When you’re trailing by several runs late in a baseball game, it’s no time to bunt. Yet in the realm of education, policymakers routinely settle for minuscule measures that won’t fix the large disparities in student performance.
A new report by the Center on Reinventing Public Education paints a bleak picture of the state of urban education and calls for aggressive reforms to address the failures. The study evaluated student performance in 50 cities, including Santa Ana, Los Angeles, San Diego and Chula Vista. Unlike similar studies, it combined data for district-run schools and charter schools to provide a comprehensive summary of how cities are performing. Overall, the results were concerning.
In almost every city studied, poor students were more likely than their peers to attend the lowest-performing schools. They were also less likely to enroll in advanced math courses and take the SAT/ACT college board tests. On average in these cities, an astounding one out of every four ninth graders did not go on to graduate from high school within four years.
The good news: In Santa Ana, the numbers were much better than in the other 49 cities. In fact, 90 percent of students graduate from high school in four years, and the achievement gap between rich and poor students was smaller in Santa Ana than in the other cities studied.
But there were other problems. Santa Ana schools experienced losses in math and reading relative to statewide data. In a given year, only 15 percent of Santa Ana high school students took the SAT/ACT and a paltry 9 percent were enrolled in advanced math courses.
The situation doesn’t appear to be getting better. The Center on Reinventing Public Education found little evidence that schools are improving. It concluded that, in order for all students “to have real opportunities to learn, urban public education needs to focus on more than just incremental improvement.”
Quite simply put, policymakers and educators need to swing for the fences. One way to do that is to adopt the portfolio management model. At its heart, portfolio management is the belief that school-level autonomy drives innovation. Principals have increased flexibility with things like budgeting, staffing and curricular decisions. This allows them to more effectively align strategy with student needs.
Ultimately, portfolio management allows for a diverse supply of schools to flourish and provides parents with more options. A district’s portfolio might include a mix of traditional public schools, charters and private schools. If a school fails to achieve acceptable outcomes, it must improve quickly or face closure.
New Orleans’ Recovery School District is an example of how portfolio management can revolutionize urban school districts. Since 2005, New Orleans has significantly closed achievement gaps and improved student performance. According to Tulane University Professor Douglas Harris, a typical student’s performance has increased by 8 to 15 percentile points. Additionally, New Orleans’ rate of college-bound graduates has increased from 19 percent to over 51 percent in only 10 years.
Cities like New Orleans, where the overwhelming majority of students attend charter schools, give parents real options. Meanwhile, the report found Santa Ana had the least diverse supply of schools among all 50 cities reviewed. This lack of charter and private school options for parents means underperforming public schools aren’t incentivized to make significant changes. More than a third of its schools that were in the bottom 5 percent of state results for reading stayed there for the duration of the study.
It is clear that cosmetic tweaks in policy will not provide the fundamental changes that California’s students deserve. Allowing schools to operate with less bureaucracy and real accountability via portfolio management could transform education in Santa Ana and across the state.
Aaron Garth Smith is an education policy analyst at Reason Foundation. This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register.