The history of efforts to reform education is likely almost as long as the history of schools and teaching, but the last few decades have been characterized by particularly active reform efforts in the United States (see, e.g., Tyack and Cuban, 1995). Dire (if possibly exaggerated) warnings about declining academic achievement in the 1980s (see, e.g., Cremin, 1990) inspired a flowering of research as well as ongoing public dialogue about ways to improve teaching and learning.
Standards-based reform—the establishment of rigorous content and performance standards for what students should know and be able to do and the alignment of curriculum, assessment, and other elements of the system to those standards—has become an organizing principle for most states’ and districts’ efforts to improve, as well as for federal programs and policy, beginning with the Improving America’s Schools Act of 1994 (see, e.g., Goertz, 2007; Hamilton, Stecher, and Yuan, 2008; Smith and O’Day, 1991; Zavadsky, 2009). The Improving America’s Schools Act of 1994 was the first to focus on standards-based reform, though that approach probably came to most people’s attention when the 2001 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act was passed. It is central to more recent initiatives, such as the Race to the Top grant initiative.
Standards-based reform is an idea that has caught on more thoroughly than perhaps any other single strategy in the history of U.S. public schools. A combination of research, experience, and intuition about school governance and the prospects for systemic improvement have made it appealing to educators and policy makers alike. They find it compelling because it addresses concerns that a major obstacle to improvement is the frag-
mented nature of school governance and the frayed connections among major school functions—curriculum, instruction, assessment, and professional development. Standards-based reforms called for a more centralized approach to a school system. Though it can be argued that the absence of centralized authority has given U.S. schools an advantage in capacity to innovate and to respond to the needs of a fast-growing and diverse population (see, e.g., Cremin, 1990; Feuer, 2006), it is also clear that large numbers of students are still not meeting rigorous standards, at least as defined by current national and international benchmarks.
At the core of the standards movement is the focus on holding states, districts, and schools accountable for their students’ achievement—in part by monitoring their performance using assessments aligned with rigorous standards.1 This kind of accountability entails a commitment that is relatively new in the United States: to hold every student to high standards and to provide every student with the curricula and instruction necessary to meet them. Expectations for young people have evolved significantly over the past 100 years. At the beginning of the 1900s, only about 10 percent of students graduated from high school, yet by the second half of the century the prevalent view was that all students should not only be expected to graduate from high school, but also to aspire to college (see National Research Council, 2001). The pattern of participation in education for the second half of the 20th century was what has led some scholars to label it as “the human capital century” (Goldin and Katz, 2008). It is worth noting that this massive expansion in access began decades before any even vaguely similar expansion was implemented in most European and Asian democracies.
The idea that all students should be held to the same high standards was put to the test as a growing body of achievement data—from both the National Assessment of Educational Progress and state assessments—documented the persistent disparity in academic performance among students with different racial, ethnic, and socieconomic backgrounds. The legal responses to these disparities have ranged from disputes over racial preferences in selection processes and the use of busing to desegregate schools to numerous school finance lawsuits, such as Abbott v. Burke, in which the New Jersey court ruled that the state had failed in its constitutional obligation to provide a “thorough and efficient” education to students in poor, urban school districts. The 1985 ruling led to a requirement that the state implement a variety of reforms to ensure equitable distribution
1For more information on Race to the Top, see http://osse.dc.gov/seo/frames.asp?doc=/seo/lib/seo/cos/race_to_the_top/dc_rttt_section_vi_application.pdf [accessed November 2010]. For discussions of content and performance standards and their influence on schools, see, among others, Stecher and Vernez (2010) and Goertz and Duffy (2003).
of educational resources among its districts and schools (Education Law Center, 2010).
Jurisdictions in all parts of the country have struggled to develop ways to truly hold all students to high standards while also meeting a wide range of needs. Students with disabilities, students who are not fluent in English, students who start school without having had high-quality preschool preparation, students who are living in poverty or in struggling families and neighborhoods—all require support if they are to learn to high standards. The NCLB requirement to report disaggregated data on student achievement further solidified the national commitment to understanding and attempting to close the achievement gap, and it has codified into law the pursuit of equity as a high-priority goal of public education.
