A tale of two cities: student achievement in Dayton and Columbus

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...." Charles Dickens' line about Paris and London in the 18th century applies aptly to the state of public education in Columbus and Dayton in 2008.

After the release, recently, of the latest state report-card data, it may seem more like the best of times for Columbus and its district schools, which continue on an upward climb and the worst of times in Dayton for its district schools.

This is not to say that both districts don't share some challenges. Dayton Public Schools' enrollment has contracted by almost 18 percent in six years and Columbus City Schools' by more than 16 percent. Both districts have lost students to charter schools and both are educating a large percentage of needy and minority children. Both, also, are seeking to pass an operating levy in November, and each has made clear that, should their levies fail, painful cuts will be made to academic programs. But this is where similarities end.

The Columbus City Schools have been making steady academic progress. The district has seen its Performance Index Score (a weighted average of student achievement across all state tests) steadily rise (from 67.5 in 2002-03 to 81.7 in 2007-08). The district was rated in continuous improvement (a "C" on the state's designation system) in both 2007 and 2008, and it has seen the number of its students passing all or parts of the state's achievement tests increase. In 2007-08, Columbus's district children out-performed the average of the state's Big Eight districts. They also slammed local charters.

And it is not only on measures of student achievement that Columbus has been delivering results. The district is adding value-building on the previous learning of its students-according to the state's new value-added score, which shows how much progress students made in reading and math over the course of the school year. In the Columbus City Schools, 60 percent of students attended a school that met or exceeded expected growth targets. This contrasts to the Big Eight average of just 48 percent and the Columbus charter average of a meager 34 percent. This may not be educational nirvana but, clearly, Columbus is absolutely trending in the right direction.

And then there is Dayton and the Dayton Public Schools. Dayton is considerably poorer than Columbus. Even so, from 2002 to 2006, the Dayton Public Schools made real academic progress. In four years, the district pulled itself out of academic emergency (where it had been mired) to make continuous improvement in 2006. Then the wheels fell off. In the last two years the district rating has dropped to academic watch, and the district may now be the worst in the state.

In Dayton, charter schools still serve as a life-line for many children. The city's top-10 performing schools (top performing is a relative term) are either charter schools or district schools with charter-like operational freedoms. Whereas 47 percent of the district's 15,000 or so students are in schools rated in academic emergency, the 6,300+ charter students fare better with only 28 percent of students attending an F-rated school. The district is also struggling to help its students make sustained academic gains as measured by the state's value-added indicators. In this department, Dayton charter schools seriously outshined the district, only 37 percent of district students were in schools that met or exceeded the state targets while 68 percent of charter students were. Dayton charters also surpassed the gains made by students across the Big 8 and even those in the Columbus Public Schools.

What are the lessons of this tale of two cities? There are many, but three jump out. First, Ohio's accountability system works. It shows us what is working and what isn't. It is uncovering educational truths in each city. Second, charter schools are neither inherently good nor bad. They are tools for improving children's learning. Those that work should be encouraged and supported, and those that don't should lose their right to educate (and they should lose this right more expeditiously than they currently do). Third, Ohio's school-funding mechanism should be redesigned through the concept of "weighted student funding" so that every state dollar is targeted to the actual needs of children in individual schools as opposed to the whims or politics of a central office.

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