Research on Public School Choice-Rich Cities Shows Progress, Reveals Problems
We talk with researchers Georgia Heyward and Christine Campbell from the Center on Reinventing Public Education about their latest research on public choice-rich cities.
In today’s EdChoice Chat, our Director of State Research and Policy Analysis Drew Catt talks with two researchers from the Center on Reinventing Public Education, Georgia Heyward and Christine Campbell. They talk about their new report, Stepping Up: How Are American Cities Delivering on the Promise of Public School Choice.
Click to listen to the full podcast, or read the transcript below.
Our Interview Transcribed
Drew Catt: Hello, I’m Drew Catt, EdChoice’s director of state research and policy analysis. I’m back today, speaking with Christine Campbell and Georgia Heyward on EdChoice Chats.
Both are researchers at the Center on Reinventing Public Education and co-authors of the report, Stepping Up: How Are American Cities Delivering on the Promise of Public School Choice.
Welcome and thanks for joining us today.
Georgia Heyward: Great to be here.
Christine Campbell: Thank you.
Drew Catt: Let’s jump right in. Would you start by telling us about this research and what inspired it? And, what ultimately where you hoping to learn?
Christine Campbell: Sure. Well, this is Christine Campbell. And, I think to answer that question, may take a step back just a little bit, just to talk about some of the work that we at the Center of Reinventing Public Education have been doing, where we have been tracking school systems that have been implementing the portfolio strategy for a number of years. So, basically giving families options, giving schools autonomy and then holding them accountable for performance. In doing that, we would track how they were implementing things. But, we weren’t really getting a sense of sort of whether things where improving in the city.
The other thing that happened over the years, is that the charter sector continued to grow and we were really only focused on districts. So we thought this is really a chance to kind of broaden our prospective, and look at a city the way a family might consider their cities. They’re not looking at sectors; they’re looking at the schools in their neighborhood or across town.
Drew Catt: Um hum.
Christine Campbell: So we decided we would dig into getting a better sense of the educational landscape. And, we picked about 18 high-choice cities, and included those district and charter schools in our research. And we also wanted to add more voices in our research. So, as I said we had been talking with districts. We added the charter sector, and we also added community voices. So community leaders and parents, who lived in neighborhoods impacted by low-performing schools. I really thought that was an important piece to add, to understand how well the intention of trying to do some work, was playing out in reality to families.
So we looked at really what we thought were three important measures: Whether the system was continuously improving, like do we see student outcomes filling up. Are students getting access to high quality education? So, the number of schools out there that are high preforming. Whether low-income students have access to advanced course work. And, then also whether the city education strategy was rooted in the community. Again, that’s the perception of how well is the work that’s being done really reflecting what it is that families say that they need and want.
So, those are the big things we went after. And then we also wanted to crystallize for the folks in these cities what we thought of the big challenges that became evident in our research. So, that’s how we kind of wrapped up each of the research pages that we created, was with some analysis on what we saw and heard, as we did the research.
Drew Catt: So, which cities did you study and how did you measure whether they were delivering on the promise of school choice?
Georgia Heyward: Hi. Yeah, this is Georgia Heyward. We look at, like Christine said, 18 cities and we really tried to look at a range of cities. So, we in part of our analysis were some of the largest cities in the nation—New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago. And we also looked at a lot of, some smaller cities like Camden, New Jersey, or Tulsa, Oklahoma. And, you know medium size—Atlanta, Georgia. So we looked across the country, different sizes of cities, different charter school shares. So, New Orleans almost every school is a charter school. In D.C. it’s almost 50/50. You get the picture.
To try to see what commonalities we could find across all these different cities. And, also to present a good enough variety that even cities that weren’t represented in our research, maybe they could find a city that was a little bit like them. And, when we went to measure this, I mean it was, we identified some student and school outcomes that we really just considered indicators. So, it’s very challenging to actually create measures that you can use across 18 different cities, that are going to be comparable.
