Some Cities Are Making Great Strides In Educating Low-Income Students

But overall, things aren't looking bright for disadvantaged kids.
Orlando, Florida, has made big gains in educating low-income students.
Orlando, Florida, has made big gains in educating low-income students.
Danielle Gali via Getty Images

Many American cities are home to massive achievement gaps that divide rich and poor students. But some are doing a far better job than others in educating the most economically disadvantaged learners, according to a new report from Education Cities and GreatSchools.

The new, first-of-its-kind report compares the achievement gaps in 42 states and major cities around the country. Most of the report's results are disheartening. Only two in 10 low-income students from big cities go to schools where they perform near or on par with affluent students. Over 60 of the country's largest cities have what the report classifies as "massive" achievement gaps. Over the past several years, the achievement gap has grown or stagnated in most cities.

However, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation-funded study also highlights several cities that have made tremendous gains in helping vulnerable students. The report focused solely on income-based gaps and did not explore achievement gaps based on race or other characteristics.

Education Cities, a nonprofit organization that works with cities to improve public schools, collaborated with GreatSchools to develop a formula to determine the achievement gap between low-income and affluent students for 78,000 schools. The formula compared the level of low-income students who receive proficient scores on assessments at a given school to the scores of students on that assessment statewide.

Report authors repeated this comparison for entire cities and states.

Miami has some of the smallest achievement gaps in the country.
Miami has some of the smallest achievement gaps in the country.
Walter Bibikow via Getty Images

Hialeah, Florida; Gilbert, Arizona; and Miami topped the list of cities with the smallest achievement gaps. Major cities like New York and San Francisco also scored in the top 10. Cities like Omaha, Nebraska; Denver; and Norfolk, Virginia have seen the greatest gains for low-income students over the past few years.

While the researchers have long known that rich students tend to outperform poor students, the report highlights which cities and states should be looked to as leaders.

"People are working tirelessly in communities across the country to improve educational opportunity, particularly for underserved kids. But far too often these efforts can be siloed, fragmented, making people feel like they have to reinvent the wheel," Samantha Brown Olivieri, the vice president for data strategy at GreatSchools, said on a call with reporters. This "gives us the opportunity at a national level to provide a simple tool to start conversations about the achievement gap."

Lisa Early, the Director of Children and Education for the City of Orlando, said that her city has used partnerships with the local school district, city investments and grants to improve the achievement levels of disadvantaged kids. Orlando was highlighted in the report as one of the top 10 cities to have made the most progress in closing the gap over the past several years.

Early said the city has instituted programs specifically designed to target summer learning loss by putting teachers in community centers around the city when kids are out of school.

"It's not just up to the school district to move the needle on the academic performance of students, its up to the whole community," she said.

Education Cities and GreatSchools issued a joint statement on Tuesday saying that they had identified limitations in the interpretation of state-level Education Equality Index scores, but that they want to ensure that the EEI adds value to the national conversation about the achievement gap.

"Our goal is to highlight states, cities and schools that are more successfully closing the achievement gap than others," the statement read. "We are confident that school-level and city-level EEI scores are highlighting success stories across the nation, but we have concluded that the state-level EEI scores are not the best way to compare states. Because states’ absolute EEI scores are highly correlated to the percentage of students in the state who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, we have removed the rankings of states based on the EEI score and pace of change pending further review."

The organizations announced that they plan to further develop the EEI, exploring the possible incorporation of additional national measures, and would welcome feedback.

This article has been updated to include a statement from the Education Cities and GreatSchools. A state comparison that appeared in an earlier version was removed following their declaration that they had found limitations in that analysis.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the formula used by Education Cities to determine the achievement gap.


Rebecca Klein covers the challenges faced in school discipline, school segregation, and the achievement gap in K-12 education. In particular, she is drilling down into the programs and innovations that are trying to solve these problems. Tips? Email


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