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Angela Bass meets with principal

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:

Political Consensus

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 page.

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.

Professional Development

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 continuity.

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.

Differentiated Support

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 elementary grades.


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 First Alliance

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 (MDRC)

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 City Schools

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 Reform

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. (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 and learning.” (PDF - Adobe Reader Required)

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