America’s big cities have long been beacons of promise and opportunity. Yet too often, big-city school systems have failed to equalize educational opportunity or truly prepare our young people to compete in a knowledge-based, global economy. In large cities, more than a third of all teens fail to graduate on time, and high school dropouts have few opportunities as adults to find rewarding work to sustain a family.
That’s why the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress’s new study, examining educational performance in big cities, are encouraging.
Today, the National Assessment Governing Board released the results of the 2013 Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA). It found that student performance in large cities continues to improve overall, and that large-city schools nationwide are improving at a faster pace than the nation as a whole.
That progress is welcome, especially since large-city districts typically have higher concentrations of Black or Hispanic students, low-income students, and English language learners than the nation as a whole.
To be clear, a lot of work lies ahead to close achievement gaps in our largest cities. But here’s the good news: in 2013, tens of thousands of additional students in large cities are Proficient or above in math and reading than was the case four years earlier. And three districts that pressed ahead with ambitious reforms — the DC Public Schools System (DCPS), Los Angeles, and Fresno — made notable progress since 2011.
In comparison to 2009, 44,000 more students scored at or above Proficient in 4th grade math in large cities in 2013; 34,000 more students scored at or above Proficient in 4th grade reading; 20,000 more students scored at or above Proficient in 8th grade math; and 28,000 more students scored at or above Proficient in 8th grade reading.
This progress is a credit to the hard work of teachers, principals, other school staff members, parents, and students themselves.
Signs of progress on the TUDA are especially compelling because they cannot be attributed to teaching to the test or testing irregularities, such as cheating.
DCPS students made substantial gains in both fourth and eighth grade in reading and mathematics. And students in Los Angeles and Fresno—two of the CORE districts participating in district-based waivers to the No Child Left Behind Law–also made notable progress since 2011.
Fresno was the only district in the TUDA to report a significant decrease in the achievement gap in math and reading (in eighth grade) from 2009 to 2013 between students eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch programs and better-off students, who didn’t qualify for free- and reduced-price lunch.
The spoiler in this picture of slow and steady progress is the failure to meaningfully close racial achievement gaps in our large-city schools nationwide since 2009. Tens of thousands of students still lack the opportunities they deserve—and that opportunity gap is painfully at odds with the promise of equal opportunity in America.
Yet the TUDA results also tell us that leadership, vision, and a commitment to get better matter tremendously in big-city school districts.
A large performance gap persists between students in higher-performing cities, like Charlotte, Hillsborough County, and Austin, and students in Detroit and Cleveland, the two lowest-performing districts.
Those city-to-city gaps in performance provide a great opportunity for lower-performing districts to learn from higher-performing districts–and for districts where performance has stagnated to learn from rapidly-improving districts, like the District of Columbia Public School system.
I’m encouraged by the progress students overall are making in big cities. But it is time now to dramatically accelerate the pace of progress, not just in our big cities but in our nation as a whole. An opportunity for a world-class education should be the birthright of every student, no matter what their zip code.
Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education