School & District Management Opinion

Five Critical Conditions That Encourage School Improvement

By Heather Zavadsky — April 18, 2014 6 min read
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People often ask me what I’ve learned in 20-plus years of studying districts that have successfully lifted up chronically struggling schools. People also argue with me, asserting that districts are incapable of improving schools, or that charter schools and organizations are the only solution to the current problems.

I think it’s time to stop arguing over models and who owns or is credited with the solution. To prepare students to be productive 21st-century citizens, we need educational systems that offer a range of accessible, high-quality, innovative models from which students and families may choose. We need students to be prepared for the world we live in now and the one they will inhabit in the future.

How districts get there will vary, but their efforts must include the following five critical conditions:

1. A central office or centralized body that supports customization, innovation, and equity. This means rethinking how the district’s central office can help schools create new approaches to meeting their communities’ unique needs, be it through small schools, academies, magnets, or other options. Forcing schools to adhere to limited schedules, budgets, staffing patterns, and services will not get them there. Isn’t this why charters hold such great appeal?

2. A strategy and tools to monitor quality and coherence for the system and its clients (students, the community, businesses). You cannot simply plop down a bunch of schools without being thoughtful about how to ensure students experience logical, accessible, and effective (as in, they are prepared) transitions from pre-K to 12th grade and beyond.

Disconnected classes delivered through an old-world lecture style will not get us where we need to go.”

3. Opportunities for those involved in the school system to build capacity for thinking and acting in innovative ways. In my research, I’ve seen that, even in creative districts, flexibility can go untapped without the proper support and training on how to think beyond traditional models and practices and a clear understanding of real vs. perceived barriers and obstacles.

4. A thoughtful process on how to transform teaching and learning to meet the new economy’s needs. Schools that are moving forward are connecting real-world skills with educational content through active learning experiences. Done well, this work follows a strong set of curriculum standards delivered in a meaningful way. Disconnected classes delivered through an old-world lecture style will not get us where we need to go.

5. A supportive state and district policy environment that allows for the items above to happen. To make change happen, policies must support customization and innovation. Restrictive human-capital rules, like those on seniority-based staffing, and local policies, such as weighting Advanced Placed courses higher than other college- and career-readiness courses, squash innovation and customization.

Perhaps this sounds good on paper, but how do educational systems get there? It starts with clearly defined outcomes, backward-mapped from graduation to the student’s starting point in the system. Begin with the question of what your graduates should know and be able to do to succeed in their chosen postsecondary pursuits. Getting there might mean that, in addition to having core academic skills, they need to be effective communicators and problem-solvers, for example. Once the elements of success are defined, all parts of the system should be aligned to support those outcomes, from pre-K through graduation. If done well, the school ends up with a road map and focused strategies bolstered by the system instead of a patchwork of interventions.

Here are some real-world examples of how all these critical elements can and are working together.


Houston has a large school district with significant diversity courtesy of its sheer geographical spread. The district is continuously assessing community needs and working to respond to them. In different regions, you will find stem (science, technology, engineering, and math) academies, magnets, twilight or night schools (schools with evening hours for students with commitments during the day), and more. Some Houston students will head across town to attend a particular type of school, while others want something small and in their neighborhood. And, right now, the district is trying to create more innovative high schools through an approach that helps schools launch industry-based pathways that deliver instruction through projects and close industry partnerships.

Because Houston has open enrollment, students can attend whichever school they want rather than being bound by geographical limits. And, for those who worry that such a policy would bring about an expensive transportation nightmare and stir tension between customization and efficiency, rest easy. Houston’s operations department functions to serve schools, meaning schools don’t have to squeeze into a preordained schedule or pattern. Transportation officials ask schools when they want to start their day, look at where kids want to go, then find efficiencies, and make it work.

How do we know the Houston district is not just creating a mash-up of unrelated educational programs with variable quality? For starters, the district has a number of methods to monitor student and school progress and to ensure that students are indeed meeting the district’s vision for its graduates. Additionally, principals are being trained by a local university to market their schools, stick to their stated school focus, and help their clients (parents and students) find schools that map well to each other. So, a principal may decide not to add more sports to his arts academy based on parent demand, but he will help a particular parent find another school that meets a child’s needs.

In 2013, Houston became the first district in the nation to win the Broad Prize for Urban Education a second time; the district’s first win was in 2002. We also know that, following the adoption of more-rigorous testing in 2012, the growth in the proportion of middle and high school Hispanic students achieving an advanced level in math and science from 2009 to 2011 was in the top 30 percent of all districts in Texas. Houston’s SAT participation rate is two-thirds higher than the Texas average, and the district has the highest participation rate among urban districts around the country, particularly among its Hispanic and African-American students.

Policy matters, too. In Denver, by Colorado statute, schools are allowed to apply for “innovation status” and to design schools and programs completely outside the box. In addition, schools are provided a list of menu items that allow them autonomy over a number of services. Don’t like the district cafeteria or custodial service? You can get that money back in your budget and select your own vendor. What Denver learned is that leaders need training to leverage opportunities and create better, more innovative schools, so the district has engaged a number of partners to help with this work.

Colorado also has supportive charter laws, which have helped Denver partner effectively with charter schools. You will find a number of traditional Denver public schools that compensated for enrollment drops by building-sharing with high-performing charter schools. This gives the neighborhood another education option and the charter school space and services. The charters are also subject to the district’s accountability measures.

These elements described above are found in a few districts and must all be included to create schools that can better prepare students for the future. It takes thoughtful balance between customization and coherence, comfort with providing autonomy and innovation, and a thoughtfully designed and implemented plan that considers equity and access, system development and capacity, and sustainability.

It’s not about the specific model; it’s about creating the conditions to build the system.

A version of this article appeared in the April 23, 2014 edition of Education Week as Creating Districtwide Conditions for School Improvement


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