Special Report

A Role for The Districts

By Bess Keller — January 11, 1999 12 min read

Grace Thomas wasn’t satisfied with the reading scores she was seeing, and math scores on the high school graduation exam positively set off alarms.

As an administrator in the Putnam County school system in north-central Florida, Thomas knew by 1994 that she needed to stretch the compensatory education dollars that came her way from Washington. And by 1996, she saw that if the district’s math program didn’t do a better job of matching the new Sunshine State Standards, Putnam County’s high schools were likely to stay in the testing cellar.

So Thomas, first as the district’s director of federal programs and later as its head of curriculum, went looking. A chat with a consultant sent her to the Success for All reading program, which was compiling a good track record in high-poverty schools like the ones in her 13,500-student district.

District officials gave her permission to merge district and federal money to pay for the new approach, and by 1995 it had been adopted by the faculties at eight out of the district’s nine elementary schools.

She tackled mathematics the next year, convincing the school board of the need for a $500,000 appropriation. The money launched the University of Chicago School Mathematics Project, a K-12 curriculum, in Putnam County.

And neither Thomas nor the district is stopping there. With new federal dollars available to reshape entire schools for improved learning, Thomas is prodding the schools to apply for it.

“I am promoting this as an opportunity,” she says.

Thomas makes responding to accountability’s bad news look easy. But that sleight of hand comes from her ability to harness the resources of a whole district to help 13 schools do a better job.

And that’s the word on districts in the age of accountability. They have it in their power to promote improvement where it counts most, at individual schools, or they can effectively kill it.

Of the 19 states that identify and assist low performers, six do not require districts to help failing schools.

The rest expect school systems to be involved at several points. In Illinois, for example, local personnel are often on special review teams that help schools find ways to improve. The state also requires districts to bring in assistance from sources outside the education bureaucracy, such as universities or private contractors.

Only four states can use sanctions against districts that have persistently failing schools. West Virginia officials, for instance, can take over an entire district if one or more schools have poor achievement on statewide tests.

Some states hold districts rather than schools accountable for performance. Mississippi and New Jersey, for instance, have report cards, ratings, and interventions for districts but not for schools. When New Jersey schools excel on the state’s exams, their districts are given monetary rewards.

But there Is no consensus among the states about the role districts should play, and in many states the specified roles are relatively minor. Rather than specify a role for districts in helping schools improve, most states appear to rely on the publicity that is generated by the ratings to get districts moving.

Maryland is one state that does make districts explicitly accountable for their schools. The system there gives districts a first crack at improvement, requiring them to submit a plan to the state school board for how they are going to improve a troubled school. The state monitors and provides support. Only if the district is ineffective can the state expand its role.

An interesting exception has been the Baltimore district, which contains most of the schools on the state warning list. Two years ago, new legislation gave the state an unprecedented role in reshaping the 110,000-student system. In exchange for its greater oversight, the state has pledged more than $250 million in new aid over five years.

Now that both a new local school board and top executives are in place, the state is leaving most decisions to local officials, however.

“I think districts are determinate in [the success of] school reform, and they are the most neglected piece,” says John L. Anderson, the president of New American Schools. The Alexandria, Va. based nonprofit group helps schools and districts adopt research-based reform designs.

The organization, founded in 1991, decided about three years ago that it made sense to focus on districts rather than individual schools. “If you want to impact the lives of enough kids and sustain the impact, you have to deal with districts,” Anderson says.

Yet bringing about districtwide change has been hard going, he and other experts say.

“A lot of the best ways for a district ... to approach accountability are hypothetical,” remarks Stanley Rabinowitz of WestEd, a research group based in San Francisco that helps educators in four Western states. “People aren’t doing these things.” And, by and large, states aren’t requiring them.

That’s in part because in the education triangle of school-district-state, district officials probably have the most to lose from the push for accountability. “You threaten the traditional curriculum department, the administrators of federal programs, professional-development people, special education people,” Anderson says.

It’s also because policymakers, after constructing a system that rightly took schools as the primary unit of accountability, too often thought they had finished the job.

Sometimes, districts not only fail as engines of reform, their policies make achievement harder for some schools than others. In other words, district leaders oversee unequal distributions of important district resources.

The most serious inequality is almost certainly in the area of well-trained and experienced teachers. In many districts, seniority makes it easier for veteran teachers to transfer from one school to another. As a result, the best-trained and most experienced teachers tend to congregate in schools where they deem working conditions more desirable.

Some districts, such as Chicago and Seattle, have made a dent in the problem by dropping seniority as the determinant in filling vacancies from inside the system.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg district in North Carolina recently started requiring new teachers to stay in the same school for at least two years. More informally, district administrators have sometimes lured better teachers to a struggling school by putting an inspiring principal at the head of it.

But no other district has taken such sweeping remedies as Los Angeles, which is under a state court order in a finance-equity lawsuit to correct disparities between schools in poor, minority areas and those in rich, white ones. At first the plaintiffs in Rodriguez v. Los Angeles Unified School District sought what is widely agreed would be the best approach: greater support for beginning teachers, more training for teachers who lack it, and better teaching conditions in the schools with the highest turnover.

Some research has suggested that teachers would rather have improved work conditions, such as smaller classes, than more money.

I think districts are determinate in [the success of] school reform, and they are the most neglected piece.

After various twists and turns, an agreement calls for each school in the 647,000-student district to spend about the same amount, adjusted for size and type of school, on teachers and other staff members. But because teachers are not forced to change schools, some schools have not been able to find and hire the more experienced, more expensive teachers. Those schools get money to bring up their spending to levels specified in the consent decree, but they may spend it on professional development and even supplies rather than salaries. Last year, the district put almost $11 million into compensating low-spending schools.

