The Nation's Best Cities for School Reform

Click here to view this Outlook as an Adobe Acrobat PDF.

No. 8, September 2010

The authors' recent study, America's Best (and Worst) Cities for School Reform: Attracting Entrepreneurs and Change Agents, examines the degree to which thirty of the nation's biggest cities are hospitable terrain for educational problem solvers.[1] The question: which cities are part of the "Silicon Valley" of K-12 schooling? Or, put another way: if you are a problem solver with some successes under your belt, where will you be most welcome? The answer: New Orleans, Washington, D.C., New York City, Denver, and Jacksonville. Cities rounding out the top ten include Charlotte, Austin, Houston, Fort Worth, and San Francisco.

Key points in this Outlook:

  • With top-down reform in bulky school bureaucracies failing, education reformers should focus on creating fertile environments for entrepreneurs to develop innovative solutions.
  • The right environment includes significant financial and human capital, openness to charter schools, and favorable district and municipal cultures.
  • Based on our study, the top five cities for this kind of reform are New Orleans, Washington, D.C., New York City, Denver, and Jacksonville.

Our study examines how well America's largest cities provide education problem solvers the opportunities, scaffolding, and institutions they need to succeed. The study assesses cities in the areas of human capital, financial capital, quality control, municipal environment, charter-school environment, and school-district environment. It draws upon the vision of systemic education reform laid out in Frederick M. Hess's Education Unbound: The Promise and Practice of Greenfield Schooling (ASCD, 2010).

We started from the premise that transformative, sustainable reform is about creating room for problem solvers to serve students, teachers, and systems more effectively. This includes examining a confluence of forces--such as state law, civic leadership, philanthropy, advocacy, collective bargaining, and district reforms--and evaluating to what degree cities free "nontraditional" providers--such as Teach For America, Achievement First or KIPP charter schools, New Leaders for New Schools, and technology-infused operations like Wireless Generation or Schoolnet--from spending all their time and energy overcoming resistant bureaucracies and securing permissions. In every area of life, breakthrough improvement tends to be the province not of established bureaucracies but of new entrants able to leverage new tools, talent, and technology. In America's Best (and Worst) Cities for School Reform, we put these insights into practice.

That is not the way people usually talk about school reform, of course. Instead, they typically focus on test scores and graduation rates--and, every once in a while, someone ranks states based on data systems or statutes. While those measures are good and useful, they are also incomplete; they ignore the ecosystem within which reform takes place. Outside of education, analysts gauging the best places to open or expand new ventures do not just measure GDP or unemployment rates but routinely compare locations based on business climate, transportation, universities, the labor market, and the legal and political environment.[2] What is peculiar is how little attention we devote to such considerations in schooling.

Our approach avoids the usual emphasis on which superintendents are most effectively imposing the latest instructional, curricular, or pedagogical fads upon their school-district bureaucracy. This offers a chance to get past oversized personalities, enlarging the typical focus on school districts and their heroic superintendents to take a fresh look at cities as a whole.

What We Did and Did Not Do

Since this study is the first of its kind, the data we used are brand new and the types of data relatively novel--at least in the world of schooling--and they thus proved challenging to assemble. Our grades draw upon three types of data, beginning with extant information from reliable sources. These include, for example, earlier evalu¬ations of state charter-school laws, figures on Teach For America participation levels, and per-pupil spending figures. These data were typically obtained from large national databases and organizations.

In many instances, however, the types of data we sought were not available at all or for particular cities, so we constructed two online surveys. We administered the first in late 2009 to senior leaders of sixteen national organizations that are actively involved in a number of locations, including at least a handful of our cities. These individuals oversee organizations that manage human-capital pipelines, operate charter schools, develop educational technology and tools, or provide the private dollars that fund them. They were asked to comparatively rate, insofar as they are active in or knowledgeable about cities in our sample, such areas as the quality of district leadership, availability of local philanthropy, and support of civic leadership.

The second survey obtained detailed and city-specific data from reformers on the ground, who have firsthand familiarity with local conditions. Whereas we asked national respondents to rate cities comparatively on various dimensions, local respondents provided more concrete and pointed information regarding reform infrastructure and school-system behaviors in their own cities. In three areas--human capital, charter schooling, and philanthropy--we sought to identify at least one respondent in each sector in each city.

In education, as in so many other areas of life, reform work will fall upon the shoulders of problem solvers with the flexibility to tap new tools and talent, approach stubborn challenges in fresh ways, and paint on a blank canvas.

