September 13, 2016

Lessons Learned for Transforming Urban Public Education

By: By Matthew P. Steinberg and Rand Quinn
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Over the past 15 years, new education policies have led to a host of reforms throughout the country, spanning everything from standardized accountability testing and class size reduction to school choice and merit pay, to name just a few. Which of these reforms have actually worked to improve the lives of students in the nation’s urban schools—and which have failed to live up to expectations despite the best of intentions?

With an eye toward informing state and local school leaders, our new working paper, entitled "Education Reform in the Post-NCLB Era: Lessons Learned for Transforming Urban Public Education" published by Penn IUR and the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank, looks deeply at the evidence of education policies and practices over the past 15 years. In particular, we focus on what is known about the evidence-based outcomes of four major education reform initiatives: (a) investments in early childhood education; (b) human capital policies; (c) accountability, standards, and assessment; and (d) market-based reforms and school choice.

We focus on empirical evidence produced through rigorous analysis that lends itself to causal conclusions about the impact of education practices and policy reforms. While the full paper  provides a comprehensive discussion of this scholarship, below is a brief summary of some of our overarching conclusions.

Early childhood education: Early childhood education programs need qualified professionals. Programs, such as those in Tulsa and Oklahoma, which require a bachelor’s degree and compensate pre-K teachers in line with their K-12 colleagues, generate positive results. In addition, providing ongoing professional development for pre-K teachers and limiting class sizes are important program features.

Human Capital Policies: Teacher human capital policies must be comprehensive and multi-faceted. Teacher induction programs that provide rigorous supports have a positive impact over time. Effective evaluation systems in Cincinnati and Chicago entailed comparatively frequent classroom observations and provided teachers with detailed feedback during post-observation conferences.

Accountability, Standards and Assessment: High-stakes testing may generate improvements in academic achievement, although unintended consequences—for instance, focusing just on those students near threshold scores or focusing just on test-specific skills—may occur. Furthermore, accountability hinges on the effective use of relevant data. Urban school districts can harness data to drive improvements in achievement, and data on the academic performance of schools can be a valuable resource for parents when making school choice decisions.

Market-based Reforms/School Choice: Certain choice-based reforms have been effective in improving academic outcomes. Small schools in New York, where applicants seeking to establish a school underwent a rigorous selection process and schools received substantially larger per-pupil funding enjoyed high graduation rates. Similarly, “No Excuses” charter schools, like the Promise Academy schools of the Harlem Children’s Zone, can produce impressive results for their students. These schools are unique, however, in that they have large per-pupil allocations, require longer school days and a longer school year, and provide various achievement incentives for both students and teachers.

Our aim is to inform policymakers, school leaders, and the public on critical issues in contemporary school reform, and the extent to which these efforts have improved the educational conditions in our major urban districts. Ultimately, we believe that future reform efforts should be informed by past experiences in order to create and expand opportunities for upward mobility in urban America.

Matthew P. Steinberg is a Penn IUR Faculty Fellow and Assistant Professor at Penn’s Graduate School of Education. Rand Quinn is an Assistant Professor at Penn’s Graduate School of Education. This Urban Link article summarizes the working paper “Education Reform in the Post-NCLB Era: Lessons Learned for Transforming Urban Public Education” released by Penn IUR and the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank and prepared for Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia conference.

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