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Helping Hands: Cities Need Capacity for Education Reform

Americans have reason to worry about the children being educated in the nation’s big-city public school systems. Urban minority students who enter first grade at the national average of readiness to learn fall farther behind the longer they are in school. By age 17, average test scores for African-American students, most of whom are educated in city schools, are no higher than national average scores for white 13-year-olds. Only half the African-American children who enter big-city high schools stay through graduation four years later. Minority students educated in city public schools are less than half as likely as similar students educated elsewhere to enter four-year colleges.

In many cities these worries have led to drastic action. Mayors or state governments have taken over public school systems in Baltimore, Boston, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, the District of Columbia, and Trenton, among other cities. Fresh takeovers are now contemplated for Oakland, Hartford, and Kansas City. In Milwaukee, Mayor Norquist has not taken over the schools but is leading an effort to create options for children, supporting vouchers for private education and creation of new public charter schools.

Mayoral and state takeovers are desperate moves, but they do not automatically improve school quality. Everything depends on what the people who take over do and how educators respond.

To this point virtually all takeovers—with the possible exceptions of those in Boston, where progress is slow but ongoing, and in Cleveland, where change is still taking shape—have been doomed by the same two deficits that sunk the school systems in the first place. The first deficit is in strategy. No city has thought through all the changes that must take place before a chronically low-performing school system can come to operate at a consistently high standard. The second deficit is in the capacity of many cities to provide the human and organizational resources and traditions of leadership normally required to transform a major civic enterprise.

The Strategy Deficit and How to Fill It

Several “name brand” reforms—teacher retraining, student performance standards, new school designs, decentralization, chartering, contracting-out, and vouchers—have been offered as solutions to the problem of big-city public education. But though each plausibly addresses part of the problem, none can do all a failed school system needs, and each is based in part on wishful thinking. Some reforms assume schools can be improved without strong performance incentives for teachers, administrators, and students. Others do nothing to change the rules that prevent schools from improving—rules that dictate whom they may hire, who may be assigned what work, how teachers and students use time, and which teachers may help which students. Still others assume that failing schools can improve without new investments to attract and train abler teachers and principals.


Paul T. Hill

Former Brookings Expert

Founder, The Center on Reinventing Public Education

Research Professor, The University of Washington Bothell

Cities need to create hybrid strategies drawn from the strong parts of the various reform proposals, rather than relying on any single one of them. To provide concrete examples of reform strategies that combine the strengths and avoid the weaknesses of the individual “name brand” proposals, Brookings studied six cities—Boston, Memphis, New York City District #2, San Antonio, San Francisco, and Seattle—all trying promising hybrid strategies.

It Takes a City, the new Brookings book that grew out of that study, shows how the good ideas attempted in these six cities can be combined into three potent reform strategies. Under the first combined strategy, a CEO-style superintendent manages a portfolio of strong, distinctive schools that are government-run but held strictly accountable for performance, with failed schools disbanded and replaced by new groups of teachers and administrators. Under the second strategy, a superintendent and school board create a diverse system of public schools by entering performance contracts with independent organizations—groups of teachers and parents, teacher cooperatives and unions, nonprofit human service organizations, colleges and universities, civic groups, and for-profit contractors. The third strategy is to apply all the educational resources of a metropolis to educating all children, encouraging colleges, universities, museums, and libraries to sponsor schools and promoting family choice to put all existing public and private schools under competitive pressure to improve.

The strategies provide strong incentives for school performance: schools that do not educate their students can face competition or be closed and replaced. The strategies also create channels for new investment, by the superintendent-CEO in the first and by the nonprofit and private sectors in the second and third. Finally, they create freedom of action for schools, giving them real dollar-per-pupil funding and eliminating rule compliance, with performance as the basis of accountability.

Capacity: The Limits of Strategy

These strategies are promising, and we are optimistic that some cities may try one or another of them soon. But a strategy, however brilliant, that exists in the minds of an isolated small group of people has little impact. It must lead to action, consistently and for a long time. In four of the six cities we studied, promising strategies were abandoned—and not replaced with a well-defined alternative—within two years of our starting to study it. In these cities and many others, no strategy has lasted long before a major part of it was crippled or abandoned altogether.

Brookings is trying to recover the black boxes from these crashed reform strategies and identify the most important causes of failure. What we are finding is that pro-reform city leaders were stymied by an absence of capacity—they lacked four important kinds of resources. The first is financial capacity—and by that I mean not simply the ability to maintain the annual per-pupil public spending to run a school program, but the ability to draw private and public funds for investment in changing the basic quality of schools (for example, by purchasing equipment and recruiting and training capable teachers and administrators). The second is managerial capacity, the ability to mobilize private- and public-sector expertise in financial, performance, and human resource management. The third is intellectual capacity, the availability of powerful cultural institutions that can assist or operate schools and of large numbers of educated adults from whom new teachers and administrators might be drawn. The last is political capacity, local traditions of civic leadership and private-sector collaboration to improve the city’s institutions and infrastructure.

In some cities, these capacities were present but not mobilized. But in others, they were in scarce supply, making it extremely hard to mount effective strategies, even if local leaders and educators could agree on what had to be done. Figure 1 gives a more detailed view of what is available in high- and low-capacity cities.

Other elements of capacity would almost certainly include the status of the local private school system, which can provide options for children in failed schools, attract teachers, keep middle-class people in the city, and become a source of assistance for a public school system that wants to use it. A city’s teachers’ union, if it is willing to lead teachers to a new vision of education that can work for both teachers and students, can also be an element of capacity.