We used several methods to identify such respondents. For human-capital and charter-school respondents, we requested names from senior leaders at Teach For America and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. For philanthropic respondents, we requested names from leaders at a national philanthropic support organization, and then supplemented that list with organizations identified by the Foundation Center Directory.[3] Respondents were invited to take the local survey over a six-week period in late 2009. The response rate was 61 percent for this survey and 81 percent for the national survey. Between the two surveys, 106 individuals participated.

Are these results inviolable? No, but they can help fuel smart discussions about why a given city is attracting or repelling education entrepreneurs. The two surveys, in particular, added a brand-new dimension to that conversation because they tapped the opinions of professionals--moving us past statutes, reform agendas, and test scores and into the judgments of experts who work in and with these cities. A district may think it is focused on performance or accessible to nontraditional providers, while operators disagree. The local business or philanthropic community may think it is stepping up, but observers say it is not. Both are cause for reassessment and reflection.

This study comes with some caveats. The reader first needs to accept our definition of reform and the premise for doing this study, namely that transformative, sustainable reform is about creating room for problem solvers to more effectively serve students, teachers, and systems. Then, the reader may fairly question our decisions regarding particular criteria, or argue that the various other measures are flawed or imprecise. Despite the inevitable imperfections, this study is an important first step in helping municipal leaders, educators, and funders understand a facet of school reform that has long been overlooked.

EduO No. 8, Sept 2010 Table

Cities That Came Out on Top

While many results were expected, others were not. We were surprised to see how well Jacksonville, Charlotte, and Fort Worth fared, for example, and how poorly Philadelphia and San Diego did. While no cities earned an overall A grade, nine of them earned solid Bs--identifying them as America's most welcoming communities for nontraditional school reformers (see the table). They are New Orleans, Washington, D.C., New York City, Denver, Jacksonville, Charlotte, Austin, Houston, and Fort Worth. Let's take a moment to consider a few of these cities in a bit more depth.

In New Orleans, Superintendent Paul Vallas, in partnership with State Superintendent Paul Pastorek and the private entity New Schools for New Orleans, has worked hard to rethink the role of a school district and turn post-Katrina New Orleans into an entrepreneurial hothouse. New Orleans finishes in the top five cities in every area except quality control (where it ranks eighth) and municipal environment (where it is eighteenth), with respondents describing a city rife with philanthropic support and energetic talent, and a school district receptive to nontraditional providers.

Washington, D.C.'s chancellor Michelle Rhee has gone out of her way to recruit new talent and pull forward a recalcitrant district bureaucracy. D.C. finishes in the top five cities in nearly every area (other than municipal environment), with respondents describing a city rich with talent, a district willing to work with high-performing outsiders, and substantial support from outside the district for charter schooling and nontraditional providers. It tops the list for its human-capital pipelines, while coming in second for its availability of financial capital and charter environment. At the same time, respondents note a lack of municipal support from outside the mayor's office and polarization in the community over Rhee's hard-charging style.

New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, a fierce champion of school reform, has recently launched his third term, and Chancellor Joel Klein, the high-profile and tenacious leader of the million-student system, is closing in on a decade in office. Their multifaceted efforts have transformed a district culture once lampooned for its bureaucratic inertia. New York finishes in the top five for human capital and quality control, with respondents noting the city's support for nontraditional providers and the deep, readily available pool of talent. New York is also an example of how big cities can use their natural assets--such as their appeal to young, educated professionals and the presence of philanthropic funders and wealthy individuals--to fuel and support new ventures.

Denver, though less celebrated than New Orleans and New York City, is home to a number of notable developments in recent years. Under two successive and admired superintendents, Michael Bennet and Tom Boasberg, and aided by the steady support of reform-minded state superintendent Dwight Jones, Denver helped lead the nation in rethinking teacher pay. After a slow start, it has created a vibrant charter-school community and fared well in terms of financial capital and municipal environment--with respondents citing the impact of the generally supportive Denver Post and a focused philanthropic community.

Jacksonville rarely receives notice when talk turns to reform-friendly environs, but it deserves a careful look. It is described by national and local respondents as a community where support from business leaders, phi-lanthropists, and the media makes for a hospitable reform environment. Jacksonville also benefits from a strong educational infrastructure at the state level, including rigorous standards for the state test, a robust data system, and America's most expansive state-operated virtual school.

What Does a Healthy Educational Ecosystem Look Like?

