When it comes to standards, assessments, and accountability, most of the attention has been focused on state policymaking, on the one hand, and individual schools, on the other. After all, states typically set the standards, select or design the assessments, and mete out rewards or consequences to schools.
But research suggests that school districts play a crucial role in determining whether standards breathe new life into classrooms.
Specifically, they can help bring curricula into line with the standards, analyze test data, select textbooks, provide professional development to teachers, and help low-performing schools and students.
As James P. Spillane, an assistant professor of education and social policy at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., points out, districts can “amplify, drown out, or minimize” the impact of standards in schools.
In his research on nine districts in Michigan, Spillane found that state mathematics and science standards prompted the districts to revise their curricula to align with the new expectations for what students should learn. But only three of the districts had the capacity to forge deep changes in classroom instruction; the rest failed to grasp many of the new cognitive demands that the standards placed on students or teachers.
Similarly, a study of standards-based reforms in eight states and 22 districts by the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, a federally financed research center, found that districts play a critical role in building the capacity of teachers and schools.
The study found a majority of districts were helping schools use data to improve teaching and learning. A majority also were creating professional-development opportunities for teacher at the school site. And, increasingly, they were using teachers to help develop curriculum, performance assessments, and scoring rubrics linked to state standards.
In addition, nearly one-third of the districts in the study provided support to schools identified as low-performing by state or local tests and accountability systems. All of them targeted special assistance to students who were not meeting local or state goals.
Nonetheless, many district officials talked about the difficulty in helping schools and teachers to move from a focus on test-taking kills to integrating standards into instruction.
In Illinois, a state-sponsored study is assessing the extent to which districts implement the Illinois Learning Standards. Lizanne DeStefano, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who is heading that study, says “the importance of district-level involvement in standards implementation cannot be overestimated.”
“I see districts as key because they are the holder of the purse strings, in many instances, and the place that sets policy in terms of personnel, the time for instruction, and instructional resources and materials,” she says.
“Even though we have some rhetoric that says everything is happening at the building level, when you actually look at the processes, many are district-controlled,” she adds. “And when you get down to the building level, it is very rare to find a building implementing standards that doesn’t have district support to do that.”
Striving to Succeed
Some researchers, in fact, argue that differences in the material and human capital available across districts pose a central challenge to the standards movement, further emphasizing disparities between the haves and have-nots.
In the following articles, Quality Counts profiles four school districts that have taken the drive for standards-based improvement seriously, producing clear benefits for their students.
A Maryland district provides aggressive assistance to students who are falling behind academically. A district in Pennsylvania scrutinizes assessment data every nine weeks to tell whether students are learning. A Kentucky district gives teachers the knowledge and skills to teach to new standards. In Texas, a district is translating it state standards into language that parents can understand. Together, these districts shed light on the role school systems can play in making standards real in classrooms.