Instructional leader Angela Bass, left, meets with the principal and vice principal of Hamilton Elementary School to assess teacher effectiveness.
District-wide reform in large urban areas is relatively new, and even those districts
that have begun to experience success have tackled it in slightly different ways.
What these efforts reveal about large-scale reform is that there is no formula
or silver bullet. However, there are a number of components that are integral to
successful system-wide reform at the district level, according to organizations
like Council of the Great City Schools, Annenberg Institute, The Education Trust,
and others. The following list is based on the ten components identified by the
Council of the Great City Schools:
The district administration, school board, and other community groups including
unions, business leaders, and parent groups need to agree that reform is essential.
They must acknowledge that performance is unsatisfactory and take responsibility
for it; stakeholders concur that the status quo is no longer acceptable and blaming
the children or their life circumstances will not lead to improvement. Experience
has shown that the political leadership should be in agreement about an overarching
strategy to achieve reform.
Admittedly, political consensus building is one of the hardest things to achieve
and the consensus is rarely perfect and united. But if the leadership is not
on the same page – if they do not agree on the necessity of a new strategy and
its focus – then districts will not be able to make progress or sustain it. The
school system can become bogged down by disagreement, and central office staff,
principals and/or teachers may disregard the reforms. So in many ways political
consensus is a prerequisite to reform.
Former District 2 superintendent, Anthony Alvarado, had built rapport with
his local school board and the United Federation of Teachers, the local teachers'
union, over his many years of working in the New York City school systems. He
worked closely with the board and the union to build and sustain consensus for
his reform strategy. Not only to his board members but also to union officials,
Alvarado's decisions were being made for sound educational reasons. So whenever
teachers complained of the new expectations put on them, Alvarado had the backing
of board and union in disagreements with principals or rank-and-file teachers.
In San Diego, however, Alvarado was an outsider who came into the district
with a fully formed strategy that lacked political buy-in from the full school
board and from the teacher's union. Therefore his reforms met with resistance
right from the start from these important constituencies. Unlike in District
2 where his strategy developed over time and with input from school principals
and union leaders, in San Diego the reforms were imposed in a top-down style.
And the system bucked – the school board, the union, and many principals and
teachers resisted the change.
District goals need to be measurable and articulated in very concrete, objective
terms, and identified by grade, by subject, and by year. Once the district establishes
the goals, they need to be translated at the school level with very specific
targets for principals and teachers. Goals that are lofty and ideal are not tangibly
useful to schools and district staff.
To create effective system-wide goals, districts often take a more central
approach to management so that all their schools have the same goals. In site-based
systems, schools are often aiming in different directions because everyone has
a different conceptualization of how to do school reform. This makes it more
difficult for districts to develop concrete, measurable goals across their entire
school system. A central management approach also provides continuity for children
that frequently change schools within a district.
In 1996 in Charlotte, former superintendent Eric Smith set four goals for
the district to reach by 2001. His primary academic goal was to lift reading
achievement at the elementary level. He backed up this goal with a standardized
curriculum across all elementary schools in the system. This kind of clarity
enabled principals and teachers to understand what he expected of them and how
to achieve it, even if they didn't agree with him.
Districts benefit from having a uniform curriculum across the school system
that is aligned with the state standards. Experts say that district-wide
reform is hurt if the curriculum is fractured, defined by each school or each
teacher. A uniform curriculum allows districts to streamline
their technical assistance and training to more effectively support the curriculum,
rather than providing support for dozens of instructional approaches.
Standardized curriculums are particularly important in urban school districts
for several reasons. Mobility is a problem in any school system but especially
in big cities where families move a lot and their children switch schools frequently.
Mobility makes it difficult to sustain academic progress if each school has a
different curriculum and implements it at a different pace. Students may miss whole
chunks of critical learning in their education when they move from school to
school in a system where each school –and even each teacher – is on a different
Teacher turnover is also a problem, particularly in inner city schools. A standardized
curriculum provides districts with a way of training new, temporary or uncertified
teachers in a common approach. And it maintains continuity in the classrooms
when teachers come and go.
Using the standards set by their states, districts can create their own curriculum.
Some districts choose to select a reading or math program common to all schools
at certain grade levels. Others allow more choice. How prescriptive the curriculum
has to be is still an open question, but experienced reformers now assert that
it must be uniform.
In addition to establishing a uniform curriculum, districts can also support
their school staff with tools for pacing classroom instruction that guide teachers
not just on the content and goals of the curriculum but also on the pace and
rhythm of instruction. Instructional guidelines, lesson plans, planning documents
and model lessons can help teachers with a new curriculum.
Pacing guides, used by Charlotte and other districts, facilitate the implementation
of the curriculum. By identifying specific objectives each day, week and month
for every grade level, pacing guides help teachers and schools make sure they
are on track. They are especially useful to new, substitute and temporary teachers
so they can quickly know where the class should be in the curriculum at various
points in the school year.