Some might be surprised that attentive media are a key element of capacity. But media attention, like that in Cleveland and Chicago, can keep citizens focused on reform and track the progress of initiatives. In smaller cities, especially those in larger media markets, the focus tends to be on events in the major metropolis rather than on local school reform efforts.

Though their school systems can perform as badly and resist change as strongly as those in larger cities, suburbs and satellite cities—for example, Dayton, Gary, East St. Louis, Compton, or Tukwila near Seattle, and several New Jersey suburbs of New York City—have trouble drawing attention. Foundations and businesses often find that tackling the problems of the central city brings more prestige and satisfaction than does virtually anonymous work with more obscure places that also serve poor populations and may need even more help.

Options for Cities with Low Capacity

Cities like Chicago, Cincinnati, Seattle, Dallas, and Cleveland have many of the assets one would expect to be needed for a fundamental effort to increase school quality. They have businesses and foundations able to pay the one-time costs of major investments in schools, national headquarters of businesses and consulting firms with enormous management capacity, traditions of sustained private- and public-sector collaboration on civic improvement, and many powerful cultural institutions buttressed by large numbers of educated adults.

For such richly endowed cities (and others like Denver and Indianapolis that might lack one major resource but have others in abundance), school improvement is possible if the community can unite behind a reform strategy and overcome political and bureaucratic inertia. Though no city is using all its resources for education, and most have dysfunctional school system bureaucracies, much can be done.

Many cities, however, lack important capacities for extra effort. A high proportion of their college-educated adults already work in the school system. Strong cultural institutions are few, as are strong businesses with traditions of civic involvement. Ideological and racial barriers may also be hard to bridge.

Such cities may be able to improve schools somewhat without new resources, but their strategy options are limited. In many cases, someone on the outside needs to create an occasion for local leaders to convene around what can be done for the schools, possibly by threatening to take the schools out of local hands if nothing is done. Financial resources from the outside are necessary, in the form of grants to pay the one-time costs of upgrading school services, equipment, data, and teacher training. Outside resources are also needed to widen the net of teacher recruitment and to provide management for nonfunctioning schools that have stubbornly resisted improvement.

Some low-resource cities have already benefited from external pressures and resources. State takeover threats have stimulated local organizing efforts in Detroit and San Antonio. “Adoptions” by national foundations (for example, the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation’s sponsorship of major reforms in Milwaukee) have made possible initiatives that could not be financed out of local funds. Cities like San Antonio and Memphis have imported expertise, in the form of assistance from the New American Schools, based in Arlington, Virginia, for individual schools. Cities like Oakland and Wichita are trying to import intellectual resources by hiring Edison, a for-profit school provider, to operate some of their schools. Many cities are relying on Teach for America, a national alternative certification program for teachers, to help fill teacher shortages. In the early 1990s Charlotte conducted a major recruiting campaign for experienced teachers and principals from other states. Wealthy individuals are also providing vouchers to help city children escape failed schools, and some are now planning to create new private schools to ensure that every child who gets a voucher can also find a school.

All these actions raise issues about local control. Using foundation funds to redesign schools and private-sector firms to run schools also upsets those who want to maintain a bright line between public and private resources. Because of these concerns, businesses, philanthropies, and local foundations often prefer to patch the existing system rather than make fundamental reforms. Moreover, the actors that could make a difference for low-capacity cities—the state and federal governments—have done relatively little. Though Ohio, New Jersey, Connecticut, California, and Michigan have formally taken over failed school systems, in practice many of these initiatives have amounted to little more than replacing a locally chosen superintendent with one designated by the state. States have seldom forced local leaders to come up with comprehensive reform strategies, and none has created bold new investment programs for troubled cities.

The federal government has also ducked the problems of individual cities. Beyond former Education Secretary William Bennett’s designation of Chicago’s as the worst school system in the nation, the federal government has acted as if its repertoire of formula-based funding programs, which provide far more support for routine operations than for investment, should be enough.

Government leaders at all levels hesitate to get involved. They are reluctant to acknowledge that some communities are not educationally self-sufficient and to cause an uproar when teachers and service providers from outside the city get dollars and jobs that might have gone to city residents. But leaders who are dedicated to educating the public’s children must be prepared to take risks, accept experiments, track results, and abandon long-established arrangements that do not work.

Washington can help city leaders forge new compacts to strengthen public education. The president could call a series of small White House conferences to bring the government and private leaders of big cities together, one city at a time, to hammer out new ways to use all a city’s assets to educate its children. The meetings can also include national foundations and bring in the secretary of education, prepared to reallocate federal funds and waive regulations that might get in the way of cities’ initiatives.

Governors could perform a similar function, convening leaders from cities with troubled school systems, possibly while raising the threat of a state takeover. Governors could use their access to the president and congressional leaders to get waivers of federal rules that interfere with a city’s reform strategy. In addition, states can create financial incentives for qualified people to teach in the city and sponsor new training and certification programs that welcome mid-career individuals interested in working in schools. Governors could also encourage interfaith coalitions to use their educational expertise to create new nonsectarian public schools, possibly by chartering.

Do these strategies break down the public-private distinction and even skirt the edges of controversy over church-state issues? Yes, they do. But federal, state, city, and philanthropic leaders have to think first about what they can do for children, especially in cities where the conventional public sector has failed to provide effective schools. The alternative, letting children’s education be held hostage to partisan, ideological, and employment issues, is unacceptable.

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