The Cornhusker Challenge

I talk to Education Cities’ Ethan Gray about the new Education Equality Index, and challenge him to accompany me to the #1 gap-closing city in the USA: Omaha, Nebraska. (Spoiler alert: he accepts!)

CornGuyEduShyster: Let’s not waste any time here. We’re headed straight to the top spot of your new Education Equality Index: Omaha, Nebraska—which is, according to your measure, closing the achievement gap faster than other city in the nation. Anything unusual happening in the schools there that you can put your finger on? 

Ethan Gray: You’re going to the question of why the results are the way they are. At this point we’re focused on trying to highlight the schools in those cities that have closed or are closing the achievement gap, and we think it’s really important for local education leaders, policy makers and researchers to spend some time in those schools and get to know them better and understand what educators in those schools are doing and what they would ascribe their success to. I haven’t spent time in those schools and so I wouldn’t hazard a guess.

EduShysterFull disclosure—that was actually a trick question. Omaha is unusual in that it has no charter schools. Nebraska, which is also home to your #6 gap-closing city, Lincoln, is one of just seven states that doesn’t allow charters. 

Gray: [Dry chuckle…] We don’t really think it’s about the type of school. We think it’s about spending time in those schools and learning more about what the school leaders, educators and parents are doing there. What we’ve noticed looking at the data is that there are schools of all types that are showing up on our list of gap-closing schools: district schools, charter schools, magnet schools, low-tech schools. We’re really encouraged that in almost every city we looked at, there is at least one, if not multiple gap-closing schools.

Jason Doll of Gering, Neb. dons a corn head prior to an NCAA college football game between Nebraska and Wyoming Saturday September 24, 2011 at War Memorial Stadium in Laramie, Wyo. (AP Photo/Andy Carpenean)

EduShysterThe Education Equality Index has run into a spot of trouble regarding its methodology. Don’t worry; we aren’t going to dwell here upon what went so wrong. Instead I want to ask you about the index as a tool for measuring the effectiveness of the reform vision that Education Cities is known for, the delightfully named *harbormastering.* I see here in this Education Cities report that I just happen to have at the ready (!) that you envisioned the index as a tool to *evaluate harbormaster strategies in the context of outcomes for the first time.* (Page 14 for close readers). How is that working out?

Gray: We haven’t run that analysis yet. We have strong evidence from a number of organizations in our network that the work they are doing has materially increased the number of quality schools in their cities, built richer pipelines for talent, improved conditions for educators. What we haven’t had is a method of evaluating trend-line progress between cities and states. It is certainly of interest to us if there are correlations between the pace of growth of gap-closing schools and the cities where we have member organizations. One of the complicating factors for us is that when you invest in the creation of new schools it will often take four or five years to show up on state assessments because they don’t test until third grade. 

NOLAmapEduShyster: You know who you should talk to? Washington state. Their high-performing results seem to have showed up within days… But seriously, one can’t help but note that there were some noticeable absences from the index. Like New Orleans, which you’ve previously recognized as an *education city,* and where harbormastering AND relinquishment are at full throttle. As this visual aid that I have helpfully adapted indicates, New Orleans isn’t part of the index at all.

Gray: We focused on the 35 states that we could get complete data sets from, and there were a number of omissions. For example, it’s notoriously difficult to get information from the Louisiana Department of Education. The law requires that public information be publicly available, and some states are better at complying with the law than others. In future years we’re going to have a more aggressive data acquisition process that includes FOIA requests.

The law requires that public information be publicly available, and some states are better at complying with the law than others. In future years we’re going to have a more aggressive data acquisition process that includes FOIA requests.

EduShyster: So this isn’t actually a question. This is me pausing at some length to ponder what strikes me as the deeply ironical fact that because the organizations at the center of the Education Cities vision of reform are private—like, say, the Philadelphia Schools Partnership, or the Boston Schools Fund—curious types like me who would like to see what said groups have planned for the future of public institutions in cities like, say Philly or Boston, cannot. Their nonprofit status makes them, to use a nonexistent expression, un-FOIA-ble.  Pondering. Pondering. OK… I happen to know that your vision for the Education Equality Index is far broader than the particular *frame* of your organization, upon which I’ve been harping here. While I try to calm myself down, why don’t you take this opportunity to describe where you see this going? 

Gray: Our interest in this was motivated by one particular frame, but we saw very quickly that this was much bigger than us and we don’t want the Education Equality Index to necessarily be an Education Cities-only project. There will be a significant number of analyses done on this data set, and we hope to partner with a wide variety of organizations, including folks that haven’t been our traditional allies. This is a long-term investment in a tool that I think is useful to a very broad group of stakeholders, including teacher unions, reform groups and legislators. The Education Equality Index provides another source of information for folks to consider as part of a much more holistic conversation about what they want their school systems and their cities to look like.

campfireEduShyster: I love the idea of the *index-as-campfire,* with unlikely campers gathered around, toasting best practices from whence ever sector they com. But one can’t help but note that there seems to be a remarkable singularity of vision and purpose amongst virtually every entity involved in this project: from Education Cities and your 31 member organizations in 24 cities, to the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, which funded the index, to your data acquisition partner, Great Schools, which is funded by, well, you get the point. Why invite everyone to the index campfire for a holistic, open-ended conversation when you’ve already reached a pre-determined conclusion? 

