Achievement Gap

Why Do Some of Our Most Desirable Cities Have the Worst School District Ratings?

The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) recently released its annual list of America’s most and least educated cities among 150 metropolitan areas determined by the percentage of adults age 25 and older who hold at least a bachelor’s degree. However, we need to look under the hood when it comes to these rankings. The top cities are not surprising, with six college towns in the top 10—Ann Arbor, Michigan; Chapel Hill, North Carolina; Madison, Wisconsin; Boston-Cambridge-Newton, Massachusetts; Provo-Orem, Utah; and Austin-Round Rock, Texas. Among the 10 least educated cities, five are located in Central California: Salinas, Fresno, Modesto, Bakersfield and Visalia-Porterville. Los Angeles ranks 85th on the list, well below other major cities like Chicago (29th), New York (37th) and Philadelphia (48th). Poverty within California is most concentrated within the rural Central Valley and Los Angeles County, and it is startling to see how far these areas lag behind other cities in the state on EPI’s list. San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara ranks as the third most educated city, San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward seventh, San Diego-Carlsbad 21st and Sacramento 30th. Part of the wide gap is attributable to the many technology companies in Silicon Valley importing highly educated people from all over the nation and world. But if we dig into school data for these cities, even the most well-educated ones don’t fare well when it comes to educating low-income children and students of color. Furthermore, the top performers have more impoverished children in their public schools than we realize. One reason for this disconnect is obvious. Although expensive areas such as San Francisco, Chicago and New York are desirable and attract highly-educated people, many parents in these areas send their children to private schools. When parents with the most social capital and resources don’t invest in their public schools, the local schools struggle with concentrated poverty and underperformance. According to report cards that were given annually by Education Trust-West until 2013, when California began its hiatus from accountability, the best grade earned by schools in any of the high ranking cities (ranked in the top 30) was a “C”—and this by a district with a relatively low poverty rate.
  • San Jose Unified got a “D,” a district with 44 percent of its students classified as low-income (although the number is high, it is far lower than numerous other districts throughout the state). The size of its achievement gap between Latino and white students was rated as “F.”
  • Santa Clara Unified, encompassing Sunnyvale and Santa Clara, received a “D+” and has the same poverty rate as nearby San Jose. Its achievement gap between Latino and white students was also rated as “F.”
  • San Francisco Unified received a “D-” and has a 57 percent poverty rate. It received an “F” for the size of its achievement gaps among Latino and Black students. Performance levels for all students of color were rated as “D.”
  • Oakland Unified received an “F” and has a 73 percent poverty rate. The high school graduation rate for its students of color was rated “F.”
  • Hayward Unified received a “D” and has a 68 percent poverty rate. Performance levels for all students of color got a “D” rating.
  • San Diego Unified earned a “C-” and has a 63 percent poverty rate. It received an “F” for the size of its achievement gaps among Latino and Black students although it earned a “B” for its high school graduation rate for students of color.
  • Sacramento City Unified received a “D+” with 72 percent of its students classified as low-income. The district received an “F” for the size of its achievement gap between Black and white students. Black students comprise 18 percent of the student population.
While the metropolitan areas of San Francisco, San Jose, San Diego and Sacramento are all enjoying population growth and the economic prosperity accompanying it, the positive effect of these gains is not necessarily being felt by all. The U.S. Department of Education is considering a requirement that schools and districts publicly report performance for any subgroup of students 30 or larger—that includes low-income students, children of color, foster children, English-language learners and students with disabilities. But a coalition of civil rights and education groups are pushing for this number to be lower, possibly as low as 10, so more students at-risk are counted and covered by accountability measures. California, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education, is only accountable when subgroups reach 50 or more students—the highest subgroup size in the nation. What that means is that many schools will be able to slip under the radar and not be accountable if, for example, the number of tested Black students is 48 and not 50. Considering the laxity of California’s accountability system, coupled with how confusing the state’s efforts towards data transparency have been, tracking how well disadvantaged children are doing will be guesswork when states have to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act. Only through accessible and easy to understand data, such as the report cards generated by Education Trust-West, can people get a fuller picture as to the progress of these students. Rankings like these are interesting and give cities the illusion of success, but they often don’t dig deep enough to reveal larger truths. In this case, public schools in these desirable cities have been largely unsuccessful in bridging achievement gaps among disadvantaged students. When we look at these kinds of lists, it’s important to recognize the difference between bringing in educated people and creating them from the ground up.
Caroline Bermudez
Caroline Bermudez is chief storyteller at the Charter School Growth Fund and former senior writer at Education Post. Bermudez has been a journalist for almost 10 years. She was staff editor at The Chronicle of Philanthropy, covering the nonprofit world, with a particular focus on foundations and high net-worth giving. She has interviewed prominent business, political and philanthropic leaders ...

Join the Movement