So, we used publicly-available state and federal data, which that way if anyone had questions about our results, they could go back and replicate it. It did mean that some of our results were lagged. However, most of our data was from the 2014–15 school year. So again, this was just we thought of these as indicators of what is happening in the city. And in terms of student academic proficiency, we looked at proficiency rates in schools. We did not look at student growth. It was just outside the scope of a study like this, across 18 different cities. But we thought that by looking at proficiency rates in the schools in the city, relative to the state, we would have a sense of whether or not, how students, how schools where doing. And we could track some trends over time.
And we also looked at things like graduation rates, again, across the city. Student enrollment in advanced math course work, and a couple of other outcomes like that. And then, in reforms, like Christine mentioned we have done a lot of work in portfolio districts. Our center has done research on choice systems, what works and what doesn’t, and so using that we created some reform indicators, so that we could track the types of strategies that cities where using.
Drew Catt: Yeah. So about how many students are these types of policies affecting today?
Georgia Heyward: I think, well I mean, that’s a great question, and one of the things that we really realized in doing this research is almost every student in an urban system, and many in suburban school systems, are being educated in a city that uses choice policies. Because public school choice is not just charter schools. I think that’s one piece of it. Public school choice also includes being able to choose any district school within your district, or being able to choose a district school in the neighboring district.
A lot of cities have magnet school programs. Some cities like Denver have open enrollment across the city. And so, this impacts a very great number of students. I mean, we know that only about seven thousand students are being educated in charter schools. But like I said that’s, you know, when we look at, when you think about it broadly, it’s a lot of students.
Drew Catt: Yeah. So first let’s talk about access. Are cities with public school choice delivering?
Georgia Heyward: Okay, so this is Georgia again, and I think that Christine will jump in on this point, too. But, I would say yes and no. This is still an area that needs a lot of attention. But there is some good news. So, I will start with the good news.
We used a measure for our study called the Education Equality Index. This was a measure that was created by GreatSchools in Ed Cities. And what they did, was they looked at how well low-income students were preforming on state assessments, relative to their peers nationally. And, they did this at the school level and then they were able to roll that up to city level scores. And, so when we looked at the cities in our analysis, we could see that actually, again with this, you know this is just the small sample of cities that we looked at in our analysis. But, they were doing fairly well. Many of the cities are, in many of the cities, the low-income students in that city where performing better than their peers nationally. And we were actually a little bit surprised to see that.
And we did find some cities, another one of our indicators of access, was the distribution of students in advanced math coursework. We wanted to see if there was proportional representation, and we did find that in a couple of cities. Notably Camden, New Jersey; Memphis; New Orleans; Washington, D.C. So again just maybe a rough indication that these students, you know, a student no matter what your racial or ethnic background, you have just as much of a chance to be enrolled in an advanced math course as any other student.
And we did, you know a number of cities in our study also had really good policies in place, that research has found to improve access. And notably those were places like Cleveland, Washington, D.C., New Orleans. These are also, you know, cities that really take this seriously.
We found a lot of programmatic variety in our cities, which means that one of the ideas of choice, is that once you have a school that any student can enroll in, then you can also start to develop a more diverse, or more diverse portfolio of schools. And, diverse meaning different types of instructional models, different types of school programs, that maybe a single neighborhood couldn’t sustain. But if you have open enrollment across the city, then that school can exist. And, we actually did find in our analysis that there was quite a bit of variety among the school models within a city. Which we thought was a good indication or a good start towards making sure that different families can find a school that’s a right fit. And, then I’m going to let Christine jump in here.
Christine Campbell: Yeah, I was just kind of in on this as well. Because I think we were pretty struck. It was pretty remarkable to see. But when you look across the late teens, there were some trends. And cities have honed their strategies to really support school quality. So, a lot of the cities have policies to replicate schools from high-quality operators. Most charter authorizers had really strong authorizing practices. And, most of the cities of the district had some policies that would allow school leaders to hire their own teachers.
So really, essentially the new schools that are open in these cities are in a better position to do well. And more school leaders are able to seek and hire the teachers that are the right fit for their schools. So, those to us are kind of really promising trends when you look at the growth of high-quality schools across these cities.
