School & District Management Opinion

Converging Reforms

By Robert E. Slavin — March 05, 2003 11 min read
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Change schools? Change districts? How the two approaches can work together.

In recent years, two very different approaches have dominated school reform, particularly in large urban districts. One is comprehensive school reform, or CSR, the adoption of school-level reform models that seek to improve all aspects of school functioning. The other is what I’ll call the “district coherence” movement, in which district leadership seeks to create consistency and articulation throughout the district, focusing on extensive professional development around common curricula and standards. The district-coherence approach is often associated with New York City’s District 2 during the superintendency of Anthony J. Alvarado.

Comprehensive school reform and district coherence share many goals and attributes. Both are strongly focused on setting higher standards for children and on providing teachers with high-quality, ongoing professional development. Both take seriously the problem of scale, seeking to affect large numbers of schools. Both try to create a common focus for reform efforts, avoiding the approach of layering on many uncoordinated programs within schools. In their pure forms, comprehensive school reform and district coherence can be diametrically opposed, and are increasingly in conflict in practice. However, they can also work together, to create coherence and quality from the classroom to the district office.

To see how that might happen, we should look more closely at the logic and operational history of each of these approaches.

Comprehensive school reform is fundamentally focused on the school as the unit of reform. Most CSR models, including our own Success for All program, require a vote of a supermajority of teachers (80 percent in our case) before agreeing to work with a given school; while the district must also agree, the decision is primarily up to the individual school. Comprehensive school reform arose in the late 1980s, at the height of the site-based-management movement, and it retains a strong emphasis on school-by-school change. The main rationale is that the professionals in a given school are best able to decide what their school needs, and then implement a program they chose with enthusiasm and purpose. The Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration funding program, introduced by U.S. Reps. David R. Obey, D-Wis., and John Porter, R- Ill., in 1998, provides funding of at least $50,000 a year to individual schools that implement “proven, comprehensive reform models.” The New Jersey Abbott v. Burke decision in 1998 required that schools in 30 high-poverty urban districts choose a comprehensive reform model, as part of a sweeping funding-equity remedy.

Both the federal program and the Abbott decision essentially bypass district administrations and go straight to the principals and teachers, giving them the opportunity to review various reform models and choose one that meets their needs and interests. Districts still play an important role in this approach, of course, and most widespread CSR models have developed strategies for strengthening district support and leadership for school change. However, for core professional development and (often) curricular functions, schools’ more important affiliations are with national or regional organizations that provide ongoing training, materials, networking opportunities, and so on.

Across the country, more than 6,000 schools are implementing some form of comprehensive school reform, and the movement is still going strong. But the school-by- school approach that served CSR so well in its early stages is now running into trouble. Districts that enthusiastically embraced comprehensive school reform are finding it difficult to manage large numbers of very different reforms chosen by different schools.

Districts are finding it difficult to manage larger numbers of different comprehensive reform models.

Former Memphis, Tenn., Superintendent Gerry House, for example, was selected as the National Superintendent of the Year in 1999 largely on the strength of her adoption of comprehensive-school-reform models throughout her district. Her successor, looking at the 19 different models operating in the district, threw out all of the programs, including ones that his own research department found to be working. Few other districts have gone so far, but many are trying to limit the number of different models operating in their districts or are building their own approaches to reform.

The district- coherence movement takes a very different approach to reform. It suggests that superintendents and central offices should lead the reform process, and should build administrative structures intended to ensure high-quality, standards- based instruction in every classroom. Districts pursuing this strategy usually choose one set of textbooks or instructional programs for the district in each major academic subject, and then provide professional development and coaching to teachers around the selected programs.

In California, the entire state has adopted just two basal series for elementary reading, and is attempting to align a massive professional-development initiative around these basals. Los Angeles and Sacramento have gone even further, designing very detailed monitoring and data-management systems in addition to extensive professional development and coaching around a single basal series.

A recent report by the Council of the Great City Schools provided a boost for the district- coherence movement. The council contracted with the respected Manpower Demonstration Research Corp. to look for large urban districts that had made notable progress in achievement and had reduced gaps between minority and white students. The report highlighted Houston, Sacramento, New York City’s Chancellor’s District, and Charlotte, N.C. In each case, the report concluded, achievement gains were due to a concerted, districtwide focus on standards- based professional development, and a concentration on a small number of instructional programs for major subjects.

In their most extreme forms, comprehensive school reform and district coherence cannot coexist, as CSR asks that individual schools have the freedom to choose their own models, while district coherence asks for consistency across the district. Yet, in the pragmatic world of urban school reform, the two approaches can not only exist together, but can greatly enhance each other’s effectiveness.

