To our readers
Beginning today, we're taking you on a virtual journey to help tackle one of our community's most intractable problems. This week and occasionally throughout the year we'll report on urban school districts in the United States where educators have proved the most successful in teaching poor, minority students. We hope our “Field Trip” helps the Omaha School Board, its new superintendent, Nancy Sebring, and all educators, policymakers and citizens who seek the best for disadvantaged children.
— Executive Editor Mike Reilly
Today: Urban schools playbook
Monday: Measurable goals
Tuesday: Data-driven instruction
Wednesday: Strong principals
Thursday: Effective teachers
Read more: Proven school strategies could hold answers
Click here to learn more about the school districts The World-Herald examined.
Poverty presses an unyielding thumb against the wheel of academic achievement for urban school districts.
Leaders of the Omaha Public Schools have tried everything from shrinking class sizes to busing kids between schools to waging political fights for more funding — only to see many of its most disadvantaged students scrape bottom on the latest Nebraska state achievement tests.
Yet, elsewhere in America, some school districts battling similar, entrenched poverty produce significantly better results.
A select few districts outscore their urban peers on state and national tests, win national prizes and attract researchers and educators eager for a glimpse inside their playbooks.
Could their methods help boost achievement in Nebraska's biggest, most diverse urban school district?
There's reason to believe they would, based on a World-Herald examination.
In New York City schools, for example, low-income black students are about twice as likely to be proficient in fourth-grade reading as their Nebraska counterparts.
In Boston, low-income Hispanics are twice as likely to be proficient in eighth-grade math as their Nebraska peers.
In the Hillsborough County Public Schools near Tampa, Fla., the poorest black, Hispanic and white fourth-graders outscored their Nebraska counterparts in math and reading.
These and other successful districts employ remarkably similar strategies and techniques, validated by research. Omaha school board members and administrators recognize the value of these techniques in some cases and are taking steps to replicate them.
In key reform areas, however, Omaha is playing catch-up while high-performers have for years, even decades, refined their approaches and become experts.
Improving OPS achievement would raise the life prospects for Omaha's most disadvantaged children. It would reduce the strain of poverty and crime on taxpayer resources and help more of its students enter adulthood better prepared for jobs and college.
The World-Herald found seven school districts whose programs offer models for improvement. Six of them won the $1 million Broad Prize, presented annually by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation to districts that show improved performance and better-than-expected achievement given their large numbers of poor and minority students.
The Broad Foundation judges school districts based on their performance and improvement on mandated state tests in reading and math, comparing them with expected results for other districts in their states with similar poverty. Broad looks at how well the districts have narrowed achievement gaps between students of different ethnic groups and income levels. The districts get credit for participation rates and scores on Advanced Placement, SAT and ACT exams.
Some of these districts also have won Excellence in Urban Education Awards from the San Diego-based National Center for Urban School Transformation. Winners of this award have higher test scores than similar districts in their states and success in raising achievement for all racial and ethnic groups. The award considers high attendance and low suspension rates.
OPS is eligible for these prizes but has not won.
This week, the newspaper will look at these districts and will particularly highlight efforts in Hillsborough County Public Schools in Tampa; Boston Public Schools; and North Carolina's Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
OPS's next superintendent, Nancy Sebring, when asked about these districts and their programs, said she studied Hillsborough while she was superintendent in Des Moines, looking for ideas to adapt to that district.
“We've actually paid a lot of attention to Hillsborough, looking for the same things I'm sure you were,” Sebring said.
Like Omaha, the nation's standout districts endured a long struggle against racial segregation, seeing everything from riots to court-ordered busing.
Their students suffer poverty comparable to or worse than Omaha's. They endure crime and gang violence. Many enroll high numbers of immigrants who don't speak English well.
They tackle these issues with financial resources similar to those of their peer districts. Teachers unions are strong in some, not so in others.
These districts haven't solved all their problems. Their test scores and graduation rates still trail districts that enroll fewer disadvantaged kids. They face critics and doubters.
But state and national test scores and other indicators show they're doing something right.
The Nation's Report Card shows that Nebraska — and, by extension, its urban flagship district, OPS — trails the nation's highest scoring districts when it comes to achievement for disadvantaged students.
Most educators consider this battery of tests, also known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, as the nation's gold standard for comparing states. The U.S. Department of Education administers the tests in every state. The government also posts the scores of 21 big urban districts that agreed to participate individually.
OPS is not one of them, so its performance can't be directly compared to the NAEP results of other urban districts. But more often than not, those districts beat Nebraska as a whole on scores for low-income and minority students, many of whom are in OPS. For example, OPS has 65 percent of Nebraska's black students.
In addition, Nebraska's own state achievement tests show that poor, minority students in OPS score below the state average for those groups. That suggests that the NAEP gap between OPS and other urban districts may be at least as large as the gap between Nebraska and those districts.
