Study: District leadership, technology keys to urban school reform

Urban school districts that use data-driven decision making and other tactics to spur system-wide reforms are more likely to achieve academic improvement than those districts that adjust solely on a school-by-school basis, according to a study released by the Council of the Great City Schools Sept. 5.

The survey, “Foundations For Success: Case Studies of How Urban School Systems Improve Student Achievement,” takes a look at four of the nation’s most rapidly improving urban districts: Houston, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Sacramento, and New York City.

Its findings indicate that some of the nation’s urban school districts are raising academic scores while reducing achievement gaps by implementing strong, district-wide approaches to leadership, professional development, and data-driven accountability systems. These gains are especially important in light of the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind Act, which now requires schools to provide documented proof of improvement or risk losing federal funding for certain programs.

Although there are 16,850 school districts in the country, just 100 of these—mostly urban districts—serve approximately 23 percent of the nation’s students, the report said.

“While there has been much research on what makes an effective school, there is relatively little information on what makes an effective district and whether district-level changes could affect individual school performance,” said the council’s executive director, Michael Casserly. “This new research will help us understand how to provide all students with the opportunity to achieve new levels of academic success.”

According to researchers, urban schools face a number of problems that “exist above the level of individual schools.” Some of these difficulties include poor academic achievement, political conflicts, inexperienced teachers, lack of demanding curriculum, lack of instructional cohesion, high student transfer rates, and unsatisfactory business operations.

In Houston, for example, one-fourth of the students did not speak fluent English and less than half performed at grade level. In Charlotte, N.C., violence, a lack of community support, poor funding, and wide achievement gaps between students of different socio-economic backgrounds kept schools from reaching desired levels of performance. Urban schools in New York and Sacramento saw much of the same. However, in the study, researchers claim that district-wide reforms have led to notable improvements on all fronts.

“Individual school reform is necessary but far from efficient” when dealing with large urban districts, said Sharon Lewis, research director for the council. The problem, she added, is that just because a program works well in one school doesn’t mean it will be successful in another. There are too many variables to consider, including students’ socio-economic status, computer accessibility, racial disparities, and teacher quality.

To combat the uncertainty associated with such variables, the four most improved districts concentrated on reform efforts that could be filtered down to schools from the district level.

One such effort included the use of data-driven decision making and computer assessment tools to judge how well individual students throughout the district were performing at various schools compared with their peers. According to Lewis, the information collected by school districts included student test scores broken down by race, school, and individual grade level. The data also were disaggregated, she said, to help show which concepts certain students understood and which concepts needed to be emphasized more effectively in the classroom.

All four of the districts profiled in the study used some sort of data-mining tool to diagnose the specific instructional needs of students, Lewis said: “Each of these school districts used data extensively.”

According to the study, “Teachers may be able to use achievement data as a tool to help them improve instructional practice, diagnose students’ specific instructional needs, and increase student learning.” However, researchers caution that data mining is only effective when performed at regular intervals from the start of the academic year until its conclusion to show what improvements, if any, have been made by traditionally underachieving groups within a given school system.

Lewis said data-driven decision making is especially important in large urban school districts, because students with various levels of learning—as well as teachers at various levels of professional training—are constantly moving about and changing positions throughout the system.

“Students come in with more challenges. Teachers often come with less support and need more training,” she said of urban districts.

Lewis added that each of the four best-performing districts also used a variety of professional development tactics, including everything from in-class coaching to online curriculum tools and a library of computer-accessible lesson plans.

“It’s the idea of giving teachers a variety of strategies to address different needs in the classroom,” she said. “The common themes just sort of jumped out at us.”

But better use of technology alone won’t bring on massive improvements at the district level. According to the study, there are three key contextual factors that also affect change in large urban school systems.

The first, of course, is budget pressures. Although none was in dire financial straits at the time, the study said even the four best-performing districts faced some mandatory cutbacks in spending.

Another factor—the increasing focus on accountability in schools—helped stakeholders find new ways to focus on boosting student achievement, the study said: “Each of the four case-study districts operated within a broader policy context that emphasized student academic achievement, concrete goals for improvement, and incentives and consequences for performance.”

Finally, there was some dissention regarding school reform in those cities and surrounding areas where local politics and power relations were particularly volatile, owing either to longstanding polices or strained race relations, the study found.

Still, urban districts that improved at a faster rate than others within their respective states were able to adapt these nine shared strategies for success:

  • Districts should focus on specific achievement goals geared toward state standards.
  • Districts should employ concrete accountability systems, including data-mining tools, which measure student progress and hold individual staff responsible for results.
  • District-wide improvements—including better professional development and improved teacher quality—should focus on boosting performance at the lowest-achieving schools.
  • Districts should adopt a system-wide curriculum that is proven to work and can be shared by educators, instead of relying on individual instructors to devise their own well-meaning lessons.
  • All incoming, as well as current, teachers should be familiar with district-specific polices and other educational strategies for improvement.
  • The central office should play a role in guiding, supporting, and improving instruction at the building level.
  • Teachers must be schooled in how to interpret the data that are mined as a result of new data-driven decision-making technologies.
  • Reforms should be initiated at the lowest levels, such as in the elementary grades, instead of trying to fix everything at once.
  • Districts must step up instructional efforts for critical subjects such as reading and math, even at the expense of other subjects.
According to the study, all four cities made use of these strategies to improve the quality of education in schools throughout their systems. Researchers claim notable progress occurred in standardized test scores, especially where racial disparities were concerned. And traditionally low-end achievers performed particularly well during these reforms, the study said. Also, progress was most evident at the elementary school level, where reforms are the easiest to implement and carry out, according to the study.

“Urban school districts serve a large proportion of children in the United States, yet face the biggest challenges,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige in a statement. “This report provides great promise for helping children in city schools and beyond get the education they need to succeed in life.”


Council of the Great City Schools

Report: Foundations For Success

U.S. Department of Education

No Child Left Behind

eSchool News Staff

Want to share a great resource? Let us know at