Deborah Jewell-Sherman’s first year as the superintendent of the troubled Richmond, Va., schools was barely over, and though she had reason to rejoice, she felt she needed to call for help.
The superintendent could have been fired if she hadn’t led 20 or more of the district’s 55 schools to full accreditation in that first year. But she exceeded that goal by three. Happy and relieved, but far from satisfied, Ms. Jewell-Sherman wanted to lay the groundwork for sustained improvement.
And she knew whom to call: the Council of the Great City Schools. She asked the Washington-based organization to send a team of fellow urban educators to analyze the district’s curriculum and instructional programs. Within a few months, the nonprofit group had flown in experts for an intensive review and delivered a report. Not only would the report prove pivotal in shaping the district’s goals, but it also would be accepted by Virginia as the official set of guideposts for what Richmond should achieve.
“If you’re striving to move from good to great, you need an honest assessment of the areas in which you have strengths, and where you have weakness,” said Ms. Jewell-Sherman, who began her job in Richmond in 2002. “It made it easier for me to make that initial request because I value the council.”
Asking for help can be tough. But Ms. Jewell-Sherman said it was easier because she knew she and her district would be in the hands of accomplished colleagues. “These are people who are doing the work,” she said recently. “They are not business people. They are educators.
“There is great credibility when you receive their findings. Some of them are painful to hear, but no one can say, ‘They’ve never done this work, they don’t know what we’re dealing with, they’re not in urban centers.’ All these individuals do.”
The council, which advocates for large urban school districts, has dispatched 90 support teams to 26 cities since 1998 under its “Cities Building Cities” initiative. The teams—composed of volunteers who are top administrators from other urban districts—initially focused only on aspects of management, such as human resources, finance, facilities, or transportation. (“Urban Districts Turn to Their Peers for Hard-Hitting Tips,” Feb. 28, 2001.)
But in 2000, the council added curriculum and instruction teams. Eleven such audits have been performed in nine cities since then. Richmond’s marks the first time a state has adopted the council’s findings instead of conducting its own academic review.
In fact, the state of Virginia and the Richmond district are expected to sign an agreement later this month that translates the report’s recommendations into goals and timelines for the 25,400-student district to abide by.
James Heywood, the executive director of the Virginia Department of Education’s office of school improvement, said Richmond volunteered for a state review when it became evident that upcoming regulations for low-performing districts might require it. But the state saw the council’s report as sufficiently authoritative that it could serve the same role.
“It was very high-quality,” Mr. Heywood said. “They probably put more resources into it than we could have.”
The 110-page report portrayed Richmond as demoralized and fragmented, but possessing the makings of a far better district. Among its many recommendations were that Richmond adopt a uniform, research-based reading program, and hammer out a detailed strategic plan of what it must do, both of which are well under way.
The teams pattern their work after the council’s 2002 report “Foundations for Success.” That study identified practices in 10 areas—including governance, goal-setting, curriculum, assessment, and professional development—that are common to urban districts improving student achievement. It yielded a strong framework to use in examining other districts, comparing them with improving peers, and guiding their efforts to get better, said Michael D. Casserly, the council’s executive director.
He said the report encouraged urban educators to analyze dynamics “horizontally,” as they apply to all district operations, as opposed to seeing problems as isolated in “vertical silos.” That is the way the teams approach districts: They identify problems that often cut across several district functions, such as a lack of coherent goals that affects student achievement, facilities planning, and use of data.
The council’s work unfolds as consensus builds among urban educators that aggressively managing curriculum and instruction is crucial to academic improvement. Making sure the curriculum is aligned, internally and to state standards, and comprehensive is often one of the council’s recommendations.
Donald R. McAdams, the executive director of the Center for Reform of School Systems, based in Houston, said such “managed instruction,” while controversial, is a powerful tool for districts.
“It is the wave that is sweeping urban school districts,” he said. “Increasingly, boards and superintendents are recognizing that if they are going to improve student achievement, they have to manage their instruction. If they don’t, they just can’t move.”
Stephen B. Johnson, Richmond’s school board president, said the audit helped unify a nine-member panel whose members “often have their own ideas about what should be done.”
“No one has ever come on board and given us a clear direction of where we need to go,” he said.
Members of the council’s visiting teams said the experience was rewarding, though exhausting. They usually stay in a city two or three days, often working 12- or 16-hour days sifting through documents and interviewing personnel.
Denise M. Walston, the senior coordinator for mathematics in the Norfolk, Va., public schools, has served on three instructional teams, including Richmond’s. The process of brainstorming with colleagues has benefited her back in Norfolk, she said.
“Every time I go to one of these,” Ms. Walston said, “it gives me a valuable lens, [to ask] are we doing comparable things? Are we making similar mistakes?”
A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2005 edition of Education Week as Urban Reviews Take Close Look at Instruction