No One Has a Monopoly On “Beating the Odds”

We recently released a report that looked at nine indicators to measure educational improvement and opportunity in 50 cities across America. Despite a few bright spots, the results paint a sobering picture of the state of urban public education today, especially for students from low-income households and students of color.

With few exceptions, students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch and students of color in the 50 cities were less likely than more advantaged students to enroll in a high-scoring elementary and middle school, take advanced math classes in high school, and sit for the ACT/SAT. Equally important, the odds of a student being in a supercharged school where these education gaps might be wiped out were slim: overall, only about 8 percent of all students in the 50 cities enrolled in a school that “beat the odds” and outpaced demographically similar schools statewide. How can city leaders address these problems? Although the report can’t provide any answers, it offers some clues.

Take the “beat the odds” indicator. Although only 8 percent of all students enrolled in “beat the odds” schools across the total sample, a handful of cities had double, triple, even quadruple the result. These outliers—Newark, Cincinnati, Santa Ana, Baltimore, and Cleveland—made us wonder, where are all of these “beating the odds” schools coming from?

The following charts answer that question by breaking down each city’s total enrollment into four groups:

  • The share of “beating the odds” school enrollment in the charter sector (dark green).
  • The share of “beating the odds” school enrollment in the district sector (dark blue).
  • The share of enrollments in the charter sector that aren’t in “beating the odds” schools (light green).
  • The share of enrollments in the district sector that aren’t in “beating the odds” (light blue) schools.

Together, the four facets add up to 100 percent of each city’s total enrollment across all charter schools and all district schools.

Distribution of Enrollment Shares (measured in percentages) in Math, 2011-13*

enrollment data
*Ohio data cover 2012-14

Distribution of Enrollment Shares (measured in percentages) in Reading, 2011-13*

enrollment data
*Ohio data cover 2012-14

What do the charts show? Since traditional districts enroll the majority of students in each of these cities, it’s no surprise that the majority of “beat the odds” enrollments are mostly in district-run schools. But beyond that, no two cities look alike.

In some cities, the charter sector has an outsized presence in the supply of “beat the odds” schools. For example, although about a fifth of all students in Newark were in the charter sector, almost half of students in “beat the odds” schools were in the city’s charter sector (in math).

In other cities, the charter sector’s supply of “beat the odds” schools isn’t that different from its overall market share. In Cincinnati, for example, the overall charter sector share and the share of charters among “beat the odds” enrollments were about the same, around 17 percent.

In addition to showing how the charter contribution to the overall supply of “beat the odds” schools varies, Newark and Cincinnati also show some interesting within-sector variation.

In Newark, 86 percent of all charter school enrollments were in “beat the odds” schools. By contrast, about a quarter of all district enrollments were in “beat the odds” schools, suggesting that, on average, the charter sector is more likely to provide enrollment in a “beat the odds” school than the district sector in the city.

In Cincinnati, the two sectors look more similar. About 38 percent of enrollments in charter schools and about 33 percent of enrollment in district schools were “beating the odds” in math; in reading, the percentages are also similar. Neither sector is outpacing the other in terms of providing “beat the odds” enrollments.

None of these charts can tell us whether charter schools or district schools are better or worse at helping students “beat the odds.” Given the data we use, we can’t control selection effects that surely explain some of what we see here.

Still, what we can say is that some cities have larger shares of “beat the odds” schools than other cities and, clearly, there is more than one way to provide them. No one has a monopoly on “beating the odds.”

So when it comes to expanding educational opportunity, instead of looking for a single solution that’ll work everywhere, civic and educational leaders need to find out more about the different ways that the most aggressive cities are expanding opportunity, by any means possible.

The following charts show the results for all 50 cities.

Distribution of Enrollment Shares in Math (see enlarged view)

enrollment data

Distribution of Enrollment Shares in Reading (see enlarged view)

enrollment data

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