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New Website to Compare Cities' Education Results Makes Debut

Let's say you were a mayor who wanted to find out how your city's schools stacked up against similar-sized cities in math and reading proficiency, teacher absenteeism, access to Advanced Placement courses, per-pupil spending, and enrollment in early childhood programs. 

Where would you go to find all that information? You'd have to head to a variety of different sources, and, in many cases, you wouldn't be able to easily make side-by-side comparisons with the data that you find.

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings believes there ought to be easy access to a trove of such data for mayors with a vested interest in education.

"This country should know the top urban school districts that are improving just like they know who won the Super Bowl last year," said Rawlings, who chairs the Educational Excellence Task Force at the U.S. Conference of Mayors.  "Education is too important to not be clear about it."

"I am a big believer that... people inherently want to be better," he said in an interview with Education Week. "And [if] you know the other guy is doing better than you are, there is motivation for the city to try to get the bar higher."

Rawlings has spent the last two years working with researchers at the George W. Bush Institute to do just that.

The result—an interactive website of education data in 114 cities in 49 states and the District of Columbia—will be unveiled by the Bush Institute at a roundtable of Texas mayors and school superintendents Tuesday. (Hawaii, which functions as a single statewide school district, was not included in the database.)

The data trove, called State of Our Cities, could not come at a better time, as states, districts, and local policymakers will have a lot more say about how their schools are run under the new federal K-12 education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, said Holly Kuzmich, executive director of the George W. Bush Institute and a former deputy chief of staff for policy and programs in the U.S. Department of Education during the Bush administration.

Kuzmich sees the site as a valuable asset for local and state officials who are thinking about where to invest their time and resources and where in the country they may be able to find examples of methods and strategies that are dealing successful results for children and youths. But the collection of data can be useful to parents, community advocates, and anyone with a stake in education, she said.

Users of the new interactive website will be able to compare their city's performance against others using more than a dozen different indicators. Among them: teacher salaries, percentage of new teachers, chronic student absenteeism, high school graduation rates, completion of federal financial aid forms, performance on state tests in reading and math, and middle school algebra completion rates. The site also provides city-level information on early-childhood programs, including enrollment and eligibility.

Users will also be able to see how their city's performance in reading and math stacks up against the Global Report Card, an index created by the George W. Bush Institute that ranks district performance against those of 25 developed countries. And they can also see the performance of groups of students in cities that participate in the Trial Urban District Assessment Program, the national report card for a select group of urban school systems.

A city's profile page gives a snapshot of the city, with the number of schools and public school students, district size in comparison to the state and the nation, median income, and child poverty rate. Users will also be able to compare cities by geographic region, population, race, child-poverty rates, median income, and charter school enrollment. 

The cities in the data collection include some of the biggest, such as New York, Chicago, and Atlanta. But numerous smaller cities are included too, such as Mesa, Ariz.; Boise, Idaho; Paterson, N.J., and Green Bay, Wis.

bush center photos.JPG

The data come from a number of sources, many of them collected by various divisions in the U.S. Department of Education, including the federal Common Core of Data, the Civil Rights Data Collection, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), EdFacts, and Integrated Postsecondary Education Data. Information from the U.S. Census and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools will also be available through the site. 

The Bush Institute plans to update the data set every two years. But a spotlight section, which highlights cities that are doing notable work in a particular area and provides deeper dives into some topics, will be constantly updated.

The first spotlight section looks at after-school and summer-learning access and programs in Dallas; Louisville, Ky.; Boston; Fort Worth, Texas; and St. Paul, Minn.  

"Now city leaders have an easy way to compare Dallas and Denver, Nashville and Chicago and say 'Who is doing something well, and how do we learn from that?' " Mayor Rawlings said of the site.

Even with the Bush Institute's manpower it was challenging gathering all of the data and putting it together. SAT scores, for example, were not included for all cities because the Bush Institute had to contact the individual school districts for that information. Not all the districts responded. Collecting information on early-childhood education was also difficult because no single organization collected that kind of data, Kuzmich said.  And even in cases where the data existed, they were not necessarily comparable across state lines, she said.

As a result, the Institute did not assign grades to cities. Instead, it provides site users with the raw data and leaves it up to them to do the rest.

"It's helping them to have a good base of information to understand where they are succeeding and where they have challenges," she said of the key target audience, mayors and local policymakers.

And while the Institute did not analyze or grade the cities as part of its project, the site's executive summary provides an analysis of what researchers found in compiling the data.

San Diego stood out as a bright spot across a number of indicators, including a graduation rate for black and Hispanic students that was higher than the national average and math and reading proficiency rates that exceeded the average in California. The city also gained plaudits for middle school algebra competition.

The executive summary also singles out Cleveland, which lagged state averages in reading and math proficiency on Ohio assessments. The city also had one of the highest teacher-absenteeism rates of the 114 cities profiled, according to the summary.

But data showed that despite the challenges, the city was making strides in improving graduation rates, which has increased by 14 percent since 2010, according to the Institute. 

Rawlings, a businessman who once served as the CEO of Pizza Hut, said he believes that data help make better decisions.

"Whether it's criminal justice, public safety, we need better and more data to make decisions," he said.  "As decision makers, too much has been done on policy and on academic research versus real world results. And that's what this ultimately shows."

Image Source: The George W. Bush Institute, State of Our Cities 

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