Georgia Heyward: Yeah. And, we also did a survey in seven of our 18 cities. And one of, there were a set of questions we were asking parents to tell us about barriers that they perceived in the choice process. And you know, another good news, is that when you look at the number of barriers that parents were reporting, most parents were reporting that they faced no barriers or maybe just one barrier. So again, very good news.
I think to the access point though, you know, still talking about this parent survey, we found just about what you would expect. Which is, even though families overall weren’t reporting many barriers, low-income families were much more likely to cite more barriers than non-low-income families. And a greater percentage of them were facing barriers. So these are things like not being able to find the information that you need, not being able to find transportation that you need. And the two biggest ones were not finding a school that is a good fit or finding a school with good academics. So this, to us, really highlights attention where there is a greater variety of schools. There are, schools in general, are educating students better. But there’s still really a lack of access here, especially for low-income families.
And we didn’t quite know why that might be, but we can talk about that later. But this really remains a key tension. There was so, and with, even though there was overall, kind of, system academic growth you could say—or like Christine said, good policies in place—there’s still a lot of unevenness across student sub groups, in terms of outcomes and access.
Drew Catt: Yeah, now let’s talk for a minute about community. So how locally driven are these open enrollment programs?
Christine Campbell: Well, I think that the genesis for these often comes from just a growth of choice in a city. So more schools, more deadlines to consider, more different timelines, et cetera. And, so in the places where we’ve seen unified enrollment happen, that seems to come from the, out of the charter or the district sectors, sort of driving that. But if we’re talking about the growth of choice in cities, I think that is a, it’s a legislative function. So there’s permissions to be able to do that through charter laws. Certainly, within districts they have the right to decide their enrollment policies. Whether, that’s default to a school down the street, or whether their register opens up and families can choose from across the sector of schools.
And, I think that what we’re finding in that front, is that people really do value being able to choose. And that’s people from all income levels. So, as Georgia mentioned, we did surveys with families who lived in eight cities and looked across their choosing patterns. And, you know, across all income levels, and educational backgrounds, if a city has choice polices and options, families are exercising them, and they don’t want to give that up. So, I think that providing choice is something families like. Making it work for families is the challenge that, you know, falls to the policymakers and practitioners in these cities to actually deliver on.
Drew Catt: Yeah. And, speaking of the policymakers, are there ways that the policymakers or program administrators can improve the relationship, between these open enrollment polices and the communities that they effect?
Georgia Heyward: Yeah. I mean, you know, probably five years, maybe 10 years ago, you know, if we were to ask how much interaction districts and charters had with their communities, we would hear pretty little. And, you know, they would admit that, and the families would confirm that. I think there’s been a lot of effort over the last few years to really engage more with families. But, that said, it’s still probably not enough. And, so I think what needs to happen is a lot more true engagement. So, it’s less about the sharing information: you know, ”We’re going to be doing this thing, you should know about it.” And, bringing folks in earlier to a number of decisions.
And, I think that there is a real tension there. Because obviously, it can be hard to feel like you reached everyone. There will always be people who say, I didn’t hear about that, or I didn’t know. And, that you can slow down progress by trying to engage too frequently, and you can also maybe, convey, too, that public opinion will have more influence or impact than it does. So, there’s definitely dangers in terms of trying to deliver on a much broader public engagement plan.
But I think that the message we got in our interviews with community leaders was there’s just not enough that’s happened so far. And that when there has been engagement opportunities, it’s been a pretty closed loop. So the district or charters may ask for information and have forms, et cetera, and, people will participate and reply, but then they never hear what the outcome was. And they don’t know that it impacted—or didn’t—the a decision. And, so I think there’s just more refining of that feedback loop needs to happen.
Drew Catt: Yeah. So, let’s go back to those barriers. So you found that low-income families, under $35,000 per year, reported difficulties with the public choice process and wanted more information about school culture and programs. So how do you propose that cities address that shortcoming?
Christine Campbell: Well, there’s probably two ways to think about doing that. So one is just a really practical thing, and that is making sure that there’s information out there. So, I think when we looked across our 18 cities, only 11 of the cities even had a consolidated guide that you could turn to, to even find the list of the choices that were available. And even on that guide, when we looked more closely, many things were left off.
