Should Houston Independent School District, which won the Eli & Edythe Broad Foundation’s prestigious and eponymous award 11 years ago for being the exemplar of what a high-performing big-city district should be, win it again? Based on Dropout Nation‘s analysis of its performance data, this is a question worth posing — and one that is also worth asking about the nominees, and including San Diego Unified, Corona-Norco Unified in California’s Orange County, and Cumberland County, N.C. Because the school reform movement must continually demand better examples of success (and expect more from districts in the midst of being overhauled), especially in a second period of reform in which the focus is moving beyond helping kids get the basics needed to graduate from high school.

wpid10020-wpid-this_is_dropout_nation_logo2.pngYour editor has been pondering this matter for quite a while — and this outlet has alluded to this in its reports on the failures of districts such as Fairfax County, Va., and Philadelphia to provide kids in their care with comprehensive college preparatory curricula. But the question was publicly raised last month by Andy Smarick of Bellwether Education Partners, who looked askance at the fact that Houston (along with San Diego) was nominated for the Broad Prize in spite of what he considered to be sub-par performance in improving student achievement. Certainly this complaint didn’t please many reformers, who often want to tout successes in improving student achievement as much as they want to shine light on the symptoms of the nation’s education crisis. Yet Smarick’s question is important to consider because systemic reform isn’t just about improving literacy and stemming the number of kids becoming high school dropouts.

Certainly thanks to the first wave of reforms that were launched by southern governors in the late 1970s (and advanced by the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001), there were 216,266 fewer fourth-graders mired in illiteracy in 2011 than there were in 2002. Those reforms have also helped keep more kids on the path to high school graduation, with graduation rates increasing from 66 percent for the Class of 1999 to 73 percent of the Class of 2009, according to estimates by Education Week for its annual Diplomas Count report. But in an increasingly global economy in which what you know is more important than what you can do with your hands, just being able to read at an eighth-grade level and graduate from high school is not enough.

As clear in the unemployment and job growth numbers released today by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there is little growth (and often declines) in sectors such as retail and construction that were the go-tos for high school grads without at least some college education (as well as dropouts), while the sectors with increasing job growth are in fields demanding higher levels of knowledge. Meanwhile the advent of the Internet, along the emergence of quantifiable data, the automation of basic tasks in white-collar fields, and the increasing complexity of blue-collar work (with welders needing strong college-level math skills such as trigonometry, as well as understanding of computer languages such as C, to do their tasks), have made middle-class more complex and knowledge-based.  In this day and age, attending and completing some form of higher education – from traditional college to apprenticeships in welding and other blue-collar professions – is the critical step our children need to get the kind of jobs that help sustain families, help communities revive and thrive, and help America remain an economic, political, and military superpower in the 21st  century.

As a result, reformers must more-aggressively advance the transformation of American public education, as well as develop new solutions that will help kids reach beyond basic levels of reading, math, and science proficiency. This, in turn, requires recognizing and rewarding districts and other school operators that do so. It is especially important in the case of big-city districts, whose vast majorities of poor and minority children are the ones in most-need of college-preparatory curricula that is critical to helping them and their communities move into the economic mainstream. But this can’t happen if the school reform movement doesn’t raise the bar for what high-quality should be. And based on the data Dropout Nation has culled on the four nominees for the Broad Prize, the most-prestigious award in the movement, the models of quality are not good enough.

Take Houston, which has garnered national acclaim over the past two decades for the work of Supt. Terry Grier and predecessor Rod Paige in embracing systemic reform. Between 2002 and 2011, the percentage of Houston fourth-graders reading Below Basic declined by nine percentage points, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress; that’s better than the six percent decline in illiteracy for the nation as a whole. The percentage of eighth-graders who were functionally illiterate declined by 10 percentage points in that same period, better than the one percent decline nationwide. The average fourth-grader in Houston was reading at more than half a grade point level higher than their counterpart nine years earlier, while the average eighth-grader was reading at nearly a half a grade point higher than in 2002. In some ways, the gains made in Houston seem impressive. This s why the district, along with San Diego, Corona-Norco, and Cumberland County, is a nominee for the Broad Prize this year. But Houston’s success is far less impressive, both compared to its peers, and given the need to prepare kids for college completion.


Houston Superintendent Terry Grier

New York City did a far better job in reducing illiteracy in the early grades, with a 15 percentage point decline in illiteracy in that period; the average Big Apple fourth-grader read at grade level higher than a peer nine years earlier.  Chicago was also more-impressive in stemming illiteracy among fourth-graders, with a 14 percentage point decline in the same period; the average Second City fourth-grader was also reading at a grade level higher than a peer in 2002. Meanwhile the scandal-tarred Atlanta district and notoriously intransigent Los Angeles Unified managed to do better in reducing eighth-grade illiteracy, reducing the percentage of middle-schoolers struggling with reading by, respectively, 16 and 13 percentage points. The average Atlanta middle-school student was reading at a level two grades higher than a peer nine years earlier, while the average City of Angels eighth-grader was reading at nearly a full grade level higher than an eighth-grade counterpart back in 2002.

Meanwhile there is the fact that Houston hasn’t done as well at helping more kids move beyond basic levels of literacy, which is key for kids being able to succeed in college and an in an increasingly knowledge-based economy. The number of Houston fourth-graders reading at Proficient and Advanced levels increased by a mere six percentage points between 2002 and 2011. While Houston did better than L.A. Unified (which only increased the number of students reading at Proficient and Advanced levels by just three percentage points), those gains were  lower than the 12 percentage point gain made by Atlanta in the same period, the 10 percentage point gain made by New York City over that time, and the eight percentage point gain made in Chicago. Houston’s one-point gain in the percentage of eighth-graders reading at Proficient and Advanced levels is also far lower than the 10 percentage point gain made by Atlanta in the same period, and the six percentage point gain achieved by L.A. Unified in that time.