Why invite everyone to the index campfire for a holistic, open-ended conversation when you’ve already reached a pre-determined conclusion?

Gray: Let me put it to you this way. If analysis tied to the index suggests that there are strategies for increasing the growth of schools closing the achievement gap, we will advocate for our members to pursue them. This is not an information-rich sector that we are in. A lot of people have opinions that are not rooted in data. They’re rooted in politics or a theory of change, with an emphasis on *theory.* Or they are rooted in financial agendas. I understand what you’re trying to imply. I take some umbrage at the implication.  I think the best way to answer is to say that if the Education Equality Index or any other better data tool that is developed over time suggests that there are certain things that work, I feel on a personal level it’s important to pursue those things. And I’d hope that any other interest organizations, whether they’re teacher unions or education reform groups or charter school organizations or talent organizations. would say  the same thing because I know that we all have good intentions in this work. My hope is that this is the beginning of a wave of more research and more data and information that can inform our strategies. All I can commit to is that our organization will pay a lot of attention to what we learn, not just through our own research but through other people’s research. Then the question is, will people actually move their positions and their strategies based on what they learn? What I can say is that we will.

All I can commit to is that our organization will pay a lot of attention to what we learn, not just through our own research but through other people’s research. Then the question is, will people actually move their positions and their strategies based on what they learn? What I can say is that we will.

nebraskaEduShyster: Well, shall we wrap this up the same way that we began, by paying homage to Omaha? Another thing that makes the *Gateway to Gap-Closing* unique besides the absence of charter schools, is that it happens to be home to seemingly the only billionaires in the USA who are not seeking to *disrupt* public education. In fact, the Buffetts have invested a sizable chunk of change in an effort to *establish a more level playing field for all kids* before they ever get to kindergarten. Will you, Ethan Gray, accept my Cornhusker Challenge and accompany me to Nebraska in order to find out more? Note that I’m pretty sure Nebraska does not have a harbor…

GrayI will absolutely accept your Cornhusker Challenge. When do we go?

EduShyster: It better be soon. An ambitious plan to bring charter schools to Nebraska is already in the works. 

Ethan Gray is the executive director of Education Cities, a network of 31 organizations in 24 cities that does not include Omaha—yet. 

6 Comments

  1. “I think the best way to answer is to say that if the Education Equality Index or any other better data tool that is developed over time suggests that there are certain things that work, I feel on a personal level it’s important to pursue those things.”

    Work to do what? Raise poor black kids’ test scores? What if I don’t give a rat’s patoot about test scores since all they really tell is is that kids are poor, which we could have known without the test. No thanks.

  2. Apologies in advance for this ramble:

    As a product of the Nebraska public school system I can say that there are deep problems with the state’s education management, but not the sort of problems that plague many other states. Nebraska is often slow to catch up with the trends of other states, including making teaching positions into meat grinders for recent college graduates and destroying the public ownership of educational facilities and resources in favor of charter schools. In this case that seems to have been for the best.

    Like many conservative midwestern states NE suffers from the republican delusion that cutting taxes will magically spur growth; its schools are underfunded as a result and the state boasts very high sales and property taxes (passed by city/county ballot or bond initiatives) to make up the gaping holes left by state and federal cutbacks. An aging inventory of buildings, books and technology certainly doesn’t help.

    What does help is the committed involvement between career teachers and local parents, plus a relatively light scum of administrative positions. Another help with regard to racial test score gaps is that the overwhelming majority of nonwhite, non-Latino Nebraskans live in either Omaha or Lincoln; efforts to close the gap need only focus on two relatively small school systems serving a bit under a million residents in total and (as a zero-sum tradeoff) can siphon off funds from rural schools to do so. Also, the cost of living (housing specifically) in Nebraska is quite low, so a person can live something approaching a lower middle class life as a teacher earning national-average pay; teachers are more likely to survive past the first few years and gain some actual experience.

    Beyond that, the area has better than average employment rates even among minorities, lower than average rates of violent crime and gang-related crime, significant community involvement in youth betterment and relatively affordable state colleges.

    These are mostly things that can’t be exported to other areas, so the approaches that solve Nebraska’s challenges may not be the approaches that will solve challenges in California, New York or Florida. I think that is why NCLB failed so catastrophically, because it tried to be the single solution to all problems education rather than allowing states and even counties to address their unique economic, demographic and social challenges in ways that work best for them.

    Three key factors should be broadly applicable: adequate funding, positive community involvement and teacher retention. My children are in a school system with all three and it shows, but only a few blocks from us are kids going to an underfunded underperforming school; educational success today has a disturbing dependence on luck.
    We can distill this down to one essential ingredient: cash. Without enough of it the rest is hopeless. It has to be spread fairly, with fair meaning equitable distribution to the set of students being educated without regard to race, class or neighborhood.

    1. This is fascinating – thanks for sharing. And I hope you don’t mind if I reach out to you before Ethan and I venture to Nebraska. I’ll have some questions 🙂

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