Drawing on a broad body of established work that helps explain what it takes to unleash entrepreneurial energy, we developed six sets of metrics to gauge the vibrancy of a local educational ecosystem. These six span the availability of talent and other resources, the vitality of the charter sector, the attention to quality control, and the caliber of local political and district leadership.

Performance varied a great deal across the dimensions we examined, and individual cities tended to do much better in some areas than others. Examining these differences can be useful in helping entrepreneurs, reformers, educators, and funders gauge which cities are doing especially well (or poorly) in areas of particular concern. It also underscores the fact that few cities are uniformly "good" or "bad" when it comes to reform; most have areas of both strength and weakness. So what did we find?

Human Capital. Entrepreneurs must have access to a steady flow of talented individuals, whether to staff the organization's central office or fill the district's classrooms. We examined such factors as the alternative certification routes for aspiring teachers, district human-resource policies for teachers and central-office staff, and the restrictiveness of the local collective-bargaining agreement as it pertains to tenure and differentiated pay. Cities that have made recruiting nontraditional talent and promoting more nimble management a priority include Washington, D.C., New Orleans, New York City, San Francisco, and Denver.

Financial Capital. A pipeline of readily accessible funding from private and public sources is particularly important for nonprofit organizations trying to break into a new market or scale up their operations. While reformers (ourselves included) have been critical of undisciplined district spending, high state and district expenditures do make locales more attractive to problem solvers. In this category, cities are evaluated on their per-pupil funding, the presence of local philanthropic investment, and the district's commitment to pursuing philanthropy to promote reform efforts, among other areas. Top-scoring cities here are New Orleans, Washington, D.C., Newark, Houston, and Austin.

Charter Environment. Charter schools are one of the main ways entrepreneurs can enter new education markets, both as providers of instruction and services and as consumers of other nontraditional goods and services. We evaluated both the current market share of charters in each city--under the assumption that, once a path has been blazed by others, it is easier for new providers to follow it--as well as the various legal and policy hurdles for charter operators. Reformers in some communities have made great strides in recruiting and cultivating high-performing charter schools and helping them secure funding and facilities. Further, some states have nurtured authorizing and statutory environments conducive to charter-school excellence. New Orleans, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Phoenix, and San Jose are all standouts in this category.

Quality Control. Lest we unduly credit innovation for its own sake, the study takes into account the quality-control metrics that guide and regulate entrepreneurial ventures in cities. These may take the form of official regulations and practices--such as the quality of the state achievement test (again, we extrapolate state grades for the cities)--or more informal guides--such as support organizations for nontraditional providers that also keep an eye on quality, including private groups that help entrepreneurs navigate district rules and policies. This category includes measures of transparency, the rigor of state accountability systems, the comprehensiveness of data systems, district attentiveness to quality considerations, and the extent of local support geared to ensuring the quality of new providers. Top cities--Jacksonville, New York City, Houston, Austin, and Washington, D.C.--boast more transparency and more effective local- and state-level quality-control mechanisms.

District Environment. Since many nontraditional providers must contract or otherwise work with a district to do business in a city, finding a district that is both open to nontraditional reforms and has the organizational capacity to handle dealings with such providers in a speedy and professional manner can make or break an entrepreneur's foray into a new market. We considered formal barriers, such as the power of the local teachers union over district decisions, as well as informal ones, such as whether district leaders were audible voices for reform. Leading cities include Charlotte, New Orleans, Jacksonville, Austin, and Washington, D.C.[4]

Municipal Environment. Beyond the district environment is also the issue of general municipal openness to nontraditional education providers. In K-12 schooling, the attractiveness of the local ecosystem hinges on myriad factors, three of which were measured: the presence of a significant state-level school-reform advocate; the reform-mindedness of the local newspaper; and the support of the mayor, business community, and local philanthropists. Chicago, Fort Worth, Memphis, Denver, and Columbus all show strong municipal support.

What Does an "A" City Look Like?

Although no cities in our report received an A, it is important to consider the ideal. An "A" city is a creature of state policies, local political leadership, smart district policies and labor agreements, and civic energy. An "A" city should have a lush pipeline of nontraditional talent and a local school district that features a flexible collective-bargaining agreement and places a premium on hiring talented employees. It should offer substantial financial resources for new providers, from traditional state and district sources, national and local philanthropy, and private-equity investors. It should enjoy active political leadership from the mayor's office and the business community that also encompasses the broader civic leadership, complemented by a prominent editorial voice willing to speak up for accountability, charter schooling, and teacher quality.