Excuse me. In some cities there was no performance information, and in other cities there was no information about special education programs, or ELL programs, or as you mentioned sort of curriculum and other, sort of, in-school information that families want to know. So, one of the things that we’ve seen happen in some cities and we really recommend with others is that you do put together a guide and you focus group that guide with families, so that you really understand what it is that they want to know more about.
So, in one case in Camden when they did focus groups, we were able to sit in on that, and we were able to learn a lot about what families wanted. They want to know about before and after school care, if that’s available at a school. And if it’s even offered at the school. Because sometimes kids will be put on buses and brought to a second location. That really mattered to parents. They also want to know about the instructional approach and what kind of curriculum and sometimes I think, schools think family is not really thinking about that. But, it really does matter, if this is how instruction is delivered, will that fit with my kids personality and interests. And they want to know about discipline rates. They want to know about fights.
So, those are things that I think districts and charters are kind of reluctant to share sometimes. But, that’s really important information for families. And, they know that these things are going to happen across every school, but there’s a certain amount of accountability that comes from being transparent about that. And like I mention, they want to know about special education and English language programs. And they would like these guides translated into other languages. So that some of the most vulnerable folks are able to make these choices.
So that’s just kind of the baseline that would be expected really in any city that has a lot of choice. But when it comes to the families that we found who were low income, these families living in poverty really need much more high touch support. And really every city needs to start to think about that because we don’t want to replicate another system where folks with agency aren’t getting the first place in line. So we’ve seen some really interesting developments in D.C. with DC School Reform Now, in New Orleans with Education Navigators. These are third party nonprofits that have devoted their work to helping families navigate this process, and they do it in really interesting ways. They connect one on one with people and really help them through. And in the case of the Navigators, they stay with them really through the whole K–12 experience, and help them navigate everything from IEPs to choosing their middle school after elementary, and beyond. So there’s a lot I think that can be done with current organizations that exist, and maybe opening up new ones.
Is there anything you want to add on that?
Georgia Heyward: Yeah, just to jump off of what Christine said, I think one thing that we heard from doing our community interviews was that families really take a lot of stock in their own social network. So “What is my friend doing?” or “What are the people at the local grocery store saying?” And I think one of the great things about these organizations that are doing high-touch support is that even though they may have a limited reach every year, all those families that they reach are then going to their own networks and telling their family members, their church groups, their community, and so you start to really see a ripple effect. And it is really important, and one of the things that they’re really doing, like Christine said, is they’re starting where the families are at: What is it that you care about? What is it that you want to know? And how can we help you get the education that your student deserves?
Drew Catt: Yeah, that’s great. So here’s the question of the hour. Are these cities’ education systems improving as a result of having these public school choice policies?
Georgia Heyward: Well so first we just wanna start off by saying we cannot say that. Our analysis was analysis. We didn’t have a research design that would allow us to answer that question. So that said, and it’s a very important caveat, we can just kind of descriptively look at our very small sample of cities, and we can see that some of them are doing well. We did find statistically significant improvement in math and ELA proficiency rates in five of our cities. It sounds like not much, but that’s actually pretty good over three to five years.
And one of the most notable findings was the lowest performing schools in cities were not remaining in that low-performing category. So across our cities, education leaders were able to, you know, those schools were not staying stuck in that low-performing category, which means they were either improving, they were restarting, maybe some of them closed, but for all of those students who had been enrolled in those low-performing schools, they were now in a school that was not chronically low-performing. So it’s really good news.
Most of our cities we found were gaining ground on their state and graduation rates, so this is all really great news. There’s still a long way to go in terms of catching up to state averages and proficiency rates, graduation rates and of that course access piece. But one thing that we heard really is, again when we were doing our community interviews, are families better off than they were? Family’s saying yes, they are. They’re “At least there are choices now. And at least there are conversations that are happening that never were before.” And that is significant.
Drew Catt: Yeah, and outcomes are a big deal, whichever side of the school choice fence that you’re on. So is there something policymakers can maybe change about these programs to improve academic achievement based on the research that was conducted?