One example of a productive congruence between CSR and district coherence is Hartford, Conn. In 1999, then-Superintendent Anthony S. Amato, in collaboration with the Hartford Federation of Teachers, offered the Success for All program to all Hartford elementary schools and asked any schools not wanting it to come up with a compelling alternative. All but one of the district’s 25 elementary schools voted in favor of Success for All (the one exception continued a Direct Instruction program). Since that time, achievement in Hartford has increased substantially, moving the city’s schools from dead last to second in achievement among Connecticut’s seven highest- poverty urban districts.

Comprehensive school reform and district-coherence models can greatly enhance each other's effectiveness.

New York City’s Chancellor’s District, one of the districts recognized for its success in the Council of the Great City Schools report, presents another example of district coherence built around districtwide adoption of Success for All. The Chancellor’s District is composed of schools removed from their community districts because of persistently low achievement. These schools were required to use Success for All, among other reforms. No vote was taken, but teachers accepted positions in these schools with the understanding that they would be agreeing to implement the reforms. Chancellor’s District schools receive professional development from district and United Federation of Teachers staff beyond what ordinary Success for All schools would receive. As in Hartford, the Chancellor’s District has made extraordinary gains in reading performance, and most of the schools in the district have gotten off the state’s watch list of low-performing schools.

Another approach involving what amounts to a district-within-a-district model is Project GRAD, or Graduation Really Achieves Dreams, a program that works with feeder systems to high-poverty high schools. Again, all Project GRAD elementary schools use Success for All as well as other elements, including substantially more on- site professional development than average Success for All schools receive. Houston, another one of the districts in the Council of the Great City Schools report, is the original home of Project GRAD. The 36 Project GRAD schools have gained significantly more on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills-Reading than other Houston schools, and far more than the average for Texas schools. In Columbus, Ohio, and in Atlanta, Project GRAD schools have also gained substantially more on state accountability measures than their districts as a whole.

Among comprehensive reform models, America’s Choice has had the strongest focus on districtwide adoptions, and has had impressive results in improving state-accountability-test scores. In Plainfield, N.J.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Rochester, N.Y.; District H in the Los Angeles Unified School District; and other districts, America’s Choice has helped move entire districts forward.

The marriage of comprehensive school reform and district coherence solves problems for both. Schools implementing programs of comprehensive school reform characteristically have difficulties owing to a lack of consistent district support and district policies that conflict with the requirements of the design. District leaders may not understand the designs, and may not know how to support them.

As a point of contrast, Anthony Amato attended the Success for All training sessions for his elementary schools when he was superintendent in Hartford, and then taught some classes, with great public fanfare. He asked his principals to learn the program and to show that they could teach it, too. Because he had just one reading program to understand and support, he could and did align district policies and practices around the program’s requirements, and could and did recognize the program’s limits, supplementing it in areas it did not cover.

Districtwide implementation of CSR models allows a district to train its own staff members to monitor and support quality in implementation and outcomes. For example, both Success for All and America’s Choice produce reports on students’ performance about every eight weeks. They also produce data on implementation quality on a regular basis. These data are aggregated to the school level and are used by the principal and school administration to see how students are progressing long before the state accountability results are known, so that action can be taken early on if deficits seem to be developing.

Ultimately, the goal of reform is to create and scale up methods from the classroom to the district office and beyond.

For districts seeking districtwide coherence around effective instructional practices, some comprehensive reform models provide well-developed strategies for instruction, curriculum, assessment, school organization, professional development, and other elements. They provide experienced trainers, data- management systems, implementation quality benchmarks, and other supports. They provide unity of purpose.

Many districts seeking coherence adopt a single textbook districtwide and then build a system of coaches in each building, trainers, and trainers of trainers to support effective use of the chosen textbook. Comprehensive-reform organizations have already worked out how to train and support effective implementation of standards-based instruction, and have experienced staff members chosen and continuously trained on the basis of their skill in providing support to schools. Most CSR models have research documenting their effectiveness as a total program.

The marriage between the district coherence and CSR movements is not without its problems, however. In districts seeking coherence, the unpressured, school-by-school voting process typical of comprehensive school reform is rarely feasible. This problem can be confronted by involving teachers (in partnership with their unions, if possible) in choosing the CSR model for their district, building teacher support by holding meetings at each school that give teachers opportunities to have their concerns expressed and taken into account, and so on.

In very large districts, a district-within-a- district strategy can be used, as in New York’s Chancellor’s District and Project GRAD. In these situations, teachers can express personal choices by applying for jobs in the implementing schools. The objective is to listen to teachers, take their professional expertise into account in the entire reform process, and obtain broad buy-in to a districtwide vision of excellence for all children. A school-by-school vote is not the only way to accomplish this.

Ultimately, the goal of reform is to create and scale up methods from the classroom to the district office and beyond that can substantially enhance the achievement of all children. District reform and comprehensive school-by- school reform can be powerful allies in pursuing this goal.

Robert Slavin is the co-director of the Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk, or CRESPAR, at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He is the founder and president of the Success for All Foundation. This essay, based on a paper written with funding from the U.S. Department of Education, represents the opinions of the author and not positions or policies of the department.

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