Turning Around Failing School Districts: How Many Examples Do Policymakers Need??

David Kirp’s new book, Improbable Scholars, tells the quarter-century story of the Union City (NJ) victory in creating a successful, largely minority and poor school district as measured by test scores, college admissions, parent surveys, teacher accounts–take your pick. It is a story where stable city and district leadership, over the course of a generation, worked to build strong preschool, elementary, and secondary programs with cadres of knowledgeable and experienced teachers and administrators who stayed the course and who used new technologies to advance district goals. Stable leadership. Committed educators. Persistence. Adequate funding. Kirp lays out these and other principles that he extracted from the long-term school reform in this New Jersey district. For a conversation with Kirp and the President of Teachers College, Susan Fuhrman about the book, see here.


Of course, Union City is not the first nor last district to have turned itself around over a few decades and stayed effective. We know of Long Beach (CA), Aldine (TX), Montgomery County (MD), Sanger (CA), Cincinnati (OH) and many more. See, for example, Greg Anrig’s Beyond the Education Wars. The seven principles that Kirp extracts from Union City’s success mirror features of these other districts.

However, a long list of such districts that have learned the importance of adequate funding, strong preschool programs, continuous district leadership, supporting teachers, and building cultures that honor both teaching and learning does not add up to an easy recipe. For sustaining “good” districts is a set of inter-connected complex tasks that require ingenuity, resources, committed educators, and luck. Oops! I forgot to mention time. The very ingredient that policy elites eager to scale up school-by-school innovations, build new district structures of school choice, and add high-tech scrimshaw often forget or ignore.

For the dominant  thinking among federal and state policymakers is a rush-rush strategy of transforming low-performing school districts through fear, sanctions, and putting money on the stump for districts to grab. See Race to the Top. I have written about the the short-sightedness and, yes, foolishness of such strategies for individual schools but now I want to ask the simple question: with so many examples of school districts, big and small, past and present, raising student achievement and sustaining that achievement, why do policy elites keep preaching widespread school failure and reaching for more online schooling, outsourcing schools to private and for-profit managers, wholesale restructuring, and closing schools?

OK, I admit, the question is not simple. It points to the continuing split among reformers over the role of the school in combating poverty–the “no excuses” brand (e.g., ex-chancellors Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee)–and joining schools with community services early and systematically from prenatal through age 21. Squeezed resources, of course, make choices inevitable so the “no excuses” crowd whose slogan also means that reforming schools is much cheaper than the alternative continue to dominate the media and the conversation over what works while ignoring the striking results of investing limited resources in those districts that have the know-how and are creating success, however measured, over the  long-term.

Books like Improbable Scholars and Beyond the Education Wars  show a mix of large and small districts provide sufficient examples of what can be done within current governance and structures without resort to the next quick-fix-it solution coming around the corner.

The evidence is there. Policy elites choose to ignore such evidence because it is slower, requires different allocation of resources, and challenges the current orthodoxy that U.S. schools are irreversible failures and need total transformation.


Filed under school leaders, school reform policies

5 responses to “Turning Around Failing School Districts: How Many Examples Do Policymakers Need??

  1. DISD Teacher

    Dr. Cuban,

    Thanks so much for documenting districts that are being successful with school reform! There’s hope!

    Given the approximate number of students in the districts in your post (Long Beach: 80,000, Sanger: 10,000, Cincinnati: 33,000 and Aldine: 64,000), I hoped that there would be at least one example of a large district. My district, Dallas ISD, has 157,000 students.

    Do large districts face higher hurdles due to size or is it just a matter of time until a major urban district makes the success list? The larger the district the more difficult the climb?

    Thanks again for all you do in providing teachers with thought provoking information!

  2. Bob Calder

    Your last paragraph is so true.

  3. Hi Larry
    In Christchurch, New Zealand, schools are being closed, merged and developed into modern learning environments. There will be a range of school types, including full year group Y1-13. These changes are as a result of population changes following the series of earthquakes that devastated our city. It is a difficult time for us, with much ‘done to’ in a community that is still struggling. I am interested in your thoughts about the great things we should focus on to make these changes work for the long term. What lessons learnt could you share with us?

    • larrycuban

      Transformation in schooling–either top-down or bottom-up of a combination of both–has occurred during natural and man-made disasters, Cheryl.Looks like you are describing one that is underway in Christchurch. I cannot offer you “great things we should focus on to make these changes work for the long term” since building and sustaining “good” schools varies by the setting that one is in and who participates in the creation of those schools. There are many kinds of “good” schools. I do know a few things, however. Deep and continuing involvement of teachers and parents in establishing and running the new forms of a schooling is essential for those changes to be maintained and evolve in ways that will benefit children and youth.

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