Best and Worst Cities for School Reform

If you think about the cities best known for education reform, a few always come to mind: New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Washington, D.C. But sometimes reputations outlast reality, and stars in the making don't get the recognition they deserve.

That's one of the undeniable conclusions of a new report by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute that purports to rank the best and worst cities for school reform. Rather than rank urban school districts by their test scores or dropout rates, Fordham has graded cities based on how welcoming they are to education reformers and new ideas; how supportive they are in terms of money, politics, and problem-solving; and how high they set the bar with regard to quality.

While it's not shocking that New Orleans, D.C., and New York top the list, it's surprising that some cities that get little press about their reform efforts—Denver; Jacksonville, Fla.; Charlotte, N.C.; Austin, Houston, and Ft. Worth, Texas—get equally high scores.

Reformers tend to talk up the same small group of cities even as things on the ground change over time, acknowledges Frederick Hess, director of education studies at the American Enterprise Institute, who worked with analysts and researchers at Fordham to design and compile the report.

"That's partly why these exercises are really helpful," he says. "We all frequently talk to each other about the best cities to look at, and it becomes an echo chamber. But when we looked at the data, there were surprises, like Jacksonville, which few of us thought of as a hotbed of reform."

Meanwhile, a few cities that have long been thought of as leaders in education reform—such as Philadelphia, Boston, and Milwaukee (which earned a D, a C, and another C, respectively)— scored significantly lower than many might have expected, and Detroit, which some national education leaders have mentioned as an up-and-comer, got an F.

"We used to think of Philadelphia as producing the schools of the future, but we would suggest that they need to back up and take another look at themselves," Hess says.

No city earned an A. The top score was a B, so clearly the researchers concluded that there's room for improvement everywhere. Hess adds that he hopes the rankings will become an annual or semiannual affair, and "spur a more serious national conversation about how cities can create the conditions where problem-solvers can thrive and most effectively serve our kids."