NH Public Policy
New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies

Union Leader Op-ed: A new tool to help improve Manchester's schools

Union Leader
September 30, 2014

What are the most critical challenges facing Manchester’s schools today?

It’s a question educators, administrators and school board members grapple with regularly. But for most city residents, the answer is most likely elusive. Unless you’re willing to spend hours digging through spreadsheets and talking with teachers, or you rely solely on anecdote, you probably have few tools to assess the state of education in the state’s largest school district.

The New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies spent the past few months addressing this gap. Our premise was simple: By gathering data on a range of topics, and presenting it in a clear, public format, we could help city leaders set goals for Manchester’s schools. Parents could more easily learn how their children’s schools compare to others around the state and country. Local businesses could understand whether students are ready to join the economy. And taxpayers could better judge how well public dollars are spent on education.

Our report, “Manchester’s Education Benchmarks,” has two aims: to identify the most critical areas of need in Manchester’s public schools; and to engage outside parties — including city businesses, nonprofits, higher education leaders, health care providers and others — to collaborate in discussions about how to set goals and measure progress for students and the district.

Understanding the district’s most pressing issues required going beyond the expected education measurements, such as test scores and graduation rates. We took a broad view, looking at shifts in city demographics, district finances, public health data, post-secondary outcomes, and student achievement based on race, ethnicity and economic status. Much of a student’s academic success is shaped by family and neighborhood conditions. So understanding these community trends must be part of the broader education discussion.

What did we learn? First, the city’s changing demographic and economic trends are affecting student achievement across the board. These include rising numbers of students from low-income homes and growing gaps in achievement between students based on economic and racial background, English proficiency level and disability status.

These challenges are not unique to Manchester. Policymakers across the country have struggled for years to narrow the “achievement gap.” But there are notable areas where Manchester’s outcomes are moving in the wrong direction, or lagging significantly behind state and national figures.

One example: The graduation rate in 2012 for low-income students in Manchester was just 57 percent, compared to 73 percent for New Hampshire and 72 percent nationally. In other words, poor students in Manchester are far less likely to graduate from high school than the typical American poor student.

In addition, we tried to grasp how the district’s finances have changed in recent years, especially over the course of the Great Recession. Among other findings, we noted that citywide per-pupil property valuation has fallen at a faster rate than for New Hampshire as a whole, meaning Manchester’s ability to raise money for its schools is not keeping pace with the rest of the state.

This work is not meant to be seen as a critique of Manchester’s schools. Rather, it is a resource to improve public understanding of the challenges and opportunities facing the city’s students in a time of widespread policy reform.

There is an economic imperative, as well. If Manchester is to compete for highly skilled workers, a thriving school system is essential. Good schools attract new residents, develop a talented labor force for local businesses, and can help stem social problems such as teen pregnancy and crime.

Of course, numbers tell just one piece of the story. Manchester’s schools are vibrant places, full of innovative approaches to education. Many Manchester businesses and nonprofits have partnered with the district to provide mentoring opportunities, expand science and technology course options, or augment basic instructional approaches. And local colleges offer ways for high school students to participate in more challenging, college-level classes.

We hope this report will serve as a springboard to action from the entire community. As the forces shaping Manchester’s schools are complicated, likewise, the answer to these challenges will require some blend of approaches. These might include curriculum and instructional changes, incentives to attract the next generation of teachers, partnerships with community groups and businesses, more concerted use of data, and budgetary responses.

The question now facing Manchester’s leaders is how to harness the strengths of the district’s changing demographics, while adopting new policies to address the challenges the schools are facing.