While the Obama administration, with its federal Race to the Top program, is setting up a host of new rules for schools, five large urban school districts have raised achievement and closed achievement gaps using approaches that make such obvious sense, it would amaze parents to know that these aren't the norm everywhere.
The Broad Prize for Urban Education is awarded to large school districts that show the most progress. I had the opportunity to closely observe the innovations at five winning districts during the four years I spent working for the Los Angeles-based Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, overseeing the process for selecting winners. That included visiting schools, analyzing test data and other statistics, and conducting follow-up interviews with teachers and parents.
Two of the districts are in Southern California — the Long Beach and Garden Grove unified school districts. The others are the Boston Public Schools, Norfolk Public Schools in Virginia and the Aldine Independent School District outside Houston. As different as the five school systems are in location, funding and, to some extent, demographics, all have raised achievement notably using five common-sense steps.
First, all developed a challenging, clear and specific curriculum. In these districts, every teacher and student knows exactly what academic content students should know and what skills they should be able to demonstrate in each subject and grade. While this might seem almost ridiculously obvious, the reality is that many districts never clearly articulate the skills that must be taught in a given grade, or consider the overall arc of the curriculum from kindergarten through senior year of high school, ensuring that there are no gaps or unnecessary repeats in instruction. It's also surprising how many teachers are unaware of the curriculum requirements for the grades just below and above the ones they teach.
These districts also set no more than six long-term strategic districtwide goals, and used them to drive practices in every school. For example, Garden Grove has had the same two goals since 2003 for students who attend the district for at least five years: Students would meet or exceed state standards in core academic subjects, and English language learners would gain a certain amount of proficiency in the language. Rather than continually changing goals, these districts stick to them, drilling down and refining them each year to ensure that all students, teachers and schools are able to move in that direction. From 2006 to 2009, the increase in the percentage of English language learners in Garden Grove who scored well enough on tests to be reclassified as proficient was more than twice as large as in Los Angeles Unified.
Third, the five districts developed smart strategies to attract and retain effective teachers, support them and cultivate a collaborative working environment. Boston Public Schools trained teachers to coach one another; teachers reported that it helped them to learn from experienced peers how to carry out particular classroom strategies.
Fourth, these districts asked staff to evaluate regularly whether each approach or program was improving achievement. The key to this strategy: data. The districts used data to select, pilot and monitor programs, and eliminate those that weren't working. Boston used a committee-created rubric to score the merits of various instructional programs and select the one that best met student needs. Aldine and Garden Grove required educators to demonstrate how programs or materials were tied to educational goals before they could buy them.
Just as important, data also helped these districts tailor their efforts to meet individual student needs, by revealing areas of improvement for each child and identifying which instructional approaches yielded the best results.
The Aldine schools match student needs with teacher strengths. Even in elementary school, students move to different classrooms when another teacher is better suited to work with them on a particular skill. For example, tests might have shown that one student is having trouble grasping fractions; he or she will be paired with a teacher who has demonstrated a particular talent for teaching fractions.
Finally, leaders in these districts have successfully built relationships with parents, community organizations, area businesses and others who have a stake in student success. In Norfolk, community engagement is so important that it appears as a performance indicator in the district's accountability system. The community in turn has helped the district carry out its plans; one corporation underwrote a leadership development program, and a foundation funded a large preschool initiative.
California is applying once again for Race to the Top funds. Whether or not its bid succeeds, its plan for the future should include prodding troubled urban school districts to adopt the sensible, student-centered efforts that have worked in the nation's most improved districts.
Heather Zavadsky is director of policy and communication for the Institute for Public School Initiatives at the University of Texas. She is the author of "Bringing School Reform to Scale: Five Award-Winning Urban Districts."