Spending time in the shiny white halls of the education reform manse, you could be forgiven for believing that urban school districts are on the way out, something garish and anachronistic—the Betamax at a digital-streamers convention. Similarly, time spent in the halls of many district central administrations (and teachers’ union offices) might leave you wondering when this annoying and ungodly charter-privatization-corporate-reform fad will pass so we can all just get on with public districts’ work. Both positions miss the point. Districts do indeed have a vital role to play in the urban landscape of public education, but that role bears little resemblance to the mantle of monopoly so many districts still wear, despite reluctantly ceding so many children to the charter sector.
If districts do indeed have the right to exist despite what apocalyptic “relinquishers” have to say, what is their new role? What does “district 2.0" look like in Philadelphia, where 67 percent of the city’s students are enrolled in traditional public schools (and where I recently served as deputy superintendent)? Or in Detroit (47 percent)? Washington (56 percent)? Newark, N.J. (72 percent)?
There are two critical tasks for 2.0 districts: They must become deeply specialized in some, but not all, areas of schooling, with a steadfast focus on academic gaps in the citywide system. They must also become deeply porous at the community and school levels in order to nurture an inclusive and comprehensive citywide system.
In both areas, the district must work hard to take full advantage in new ways of all the benefits of its size. Big is not inherently bad. A complacent monopoly culture that has settled for failure is bad. A model of schools and schooling that ignores new research about students and learning is also bad. A district’s size itself is neutral. Under good management that knows how to benefit from scale, a large size can be a vehicle for much good.
Districts as specialists, not generalists. Districts need to be really good at the highly complex science of teaching. But districts no longer have the resources to be good at instruction within every school model and for every group of children, so they must specialize. The growth of the charter sector gives districts permission to get really good at some things, as opposed to remaining mediocre and stretched doing many. This specialization can be thought of similarly to the creation of “business lines,” with leaders and teams dedicated to distinct school types and student groups.
There are three areas of specialization on which 2.0 districts need to focus, all of which represent gaps in the existing system:
• Districts must rise to the opportunity of reaching the hardest-to-serve students. As the field struggles to gain a better appreciation of toxic stress, academic deficits, and other differentiated and special needs, districts cannot wait on others to solve these problems. Districts remain the de facto operators of schools of last resort; they’ve got to specialize here, even at the expense of other work, if needed.
Big is not inherently bad. A complacent monopoly culture that has settled for failure <i>is</i> bad."
• Districts need to innovate in small ways. Given their access to capital, their high number of schools (and thus potential pilot sites), and their potential to scale insights quickly, districts are ideally situated to act as cities’ education research-and-development hubs. This is particularly the case in cities where the charter sector is not fulfilling this promise.
• Neighborhood-preference schools should also be an area of specialization. Yes, families want quality choices; and yes, recent family surveys in New Orleans and Chicago have again illustrated that a majority of families select schools, in large part, based on their proximity to home. Since many jurisdictions do not allow neighborhood preferences for charter schools, and all cities seem a long way off from great schools in every neighborhood, districts have an obligation to focus on neighborhood schools, which are key to meeting community needs, building community partnerships, creating flexibility around student mobility, and so on.
Districts as deeply porous. The second major role 2.0 districts have to play situates them as big, important partners in creating and sustaining inclusive, collaborative, and integrated citywide systems. In an era of complex governance, increased fragmentation, and reduced budgets, districts need to be at the forefront of ensuring the most coherent possible use of tax dollars across education sectors, city agencies, and community-based organizations to meet the needs of all children and reduce duplicative and irrational waste.
This porousness relates to collaborative system-level partnerships. Local education agencies can cooperate to educate students on long-term suspension or provide low-incidence special education services. Districts can partner with health-service agencies to place social workers in schools. They can also partner with community colleges, nonprofits, charter providers, city employment agencies, and others to ensure alternative graduation pathways for all students. They can commit to so-called “universal enrollment” systems, data sharing, and common accountability systems—all of which can ease the work of families as they navigate the new dual-sector public school world.
In these ways, districts need not demand decisionmaking rights or make isolated decisions; rather, 2.0 districts can operate as good partners and anchors for innovative, voluntary collaborations to solve complex problems.
Porousness has another benefit. In an era of diminishing resources, 2.0 districts must look for the in-kind funding provided by partners to supplement their own direct spending.
In addition to these two primary and existential specialization areas, there are other benefits of being a scale operator of schools that 2.0 districts can leverage. Districts are still typically the biggest player in town and, as such, have the ability to leverage their outsize economies of buying and selling for the good of all. For example, districts can take the lead on placing “downstream” pressure on teacher-training institutions to improve.
What does this mean a 2.0 district will not do? Districts will stop trying to centrally manage all school types for all students, including shared professional development and uniform staffing of principal supervisors. They will also stop spending resources equally in the interest of “fairness,” trying to provide all things to all schools. More controversially, 2.0 districts might need to stop directly managing magnet schools and selective-admissions schools. If they stratify systems, let these schools manage themselves like charter schools, allowing 2.0 districts shepherd precious management resources for the benefit of their priority, specialty schools.
To accomplish the change to 2.0, district leaders will need to manage well and meet high standards, particularly as the Every Student Succeeds Act sustains a federal focus on equity and promotes more innovative, local control. District leaders will need to work hard to shift suspicious, beleaguered cultures and will need the courage to stop acting as if teachers were inconvenient guests (as opposed to MVPs on the team). They need to stop wondering how to “engage” the community and start ceding some decisionmaking rights to parents. Many have already started down this path, including leaders in Denver, Philadelphia, and Washington. Each of these cities is an imperfect example, but their leaders have acknowledged that the monopoly is over and the time for reinvention is now. The district is dead. Long live the district.