Your current web browser is outdated. For best viewing experience, please consider upgrading to the latest version.
Main Error Mesage Here
More detailed message would go here to provide context for the user and how to proceed
Main Error Mesage Here
More detailed message would go here to provide context for the user and how to proceed
search DONATE
Close Nav

Diamonds in the Rough: How Schools Can Rise to the Top

back to top

Diamonds in the Rough: How Schools Can Rise to the Top

February 1, 2017
Urban PolicyEducation
EducationPre K-12


Editor’s note (2019): This report describes School Grades, a project that Manhattan Institute instituted in 2015 and ended at the end of 2019, as the development of websites from other organizations, particularly Great Schools, specifically dedicated to national school data have appeared., a website launched by the Manhattan Institute in 2015, provides the only comprehensive evaluation and comparison of all U.S. public elementary and middle schools based on the performance of their students in core subjects. How does SchoolGrades work?

We start with the percentage of students in each school who qualify as proficient on their state’s math and reading exams, and then adjust these numbers to align with a rigorous national standard, using the latest scores in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). This allows us to accurately compare schools’ performance across state lines. Next, in recognition of the correlation between family income and student achievement, we award extra credit to schools serving economically disadvantaged students. Finally, we assign each school a letter grade, “A” through “F,” that correlates to where students would rank in comparison with students in 60 countries on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exams.

As one might expect, the quality of schools across the country ranges from excellent to abysmal. Of the 70,000 public elementary and middle schools across 50 states, 26% earn an “A,” putting them on par with the average performance of schools in countries at the top of the international education rankings, like South Korea and Finland. Seventeen percent earn an “F,” meaning that the school’s performance is similar to the average performance of schools in countries like Serbia and Thailand.

“A” and “F” schools are not evenly distributed. When perusing SchoolGrades interactive maps, one will often find areas that are dominated by “D” or “F” schools. But almost always, there will be an “A.” Over the past few months, Max Eden and I visited a handful of these islands of excellence in the hope that we might draw lessons from their success. We wanted to discover the basic tenets that allow these schools to stand out among their neighbors and give some of America’s most disadvantaged students a truly world-class education.

The schools we profile in this report include traditional district schools as well as charter schools in five cities: Baltimore, Cleveland, Philadelphia, New York City, and Yonkers, NY. All these schools received an “A” from SchoolGrades while surrounded by many “D” and “F” schools.

They include:

Philadelphia’s Young Scholars Charter School: A high-scoring, high-poverty 260-student middle school that offers personalized attention and focuses on community and character—“the real skills in life.”

Cleveland’s Citizens Academy: A K–8 charter school serving more than 400 students that breaks through with extensive family support and high expectations for teachers, students, and parents.

Baltimore’s Thomas Johnson Elementary/Middle School: A traditional public school serving 550 students that has blossomed from a struggling institution at risk of closure into one of the strongest public schools in Maryland. 

New York City’s P.S. 172/The Beacon School of Excellence: A K–5, 600-student public school among the state’s highest-performing, despite the fact that 31% of students require special-education services and 27% are English language learners.

Yonkers’s Charter School of Educational Excellence: A K–8 school serving 700 students that has not only become one of the highest-scoring schools in the city but a source of community pride and revitalization.

Certain common characteristics of these schools help us understand how they beat the odds to deliver such stellar student achievement:

  • Strong Leaders
  • Engaged Parents
  • Discipline and a Culture of High Expectations
  • A Well-Mapped, Well-Rounded Curriculum
  • Extended Learning Time
  • Frequent Assessment
  • Highly Effective Teachers

Of course, these seven basic characteristics of successful schools are not pathbreaking. In fact, they closely echo the findings of a study that Harvard University economics professor Roland G. Fryer conducted of successful New York City charter schools. But as one principal told us, the real key to a successful school is “a lot of hard work.” Still, these schools reassure us that the solutions to education problems are achievable. We hope that their stories will inspire other schools.



Charles Sahm is the director of education policy at the Manhattan Institute. Follow him on Twitter here.

Max Eden is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Follow him on Twitter here.