For the past half-century, efforts to improve largely minority and poor schools have occupied the best minds and received substantial private and public monies. Recall the Effective Schools movement of the 1980s and the federally funded Comprehensive School Reform program in the 1990s. In the past quarter-century, however, there has been a shift from federal and state officials and private donors looking at individual schools to focusing on districts as the key site for academic improvement. This shift in attention from the individual school to the district marks a return to what has been the historic pattern of improving schools.
Turning around failing urban districts through law (e.g. No Child Left Behind), federal grants (e.g., School Improvement Grants in the Race To The Top program), and cash prizes (e.g., The Broad Prize in Urban Education) are only the most recent of many well-intentioned efforts. There are, of course, urban districts, large and small, poor and minority, that have been high performing academically but in most of these cases, they were like shooting stars—brilliant for a time, maybe enough to snatch an award, and get cited in a study then poof, gone from sight (see here for Chicago and Atlanta as high achieving districts). The suspension of the one million dollar Broad Prize in Urban Education (2015) underscores how enormously difficult it is for urban districts to maintain improved academic performance. There are, then, very few urban, largely minority districts that have sustained high academic achievement (whatever the metrics) for a decade or more through demographic shifts and school board and superintendent turnover. I did say “very few” so there are some.
Examples might help. The Minority Student Achievement Network of small cities and first-ring suburbs with 3,000 to 33,000 students has academically high performing districts with sustained improvements using multiple measures. Federal Way (WA), Evanston (IL), Brookline (MA), and Arlington (VA) have demonstrated reductions in the white/minority achievement gap, rising test scores, high graduation and low dropout rates. These districts, to the best of my knowledge have gone unresearched and unevaluated by independent agencies and scholars.
The significant and unaddressed policy question is: How can a largely minority urban school system sustain high student performance in its schools, and classrooms for decades?
Unfortunately, district improvement remains a black box into which hunches, anecdotes, and personal experiences are tossed in the hope that dedication, hard work, and luck will turn failure into success. The absence of relevant research on long-term, high achieving urban districts has been painfully, even embarrassingly, obvious. Looking at a few urban districts that have had sustained success in raising and maintaining high academic achievement over time is a research strategy that can have substantial policy payoff since it is the district that has capacity and resources to make key governance, organizational, curricular, and instructional changes.
Some analysts have identified urban districts that have raised and sustained students’ achievement (e.g., Long Beach, California and Aldine, Texas—both past Broad Prize winners) but independent in-depth, longitudinal studies of those districts have yet to be done. A few researchers have discovered such urban districts that have achieved academic success over longer periods of time. David Kirp (Improbable Scholars, 2013) did that for Union City (NJ); Jane David and Joan Talbert researched Sanger (CA) over the past decade (Turning Around a High-Poverty District, 2013). These qualitative case studies of districts with about 10,000 students each documented various factors that researchers believe answer the how-they-did-it question (e.g., superintendent tenure, school board continuity, funding, principal leadership, district culture). What configuration of factors might explain the decades-long high academic performance of these and other districts, I cannot say now. Until researchers investigate systematically such high performing districts, no policymaker, practitioner, or parent would find out whether patterns that have been studied would compliment, challenge, or amend what has occurred in the few urban districts that have already been examined.
But there is one important factor that would need to be added to the research agenda for such studies. When investigating uncommonly successful urban districts, the classroom impact of policies on teachers goes unreported. Little systematic examination of the link between adopted policies and actual classroom lessons has been done beyond occasional teacher surveys. In any study of high performing, largely minority districts, I and other researchers should examine academic subjects to determine the impact of system policy on classroom content and pedagogy over time. Recently, I have studied the teaching of history over the past half-century in two urban districts. “Teaching History Then and Now: Stability and Change in Classroom Instruction” (forthcoming from Harvard Education Press). Were I to do such a study of successful urban districts, I would not only look at demographic, political and organizational factors that may explain continuity in academic achievement over time but also inspect what happens in classroom lessons to see what links, if any, exist between district policy and classroom practice.
Investigating urban schools that have sustained academic achievement over time is surely worthwhile but limited since such a school may be a few blocks away from a school that continually fails its students. It is the stable, high-performing district as the unit of reform that offers the most gain for the largest number of students that needs to be studied and analyzed.