Divided We Learn

New study reveals cities where low-income students are doing best

When it comes to educating students from urban low-income families, according to a new study, one state leads the pack. And it’s one you might not expect.

Texas cities were top performers on a new measure designed to compare how well schools in the nation’s 300 largest cities are teaching their poorest students. The study’s authors surveyed a variety of test results from low-income students in those cities, and used them to create a measurement called the Educational Equality Index that assigns a score to each school and each city based on how effectively it teaches low-income students.

We’ve long known how to assess the quality of schools, said Carrie Douglass, a managing partner at Education Cities and the project director for the new report, produced by Education Cities and Great Schools. But, she added, those measures don’t always reflect how well schools are doing with students from low-income families.

“So, what we often see is that schools are getting high quality ratings from their city or state report cards, and in fact, when you dig into the low-income student performance, those students are performing really poorly,” Douglass said.

The new index is intended to provide a standard way of comparing how effectively schools and districts are teaching low-income students, regardless of how many such students they enroll. While schools in the 300 largest cities were surveyed to develop the index, only 213 cities provided complete enough data to receive a final score and ranking in this initial survey.

Overall, the study confirmed that low-income students are still performing well below national averages.

But the report identified a small group of cities that are getting more promising results for low-income students, and eight of the top 10 came from the Lone Star State. Almost all the cities were predominantly Latino, and only one – Mesquite – was more than 15 percent African-American. Brownsville, a city of 175,000 along the Mexican border where 94 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunch, received the highest marks.

The authors caution that they can only hypothesize about why some schools and cities have done better than others, and that further study is required. But local leaders from Brownsville quoted in the report mention the heavy presence of homegrown teachers, and strong networks of social services as possible reasons for their city’s success.

By breaking down the results not only by city, but also by school, Douglass hopes to create a measurement that will be equally useful to policymakers looking for systemic solutions and to parents looking for schools for their kids.

Though the top-performing cities in the report were generally mid-sized and concentrated in Texas, the majority of schools with the best results for low-income students were clustered in large cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. In fact, eight cities account for half of the schools that reached “high above average” test scores for low-income students. New York City alone has 95 such schools.

The most successful schools ran the gamut from ones that enroll exclusively low-income students to ones that have only a handful. The formula did, however, give a slight boost to the scores of schools and cities with higher concentrations of low-income students, because of the “known correlation” between high concentrations of poverty and low academic achievement, according to one of the report’s co-authors, Samantha Olivieri.


Still, the report highlighted the continued gap between low-income students and wealthier ones. Eighty-three percent of the students in the surveys attended schools that lag below the national average for all students. Even in Brownsville, the city with the highest score on the new index, only 37 percent of low-income students scored “proficient” on state math exams, and 25 percent on reading exams, well below the averages for wealthier students.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

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