Get smart fast, vol. 3: Policy failures

Broken Promise?

iPromise Academy, LeBron James’s widely publicized foray into educational transformation, is stumbling. Five years in, not one of its current eighth graders has passed the state’s math test, and new results reported to the local school board show its students aren’t even outperforming peers at other schools whose disadvantages qualify them for admission to the school.

[Akron School] Board President Derrick Hall, who noted Monday’s presentation was the first such overview he had seen on the school in his nearly four years on the board, said he was disappointed with the data, even with COVID-19 and a year of remote learning as known factors, given the plethora of additional resources at the school.

“For me as a board member, I just think about all the resources that we’re providing,” Hall said. “And I just, I’m just disappointed that I don’t think, it doesn’t appear like we’re seeing the kind of change that we would expect to see.”

Why it matters: James drew accolades for partnering with the Akron school district, eschewing paths favored by other celebrity school reformers who create independent private or charter schools that students attend by choice. A turnaround might still be possible, but iPromise appears poised to join the list of highly publicized but ultimately unsuccessful efforts to improve outcomes for low-income students who are struggling academically.

Open to all

An insightful commentary published by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute suggests that enrollment declines could overturn the politics of scarcity in suburban public schools, and goad them to accept more students from outside their borders.

A number of factors have disrupted this way we’ve always done things—Covid-19the baby bustand lower immigration rates among them. Though districts in fast-growing metropolitan areas, like Sacramento, have avoided the worst effects of declining enrollment, other suburbs have not been as lucky. This is particularly true in suburbs that have historically relied on white student enrollment, which has declined by 5 percent nationwide (and by more than 20 percent in Ohio). These vast demographic shifts won’t end any time soon.

If suburban areas refuse to open their doors, these districts will have to make some tough choices. No district wants to shutter schools or lay off teachers due to declining enrollment. But without open enrollment, this is likely what many suburban districts will have to do. Operating schools at 50 or 60 percent capacity is simply unsustainable.

Why it matters: Exclusive suburban enclaves have often been recalcitrant about opening their public schools to all students, particularly students from neighboring urban districts.

Free the principals

A new working paper from Northwestern University economist Kirabo Jackson finds an initiative by Chicago Public Schools to give principals more power over their schools’ budgets and operations yielded small but measurable performance improvements.

Why it matters: At a time when Americans are losing trust in institutions of all types, school principals are among the most trusted authority figures in America. As a group, their credibility took a hit during the Covid-19 pandemic, but they still hold deeper reservoirs of public esteem than politicians or the media. This can make them powerful allies in any reform strategy.

Mike McShane, who brought the paper to our attention, adds: “It is also a helpful reminder that there are few blanket policies that are good for all schools, all principals, all teachers, or all students. While autonomy could be good for a high-quality principal, it could be terrible for a low-quality one.”

Numbers to Know

10: Percentage chance that a middle-income student scoring in the 99th percentile on the SAT will get admitted to one of 12 of the nation’s most elite universities

40: Percentage chance that a student with similar scores in the top 1 percent of income-earners will gain admission to those same schools.

99,973: Enrollment decline in the nation’s largest public school district, New York City Public Schools, over the past five years.

21,367: Enrollment jump in New York city’s charter schools during the same period.

42: Number of the 50 states projected to see public-school enrollment declines in the coming years.

The Last Word

“This is the biggest domestic policy failure of our lifetime, in my humble opinion.”

– 50CAN President Derrell Bradford, in congressional testimony on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and school closures on student learning.

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BY Travis Pillow

Travis Pillow is Director of Thought Leadership at Step Up For Students and editor of NextSteps. He lives in Sanford, Fla. with his wife and two children. A former Tallahassee statehouse reporter, he most recently worked at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization at Arizona State University, where he studied community-led learning innovation and school systems' responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. He can be reached at tpillow (at)