School & District Management Opinion

Investing Quick Millions for Long-Term Results

By Heather Zavadsky — February 09, 2010 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Texas’ Aldine Independent School District, the winner of the 2009 Broad Prize for Urban Education, is the epitome of a well-aligned education system. It has outperformed its state for years—not just in one school or with one student group, but across the entire district. But to do this, Aldine has had to deal with the same set of challenges that often derail urban school systems elsewhere. Its success, and that of other exemplary urban districts, should offer food for thought to school reformers everywhere.

For four years, from 2003 to 2007, I reviewed the progress of school systems like Aldine as the project manager of the Broad Prize. In addition to rigorous collection and analysis of data from the 100 eligible urban districts, the process included careful scrutiny of the finalists and eventual winners to ensure that they were well-aligned, organized systems with high academic expectations for all their students. In a new book, Bringing School Reform to Scale, I have tried to capture the lessons that five of these Broad Prize winners, including Aldine, have to teach others.

Learning from these high-functioning urban school systems is more important now than ever, with the federal government preparing to spend billions of dollars in economic-stimulus funds—and requesting billions more in its fiscal 2011 budget—intended to advance school reform. The unprecedented outflow of dollars brings with it a sizable challenge: to spend funds quickly, yet in a way that will result in long-term improvements in student achievement.

Layering on programs and purchasing tools such as laptops will not automatically result in innovative instruction."

Making those lasting improvements, says U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, will require innovation and “finding and scaling what works.” Those applicants that demonstrate a “coordinated and deep-seated commitment to reform,” he adds, are the ones that will receive federal competitive-grant funds.

Quickly investing vast sums of money to make meaningful changes that can be sustained beyond the life span of the grants will be difficult, and districts that patch together discrete reforms in a vacuum are not likely to do well. They need to be more like Aldine and other Broad Prize winners: aligned, focused, and primed for systemwide improvement and innovation.

The key is having a well-coordinated system that knows how to develop clear goals, assess needs, support educators, evaluate programs, and review and respond to data in a consistent manner. Aldine and districts like it learned long ago that layering on programs and purchasing tools such as laptops will not automatically result in innovative instruction. Teacher training and ongoing support mechanisms must be factored into the overall plan. Nor will purchasing a data system with all the bells and whistles make a difference if districts do not address trust issues over data use and ensure the information’s usability and accessibility for key stakeholders.

In sum, these award-winning districts have learned that innovation and reform don’t happen in isolation. All parts of the system must work well together, as a coherent, coordinated whole, to create the changes that will have a sustainable impact on the instructional core districtwide.

This point is crucial. Even if a school has the best teachers available, its students will not move smoothly through a math curriculum that mistakenly omits an important skill like rounding (and if the district lacks sufficient data to discover that omission). Likewise, creating small, 21st-century learning academies that offer cutting-edge subjects like biotechnology will not be an effective improvement strategy if a district continually sends these schools students with subpar reading skills because it lacks appropriate reading interventions.

Well-aligned systems that can promote student achievement regardless of a child’s zip code are not easy to build. If they were, they would be flourishing nationwide. But there are examples of powerful systems built under the most challenging conditions. These districts have succeeded by focusing on the elements that most affect instruction, then spreading the responsibility for—and providing the support for—making those elements an unshakable priority across the entire system, from the central office to the classroom.

The Broad Prize winners I have examined demonstrate the effectiveness of this kind of systemwide approach. Aldine has been cited by the Education Trust and many other organizations for its high levels of performance over the last decade. The Boston public school system, a five-time finalist and the winner in 2006, undertook its successful, decade-long path to reform led by a strong and nationally regarded superintendent, Thomas W. Payzant.

In California, the Garden Grove Unified School District has shown strong performance in many areas, particularly in building an efficient K-12 pipeline addressing college readiness—and that despite a large English-language-learner population. The Long Beach Unified School District, a winner in 2003 and returning finalist last year, now has several high schools on Newsweek’s list of the nation’s top-performing schools.

And Norfolk, Va., a predominantly African-American urban district, has improved its performance to such an extent that families from wealthy neighboring districts now seek to enroll their children there.

These districts have succeeded because they are school systems—not a random collection of schools. I am convinced that there is no other way to improve education than to attend to the entire system.

Let us hope that as districts draft plans to spend competitive-grant funds, they will consider ways to improve beyond one program or a single school. One way they might do this is by studying districts that have excelled at creating both the infrastructure and the practices that can reasonably be expected to sustain reform and innovation. To begin that journey, they should ask themselves questions like the following:

• Does the pre-K-12 curriculum move through a logical, aligned sequence and contain no skips or unnecessary repeats?

• Does instruction remain seamless for highly mobile students?

• Do teachers have the training and support that align with the schools’ instructional needs?

• Does the district evaluate instructional programs?

• Do teachers have access to appropriate, continuously collected data to help them adjust their instruction to each student’s needs?

• Do principals and teachers have a mechanism to provide feedback to the central office?

These questions encompass only a few of the areas school systems should probe deeply if they are truly serious about reform that amounts to more than tinkering around the edges.

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the February 10, 2010 edition of Education Week as Investing Quick Millions for Long-Term Results


Classroom Technology Webinar How Pandemic Tech Is (and Is Not) Transforming K-12 Schools
The COVID-19 pandemic—and the resulting rise in virtual learning and big investments in digital learning tools— helped educators propel their technology skills to the next level. Teachers have become more adept at using learning management
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Data Webinar
Using Integrated Analytics To Uncover Student Needs
Overwhelmed by data? Learn how an integrated approach to data analytics can help.

Content provided by Instructure
School & District Management Live Online Discussion Principal Overload: How to Manage Anxiety, Stress, and Tough Decisions
According to recent surveys, more than 40 percent of principals are considering leaving their jobs. With the pandemic, running a school building has become even more complicated, and principals' workloads continue to grow. f we

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management What Teachers Value Most in Their Principals
For National Principals Month, we asked teachers what they love most about their principals. Here's what they had to say.
Hayley Hardison
1 min read
Illustration of job candidate and check list.
School & District Management How Staff Shortages Are Crushing Schools
Teachers are sacrificing their planning periods, students are arriving hours late, meals are out of whack, and patience is running thin.
11 min read
Stephanie LeBlanc, instructional strategist at Greeley Middle School in Cumberland Center, Maine.
Stephanie LeBlanc, an instructional strategist at Greely Middle School in Cumberland Center, Maine, has picked up numerous additional duties to help cover for staffing shortages at the school.
Ryan David Brown for Education Week
School & District Management With $102 Million in Grants, These Districts Plan to Train Principals With a Focus on Equity
The new grant program from the Wallace Foundation will help eight school districts work on building principals’ capacity to address equity.
11 min read
Image of puzzle pieces with one hundred dollar bill imagery
School & District Management Opinion Toxic Positivity Has No Place in Schools
Educators can’t do everything, but we can do some things, writes district leader Cherisse Campbell.
Cherisse Campbell
4 min read
A teacher sits on her desk thinking in an empty classroom.
Joy Velasco for Education Week