There is no Google map for reformers to follow in turning around low-performing classrooms, schools, and districts. Nor have researchers been better than MapQuest. They have plotted out multiple (and conflicting) routes to the what and how of school reform.
As I have pointed out in Parts 1 and 2, reform-minded policymakers, past and present, have jumped around searching for the best unit of change (e.g., classroom, school, district, state) that would transform teaching and learning while achieving different goals of public schooling. In the past three decades, state and federal authority over local schools has slowly increased to the point that current reformers believe districts offer the most leverage in altering what happens in schools and classrooms. Whole school reform has not been abandoned–think charter schools or Success for All –nor has altering individual teacher and principal performance been left in the lurch–think evaluating and paying practitioners on the basis of student test scores. But overall, a federal policy on reforming schools has emerged in the past decade where current policymakers (and donors) see districts as the prime mover to achieve major reforms.
Since there is no Google map or clear directions from researchers, in Part 2 I examined briefly two previous instances of district reform. As historians and social scientists do, I thought they might offer clues for informing contemporary policy decisions. In this post, I offer a third example, the Sanger school district near Fresno (CA), and then I give my interpretation of these three cases of district reform.
Sanger Unified School District
In 2004, the California State Department of Education designated the largely minority and poor Sanger school district in the Central Valley of California and seven (of its 19) schools as failing under NCLB; the district with nearly 11,000 students was placed in Program Improvement, a state effort to turn around failing schools. Within five years, all seven schools had recovered sufficiently to leave Program Improvement and four of those schools eventually became State Distinguished Schools. In addition, by 2009, 12 of the 13 elementary schools exceeded the target score of 800 that the state set for the Academic Performance Index. This is an extraordinary accomplishment for a high-poverty, largely minority district facing all of the complexity that such systems encounter daily (Sanger-Report-2)
How did they do it? Opinions differ, of course, on which factors made the difference but researchers and informed observers agree on the following:
*Continuing superintendent leadership over the long haul; Marc Johnson has been superintendent since 2002 and Rich Smith, his deputy, since 2004.
*Steadfast focus on instructional improvement through direct instruction to meet state curriculum standards and improve performance on state tests.
*Establishing systematic and intensive district-wide professional development and school-based teacher learning communities aimed at improved classroom practices in daily lessons.
Evaluators described this strategy:
They adopted the [Rick] DuFour’s model of teacher professional learning communities (PLCs) as the vehicle for teachers to work collaboratively to improve student achievement and develop a sense of collective responsibility.
They chose a model of direct instruction, Explicit Direct Instruction (EDI), with structures designed to help low performing and language minority students work on grade-level standards with frequent checking for understanding. To support students struggling at grade level, district leaders designed their own version of
Response to Intervention (RTI), creating both in-class intervention and a range of intervention classes to meet the specific needs of students at risk of falling behind. To provide added help to English learners, the district expanded its emphasis on English language development (ELD).
Johnson’s vision and inspiration, Smith’s practical implementation of the vision, and teachers’ hard work in the above multifaceted program help explain Sanger’s successful turnaround of a failing district.
So where are we in considering the district as an engine of reform in light of these three examples?
Even though the contexts are different in each of the examples, that is, when they occurred and the places in which the reforms unfolded, there are some common factors.
1. The districts have between 10,000-20,000 students.
2. The reforms required district leadership of at least a decade or more. If superintendent turnover occurred, successors carried the reform torch and sustained it.
3. All three districts needed start-up funds to launch the innovation and then funds to sustain the reform. Moneies came from district budgets and were re-directed to the reform or came from outside sources, or both.
4. Each district built curricular, organizational, and capacity building structures to launch the reform. Shared beliefs about the reform, norms of collaboration and trial and error, and rituals developed that created a common culture for current and new teachers. Durable structures and cultures were essential to the longevity of the reform.
5. Two of the three districts worked closely with the state. In the early 20th century, state departments of education (e.g., Indiana) were marginal operations offering little to districts.
6. Teacher involvement was essential to implementing and sustaining the reform but differed among the districts. Building teacher expertise and collaboration in Sanger and Union City began top-down and became central pieces–the common culture–to putting reforms into practice and sustaining them. Evidence of teacher participation in the Gary Plan other than teachers carrying out assigned duties, however, I could not find.
These common factors are hardly ingredients for a recipe that policymakers can use to cook up a successful district reform. They seem more applicable to moderate-size and smaller districts rather than big cities or large county districts. They require initially top-down and and sustained district leadership. They require monies for building key structures and hard work among practitioners to create a culture focused on helping teachers work together for student improvement. Knowing the factors is one thing; putting them into action is another. Especially since time and place matter when district reform starts up.
Unlike Gary in the early 20th century where state involvement was minimal, Union City had the Abbott court decision in the mid-1980s that required New Jersey to give additional funds to those districts with many children from low-income families. Or in California in the past decade, Sanger officials re-directed ever shrinking state funds to ELD, RTI, EDI, and professional learning communities. In short, current state and federal authorities are up to their hips in pushing, guiding, and massaging district reforms. Context matters.
As many observers have pointed out, reforming a district to improve schools and classroom instruction is a complicated maneuver in a complex system such as public schooling. There are now more players involved with varying amounts of authority (e.g., federal, state, local, donors, community activists, teacher unions, students) than in prior times. Even when smart researchers use exemplars to show how schools, districts, and the state have to work together, the very exemplars– San Diego in the late-1990s or Community District 2 in New York City– disappear in a few years reinforcing the obvious point that reforming complex systems remains an enigma (Fullan, et. al..
The past gives clues to present-day reform-minded policymakers but no maps to follow.