Our findings make clear what cities are doing right and why so many formal and informal impediments are still hobbling and frustrating educational entrepreneurs: city and district environments make a difference.

An "A" city also requires school-district leadership committed to managing an agile, responsive, and quality-conscious district, which is eager to take advantage of nontraditional problem solvers when they have useful, promising, and cost-effective solutions. It is characterized by a charter-school environment that has a strong statewide charter law, allows new charters to open, boasts strong and quality-conscious charter authorizing, and features private actors actively recruiting promising charters and pushing to close failing ones. Finally, and critically, it promotes transparency and a focus on performance. This entails a sophisticated state data system, strong and informative state assessments, district leadership focused on the quality of both traditional and nontraditional services, and attention to policing charlatans and deceptive salesmen.

Five Ways to Promote a Reform-Friendly Environment

Though no city received an A, our findings make clear what cities are doing right and why so many formal and informal impediments are still hobbling and frustrating educational entrepreneurs: city and district environments make a difference. So what is it that state and local leaders, including but not limited to those in school systems, must do to make their communities more receptive to reform entrepreneurs? Here are five ideas.

Knock Down Barriers. These include formal legal and regulatory obstacles, such as licensure provisions that make it difficult or costly to operate nontraditional teacher-training programs, contract provisions that prize tenure over talent, and procurement arrangements that effectively prevent entrepreneurs from doing business with the district. Barriers also include informal impediments such as longstanding routines and district cultures. Simply removing contract provisions or state policies that stifle new providers will not ensure their emergence, but it is a necessary first step. Remember the first rule of entrepreneurship: it will not happen if it is prohibited.

Build Supports. If traditional schools need support with technology, hiring, transportation, assessment, data analysis, and so forth, then entrepreneurs--who face those same challenges, in addition to breaking into new markets and building to scale--need all that help and more. New charter schools, for example, face the additional challenges of arranging facilities and financing, marketing themselves, and negotiating local politics and the authorizing process. By designating offices or individuals to facilitate the work of nontraditional problem solvers and identifying points of contact to help them negotiate challenges and access resources, district and municipal leaders can provide invaluable aid.

Meanwhile, locally grown independent entities such as New Schools for New Orleans and Indianapolis's Mind Trust provide essential material support, relationships, local expertise, and smart quality control. These organizations help identify and recruit promising school leaders and providers, assist them in securing funding, help clear away political and local obstacles, connect them to savvy advisers, and otherwise make immense challenges more manageable. Other communities would benefit by creating organizations that resemble them.

Gather, Use, and Leverage Data. Without robust metrics that policymakers, parents, and practitioners can use to compare their performance and cost-effectiveness to the status quo, nontraditional providers will struggle to prove their mettle. An entrepreneur may have a terrific solution for engaging parents, recruiting teachers, or tutoring English-language learners, but be unable to sell that solution without tangible evidence of its impact. Measures of performance and cost-effectiveness also provide a powerful safeguard against snake-oil peddlers. As coauthor Hess and Harvard University's Jon Fullerton noted in "The Numbers We Need: Bringing Balanced Scorecards to Education Data," metrics that accurately reflect the good or service in question are crucial, whether it is improved principal selection, more useful data tools, or enhanced foreign-language instruction. Test scores and graduation rates alone will not cut it.[5]

Think Outside Your Own Backyard. School improvement suffers from the expectation that school and district personnel will handcraft solutions to all of their instructional, staffing, and operational challenges, as if everything were sui generis. Part of what is valuable about nontraditional providers is their ability to think beyond the individual school or district; in fact, many specialize in pyramiding expertise across multiple locations. That is what New Leaders for New Schools and the New Teacher Project, for example, have done in staffing, and what Wireless Generation and Schoolnet have done in data and technological tools. Districts could do vastly more to identify experienced specialists at work in other places to help solve thorny problems, leverage their assistance, and integrate such relationships into district and school routines.

Remaking old policies--along with the norms and expectations that have grown up around them--is hard, messy, political work.

Flex Your Political Muscle. Doing any of this hinges on political support. Public education is a public enterprise: the lion's share of the funding is public, and the rules and accountability systems are made by public officials. Inertia tends to prevail in public bureaucracies; state and local policies that may have made sense at one point may now do more harm than good. These laws, regulations, and contract provisions have no expiration date and will not fade of their own accord. Remaking them--along with the norms and expectations that have grown up around them--is hard, messy, political work. It requires advocacy, the cultivation of community support, philanthropic backing, and efforts to win over media and opinion makers. More than anything else, it requires a voice for reform that can counter the agenda of the teachers union.

