Eye on Education

Why Urban Districts Can’t Replicate Top Performing Schools

Students at Warner Girls Leadership Academy, one of the specialty schools in the Cleveland.

Michelle Kanu / ideastream

Students at Warner Girls Leadership Academy, one of the specialty district schools in Cleveland.

In urban districts around Ohio where dozens of schools are failing, there are a handful of noteworthy outliers.  Dayton Early College Academy, Kilgour Elementary in Cincinnati, and Youngstown Community School are just a few district and charter schools excelling on the state report card.

Critics often argue if these schools can earn top marks, then all the other public schools in those urban communities should be able to succeed too.

But Piet Van Lier, a research analyst with the left leaning think tank Policy Matters Ohio, says its time policy makers, education reformers and public school naysayers stop making apples to oranges comparisons.

“It can be misleading because these schools often serve different populations of students, fewer disadvantaged students, fewer low income kids, fewer kids with disabilities,” he says.  He adds that those top performers often enroll a smaller population or select students based on GPA or test scores.   That leaves the rest of the urban schools serving students with greater needs, he says.

Van Lier’s conclusions stem from a new report that compares the demographics of top scoring public schools in Ohio’s eight largest urban school districts.  He says telling typical urban schools to replicate the model of their high achieving peers is unrealistic.

“If you’re just focused on replicating the excellent schools, you’re going to miss an entire population and you’re not going to serve your city or your families well,” he says.  “We want advocates, policymakers, reporters to be honest about the challenges and avoid misleading comparisons.”

Van Lier says he doesn’t disparage well performing schools for their success.  But he hopes his research will redirect the conversation about reforming urban education to focus on the programs that are working well in schools that are struggling.



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