Georgia Heyward: This is Georgia again, and I think the things that Christine mentioned are really important, and just to kind of add on a little bit. I mean, we really … Uncontrolled choice dictated by pure market principles is probably not gonna work out very well. So choice really needs guardrails. It needs good policy. It needs a lot of attention so that it will fulfill its promise.
And there’s some things that we’ve seen, and of course every, one of the beautiful things about these policies is that every city is going to decide what that means for them. But we have seen some great movement in creating accessible, user-friendly information guides. We think that’s a really important and fairly easy step to take, like Christine mentioned.
We have done some research on enrollment policies. We didn’t find in our parent survey that enrollment was cited as a major barrier, but it’s still really important to have enrollment that is easy for families to go through and an application that’s transparent and makes sense. And this is just pretty low-hanging fruit. Of course, politics can get in the way with both of those things, but it’s really important for education leaders to work together and buckle down so that these policies can really deliver.
There are some cities, San Antonio is a great example, that are using what’s called controlled choice. And that’s where, in San Antonio, as an example, they’re really looking to creating choice schools that have diversity by design models so that families from all incomes have, there’s places for them to enroll. We’ve seen some great movement towards neighborhood schools, so we see in places like Camden, in Philadelphia and Atlanta, you have these partnership schools, where a charter operator, a high-quality charter operator, is working with the district to create a local neighborhood school that can serve the families in that area. And so that to us is a great combination of using what’s available that’s come out of choice is these charter operators and leveraging their strength to make sure that families who most need a high-quality option have one.
You see places like Boston that have very controlled lottery systems to make sure that families always have access to a high quality option. There’s a number of different policies like that, that we think are very important. And like Christine was talking about it’s really important to work with communities. Whenever a city is opening a new school, whether that be a charter school or a district school, communities really should be front and center in terms of what is going to be a good fit model for that neighborhood.
When a school closure is necessary, and sometimes they are, again, families need to be front and center in that process to make sure that they know what is happening years in advance. That district or charter leaders are there helping families transition out of the school to find a better academic option. Then these are things that we know will make a difference in terms of achievement later on.
Drew Catt: Most definitely. So as a researcher myself, I know that I’m often surprised to see some trends come through. Are there any notable or unexpected findings beyond what we’ve already discussed?
Christine Campbell: Yeah, you know, that’s the interesting thing about this project was looking deeply into 18 cities, and then stepping back and looking across all of them. I think our big takeaways in terms of trends were just this piece about how important it is that when it comes to offering choice that you’re really offering supports as well. So information, access, et cetera, kinda clearing up those pieces that get complicated when you don’t have one monolithic system and one way of doing things. So that was one big takeaway.
Another thing that sort of surprised us was just how hard it is for these cities and sectors to be strategic. They either don’t have the data, or they have the data, but they don’t get really a chance to reflect and use it, or they have to be really opportunistic when it comes to, say, opening and siting a new school because of facilities challenges, et cetera. But what happens is that without that strategy and analysis, you get a really ad hoc policy, and we saw in too many cities that all the action, whether it was district improvement policies or new schools opening, were happening just in one part of town.
And there were whole other parts of town that had very low-performing schools, and the burden was on those families to put their children on buses and send them far across town. And so having that data, and the discipline to use it, I think struck us as a real need. And as Georgia mentioned, just involving community more in a lot of these decisions, so just there’s a lot more attention that needs to be paid, even just smaller transactional things, like grievance procedures in the charter sector, and making that more clear.
We heard cases where a family had a problem with a charter school and they didn’t know how to resolve it, so they would end up at a school board meeting, in a city that the schools were not authorized by the school district. So again, as I mentioned earlier when you become a decentralized system of schools, there are new challenges to address in terms of helping people navigate that.
And then we were also surprised by what was going on with talent, and you hear a lot about shortages, and we would ask in our interviews was the district or charter able to start the school year with all of their vacancies filled, and they would say, “Yeah, we don’t really have a problem with vacancies.”