Urban school districts, which frequently have high concentrations of students at risk for school failure, are at the forefront in the challenge of defining and ensuring equity, and many have also been pioneers in school reform. Persistently low levels of achievement, struggles to recruit and retain both effective teachers and principals and other leaders, and the needs of families in high-poverty neighborhoods are among the challenges that face these districts. Recent attention to seemingly chronic district-level failings has highlighted the importance of considering the advantages of district-level reforms. A focus on this level makes it possible to examine governance structures, central office performance, and districtwide policies and management—all of which make districts “potent sites and sources of educational reform” (Hightower et al., 2002, p. 1).
Studies of district management of resources and personnel, as well as case studies of the culture of school districts, have contributed to understanding of the important role of school districts in reform (see, e.g., Chait, 2009; Elmore, 2004; Loeb and Reininger, 2004; McLaughlin and Talbert, 2006; Moon, 2007; Murnane and Steele, 2007; Rivikin et al., 2005; Spillane, 1998; Steele et al., 2010; Stotko et al., 2007; Wenglinsky, 2000). Districts are also appealing to study because it is at this level that promising reforms can be brought to scale. Though districts are complex—and each has its own characteristics and challenges—they also have the power to implement more comprehensive reforms than are possible at the single-school level. Since the reform movement took hold, districts have also learned from one another, and they have explored a range of approaches to building on the standards-based approach as they work to bring about improvements in even the most challenged schools. The research that has explored the strategies they have used has begun to identify factors that have been effective.
Much of the research on district-level school reform consists of case studies. For example, a study of three districts that worked with the Institute for Learning to implement systemic reforms2 found that although the districts’ experiences and results varied, they demonstrated the possibilities for using data effectively to solve problems and make other valuable changes (Marsh, 2002; Marsh et al., 2005).3 However, limited staff, time, and money have constrained the progress these districts could make.
For example, a study of seven urban districts4 that received grants from the Pew Charitable Trusts to support implementation of standards-based systemic reform concluded that high standards for students, assessments, and accountability by themselves are not sufficient to produce significant improvement (David and Shields, 2001). These elements have to be accompanied by explicit guidance to teachers for implementing an equally ambitious curriculum and by explicit expectations regarding instructional practices.
Another study documented the paths taken by five urban districts5 that have won the prestigious prize for urban education awarded by the Broad Foundation (Zavadsky, 2009). To select its winners, the Broad Foundation analyzes a range of district data, including student achievement results, graduations rates, and district management and performance data.6 The study found that the five winners shared a long-term commitment to the reforms they adopted, and that all have “[clear definitions of] what students are to know and be able to do; teachers who feel supported and respected; and students who progress through seamless educational programs” (Zavadsky, 2009, p. xxi).
Another case study examined results for districts that pursued a “data-driven reform model” developed by the Center for Data-Driven Reform in Education (Slavin et al., 2010, p. 4), in which data are used to guide
2Systemic reform is a term used to describe one of the central aspects of standards-based reform, the idea that all of the components of the public education system (e.g., instruction, assessment, curriculum, professional development) must be thoughtfully planned so that they are integrated and can work together. The term highlights the contrast between a comprehensive, or systemic, approach and efforts to tackle one area of improvement at a time (O’Day and Smith, 1993).
4The districts were Christina, Delaware; Community District 2, New York City; Fayette County, Kentucky; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Portland, Oregon; San Diego, California; and Yonkers, New York.
5The districts were Aldine Independent School District, Texas; Boston, Massachusetts; Garden Grove Unified School District, California; Long Beach Unified School District, California; and Norfolk, Virginia.
districts and schools in improving. The study concluded that the use of data on student learning, students’ demographic characteristics, school processes, and teacher perceptions allowed educators to identify problems and use professional development, and other interventions to solve them. The study also concluded that the collection and interpretation of data were not sufficient to yield improvement—it was necessary for schools and districts to follow up with specific actions designed to meet clearly defined goals.
In short, the literature on district reform suggests that a district can be a strong agent for reform and that districts that have achieved improvements share several attributes, such as those identified by Marsh (2002) and Marsh et al. (2005)7:
- a systemwide approach in which policies and practices are aligned;
- strong support and professional development for both teachers and administrators;
- clearly defined expectations for students and teachers, combined with a strong emphasis on improvement; and
- reliance on data to support instructional decisions and for accountability.
Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Minneapolis, and New York City are all examples of districts that have adopted rigorous content and performance standards and have aligned the curricula, instruction, and other aspects of their systems to those standards (Elmore, 2004). They have used data, including comprehensive student information management systems, to guide their decisions and have emphasized professional development for teachers and principals. They have relied on frequent formative assessments.8 They have also developed a culture of learning and collaboration among teachers. But districts have taken very different routes even to making these sorts of changes—and these differences reflect marked differences in their circumstances.
Changing the way districts are governed, i.e., rethinking basic managerial and political structures, has long been a linchpin of reform. Policy makers have assumed that new structures of authority at the top of the
7We emphasize that defining success or improvement for an entire district is not a straightforward task, an issue we discuss in Chapters 5-7.
8Formative assessments are those that are designed primarily to provide immediate feedback to both teachers and students about what has been learned. They can be contrasted with summative assessments, which are usually designed primarily to provide more generalized information about student performance to administrators and policy makers.
system will facilitate the improvements that are needed to raise student achievement. Changes in governance structures alter institutional relationships, establish new lines of authority and accountability, influence the way resources are allocated, and shift patterns of influence over key policy and programmatic decisions (March and Olsen, 1989, 1995; Mazzoni, 1991; Meier, 2004). Such governance reforms focus on authority for decisions about finances, personnel, and curriculum, as well as changes in lines of accountability—who is accountable to whom for school operations and student outcomes. Reformers who have used governance structures as instruments of change believe that institutions can become calcified over time, as those who benefit from them seek to preserve the status quo (see, e.g., Henig and Rich, 2004). Consequently, reform may require that school district governance be “jolted” through new institutional rules and structures.
Mayoral control is one sort of jolt that has been tried in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, New York City, and now, Washington, DC. Each of these cities has given the mayor increased formal authority over the school system through the power to appoint school board members and, in some cases, the district superintendent or chief executive officer of the school system. In each case, the city has decided that centralized authority will allow district leaders to better coordinate across units; recruit and manage personnel; impose tighter control over finances; and provide more equal learning opportunities for students. These cities have hoped the new structures will also solve problems associated with entrenched interest groups who gain power through school board elections in which relatively few people vote. Reformers believe that the lines of accountability will be clearer because responsibility for the schools’ performance will ultimately rest with one visible official with a broad-based electoral constituency.
Although the exact form that mayoral control has taken has varied considerably, several managerial approaches have been common. In each case, reformers have emphasized the use of data in decision making and have structured accountability systems around measures of school and student performance. The extent to which curricular decisions are centralized or delegated to individual schools varies, but these systems share a focus on the professional competence of the teaching force as a critical element, and they stress the primacy of teachers in their reform strategies. Cities with mayoral control have also sought to mobilize a constituency much wider than those directly employed by or associated with the schools, so a whole community will share a stake in the public schools (Henig and Rich, 2004; Hess, 2008; Viteritti, 2009).
Researchers have begun to examine the effects of mayoral control. Most recently, a study of nine cities that implemented new school governance models was conducted by the Institute on Education Law and Policy, Rutgers University. The study found that these approaches (which
included mayoral control and other models) resulted in greater efficiency and reduced corruption, and they also helped the cities gain significant funding boosts through private philanthropy and federal support (Institute on Education Law and Policy, Rutgers University, 2010).9 The study also concluded that, while changes in governance may have a positive or neutral effect on student achievement, governance is likely not the most important factor in district change. A study of mayoral control in New York City (Hill, 2011) also noted the importance of distinguishing between a structural change in governance and the leadership approach with which it is implemented. In general, these studies have shown that “structure is not a solution; it is an enabler” (Viteritti, 2009, p. 9; see also Allen and Mintrom, 2010; Carl, 2009; Henig and Rich, 2004). That is, altered political arrangements can bring about important changes, such as new institutional relationships and lines of authority and accountability, and new ways of allocating resources. However, they do not, by themselves, bring about educational improvements.
