With Teaching Focus, High-Poverty Districts Found to Boost Scores

By Bess Keller — April 02, 2003 4 min read
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Five high-poverty districts have shown the way to greater student learning by systematically focusing on improved teaching, says a new report by one of the nation’s largest education coalitions.

The report, “Beyond Islands of Excellence: What Districts Can Do to Improve Instruction and Achievement in All Schools,” is available from the Learning First Alliance. An executive summary is also available. (Require Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

The report from the Learning First Alliance, a permanent partnership of a dozen education groups, says the districts were selected in part because they showed three or more years of improvement in student test scores that crossed subjects, grade levels, and racial and ethnic groups.

The districts are Aldine in Houston; the Chula Vista elementary district near San Diego; Kent County in Maryland; Minneapolis; and Providence, R.I. Ranging in enrollment from 2,800 students to 52,500, they all draw at least 38 percent of their students from poor families.

In introducing the report at a press conference last week, the head of the district superintendents’ group said the research takes educators beyond effective individual schools.

“We’ve seen one school here and one school there overcoming the issues” of concentrated poverty, said Paul D. Houston, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, which is a member of the alliance. “But the real issue is how you scale that up [and] make it more general.”

The report, “Beyond Islands of Excellence: What Districts Can Do to Improve Instruction and Achievement in All Schools,” examines the interrelated changes focused on better teaching that the researchers believe led to the districts’ success.

“Our goal is to get the 12 member organizations learning about what happens in these [exemplary] districts,” said Judy Wurtzel, the executive director of the alliance, which includes both national teachers’ unions, the National Association of School Boards, and the National PTA.

The report is particularly timely, the leaders say, because districts are gearing up to meet the student-achievement demands of the federal “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 just as state budget shortfalls are forcing deep cuts in district budgets.

The report suggests what spending might have the biggest payoff in student achievement.

Data Over Instinct

To improve, the districts first acknowledged their students’ lackluster performance and summoned the will to do better, the report says. They honed visions for where they were headed—centered on universally improved student achievement and better teaching—and made those visions part of day-to-day life at schools and in the central district offices.

Several of the districts overhauled their curricula to better match state academic standards and defined at least several measures of student and school progress. They also reconceived leadership and professional development to support the goals they had set.

That often entailed doing away with one-shot workshops and nurturing in-house teaching experts, finding ways to support new teachers, and encouraging educators at every level to use data to guide instruction.

District leaders themselves “made decisions based on data, not on instinct,” the report says, and emphasized collaboration within the district and with community members.

Finally, the districts did not expect quick results, but instead acted for the long haul. In three school systems, the report notes, the superintendents who sparked change served for at least eight years. In four districts, departing superintendents were replaced by those who had worked closely with them.

The Learning First researchers, who collaborated with scholars from the International Centre for Educational Change, based at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, acknowledged that even the five districts they studied still face serious problems.

For one, “district and school structure limit success,” Ms. Wurtzel said. “The kind of supports educators need aren’t always there.”

For instance, most school schedules do not give teachers time for extensive collaboration.

A second problem, Ms. Wurtzel said, is that the districts have relied heavily on external and short-term funding from state, federal, and foundation grants for their changes. That raises the question of whether the improvements can be sustained, let alone reproduced elsewhere.

Frederick M. Hess, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank, who reviewed the report before its publication, called the research “a valuable service [because] it highlights some constructive behavior.”

But, he added, important “backdrop” factors are missing from the analysis, particularly the existence of state accountability systems that fostered a sense of urgency and direction.

“This stuff all looks nice on paper after the fact,” he said, referring to the steps to success that the researchers outlined. “But it’s dicey for actual guidance.”

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