But then we would ask if they felt they had the right fit teachers, and they would say, “No, we definitely don’t. We lack folks who have expertise in math and science, and special education and English Language Learning.” And then they would say, “We don’t have a very diverse workforce, and we really struggle to keep our diverse teacher and leaders.” And then we would ask them what they were doing about that, and there wasn’t really a direct strategy in mind as there was a lot of, “Well, we’ve got a lot of pipeline work going on. We’ve got relationships with these different teacher providers.” But then occasionally we’d encounter a place that was really thinking about this.
In the case of Denver they were doing this where they were doing stay interviews, they called them, with their best teachers and their teachers and leaders of color and tried to figure out what it would take to keep them. And that proved really powerful, they learned things like, “We need more networks with each other. We need some support amongst each other, and we need some more background services in some of the hardest to serve schools.” Teachers were really burning out because they were having to do everything. And that really changes where you put your money. Are you going to put your money in a lot of pipeline things so you can keep bringing in new teachers, or are you going to put your funds in places that will help keep your best teachers? So that kind of more strategic approach to talent we felt was something that more cities needed to think about.
So I think across all the cities that we were looking at, those are the things that really stood out to us as trends.
And I think in terms of what surprised me, I think, again it was sort of this idea about you see a lot of challenges, et cetera, but when you zoom out you do see a lot of progress and momentum. And truly the capacity in a sense of these cities. We’d get off the phone calls with them and just be amazed at the energy and talent and drive that each of the people that we were talking to was bringing to their city. So there’s some reasons for optimism, there’s momentum out there, things are changing and it’s challenging. Maybe people aren’t seeing the progress they’d like to see, but from where we stood it was remarkable to see what was working and the talent and expertise that really is available in these cities to get there.
Drew Catt: Yeah, that talent acquisition versus human capital development piece is really interesting.
Christine Campbell: Yeah.
Drew Catt: Is there any more research that you believe could be done in this arena?
Georgia Heyward: Well, actually right now we’re working with TNTP, to dig in more into this talent piece on the things that we found really resonated with what they had seen, so that’s one place. We also, in terms of what Christine was talking about on the what we called “strategic siting,” so you know, combining choice with neighborhood school policies and how strategic is a city able to be with locating schools that most need a high-quality option. That is now something that we are looking at further, and we’ve been digging into school improvement policies, and we’re actually gonna be convening with a lot of the leaders from these cities at the end of the month to talk more with them about what they’re doing to improve their chronically low-performing schools, and what are the challenges that are standing in their way. And again, when you are in a context of a choice system.
Drew Catt: Yeah, so other than all of that, what’s next for each of you? Are there any upcoming projects you’d like to plug before we go?
Christine Campbell: Let’s see, well as Georgia said we’re digging into the talent questions. We’re also just thinking about, there’s a lot of thinking about what’s next in terms of portfolio. So there’s a number of school systems working on it, but is this really where we’re gonna see the needle move, or something we’re toying with as something more about the personalization of learning for students?
So once you can kind of get the system working and functioning, is there a way to sort of step beyond that and think about a much more student centered approach to their K through, I’d say 12, but really beyond years. So what might that look like? So we’re doing some kind of futurist thinking on that.
And we’re also continuing to dig into the information and access questions for families, especially families with children with special needs. So where do they get their information? What kind of information do they want? Are there enough schools that have programs that they want? So really kind of dialing into that population and really trying to get a better sense in the way that they need.
You know, 10 years ago we were able to find that a number of schools were really moving the needle on students from low-income backgrounds. We want to look into places that are willing to move the needle on students with special needs.
Georgia Heyward: Yeah, and just one last thing. We, Christine and I are both right now working on a project in Washington state where our center is located, and we have a fairly new charter law. And so just the center has done a lot with charter-district collaboration, and so working on the front end. So as charters are opening in cities, finding places of commonality so that the charter and district are working together from the beginning, to create this sense of a city-wide education approach.
Drew Catt: Yeah, that all sounds great, and I’ll definitely be keeping my eyes out for any forthcoming research out of there.
Christine Campbell: Thank you.
Georgia Heyward: This was great.
Drew Catt: Yeah, so with that, we’ll wrap this EdChoice Chat. But check out the description of this podcast for a link to Christine and Georgia’s report. And be sure to subscribe to our podcast so you never miss another episode. Until next time, take care and be well.