-friendly, philanthropic community—and a strong state charter law. Fort Worth boasts a strong municipal environment and a school district that actively uses data to adjust its policies and programs.

A scan of the bottom-scoring cities reveals that reform apathy plays no geographic favorites. In their overall indifference or hostility to entrepreneurial education reform, we find scant difference between such “rust belt” cities as Detroit and Gary and more prosperous (and populous) coastal and “sun belt” locales like San Jose, San Diego, and Philadelphia. None is attracting scads of eager innovators and none boasts reform-friendly labor policies. Many feature calcified bureaucracies and lethargic municipal leaders.

Is there hope for the laggards? Indeed, yes. This study outlines ample opportunities for mayors, school systems, and business leaders to turn things around. Such transformations won’t come easily or fast—but, then, Silicon Valley did not become a hotbed of innovation overnight. It took decades to infuse it with the financial capital, talent, networks, and expertise that make it what it has become.

To move their community seriously toward entrepreneurial education reform, local leaders must think very differently than in the past. Monopolies and top down reforms can only get you so far. Competition is healthy for the public sector, as is out-of-the-box thinking. There's a nimbleness and creativity to non-governmental providers. But the injection of a small dose of innovation doesn't inoculate the entire body—or transform the whole ecosystem. Entrepreneurial growth needs to occur energetically, smartly, and in a sustained way.

We also acknowledge that entrepreneurial reform is no silver bullet. Equally important are quality teachers, rigorous academic standards, rich curricula, vibrant school choice, capable school leaders, data-based decision making, astute governance, rational finances, and scads of other elements. Many of these begin with sound, learning-centered, kid-oriented public policies and effective district (and state) leadership. But most of them also occur faster and more surely if those policies and leaders are open to innovation and assistance from entrepreneurs.

That’s really the lesson of this study. The reform needle is most apt to move when it is nudged twice. America’s most promising education warmspots blend sound top-down state and local policies with environments that welcome entrepreneurial activity and private initiative. The welcoming gradually permeates their public policies and their community culture. And their superintendents, chancellors, mayors and other leaders encourage and facilitate this melding because they recognize that it works better than government alone—even though opening the door and ushering unconventional people and organizations through it will cause dismay and discomfort in the usual places.

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