Why Are Some Urban Schools More Effective?

A new national center based at Peabody College is tasked with identifying key elements that make some high schools in urban districts more effective at improving outcomes for low-income and minority students, as well as English language learners. The Institute of Education Sciences (IES) has awarded $13.6 million over five years to fund the Developing Effective Schools Center (DESC), a national research and development center focused on scaling up effective schools.

The center’s goal is to identify programs, practices, processes and policies that make some high schools more effective at reaching certain students. The center will then develop ways to transfer those methods to less effective schools in the same districts. Florida State University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the Education Development Center, headquartered in Newton, Mass., are partnering with Vanderbilt in the project.


This is the third national research center funded by IES—a research arm of the U.S. Department of Education—to be located at Peabody, joining the National Center on Performance Incentives and the National Center on School Choice.

“Despite ambitious reforms during the past three decades, high schools today have shockingly low rates of student retention and learning, particularly for students from traditionally low-performing subgroups,” says Thomas Smith, associate professor of public policy and education at Peabody. Smith will serve as principal investigator and director of the new center.

The center will partner with Broward County Public Schools in Florida and Dallas Independent School District in Texas, two school districts identified as having both effective and less effective high schools.

The DESC plans to identify high schools that are effective at improving student achievement in English/language arts, mathematics and science among traditionally low-performing subgroups of students. They also will look at ways in which those schools are reducing the likelihood that students drop out before graduation, as well as how they are increasing enrollment of traditionally low-performing students in advanced courses.­

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