What Is Not Being Addressed that Will Kill Your Economic Development Strategy

BooksforBlogAt this point I think we are all familiar with the struggles facing Detroit Public Schools, at least on the surface: mushrooms growing in schools, teacher strikes, financial crisis. However, as detailed by this incredibly thorough and thoughtful report by LOVELAND Technologies, 200 years worth of poor decision-making led Detroit to where it is today. This speaks to the need for a new approach to public accountability in our education system. Recognizing the critical role of public education to economic development, in Nashville, it has been the Chamber that has been stepping up to provide that platform for accountability by conducting annual holistic assessments and concrete recommendations for improvement.

In our work across the country, we are seeing cities invest in a combination of marketing and place-based development efforts in order to capitalize on the trend of the Millennial generation’s interest in urban living. As we discussed in our last newsletter, the state of Indiana just created the Regional Cities Initiative, spending $126 million to support 3 regions in raising their national profile and attracting young talent through place-based investments. In our hometown of Pittsburgh, our regional economic development organization has created a website to attract people to Pittsburgh to fill the open 20,000 positions, and another organization works specifically to attract people of diverse cultures to move to Pittsburgh.

All of this work is for naught when those Millennials you’ve worked so hard to attract move to the suburbs in search of quality schools. In Pittsburgh, a ranking of the region’s districts by the Business Times based on three years of standardized test scores placed Pittsburgh Public Schools 93 out of 105, while just south of the city in the suburb of Mount Lebanon, the public school system ranks third. However, despite the resources being poured into attracting people to our city, our economic development community is largely absent in the conversation around the quality of our schools, which threatens to negate any progress that they can realize. Of course that’s not just Pittsburgh; it’s most places

Except Nashville. Since 1992, the Chamber has annually convened a diverse group of business and community representatives to evaluate the progress of Nashville’s public school system. The committee examines academic performance data and prepares a written report presenting findings and recommendations for improvement to the city, including the school board, the director of schools and the mayor. Two things are striking about this process: first, the holistic nature of the assessment, and second, the community dialogue it engenders.

Each year, the Education Report Card Committee spends four months evaluating the performance of Metro Nashville Public Schools by considering insights from school officials and stakeholder groups, public opinion, state assessments, ACT scores, graduation rates, the strategic plan Education 2018, and the district’s own measurement of school effectiveness, the Academic Performance Framework (a composite of student proficiency in math and English, academic growth, reduction of achievement gap between demographic groups, and school culture). This holistic approach allows for a thoughtful and informed discussion of the district’s progress and challenges, instead of focusing solely on test scores. Though test scores are one component, the report card delves deeper into issues like teacher compensation, principal autonomy, and collaboration among educational delivery systems (e.g. charters) to share best practices.

Furthermore, the Report Card creates a community conversation about public education. The process includes extensive stakeholder engagement, including a survey of 500 residents, and culminates in a public event that this past year was attended by over 250 people. However, what’s best about their approach is that it isn’t just talk. Recommendations are delivered to the mayor, school board and director of schools and progress is tracked from year to year. Where feasible, the Chamber and its members step up to support implementation. For instance, a recommendation in 2015 was to utilize human resources experts from Chamber members to conduct an audit and provide additional recommendations for the district. Findings from the Report Card also inform the Chamber’s other work on public education, including a PAC to elect school board members, marketing and fundraising campaigns, and other programs that pair member CEOs with middle and high schools to serve as advisors and public champions.

These efforts result in a culture of accountability that will not only save Metro Nashville schools from a fate similar to Detroit’s, but also will hopefully make them strong enough to retain the city’s Millennials once they start families.