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Cascade: No. 81, Fall 2012

Urban Education: Models That Work*

A good education is a prerequisite for many employment opportunities today. In a weak economy when relatively few new jobs become available, the need for educational preparation becomes even more paramount. In low-income communities where the quality of many schools is dubious, the employment prospects of the attendees are grim. There is an ongoing debate about how to improve schools in these communities in order to enhance education levels and improve job readiness. While the merits of charter schools and the role of vocational-technical schools are being debated, there are some school models that have achieved some success. Three such models were discussed in presentations at the Reinventing Older Communities conference.

Why Some Schools Are Effective

Will Dobbie, Ph.D. candidate in public policy at Harvard University, focused on “getting beneath the veil of effective schools” by drawing on evidence from charter schools in New York City. His discussion was based on a joint study with Roland Fryer, Jr., professor of economics at Harvard University.1 Dobbie pointed to three factors that motivated them to focus on charter schools in their study. First, when they looked at national math and reading test scores in traditional public schools as well as similar data from 17 cities and one county (Jefferson County, Kentucky), they found substantial differences between blacks and whites (see the figure). Second, in none of the cities studied did a high percentage of blacks score at grade level. Third, they considered the typical solutions, such as decreasing class size, increasing the number of teachers with advanced degrees, and increasing spending per student, that were thought to resolve the problem. Dobbie observed that the use of all these measures has increased dramatically over the past 20 years with little significant improvement in test scores. Thus, the notion of changes in human and monetary resources as the answer has not worked.

Dobbie noted that while charter schools in general perform no better than traditional public schools, there are some charter schools that are performing exceptionally well. He pointed out that these high-achieving schools are closing the black/white achievement gap in three to four years. The task was to explore what factors contributed to their success. Dobbie and his colleague collected data from 35 charter schools in New York City through interviews with principals, teachers, and students as well as lesson plans and classroom video recordings. They designed a statistical approach to estimate experimentally the correlation of the value added by various inputs with the school’s effectiveness. They observed that when charter schools used traditional inputs, they did worse than other schools.2 Next, they used some variables suggested from years of qualitative research: teacher feedback; data-driven instruction;3 tutoring; instructional time; and high expectations (schools’ educational priorities).4 Dobbie and Fryer found these variables to be instrumental in explaining the effectiveness of the charter schools. After further testing, they arrived at five inputs suggested by previous researchers that are highly correlated with a school’s success: more teacher feedback; data-driven instruction; students spending more time in school; small group tutoring; and culture and expectations.

As a next step, Fryer tested these inputs experimentally in 20 low-achieving traditional schools in Houston, TX. After one year, the results in test score gains in the experimental schools are much larger than in average charter schools and in line with the top charter schools.

Vocational-Technical Schools

Massachusetts has a vocational-technical high school model that is proving to be quite successful. Alison Fraser, curriculum and instructional resource development specialist at Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational-Technical High School, offered some background on the tenets of the model, its value to the business community, and its potential as a prototype to aid schools in turning around the performance of underserved student populations. Fraser noted that Massachusetts was a pioneer in providing publicly funded industrial education. The educational effort later evolved with the creation of 26 regional vocational-technical high schools and three regional agricultural schools. Fraser pointed out that a key component of the vocational education approach is its school-based management: Each school has its own school committee, superintendent, budget, curricula, and instructional policies (within state guidelines).

Figure: The Achievement Gap: 2009 National Center for Education Studies - Reading

Due to the popularity of regional vocational schools, they have long waiting lists. The waiting lists necessitated the establishment of entrance criteria, which include the following: the successful completion of math and English in the most recent grade; a limited number of unexcused absences; an acceptable discipline record; and recommendations and/or interviews. Fraser stressed that these schools, like other state schools, expect students to graduate with career or college-ready skills. The regional vocational schools offer a variety of programs such as graphic communications, cosmetology, carpentry, culinary arts, electronics, and automotive technology.

Fraser revealed that vocational schools are now placing greater emphasis on integrating academics with the craft being taught. She mentioned that this was motivated by the statewide comprehensive assessment testing. Initially, there was an objection to vocational school students being required to compete with regular students on statewide tests. However, once committed to the challenge, vocational-technical students continue to outperform the statewide average in both math and English. The faculties at vocational schools have embraced this integration, since some knowledge of both subjects is required for most trade careers. For example, trade manuals are typically written at up to the grade 14 reading level, and while math is relied on in robotics and science, it is also used in mixing dyes in cosmetology. Fraser also reported that the vocational-technical schools are faring quite well vis-à-vis the state average in terms of dropout rates and graduation rates of special needs students. Moreover, according to Fraser, the business community sings the praises of the vocational-technical graduates as generally more job-ready than graduates from other state schools. Given the special organizational and instructional approach in vocational-technical schools, Fraser, among others, recommends that these schools be used as models for turning around the performance of underserved student populations and low-performing schools.

Mastery Charter Schools

Scott Gordon, CEO of the Mastery Charter Schools in Philadelphia, discussed the approach used by Mastery. Mastery is a nonprofit network of charter schools that currently operates 10 schools in Philadelphia. Mastery is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as a national leader in “school turnarounds” — taking low-performing schools and transforming them into high-performing ones. Gordon pointed out that there are around 20,000 kindergarteners in the Philadelphia school system in 2012, but only about 2,000 will graduate from college — a failure rate of 90 percent. He further noted that 17-year-old minority youths are reading at the same levels as white 13 year olds. Thus, we are producing a generation of young people who are not prepared to participate successfully in the economy.

Mastery’s turnaround approach involves working with the lowest performing schools and keeping the same students, catchment areas (and enrollment rules), special education students and programs, and buildings. However, the only things that Mastery changes are the teachers and management. Gordon reported that the results in three middle schools over three years was a 40- to 50-point gain in math and reading proficiency, with the Mastery students performing above the state average. He indicated that noticeable gains were achieved in three elementary schools in one year. Gordon stressed that a key to turnaround success is providing a safe environment. Mastery demonstrated this by drastically decreasing violence in its schools while reducing the student dropout rate. He further noted that the percent of Mastery graduates who go directly to college and the percent who graduate from college in six years exceed the comparable percents in both Philadelphia and the nation.

Gordon discussed several features underlying Mastery’s success. They include developing a culture of education that values students and doesn’t treat them as widgets; establishing goals with accompanying curricula and measuring students’ progress; relying on data-driven instruction; and investing in teachers and rewarding them with pay for performance.


The task of educating students in low-income communities and preparing them for the world of work remains a challenge for educators. Fortunately, the three educational approaches discussed above provide some insight as to how this might be accomplished.

Marvin Smith can be contacted at 215-574-6393 or marty.smith@phil.frb.org. E-Mail

  • * The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia or the Federal Reserve System.
  • 1 Will Dobbie and Roland Fryer, Jr., “Getting Beneath the Veil of Effective Schools: Evidence from New York City,” NBER Working Paper 17632, External Link December 2011.
  • 2 Traditional inputs include class size, per pupil expenditures, and teachers with advanced degrees.
  • 3 This involves using test results of whether students learned the objective of a lesson to determine whether to repeat the lesson or move on to another lesson.
  • 4 These variables are explained in Dobbie and Fryer’s working paper.

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