Experts and reformers all agree that professional development is essential.
The most successful districts have a reputation for putting resources and support
behind their strategies to help principals and teachers meet district goals.
Rather than allowing individual schools to decide what training they want based
on a dynamic presenter teachers saw at a conference or the latest new strategy
they read about, the best districts standardize training around the curriculum
and instructional methods they have selected. Focused professional development
supports the district curriculum by helping principals and teachers put the district
plan into practice in their classrooms. In some districts professional training
also includes coaches who go into classes and help teachers by modeling effective
instructional strategies and addressing challenges.
The hallmark of District 2 in New York was its relentless pursuit of world-class
teaching. The district's focus on upgrading instruction cost extra money, but
Tony Alvarado cleverly found the resources within his existing budget. All programs
and resources were streamlined to support instructional improvement. If a job
or program did not serve that purpose, it was eliminated. Many paraprofessional
jobs were terminated, and some schools even cut assistant principal positions.
Title I funds were distributed more equitably to give every school a piece of
the pie. Ironically, once the reform efforts proved successful, the district
found its budget cut, forcing it to seek outside grants to support its strategy.
While many districts have data systems and mounds of test scores, experience
shows that the best ones find ways to use data to drive instruction, and not
just simply shelve it or store it in a warehouse. The quality of data, the availability
of data and the timeliness of data are all crucial.
The best data measures progress enabling teachers, principals and administrators to
assess the need for additional assistance in specific schools or classes,
and what coaching or support is needed for individual teachers. Data also has
to be accessible and comprehensible to teachers and principals so they can identify
students who are falling behind and where they are falling behind,
in order to determine appropriate intervention strategies.
One vital component of a data-driven reform is regular assessments. Districts
and schools must see quickly how their students are progressing throughout the
year in order to help those in need. Waiting until the end of the year for student
outcomes on state tests is too late; there is not adequate time to provide extra
interventions, tutorials, and supplemental learning at this point. While some
argue that students are over tested, it is difficult to know if children are
falling behind and help them if their achievement is not regularly measured.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district relies heavily on data. Their teachers
give mini-assessments about every nine weeks to see which children are lagging
and what concepts or skills they've missed. This helps teachers see what they
need to re-teach and which students require extra assistance; it helps principals
see what teachers need additional support; and it helps the district determine
which schools need more resources. By analyzing the data, Charlotte also discovered
that many their students were getting left out of gatekeeper courses like algebra,
and needed extra assistance to keep up and achieve at high levels. Once they
became aware of this situation they were able to develop strategies to improve
access to algebra and other advanced level courses.
Accountability starts with translating district goals into simple, concrete
objectives and holding specific district staff, school principals and teachers
accountable for attaining those objectives. “All students must meet grade requirements" is
a goal so broad and vague that it is hard to create accountability around. Districts
need to set precise numerical targets so that teachers, principals, and district
administrators know exactly what to shoot for and whether they are achieving
their targets, for example, 95% of minority students will take algebra by eighth
grade by year 2005.
The key people held accountable for results are typically superintendents,
principals, and teachers. At the highest level, job performance contracts for
superintendents are based on student outcomes. This filters down to performance
targets for instructional staff at the district and to principals. How it filters
down to the teachers is a bit more obscure, particularly in states with teachers
unions. When principal and teacher bonuses are tied to student achievement targets,
this can get dicey as evidenced by the Houston School District where data on
student scores was presumably inaccurate.
Effective accountability systems enable districts and schools to make data-driven
decisions regarding curriculum, professional development, and interventions strategies.
Successful districts don't just use average student test scores, they disaggregate
results (and other data) by various minority groups and classes so that they
can pinpoint where to put more support and resources. Superintendents and principals
in these districts often have extensive progress charts on their walls, so the
trends and measurements are in front of everyone.
Monitoring implementation of a reform strategy is essential to making accountability
work. When done effectively this is less about finding fault and more about providing
guidance and support so that goals and targets are met. Accountability is a shared
responsibility. While states and school boards typically monitor the progress
of superintendents, they also need to provide district leaders with the necessary
support – be it financial, political, or structural – to get the job done. Superintendents, “Instructional
Leaders”, or other central office staff who monitor principals, likewise, need
to provide adequate resources to their schools. In the classroom, teachers need
to be given the training and assistance to meet the demands expected of them
by their principals and districts. Experience indicates that the most effective
monitoring systems help insure that at each level people are held responsible
for student performance and also provided with the support and resources
they need to be successful.
