School & District Management Opinion

Moving Beyond the Conventional Wisdom of Whole-District Reform

By Stacey M. Childress — September 14, 2009 6 min read
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Faced with dismal international comparisons and federal ‘Race to the Top’ Fund pressures, school districts must take on two difficult tasks at once: raising the outcomes of top-performing students, while accelerating the learning of students who are behind. And they must find ways to do this in every school, not just in a few exemplars.

Experts offer deceptively simple advice: Hire great principals and teachers, make data-driven decisions, hold everyone accountable, build a strong school culture, and engage stakeholders. Districts seem to be listening: Strategy documents posted on many of their Web sites routinely contain some version of these five prescriptions. Yet few are delivering excellence and equity for all of their students.

The Montgomery County, Md., public school system is not one of them. It enrolls 140,000 students, about half of whom are African-American or Hispanic, and has a performance story different from those of many other districts of similar size. As its top quartile of performers did better from 2003 to 2008, the lower quartiles improved even faster. Montgomery County cut in half the literacy and math gaps between early-grade African-American and Hispanic students and their white counterparts, and doubled the number of African-American students passing Advanced Placement exams. Hispanic kindergartners’ reading levels were 25 points lower than white students’; today the gap is in the single digits.

How did the district’s leaders do it? They have hired great people, made data-driven decisions, and all the rest, and they spend about the same amount per student as other East Coast cities such as Washington and New York (and less than Newark, N.J., and Boston). So what is distinctive about their approach? Six strategies from their work go deeper than conventional advice and help make sense of the Montgomery County story:

Implement common, rigorous standards with differentiated resources and instruction. Montgomery County developed the Seven Keys to College Readiness framework and overhauled the curriculum to support its aggressive benchmarks. Concurrently, district leaders implemented a strategy of differentiated resources and instruction. A majority of low-income and minority students had been clustered in about half the district’s schools, which significantly underperformed the other half. So the district increased resources to these schools, while holding steady in the rest.

This move financed the second part of the differentiation strategy—giving teachers the knowledge and tools to better diagnose individual student needs, develop and put into practice potential solutions, and reflect on their effectiveness. The district recognized that teachers are the most important factor in helping all students meet or exceed rigorous academic standards.

Apply “value chain” thinking to the K-12 continuum. A value chain is simply a series of activities, each of which adds some value to an eventual outcome. Because the activities along the chain are interdependent, mapping backward from the desired outcome to the beginning of the chain can increase quality throughout.

With college readiness as its ultimate goal, the Montgomery County school system collected data about the outcomes previous college-bound students demonstrated at important stages. Using this information, it could better create curricula and benchmarks that built on each other, starting in kindergarten. Taking algebra by 8th grade, for example, was clearly a predictor of Advanced Placement math success, but most students were dealt out by 5th grade because too few were assigned to the necessary advanced course. Now there is a “mathematics pathway” that charts the links between math courses from elementary to high school. The district is expanding access to advanced content in 5th grade, and exposing parents to the pathway beginning in kindergarten so they can be better advocates.

Blur the lines between the traditional roles and responsibilities of the school board, leadership team, principals, teachers, and parents. Superintendent Jerry D. Weast instilled shared accountability by blurring the lines between traditional stakeholder roles. As a result, multiple groups felt responsible for the district’s success. Its capacity to analyze problems and put in place solutions also increased because highly skilled people from those groups populated the committees, task forces, and advisory groups that planned the implementation of the differentiation strategy.

When Weast arrived in Montgomery County, board members rarely agreed, and the unions were at odds with each other and the district. His willingness to blur the lines rather than consolidate power to himself was a first step, and stakeholder groups reciprocated by engaging deeply in the reform efforts.

Create systems and structures that reinforce the behaviors necessary for success, and changes in beliefs will follow. A simple definition of “culture” is the beliefs and behaviors of people in an organization. The district’s senior leaders knew the culture needed to shift, but where to start? Beliefs or behaviors? They built systems and structures that required educators to behave as if every student could master rigorous content, whether they believed it or not. These included accountability mechanisms, technology tools, and forums for sharing best practices. As Weast recalls: “I thought I would enter the change process through the culture door and then engage everyone in creating systems and structures. But I couldn’t get traction, so we started to build the systems anyway, and it seemed that the culture started to shift as people saw that the changes worked for kids.”

Confront the effects that beliefs about race and achievement have on student performance, and help teachers and students apply this knowledge to their day-to-day work in classrooms. The Montgomery County school system has created an environment in which people are expected to discuss the impact that beliefs about race have on expectations and student learning. The district’s accountability systems include explicit goals for students of different races and ethnicities. People learn protocols for discussing race productively, to increase individual and team capacity to examine how personal behaviors and the beliefs reflected in the structures of the organization might be contributing to achievement gaps. One of the district’s guiding tenets makes a bold claim: “Student outcomes shall not be predictable by race or ethnicity.”

Lead for equity. Superintendent Weast sees his leadership task as mobilizing the entire community to create excellence and equity for all students. He built the capacity of staff members to effectively deliver a high-quality education to every single child, and has consistently made the case that giving everyone access to rigorous content is the right thing to do morally and the smart thing to do economically.

But perhaps his greatest contribution was modeling what it means to lead for equity. The formerly dysfunctional school board recommitted to equitable student learning and then stood by that commitment for 10 years—no easy task for a revolving group of elected officials. Union leaders crafted an effective process for supporting struggling members and removing underperformers so that there would be a great teacher in every classroom. Stories abound of teachers, principals, and central-office staff members who decided the status quo would no longer do and began to shake things up. This broad-based leadership brought the other five lessons to life and changed the prospects of tens of thousands of children.

Pithy phrases such as “hire great people” fail to capture the complexity of the work in Montgomery County. Like many districts, it had plenty of great people back when there were 35-point achievement gaps. Great people thrive in healthy organizations that enlist them in the pursuit of ambitious, meaningful goals and provide them with the strategies and support systems necessary to reach them. This is the story in the Montgomery County public schools.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 16, 2009 edition of Education Week as Moving Beyond the Conventional Wisdom of Whole-District Reform


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