Voices in Education

Promoting District-Led Turnaround
Near the end of January this year, Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced his intentions to target the next wave of Race to the Top funds to districts rather than states. Although he stated he was not ready for concrete details, he asserted that the next $550 million would flow to districts, allowing them to decide how to target funds. Seeing this article made me happy; there is little evidence that one-off school-level reforms can produce the changes we need to truly improve our nation’s chronically low performing schools—which is where the last wave of School Improvement Grant (SIG) funding was targeted. My elation is fueled by years of research and work with practitioners on scaling successful evidence-based reform. The evidence seems to always point to district-wide systemic reform and applies directly to improving or turning around (depending on your term of preference) struggling schools.

It is for this reason that I recently wrote School Turnarounds: The Essential Role of Districts. The book examines the impact of the School Improvement Grant (SIG) through the lens of five urban districts that are implementing innovative and system-wide turnaround strategies in very different settings to improve chronically failing schools. Rather than boil down dramatic school improvement into a portable set of best practices, it illustrates how complex systems are addressing the essential elements of school improvement through effective human capital strategies, rigorous and engaging instruction, continuous performance management, positive cultures of high expectations, collective accountability, immediate and targeted interventions, and strong connections with families and communities, among other methods. Additionally it highlights how different organizational structures, models, and partnerships interact with variables such as size, union contracts, and state policy both successfully and unsuccessfully.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Denver Public Schools, the School District of Philadelphia, Sacramento Unified School District, and Long Beach Unified School District provide interesting and instructive examples of how districts can be leveraged in turnaround work. While their approaches vary, they share many commonalities, and each displays an area of particular strength or uniqueness. For example:
  • Charlotte-Mecklenburg employs far-reaching and coherent human capital strategies that include their Strategic Staffing Initiative (SSI). They implement well-structured succession planning at the central office, school-leadership, and classroom levels to ensure that strong leaders and teachers are identified and placed at all system levels. The district has seen positive growth in math and reading in almost all of their 20 schools targeted for improvement.
  • Philadelphia implemented a large-scale effort using various district-led and charter-led models and very effective parent and community engagement practices to unstick the needle in 95 schools. Despite significant political and financial struggles and leadership turnover, many of those schools have yielded positive achievement increases, student attendance improvement, and a decrease in violent incidences.
  • Denver implemented a regional improvement approach which includes interesting examples of positive school district and charter school partnerships. Additionally, their creation and use of their School Performance Framework along with strategies outlined in the Denver Plan has bolstered their overall success. In 2010, six out of seven of their targeted schools moved out of the “Does Not Meet Standard” district accountability category to either "Approaching" or "Meets Standards" categories.
  • Sacramento’s inability to fund more than six initial “Priority Schools” resulted in their capability to better analyze their small-scale improvement pilot. Their reform efforts began by district leadership reorganizing their entire infrastructure and improving instruction through an in-depth data inquiry approach. Their tight focus on performance management and instruction has yielded composite math and English Language Arts (ELA) gains on 2010 state assessments in all six Priority Schools.
  • Long Beach represents a long-standing, high-functioning organization that exemplifies strong coherence and prevention. They have had no schools in “improvement” status, according to state definitions, since 2009. It is in systems like this that innovation tends to thrive and succeed. The district targeted eight of its middle schools for improvement (called professional learning communities or PLCs), and moved all two thousand of its sixth graders into a self-contained sixth grade model. Data from 2010 shows that the sixth grade PLCs were only a few percentage points behind the district; this was made possible by large improvement gains from the first year of implementation.
These small district snippets get nowhere close to explaining how these districts did overcome (or in some cases did not) challenges like community push-back around closure, union seniority rules impeding teacher placement, improving the instructional core, galvanizing parent and community involvement, and above all—moving the needle in places where it hadn’t moved in over five years. Through the documentation of their efforts, we can continue to learn how drastic school improvement can occur across entire systems, in various contexts.

Researchers and practitioners agree that districts represent a crucial element of turnaround work. Robert Hughes, president of New York-based New Visions for Public Schools, has said, “Turnaround efforts won’t succeed if they are only school-focused and are not complemented by system change...No bad school is an island; it exists in a system.” I applaud the ED for understanding that districts are a crucial feature of turnaround work. The funds will help but practitioners will also need a lot of support to understand how to create the best conditions for system-wide student success.

About the Author: Heather Zavadsky is the director of research and implementation at the Texas High School Project and the author of School Turnarounds: The Essential Role of Districts (Harvard Education Press, 2012) and Bringing School Reform to Scale: Five Award-Winning Urban Districts (Harvard Education Press, 2009).