Reforming schools is not a quick-fix process. To get solid, steady improvement,
reform must be sustained over many years. According to some estimates, the average
tenure for a superintendent is three years. This kind of rapid turnover makes
it difficult to sustain progress when a new superintendent comes in with their
own agenda. Experience has shown that long-term superintendents, or predecessors
that buy in to the district's existing strategy, are the best way to maintain
In effective districts, superintendents have been around long enough to know
their schools and the challenges they face. They have developed good relationships
with local unions and the business community. Their schools boards are similarly
committed to improving the system and also have continuity and stability in their
membership. Though these stakeholders may not see eye-to-eye on specific strategies,
they all take responsibility for improving student outcomes and are committed
to doing whatever it takes, even if it requires forgoing their personal agenda.
In District 2, Tony Alvarado stayed for eleven years. His predecessor had been
his deputy, equally committed to the reform strategy in place. In San Diego,
though Alan Bersin was superintendent for seven years, other key political powers
were not on board with the reform agenda. As a result, with Bersin's departure,
the reforms were quickly dismantled. When changes in key stakeholders disrupt
the current agenda, gains in student outcomes will inevitably level off or fall.
The consensus has developed that the best districts also have a specific strategy
for dealing with their lowest performing schools. They give these schools lots
of extra support in the way of training and resources. Some of these schools
have extended hours or a more rigorous instructional strategy or both. Whatever
it takes, the highest performing districts focus a lot of attention and resources
towards helping these schools improve and creating a level playing field.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg and District 2 both recognized the need to provide low
performing schools with additional support and they did this through smaller
student-teacher ratios, additional classroom assistance, more coaching/mentoring,
financial incentives to attract teachers to these schools, and a longer school
year. While some people may argue that it is unfair to put more money into low
performing schools (typically with more low-income children), evaluators say
that even with the added resources these schools are still spending less on their
students than higher performing schools (usually with fewer children in poverty).
The main reason is low performing schools attract new teachers with lower salaries
and also less experience and skill. In contrast, higher performing schools attract
more experienced teachers that have higher salaries.
Successful districts, according to experts, do not try to reform all grades
simultaneously. It is an enormous challenge to take on the whole system at once,
particularly in the large urban districts that are far more cumbersome to manage
and effect change. Most districts start at the early elementary grades and work
their way up, for the most part because what works at the elementary level is
clearer and has been studied more. All three districts – Charlotte-Mecklenburg,
District 2 and San Diego – developed more extensive reform strategies for their
Information on Other Districts
“Beyond Islands of Excellence: What Districts Can Do To Improve Achievement
for All Students,” (2003), by Wendy Togneri and Stephen E. Anderson, Learning
This leadership brief describes the principle findings of district reform based
on the analysis of five high poverty districts. The focus is on what it takes
to successfully reform districts, but also addresses some of the challenges.
At the end of the brief there are guidelines for communities that want to take
action and recommendations for each of the stakeholders – school boards, unions,
central office, principals, parents, universities, and state boards of education.
“Foundations for Success: Case Studies of How Urban School Systems Improve
Student Achievement,” (2002), by Jason Snipes, Fred Doolittle, Corinne Herlihy,
Council of the Great City Schools and the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation
Urban school districts that take a comprehensive, system-wide approach to reform
may be more effective than districts that undertake reform solely on a school-by-school
basis, according to this study. It chronicles how some of the nation's fastest
improving urban school systems are simultaneously raising overall academic performance
and reducing achievement gaps among students of different racial groups.
Articles, Reports, and Guides
“Beating the Odds IV: A City-By-City Analysis of Student Performance
and Achievement Gaps On State Assessments”, (2004), Council of the Great
This analysis, in its fourth edition, takes a look at how inner city schools
are performing on the academic goals and standards set by the states for our
children. It examines student achievement in math and reading through spring
2003 and provides a city-by-city analysis of student performance and achievement
gaps on state assessments from 61 school districts.
“The Portfolio for District Redesign,” (2002), Annenberg Institute for School
This guide, developed by the Annenberg Institute's School Communities that
Work initiative, is geared towards helping districts make the transition toward
a more effective school system. The portfolio is a set of interrelated frameworks,
tools, and resources that target the following categories: results and equity,
central office review, human resources, student based budgeting, and partnerships.
“Local School Boards Under Review: Their Role and Effectiveness in Relation
to Students' Academic Achievement,” (2002), by Deborah Land, Center for Research
on the Education of Students Placed at Risk (Report #56)
This report reviews not only the history, role, and current status of school
boards but also identifies characteristics of effective school boards.
http://www.csos.jhu.edu/CRESPAR/techReports/Report56.pdf (PDF - Adobe Reader Required)
“Using Data to Improve Schools”, (2002), American Association of School Administrators
This guide explains how to use various data systems to promote whole school change,
and provides tools and insights to help schools “cultivate a district-wide culture of
inquiry that values the power of data to inform sound decision-making and improve teaching
http://www.aasa.org/cas/UsingDataToImproveSchools.pdf (PDF - Adobe Reader Required)