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School & District Management Opinion

Investing Quick Millions for Long-Term Results

By Heather Zavadsky — February 09, 2010 5 min read
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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.

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

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