Many large urban schools have made tremendous progress, due in part to a focus on perseverance and closing gaps

4 insights from city school leaders

Many large urban schools have made tremendous progress, due in part to a focus on perseverance and closing gaps

Media stories about large metropolitan school districts usually focus on their challenges instead of the impactful work they are doing to help students succeed.

As a former Council of Great City Schools (CGCS) CIO who spent part of my career working at large school systems, I collaborated with countless talented, intelligent, and inspiring education leaders. Many of these relationships were cultivated through my active participation in CGCS, a nonprofit organization whose mission is “to promote the cause of urban schools and to advocate for inner-city students through legislation, research and media relations.” Founded in 1956, the organization now includes 77 of the nation’s largest urban public school systems.

Both CGCS’s recently retired Executive Director and now Strategic Advisor Dr. Michael Casserly, who has been with the organization for over 40 years, and its Director of Management Services Dr. Robert Carlson, who has worked in public education for 60 years, 30 of which he’s spent at CGCS, have witnessed the tremendous progress made by large school districts. They shared four key reflections they’ve gleaned during their tenure with the organization.  

Technology’s Seat at the Table

When Dr. Casserly and Dr. Carlson started at CGCS, technology was in its infancy. Now, many public urban school districts have moved the CIO/CTO position up from a second or third tier management level to the enterprise level. According to Dr. Carlson, this shift in leadership structure was very much needed.  “Technology plays such a prominent role in achieving interoperability and aligning the five core functions of a public school district ─ people, product, things, money, and information,” said Dr. Carlson.

Dr. Casserly agrees that including CIOs at the cabinet level is critical. “When CIOs were not at the board level, it was difficult for individuals to see the value of technology across the board,” said Dr. Casserly. “When CIOs have a voice and are empowered to use technology in a more systematic way, it pushes the evolution of technology into places it might not have gone.”

Closing Gaps

When reflecting on his time working with large school districts, Dr. Casserly noted that one of the most significant achievements he has witnessed is the improvement of student achievement in urban public schools. “I’m very proud that student achievement is higher now than what it was,” said Dr. Casserly. “Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that the academic performance of urban school districts has improved over time, particularly in reading and math. Additionally, large schools are narrowing the gap between their achievement data and the national achievement data averages, reducing the divide by half in the last 10 years.”

The Power of Collaboration

Collaboration is another area where Dr. Casserly and Dr. Carlson have witnessed significant growth among large public schools. When CGCS started, the organization primarily focused on federal policy and legislation. Later, the organization’s purpose expanded to include supporting the growth of student academic achievement and data systems technology with large urban public schools.  

The organization intensified its efforts to provide districts with assistance in 1998 when it created and launched its first strategic support team. This team, composed of the “best of the best” education leaders from CGCS’s member districts, worked with a school district that was struggling academically. After speaking with the participating district’s staff members and observing their day-to-day systems and practices, the strategic support team identified what was driving the school district’s failures and created a detailed blueprint outlining how the school system could improve. This peer review model proved to be very successful, with other districts immediately expressing interest in participating in the program. Since then, over 350 strategic support teams have lent their time and knowledge to help districts improve in areas such as bilingual education, food services, academics, technology, finance, and special education.

“We have people flying all over the country and devoting incredible expertise because they want to help each other get better,” said Dr. Casserly. “We have collectively created a culture where everybody is mutually supportive and collaborative, and our members understand and appreciate that they are not alone and can lean on each other to get better.”

Persistence Even in the Face of a Pandemic

The final key insight is the growing role public school systems play in our communities and a new appreciation for their intrinsic ability to meet demands. “I think the pandemic helped strengthen public awareness of the value of public education,” said Dr. Casserly. “Parents had to pick up many of the responsibilities schools were covering, and they recognized how much their schools contributed to their children’s mental health, social development, academic achievement, and physical wellbeing.”

Additionally, the ability of school districts to maintain business continuity in the face of disasters like pandemics, fires, or hurricanes has often gone unnoticed, but is it an attribute highly valued by communities.

“There was so much talk about hybrid and remote learning, which was very important, but there were so many school employees who put their shoulder to the wheel to do some really incredible things during a very difficult time,” said Dr. Carlson. “Staff members were busy delivering meals, figuring out innovative ways to provide connectivity in remote areas of the city, building safe perimeters around school buildings, and reengineering air circulation systems in school facilities to meet health requirements. In all the years I’ve worked with schools, I can’t think of a time that I was prouder of what school districts were doing for their communities than during that window of time.”

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