“The more we got into this, the more we realized the depth of the problem, where teachers assigned to inner-city schools end up getting the short end of the stick on many fronts,” says Peter D. Roos, a lead lawyer for the plaintiffs in the case. Senior teachers tend to get the best classrooms, materials, and students, he notes.

Districts can also make a difference with other resources, including space and students. System administrators can try to ease the effects of huge school size and overcrowding. And they can rework the feeder patterns that, for instance, funnel all the children from the weakest elementary schools into one middle school.

But the politics and torpor that pervade some district bureaucracies can make such changes nearly impossible to pull off. Chronic budget crises, labor disputes, and turnover in top management can drown even the most spirited efforts at the school level.

How Districts Fit Into the School Accountability Puzzle

Steven Ross, a professor of education research at the University of Memphis, credits Memphis Superintendent Gerry N. House with guiding her district through the first, critical stage of reform. House called for every school in the west Tennessee district to select and adopt by this school year an all-encompassing reform design.

“The superintendent made it clear that this was very important to her” and that she was staying around to support its progress, Ross says. The researcher was the primary author of an interuniversity report that looked at the first 25 schools in Memphis to adopt whole-school reform, most following one of seven designs sponsored by New American Schools. The study found that the first group of schools to adopt the models showed much greater gains on state tests two years later than a control group that did not adopt the models.

Ross also points to the district’s Teaching and Learning Academy, established with the help of foundation money, as the prime mover in keeping schools on track with their chosen models and making sure the shared aim of more active teaching reached the classroom. Teachers hired by the academy became experts in the models and took responsibility for specific schools.

House says district-level assistance coupled with the support channeled through New American Schools is vital to helping individual schools improve. “It’s hard for schools to [restructure] in isolation and without a support system,” she says.

Many districts choose to shape their campaigns for higher achievement around local standards for what should be learned, and many national models for whole-school reform require that schools or their districts set standards as part of school redesign.

“Schools and districts can do better than states to raise standards,” says WestEd’s Rabinowitz. District standards almost always “either go beyond the state’s or add different content or alter the emphasis.”

But, he adds, “the virtue of state standards is that even if a school is mediocre, the default achievement required by the state” should ensure that students get at least a decent education.

One way to judge the success of a school is its capacity to keep raising standards on its own. With districtwide standards, districts give schools a head start.

Districts should not be shy either about using and publicizing the standards, so that teachers, parents, community members, and students know what is expected.

In District 15, based in the Chicago suburb of Palatine, Ill., learner goals for each grade go home with parents and end up in the packets of local real estate agents. The goals are as specific and easily understood as “read aloud with fluency” for the 3rd grade.

Districts can make a difference in a variety of ways, notably in how they allocate resources among schools.

In Corpus Christi, Texas, each student’s report card shows, along with grades, a record of how much progress the student has made in meeting the district’s goals for that course or level. A short description of each goal is provided on the back of the card.

Districts have an important role in assessment, too, which parallels their role in standards. In Texas, districts can give tests in grades not included in the statewide assessment, or they may get a mandate from the state to do so.

The 100,000-student Charlotte-Mecklenburg district provides its schools with an extensive “pretest” program aligned with North Carolina’s state exams.

“It can isolate [weak or missing] skill groups for teachers,” says Melissa Madura, a district spokeswoman.

When districts take a hand in accountability, experts stress, their attitude toward schools is crucial. Principals and teachers should feel they are pushing for improvement in partnership with district leaders.

Grace Thomas, of the Putnam County schools in Florida, says she tried to convey over and over that “I’m not going to your doorstep and unload from the semi and never see you again.” Instead, her message was, “We are going to hold hands and go through [these changes] together.”

Many experts see staff development as the single most important key to lasting reform, and districts can be central to such programs.

Richard F. Elmore, a professor in Harvard University’s graduate school of education, gives the example of District 2 in New York City, where a number of schools with impoverished students are starting to achieve on a par with state averages.

The district, one of 32 community districts within the New York City system, took every available resource and applied it to professional development, explains Elmore, who has been studying the district for five years. “They [also] collapsed professional-development activity into the management structure” so it was at the heart of a principal’s duties, he says.

Districts are often better suited than schools to hear from and talk with the community, and their administrators should not miss the opportunity. Without public understanding and public interest in the schools, reform efforts can blow away--underfunded, underscrutinized, and under attack.

When WestEd is called in to help a district, Rabinowitz says, he has a rule of thumb that tells him whether the school system is serious about higher achievement and greater accountability. At the first committee meeting, he looks to see whether the group includes someone from outside the system--a mayor’s representative or a business leader, for example. If not, he suspects that reform is unlikely to take hold.

Districts can also use their resources to help schools with the remedial or tutorial work needed to bring students up to par on state tests. Corpus Christi requires elementary and middle school students who have not passed the tests for their grades to attend summer school at district expense. High schoolers are also required to meet academic standards during the year or go to summer school.

States and districts, experts say, have a lot to gain by working together.

Districts subvert the relationship when they try to duck the state’s accountability systems or attack it rather than use it. And states take a wrong step when they emphasize sanctions and intervention over assistance, or when their help is heavy-handed.

In a good accountability system, districts and schools are likely to pull out of trouble before a takeover is mandated.

But some observers worry that many districts are squandering both the opportunities that go with a state accountability system and their advantages of scale and resources.

“As I talk to superintendents and board members, they seem largely oblivious,” Harvard’s Elmore says. “They don’t seem to really understand the long-term implications” of standards and of competition from charter schools and, potentially, vouchers.

If they don’t wake up, he predicts, “large amounts of money and a big piece of the constituency will migrate away from public education.”

In short, districts just might find themselves irrelevant.

A version of this article appeared in the January 11, 1999 edition of Education Week