Resilience: Will Urban Schools that Beat the Odds Continue to Do So During the COVID-19 Pandemic?

Jesse Margolis and Eli Groves

June 2020


In American public education, two achievement gaps have long received significant attention: the racial achievement gap between African American or Latino students and White students and the economic achievement gap between poor students and those who are more well-off. Schools that serve high concentrations of poor and minority students tend to do substantially worse on standardized tests and other measures of achievement than schools serving a wealthier, whiter population. However, there are exceptions to this pattern.

In this study, we analyze 50 of the largest cities in the US and estimate the share of students in each city who attend a “beat-the-odds” school. To identify schools beating the odds, we use statewide data to predict test scores for each school based on the share of students by racial/ethnic category, the share of students eligible for free or reduced price lunch, and other school-level characteristics. A school whose actual test score substantially exceeds its prediction is considered to be a beat-the-odds school.

In a companion brief, we also explore how these same cities are now meeting new challenges in the age of COVID-19, and how school districts in each city are adapting to remote learning. Specifically, we study whether beat-the-odds districts have adopted different early remote learning practices than other districts.

Key Findings

  1. Newark, Boston, and Pittsburgh have the three highest shares of students attending beat-the-odds schools. With 35% of students enrolled in schools that beat the odds, Newark has nearly double the share of the next highest city.
  2. The strong results in Newark and Boston are driven by relatively large and high-performing charter sectors, while the results in Pittsburg are driven by traditional district schools.
  3. Denver, Pittsburgh, and Seattle have seen the greatest growth in the share of students attending beat-the-odds schools between 2012 and 2018. Between 2012 and 2018, the number of students in Denver attending a beat-the-odds school increased by 11 percentage points, from 4% to 15%.
  4. During schools early transition to remote learning due to COVID-19, beat-the-odds districts have been more likely than other districts to implement attendance tracking, synchronous teaching, and synchronous student engagement.

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