Final Thoughts

In recent years, reformers seeking to remake urban schooling have gained some traction--and can show some results. But the modest reading and math gains, laudable as they are, do not come close to being sufficient. Cities that are serious about renewing their K-12 education systems must be prepared to act boldly. This means making room for new problem solvers and their tools, talent, and technologies.

America's leading reform cities have begun that transformation. Schooling in locales like New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and New York City is already more dynamic and entrepreneurial than it was a decade ago. And while even these cities still have a long way to go, many others have not even begun--which leaves them hoping against experience that another in a series of superintendents will turn out to be the miracle worker.

The challenge is to do profoundly better. Whatever the merits of steady efforts to improve professional development and tweak curricula, they are unlikely to deliver considerable gains in performance or major new efficiencies. In education, as in so many other areas of life, that work will fall upon the shoulders of problem solvers with the flexibility to tap new tools and talent, approach stubborn challenges in fresh ways, and paint on a blank canvas. America's most educationally successful cities, in 2020 and beyond, will be those that embrace and foster these efforts.

This Outlook was adapted from the authors' recent Thomas B. Fordham Institute study, America's Best (and Worst) Cities for School Reform.

Frederick M. Hess ([email protected]) is the director of education policy studies at AEI and author of Education
Unbound (ASCD, 2010). Stafford Palmieri ([email protected]) is a policy analyst at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Janie Scull ([email protected]) is a research assistant at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Click here to view this Outlook as an Adobe Acrobat PDF.


1. See Frederick M. Hess, Stafford Palmieri, and Janie Scull, America's Best (and Worst) Cities for School Reform: Attracting Entrepreneurs and Change Agents (Washington, DC: Thomas B. Fordham Institute, August 24, 2010), available at (accessed September 20, 2010).

2. Internationally, the World Bank conducts its Doing Business report. Nationally, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce compares states on business and legal environment. Magazines routinely rank states and cities on such measures. Richard Florida has influentially ranked cities based on their appeal to the "creative class." In education, however, neither organizations nor analysts have done much to bring these models or intuitions to bear.

3. See Foundation Center, "Top Funders and Recipients," available at (accessed September 15, 2010).

4. Typically the biggest school district, which was identified and named for respondents in each city, was evaluated. Had we evaluated a different district, the city's grade--in this area, and likely across the board--may have changed, for better or for worse.

5. Frederick M. Hess and Jon Fullerton, "The Numbers We Need: Bringing Balanced Scorecards to Education Data," Phi Delta Kappan 90, no. 9 (May 2009): 665-69, available at

Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine
About the Author


Frederick M.

What's new on AEI

AEI Election Watch 2014: What will happen and why it matters
image A nation divided by marriage
image Teaching reform
image Socialist party pushing $20 minimum wage defends $13-an-hour job listing
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 27
  • 28
  • 29
  • 30
  • 31
Monday, October 27, 2014 | 10:00 a.m. – 11:30 a.m.
State income taxes and the Supreme Court: Maryland Comptroller v. Wynne

Please join AEI for a panel discussion exploring these and other questions about this crucial case.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014 | 9:30 a.m. – 12:15 p.m.
For richer, for poorer: How family structures economic success in America

Join Lerman, Wilcox, and a group of distinguished scholars and commentators for the release of Lerman and Wilcox’s report, which examines the relationships among and policy implications of marriage, family structure, and economic success in America.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014 | 5:30 p.m. – 7:00 p.m.
The 7 deadly virtues: 18 conservative writers on why the virtuous life is funny as hell

Please join AEI for a book forum moderated by Last and featuring five of these leading conservative voices. By the time the forum is over, attendees may be on their way to discovering an entirely different — and better — moral universe.

Thursday, October 30, 2014 | 2:00 p.m. – 3:00 p.m.
A nuclear deal with Iran? Weighing the possibilities

Join us, as experts discuss their predictions for whether the United States will strike a nuclear deal with Iran ahead of the November 24 deadline, and the repercussions of the possible outcomes.

Thursday, October 30, 2014 | 5:00 p.m. – 6:15 p.m.
The forgotten depression — 1921: The crash that cured itself

Please join Author James Grant and AEI senior economists for a discussion about Grant's book, "The Forgotten Depression: 1921: The Crash That Cured Itself" (Simon & Schuster, 2014).

No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled today.
No events scheduled this day.