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Study Ranks Denver, D.C., NOLA Among Best Cities for Reform

What makes a city fertile ground for education reform?

Most of what we hear about the relative successes of several cities follows a familiar pattern of anecdotes and personality-driven narratives that often praise a dedicated leader's efforts to turn the tide toward continuous academic improvement.

Such a narrative, however, leaves out a myriad of other factors in a city that can help or harm efforts to bring reform, in this case, defined as some of the entrepreneurially-minded, market-based education solutions.

Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute teamed up with Stafford Palmieri and Janie Scull at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation to study these sorts of factors in a new report that focuses on 25 of the nation's largest cities and five other cities.

Rather than look at things such as test scores or graduation rates, the researchers considered, for example, whether the district showed an openness to working with non-traditional providers such as Teach For America, the available funding from public and private sources, or whether there's a thriving charter-school market.

Among the cities that came out on top: New Orleans; Washington, D.C.; New York City; Denver; Jacksonville, Fla.; Charlotte, N.C.; San Francisco, and Austin, Houston, and Fort Worth in Texas.

Not everyone is a fan of how the report was put together. Andres A. Alonso, the Baltimore schools chief, said any report on reform that ignores student outcomes is flawed.

"Without any anchoring in the facts of what is actually happening with students in the districts it surveyed, the Fordham report represents an elitism that is out of touch with the necessary on-the-ground constraints and realities of urban education reform and, as a result, it limits the reach and potential of numerous reforms now underway," Alonso said in a guest column on Fordham's Flypaper blog.

Hess said metrics such as test scores and graduation rates are important, but only one part of the picture. It takes more than great superintendents, principals and teachers to make a difference in a city, he said.

"Systemic reform takes time to gain traction. We aren't saying we don't still need smart governance, strategic finance, et cetera. All of those things are part of a larger picture," he said. "At the end of the day, we need to be able to blend top-down policies with environments on the ground that welcome entrepreneurial activity and private initiative.

For more details on the study, check out Hess' longer explanation of what he and the other researchers set out to look at.

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