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Published in Print: September 11, 2002, as Study Tracks What Works In Four Urban School Districts

Study Tracks What Works In Four Urban School Districts

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Agreement between school boards and superintendents over achievement goals, an emphasis on the lowest-performing students, and the adoption of districtwide curricula are among the most successful strategies being used in four urban school districts, concludes a report released last week.

Over the past few years, the districts profiled in the report—the Houston Independent School District, the Sacramento City Unified School District, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system in North Carolina, and the Chancellor's District in New York City, a special 25,000-student district of low-performing schools—have improved test scores and narrowed achievement gaps between minority and white students.

Improvement in those districts, the study found, has also occurred at a faster rate than it has in their states overall.

"The reform efforts were driven by the concern that schools were failing their students—especially low-income and minority students—and that improving this pattern was the district's most important priority," according to the report, titled "Foundations for Success: Case Studies of How Urban School Systems Improve Student Achievement." The Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based network of 57 urban districts, and the Manpower Demonstration Research Corp., a nonprofit research organization in New York City, released the study.

The authors say they hope the experiences of the four districts can be used to identify promising practices that will help other districts facing troubles that are common in urban school systems.

To help raise scores, the districts in the report also focused their professional-development activities on the curricula being used and gave teachers access to data to help target students' greatest weaknesses.

For example, in the 209,000-student Houston schools, teachers can use a Web-based system that gives them "snapshot" assessments of students. And in Sacramento, a district of roughly 52,000 students, reading assessments are conducted every six weeks so teachers can keep track of how students are progressing or where they need extra attention.

Common Obstacles

The researchers identified similar challenges faced by the districts in the study, including political conflict, inexperienced teachers, low expectations for students, high student mobility, and inefficient business operations that can make even meeting classrooms' basic needs for books and supplies difficult.

"At times district business operations were managed by staff who had been promoted because of tenure in the district, rather than their particular qualifications," the authors write. The four districts studied, however, have begun to overcome some of those problems.

The authors also examined practices in two anonymous urban districts for comparison.

Samuel C. Stringfield

They found, for example, that in each case-study district, the school board and the superintendent had a "stable and lengthy relationship." In the comparison districts, on the other hand, there was frequent turnover of superintendents.

The case-study districts also implemented accountability measures that went beyond state requirements, put senior staff members on performance contracts tied to student achievement goals, and rewarded and recognized people in the district when goals were met. The comparison districts did not take such steps.

'Very Logical' Steps

While using a common curriculum throughout a district may appear to limit flexibility, the report suggests that approach is necessary to address the needs of students who often move between schools.

"What is wonderfully encouraging about this study is that they went out and found very logical things that can matter," said Samuel C. Stringfield, a principal research scientist in the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and a member of the Baltimore school board. "There is reason for sensible hope about improving the academic achievement of urban school children."

Vol. 22, Issue 2, Page 11

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