Urban school districts, so often criticized for doing a poor job of educating disadvantaged children, can indeed deliver high-quality schooling to all their students, according to leading educators who have designed a framework and tool kit to help them.
The package is the product of a 2 1/2-year research effort by teams of top education policymakers, administrators, and scholars. Organized by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, in Providence, R.I., the work is intended as a practical guide to improvement for districts battling low achievement.
“This is about creating usable products for districts,” said Marla Ucelli, who oversees the project as the director of Annenberg’s district- redesign program. During the next two to three years, the institute will help districts such as New York City put key principles of the research into action.
“Districts have a lot of information and get a lot of advice about what to do. What they need is support in how to do it,” said Ms. Ucelli, who also serves on the board of Editorial Projects in Education, the publisher of Education Week.
The inquiry was born of a concern that the education reform dialogue has focused so much on school-level improvements that district-level measures haven’t been fully explored.
Results and Equity
The driving goal behind any district restructuring must be to achieve results and equity, the task force members say. Districts must reorganize as “local education support systems,” connecting with multiple partners that can provide advice and technical help on a range of services, from youth programs to teacher training to school budgeting.
Some services could be provided by community or private groups, and some by the central administrative office, which would also function as a “broker” and ensure that schools get the support they need, the panelists say.
Each of the players in that scenario would be accountable for results. But the Annenberg task force emphasizes that a broader array of tools should be used to evaluate schools’ success.
Borrowing phraseology from economics, it calls test scores and graduation rates “lagging indicators” that provide pictures of progress relatively late in the game. Using “leading indicators” instead, say the panelists, can offer insights into schools’ success early enough for quick midcourse corrections.
They suggest analyzing, among other factors, whether schools are implementing curricula mapped to district standards, whether they are evaluating teachers’ work to see if it produces results, and whether they are using civic resources to help children.
One of the crucial functions of the local education support system—or “smart district,” as the researchers call it—would be to ensure that schools have the resources and power to make good decisions tailored to their needs. To do so, schools need to be able to base their budgets on their students’ needs, rather than having the district allocate staff members based largely on the number of students, the researchers say.
The functioning of central offices should be examined with an eye toward how they can deliver better supports to schools, according to the report. The panelists designed a five-step analysis districts can employ to perform such an evaluation.
District partners could run the gamut from political advocates pushing for reform to management coaches, teacher trainers, and developers of new programs, the report says. The superintendent’s vision would animate such partnerships, but each would serve as mutual support for the other, championing improvement.
Another important piece of the redesign package is changing the way schools and districts recruit and retain teachers and school leaders. Poor human-resources management is a barrier to high-caliber staffing in many districts, the report says. The task force advocates enabling schools to hire staff members who suit their needs, rather than having the administration assign them based on seniority.
In addition, the panelists argue, career ladders must be created for educators that would compensate them for proven skill, rather than for years of service.
Urban district leaders are eager for the kind of practical help offered in the Annenberg report, said Anne C. Hallett, the executive director of the Cross-City Campaign for Urban School Reform, a Chicago-based nonprofit group.
“There has been a lot of focus on school reform, and that’s good,” Ms. Hallett said, “but the underlying premise here is very important: that in order for change to scale up in any way that makes sense, the district has to weigh in and say, ‘We’re going to make sure this happens at all our schools,’ and that hasn’t happened enough.”