Cincinnati shows how to close the achievement gap

Here’s further confirmation that public schools can have an enormous positive impact.

Recently Elizabeth Holtzapple, Cincinnati Public Schools Director of Research, Evaluation and Testing, told me that the district’s public schools increased overall high school graduation rates to 81.9% in 2010. That is up from 51% since 2000. She also reported the district also has eliminated the graduation gap between white and African American students.

This is what Brenda Cassellius, Minnesota Commissioner of Education described as possible during a recent meeting with the ECM Publishers Editorial Board. She praised educators, working together overall several years with the right strategies as “able to overcome achievement gaps.”

That’s the positive spirit Cincinnati has. 69% of Cincinnati’s students ceom from low-income families and 76% represent “communities of color.” But in working between 2000 and 2007 with Cincinnati educators, families, faith, foundation, business and other community members, I found a deep belief that young people can “make it.”

Ohio increased high school graduation requirements 2000 to 2007, so students must pass challenging statewide tests in a number of areas. Follow-up research by Strive, a Cincinnati based group, shows that the percent of local students entering college with no deficiencies in reading or math, and the percent of students going from the first and second years of college at, for example, the University of Cincinnati and the Universtity of Kentucky increased by 10-15% between 2004-2005 and 2008-2009. Rates vary by indicator and institution (see Minnesota’s Growth and Justice also has a case study about Cincinnati at

Cinicinnati used several strategies. The most important included:

  • Focusing on just a few goals (increasing overall graduation rates and reducing the high school graduation gap)
  • Taking educators, parents, community leaders and students to visit some of the nation’s most effective urban district and charter public schools
  • Focusing staff development on a few key areas
  • Increasing youth/community service so students learned they are capable of more than they thought
  • Positive ongoing leadership from the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers
  • Holding principals accountable and replacing some in schools where there was not much progress
  • Partnerships between schools, businesses and community groups focused on project goals
  • Monitoring and rewarding progress
  • Creating small schools or small learning communities in large buildings
  • Obtaining support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

However, Gates support ended three years ago. Cincinnati’s progress has continued. The district continues pushing for even better results. That’s a great tribute to the faculty, families, students and leaders like Superintendent Mary Ronan and KnowledgeWorks Foundation President Chad Wick.

More than 30 years ago, Harvard professor Ron Edmonds asked, “How many effective schools would you have to see to be persuaded of the educability of poor children? If your answer is more than one, then I submit that you have reasons of your own for preferring to believe that pupil performance derives from family background instead of school response to family background. we can, whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us.”

Commissioner Cassellius says it can be done. Cincinnati shows us how.