District Pressure Cookers Test Recipes for Success
Buffeted by social and fiscal forces, local educators seek new takes on governance
For all the national and even international debate about the state of American education, public schooling in the U.S. is still a local matter—and the school district remains its hub.
As administrators know, there's nothing abstract about the process of getting millions of students into their seats, assuring they receive the instruction they're legally entitled to, and welding teachers, principals, and their schools into a coherent, smooth-functioning system.
But there's no one blueprint for how to organize that system. Districts are remaking themselves in a variety of creative and sometimes unprecedented ways as they seek to cope with fiscal, academic, and social pressures that complicate the job of educating America's students.
In Education Week's 18th annual edition of Quality Counts, reporters delve into the forces that are reshaping the traditional school district and the forms that can take.
Those changes may be generated from within, as districts seek to cope with demographic pressures unforeseen a few generations ago. They may be imposed from outside after long-standing performance and fiscal problems prompt municipal or state-level leaders to take action, with profound implications for local control.
And while the specifics and degree may vary, virtually all districts—from school systems in chronic crisis to the most stable and well-functioning—find themselves pushed to go beyond business as usual.
In offering a wide range of perspectives on these forces, this year's report:
• Analyzes the experience of Memphis, Tenn., where a struggling big-city system undergoes a radical makeover and tries to retain its identity, even as it cedes significant portions of its autonomy.
• Documents the dramatic rise of charter schools and virtual education, and the competitive challenge these burgeoning school choice models pose to established districts.
• Assesses the political tensions that arise as state and federal officials take an active role in education policy in ways that complicate life at the local level.
• Offers snapshots from five distinctly different school systems—from the urban to the small town—and the ways they are dealing with the unique circumstances that affect education in their communities.
Views From the Districts
Rounding out this examination of district transformation is an original survey by the Education Week Research Center reflecting the responses of more than 450 district administrators on a range of management challenges and school reform options.
The respondents include superintendents, curriculum and instruction directors, and others in a position to give their firsthand views. They weigh in on such issues as governance models, policy mandates imposed from above, and the relationship between local officials and their counterparts at the state and federal levels.
State of the States
Quality Counts 2014, once again includes a detailed Education Week Research Center examination of state-level education outcomes. This year's installment reflects reconsideration of the framework that has guided the research center's work in previous years.
Recognizing that states, to a great degree, have moved ahead with elements of "standards-based reform" that earlier reports set out to track, this year's Quality Counts does not survey states in the policy category of standards, assessments, and accountability, and in the teaching profession.
In addition, because of U.S. Census Bureau data delays resulting from last fall's federal government shutdown, the print edition of Quality Counts 2014 does not include the annual Chance for Success Index, which is based to a large degree on Census data.
This year's online report does, however, continue the tradition of offering state scores and letter grades for three mainstay elements of Quality Counts: the Chance for Success Index, the K-12 Achievement Index, and school finance.
The K-12 Achievement Index scores states on a 100-point scale, against a wide range of 18 indicators or criteria. They include National Assessment of Educational Progress results, high school graduation rates, and Advanced Placement test scores.
The nation this year earns a score of 70.2 and a grade of C-minus, up slightly from 69.7 the last time the analysis was done, in Quality Counts 2012.
Massachusetts took first place with 83.7 points and a grade of B—it has taken the top spot ever since the index was introduced in 2008. Maryland and New Jersey were second and third, earning a B and a B-minus, respectively. By contrast, the District of Columbia and Mississippi both received F grades on this year's index.
In the school finance arena, states were assessed on eight indicators, half of which look at school spending patterns, the other half at the distribution of funding across a state's districts.
When it comes to finance, the United States as a whole earns a C, based on 2011 data, virtually unchanged from last year's report. Wyoming ranked first for the sixth year in a row, with an A-minus, followed by West Virginia, New York, and Connecticut, all of which earned B-plus grades. On the other hand, Mississippi, Nevada, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Utah received grades of D, and Idaho received a D-minus.
Once again, school finance analyses show that per-pupil spending varies dramatically state by state—$19,534 per student in Wyoming, the nation's highest, down to $6,905 in Utah, the lowest. The national average stood at $11,864. The research center's analysis also flags big differences in how equitably education funding is distributed within states.
Vol. 33, Issue 16, Page 3Published in Print: January 9, 2014, as District Pressure Cookers Test Recipes for Success