On the 2011 NAEP, in fourth-grade reading and math, Nebraska's poorest black and Hispanic students scored lower than their counterparts in Boston, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Hillsborough County (the Tampa area) and New York. In eighth-grade math, the poorest black students in those districts also beat their counterparts in Nebraska.
Carla Noerrlinger, OPS director of research and special projects, said it's problematic to compare districts using NAEP scores. She said OPS doesn't put a high priority on the test, and districts whose scores are made public might better prepare their students for it.
She also said NAEP methodology doesn't capture nuances among population groups, for example, whether they grew up here or are recent immigrants.
On state achievement tests, OPS's disadvantaged students lag behind their in-state peers.
For instance, on the 2011 Nebraska math test, 26 percent of Nebraska's black eighth-graders scored proficient, while in OPS 14 percent were proficient.
In fourth-grade reading, 63 percent of the state's low-income students scored proficient, compared with 51 percent in OPS.
Meanwhile, districts that The World-Herald will feature outperform their urban peers on state and national tests.
On the Nation's Report Card, Hillsborough's 2011 math and reading scores exceeded the average for Florida and the nation.
Hillsborough's poorest black, Hispanic and white fourth-graders outscored their Nebraska counterparts in math and reading. In eighth-grade math, Hillsborough's black and Hispanic students also topped their Nebraska peers. Hillsborough's fourth-graders scored highest of all Florida districts on the 2011 state writing test.
The College Board recognized Hillsborough as a national leader for increasing both participation and scores in Advanced Placement exams. The 2011 graduation rate for black students was 74.2 percent in Hillsborough, compared with 67.5 percent in OPS.
In 2011, the Charlotte district won the 2011 Broad Prize. On the NAEP, Charlotte's poorest black and Hispanic eighth-graders outscored their counterparts in Nebraska and bested the national average for public schools.
In Texas, the Aldine Independent School District in Houston is making a name for itself by educating poor and minority kids.
Aldine has a mix of traditional housing and urban areas. In parts of the district, Superintendent Wanda Bamberg said, “you are just taken aback at the poverty, and you think to yourself, ‘How do children live this way?' ”
Yet, Aldine ranks among Texas' highest performing high-poverty school districts, according to the Texas Education Agency.
The Texas Educational Excellence Project ranked it the best large Texas district for educating Latinos, 1998-2001, and ranked it second for educating African-Americans, 2000-03. On state tests, Aldine outperforms Austin, which has less poverty and ranks among the highest performing U.S. districts on the NAEP, ahead of Houston and Dallas.
Aldine won the Broad Prize in 2009.
OPS officials say they're on the same track as these high performing districts and are poised for improvement.
“I feel confident this district is on the move,” said ReNae Kehrberg, OPS's assistant superintendent for curriculum and learning.
Kehrberg said she expects test scores to rise in a few years, as OPS replicates some of the nation's best practices.
“We're going to move up academically, our achievement scores. It will take time and hard work.”
Contact the writer:
School districts to learn from
|Omaha Public Schools||Aldine Independent School District, Houston||Boston Public Schools||Charlotte-Mecklenburg (N.C.) Schools|
|Credentials||Finalist for teacher improvement grant, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation|
Finalist 2008 Annual Award for Urban School Board Excellence, Council of Urban Boards of Education
|2009 Broad Prize for Urban Education||2006 Broad Prize for Urban Education|
Leading urban district, 2011 Nation's Report Card
|2011 Broad Prize for Urban Education|
Leading urban district, 2011 Nation's Report Card
|Total minority enrollment||67%||98%||87%||67%|
|District snapshot||Nebraska's largest district, starting a new achievement plan focused on use of data and classroom teaching.||Urban-suburban district near Houston with pockets of severe poverty. “No excuses” attitude helped it become an urban leader in Texas.||Oldest district in the U.S. Has rebounded since the early 1990s with strong leadership and strategic goals.||Countywide district has increased scores through strategic focus and numerous improvement efforts.|
|Gwinnett County Public Schools, Atlanta||Hillsborough County Public SchoolsTampa, Fla.||Long Beach (Calif.) Unified School District||New York City Department of Education|
|Credentials||2010 Broad Prize for Urban Education||Leading urban district, 2011 Nation's Report Card|
$100 million teacher improvement grant, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
|2003 Broad Prize for Urban Education||2007 Broad Prize for Urban Education|
Leading urban district, 2011 Nation's Report Card
|Total minority enrollment||69%||60%||84%||83%|
|District snapshot||County district outside Atlanta used strategic goals, strong curriculum and focus on teaching to improve results.||County district, which includes Tampa, acclaimed for teacher pay and evaluation program and use of data to guide instruction.||Early to adopt academic standards and uniforms for students. Hailed in one study as one of the world's best for sustained improvement.||Massive district that boosted academic standards, revamped curriculum and created tough teacher evaluations.|
Sources: Figures are the latest available, as reported by the districts, their state departments of education and the U.S. Department of Education.
Notes: Per-pupil spending is adjusted to Omaha's cost of living. Low-income figure is participation in federally subsidized free and reduced-cost lunch program.