Ideas about mayoral control, charter schools, vouchers, privatization of instructional services through for-profit firms, and other managerial innovations reflect the continuation of a long-standing American quest to solve a fundamental dilemma: how to reconcile the nation’s democratic ideals, its insistence on high academic standards, and its belief in the virtues of economic efficiency and productivity. Simply stated, Americans have never accepted the notion that high standards for all is, in any sense, an oxymoron. As the preeminent historian of American education observed (Cremin, 1990, p. 43):
[I]f there is a crisis in American schooling it is…the crisis inherent in balancing [a] tremendous variety of demands Americans have made on their schools and colleges—of crafting curricula that take account of the needs of a modern society at the same time that they make provision for the extraordinary diversity of America’s young people.…
In recent years, debates over access, efficiency, and inclusion have become refocused as Americans struggle to understand and cope with an increasingly complex global and domestic environment. Some people ask whether schools will be valued as a public good and their legitimacy measured by their capacity to educate students according to the demands of
9The cities in the Rutgers study were Baltimore; Boston; Chicago; Cleveland; Detroit; Hartford, Connecticut; New York; Philadelphia; and Washington, DC.
informed and active citizenship. Others ask whether schools reflect a more private definition and serve as training grounds for business, the labor market, and the self-interest instincts of an advanced capitalist system. Inevitably these questions evoke an especially sensitive question relevant to reform in large cities: Can the political organization and control of school systems be decoupled from the processes of urban neighborhood revitalization?
For some observers of and participants in efforts to improve urban schooling, “reform” brings a potentially unacceptable risk—exacerbating the vulnerabilities of black, Hispanic/Latino, and poor students—especially if the reform is accompanied by the gentrification of resource-poor neighborhoods that are home to those students. According to one characterization of this issue, developers use schools as the initial and critical site for boosting urban real estate values. Middle- and upper-income, mostly white, residents relocate to newly upgraded urban centers, and public housing is often abandoned, pushing poor black and Hispanic/Latino residents out of central cities (Fenwick, 2006).
In this scenario, school systems that serve high percentages of black, Hispanic/Latino, and poor students face at least three particular challenges: (1) from the perspective of real estate developers, central city schools are situated near valuable underdeveloped land; (2) from the perspective of the school district, these schools are underperforming and desperately need fiscal resources to address chronic deficiencies; and (3) from the perspective of parents with students in those schools, frustration with the inadequacies of the schools serving their children is at an all time high, and they are desperate for change (Fenwick, 2006; Lipman and Haines, 2007).
There are conflicting views about these issues and the empirical evidence regarding them is thin. However, the existence of the perception that market-driven reforms may impose severe downside risks for some communities is an important element in the complex politics of schools and schooling. It is worth noting that although it has long been argued that local control of public schools empowers parents and community residents, this empowerment has rarely occurred in poor, black and Hispanic/Latino communities (Henig et al., 1999). Some researchers suggest that political insiders sometimes short circuit the intended benefits to schools and communities, and that there is frequently a complicated racial dimension to this scenario (Henig et al., 1999). Systemic reform has not garnered much grassroots support or enthusiasm among lower- and middle-income black parents whose children attend urban schools, who often view reform initiatives as uninformed by their community and disconnected from the best interests of their children (Lipman and Haines, 2007; Vaught, 2009; Weil, 2009). These parents and community members often point to school closings as “proof” that school reform is not in their interests. Again, although
there is no empirical evidence to support this claim, the perception can be strong enough to influence even the best-intentioned reforms. As districts pursue reform, they are eager to know what has worked well in other places—and what accounts for the gains that are observed. Many districts have seen periods of apparent progress followed by periods when improvement seems to stall. Researchers have raised questions about the inferences to be drawn from test scores—the most easily available measures of progress (see Chapter 5). And because districts have such broad responsibilities they may make strong progress in one area—say, improving outcomes for English language learners—while other problems, such as dropout rates, remain unsolved.
Reformers operate in an intensely political atmosphere. Their actions are scrutinized by a public that wants results. Tensions and suspicions contribute to community distrust and inertia, more so when reform is perceived as having been externally orchestrated and when its outcomes are perceived to benefit new urban residents and to hurt poor, black, and Hispanic/Latino residents. It would be naïve to expect even the most sophisticated system of research and evaluation to resolve all such political and policy issues (Cartwright, 2007), but it would be even more cynical to assume that good data and solid analysis cannot contribute usefully to improved education for all children.
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