Slow and steady: Cleveland's schools are improving

Every major U.S. urban school district is always at DEFCON 1. Too many students from urban areas do not achieve acceptable outcomes. The scope and urgency of the problem means urban districts are expected to enact reforms that immediately fix all problems. When these reforms prove not to be panacea, impatient parents, government leaders, and other interests press for the next round of changes. This reform churn means that no strategy gets the time needed to produce intended effects.

For the past five years, Cleveland has opted out of reform churn and pursued a single school improvement strategy.  A new report finds that this strategy has led to real progress on several valid measures of student outcomes. Cleveland has not discovered a panacea , but it has made exceptional progress and deserves further attention from the school reform community

Three measures the report cites deserve special attention. Cleveland students scored slightly better on the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). NAEP scores across Ohio and the nation dropped, suggesting that the 2015 test was more difficult than previous years. Cleveland students bucked that trend, suggesting that Cleveland schools made some progress towards closing the enormous gaps in achievement their students face.

Students’ ACT score went up, even as the Cleveland Metropolitan School District has pushed an increasing percentage of students to take the test. Previously, only CMSD’s best students, who were among its few to even attempt college, took the ACT. To include medium- and low-ability students and still drive the ACT average higher suggests that Cleveland’s high school students are learning more.

Evidence from Ohio’s value-added models (VAM) provide more evidence that all students are learning more and that Cleveland’s teachers have risen to The Cleveland Plan’s challenge. In the 2013-2014 school year, VAM ranked Cleveland’s teachers 578th out of 611 districts in Ohio. For the 2014-2015 school year, Cleveland’s teachers ranked 254th in the state. These gains occurred despite the growing body of research that suggests all but the most carefully collected VAM models can be biased against teachers in urban environments. A fair amount of instability in year-to-year VAM scores exists, so one should consider Cleveland’s VAM gains to be provisional. But at least in 14-15, VAM results suggested Cleveland students did not fall further behind the average Ohio student.

The report is careful to note that Cleveland’s schools are far from “fixed." Evidence suggests its students are closing achievement gaps, but those gaps remain massive. However, by sticking with a single set of reforms, Cleveland appears to have made real improvement and be on the right track, which is more than most districts can say. Something real is happening in Cleveland, and the rest of the country would be wise to pay attention.


From 2012-2014, the author worked for CMSD.

Bryan Shellyurban school, policy