This isn’t to say that Houston hasn’t made substantive achievements in helping kids make the first basic steps towards success in school and in life. After all, Houston improved its five-year graduation rate (based on eighth-grade enrollment) from 54 percent for its Class of 2002 to 67 percent for its Class of 2011. But the improvements in graduation rate masks the fact that so many kids — including those who manage to be promoted from eighth-grade to senior year of high school — still end up dropping out of school and into despair. This is indicated by the difference between Houston’s graduation rate and its five-year promoting power rate (also based on eighth-grade enrollment) of 81 percent. Thirteen percent of the original class of 2010 — or 1,882 students who did managed to become high school seniors  — didn’t graduate on time. While some may have ended up graduating a year later, more than likely, those kids also likely dropped out. This is on top of the 2,607 eighth-graders — or 19 percent of the original class — who likely dropped out before their senior year.

While more of Houston’s kids are graduating, they aren’t necessarily getting the college preparatory curricula they need in order to do well in traditional colleges, community colleges, technical schools, and apprenticeships that make up higher education. Just 8.8 percent of Houston’s high school students took trigonometry, statistics, and other forms of advanced math in 2009-2010, according to the U.S. Department of Education, while only 19 percent of high schoolers took Advanced Placement courses that help prepare kids for college and career success. Meanwhile only 10 percent of the district’s middle-school students took Algebra I that year; given evidence that many kids who wait until high school to take an algebra course never take anything more challenging than the introductory course, Houston is doing a poor job of preparing its students for long-term success. Simply put: Houston has a long way to go before it can be held up as an exemplar of how traditional districts can move.

But Houston isn’t the Broad Prize’s only problematic nominee. There’s also San Diego, which has made substantial gains between 2003 (when it began participating in NAEP’s Trial Urban District Assessment project) and 2011. While the district reduced the percentage of functionally illiterate fourth-graders by 10 percentage points in that period, that performance doesn’t stack up to Atlanta’s 17 percentage point decline, Boston’s 14 percentage point reduction, or L.A. Unified’s 13 percentage point decline in that time. The City in Motion’s eight percentage point decline in illiteracy for its eighth-graders is also lower than Atlanta’s 17 percentage point decline, L.A. Unified’s 13 percentage point decline, or the nine percentage point decline for Houston in that period. While San Diego’s graduation rate has improved from 68 to 79 percent between 2003 and 2011, there is still the reality that many of its students who are promoted from eighth-grade to senior year of high school still end up dropping out. Fifteen percent of the district’s original Class of 2011 — or 1,510 high school seniors — still didn’t graduate on time.

Meanwhile San Diego is also doing poorly in preparing kids for the rigors of higher education. Just 14 percent of the district’s high school students in 2009-2010 took trigonometry, statistics and other advanced math. Only 18 percent of students took Advanced Placement courses in that same period. And while San Diego deserves credit for making sure 39 percent of its seventh- and eighth-graders are taking Algebra 1 (partly prompted by the now-abolished state law requiring such course-taking), it should be working to make sure that all students take the college preparatory course before they head into high school.

As for the other Broad Prize nominees? Corona-Norco can be credited for ensuring that 52 percent of its middle-schoolers took Algebra 1 before entering high school, while its five-year graduation rate (from 97 percent for its Class of 2002 to 95 percent for its Class of 2011) has been consistently good. But the fact that only 15 percent of its high school students in 2009-2010 took AP courses, and only 13 percent took any form of advanced math should give all reformers pause about whether it is deserving of being called an exemplar of what a high-performing district should be. Same is true for Cumberland County. A mere seven percent of its seventh- and eighth-graders took Algebra 1 in 2009-2010, while only 21 percent of high school students took AP courses that year. Cumberland County has also done a poor job in other aspects of preparing its students for the rigors of higher ed; none of its high school students took any form of advanced math in 2009-2010.

Let’s be clear about this: Houston, San Diego, Corona-Norco and Cumberland County are not alone in doing poorly when it comes to preparing kids for success in an increasingly knowledge-based economy. Traditional districts that have not embraced systemic reform are struggling even more mightily on that front. In fact, the low quality of curricula in traditional districts (including in suburbia) is one reason why a fifth of collegians in four year universities — including 39 percent of black college students and 21 percent of Latino peers — take at least one remedial course, according to College Complete America. It is also why so many college students, especially those in community colleges, often fail to graduate with degrees. This is just the high school grads who do enter high education. The failures of traditional districts, especially in big cities, to provide high-quality education to all kids is also the reason why so many kids drop out in the first place.

At the same time, there’s no reason why these four districts are getting recognition for just doing better than their counterparts. If your editor was handing out the Broad Prize, none of the districts would get it. In fact, the prize would be allowed to collect dust for a few years just to make this point: It’s time to raise the bar. Certainly that bar must also be raised for failing urban districts as well as for suburban districts that have been allowed to mire children in academic mediocrity. But the bar raising starts with Broad Prize nominees and other reform-oriented districts because their leaders already know their good work right now isn’t the best that can be done.

As an intellectually honest movement (as well as one committed to the moral mission of helping all children gain all they need to write their own stories), the failure of reformers to elevate their standards for success — especially at a time when economic and social changes demand a higher standard — means accepting what it increasingly y becoming mediocrity. That’s not acceptable at all. This isn’t to say that the districts chosen as nominees for this year’s Broad Prize aren’t doing a good job. It’s just that they aren’t doing a great job in what increasingly matters most. And as a movement, we must demand better of American public education — and especially of reform-minded districts whose efforts we want to support and recognize.