How high poverty districts improve: a national study uncovers the policies and practices of high-poverty districts that have improved achievement across multiple schools

How high poverty districts improve: a national study uncovers the policies and practices of high-poverty districts that have improved achievement across multiple schools

Wendy Togneri

Leaders in the Aldine Independent School District were alarmed when scores on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills were released in 1995. Test results revealed that Aldine’s students were achieving well below the state average. In fact, the results were so slow that Aldine ranked near the bottom of the districts in the state.

District leaders were shocked. They had always assumed that Aldine children were doing well based on anecdotal evidence. The fact that some minority children were at the top of the district led leaders to believe that things were fine. Yet TAAS data revealed they were not.

Former superintendent Sonny Donaldson, explained, “[Eight to 10 years ago] we didn’t have the data that showed that not everybody was performing at the level they’re performing [at] today. We never disaggregated test scores 10 years ago…. We had Hispanic kids that were just outstanding students and we would look at that and say, well, yeah, Hispanic kids are getting a fair shake in Aldine because we’ve got Hispanic kids that are doing great. But no, they weren’t … we didn’t look at the data” (Koschoreck, n.d.).

Instead of making excuses for poor performance, the district set out to change instructional practice and improve student achievement. With time and a well-orchestrated plan, student achievement rose. Within five years the district rose to the top tier in the state, dramatically narrowing the achievement gap between white and minority students.

A study of improving high poverty school districts

Aldine is one of five high-poverty school districts that took part in a study conducted by the Washington-based nonprofit Learning First Alliance. The Alliance study arose from concern that many children in high poverty schools were failing. Alliance leaders wanted to learn more about policies and practices in districts that had improved achievement across multiple schools. More specifically, the study sought to build greater understanding of what improving districts were doing to support the instructional work of teachers and principals. Questions included:

* How did the districts create the will to begin instructional reform?

* In what ways did districts change their approaches to professional development?

* How did interactions among the stakeholders facilitate or hinder instructional reform?

* How was leadership distributed across stakeholders to facilitate improvement?

Five school districts took part in the study: Aldine Independent School District (Texas); Chula Vista Elementary School District (California); Kent County Public Schools (Maryland); Minneapolis Public Schools (Minnesota); and Providence Public Schools (Rhode Island). The districts were selected based on their ability to exhibit at least three years of improvements in student achievement in mathematics and/or reading across multiple grades, most schools and most races and ethicities. The study also sought districts that represented a mix of characteristics, including size, region, urbanicity and union affiliation.

Strategies for improvement

The five districts increased student achievement in math and/or reading, across grade levels and racial groups. Kent County and Aldine were among the highest achieving districts in their states. Improvements in Chula Vista, Minneapolis and Providence were less dramatic but evident in at least one subject at the elementary grades.

By and large, the study revealed a strikingly similar set of strategies used across these districts. A summary of these findings show that the districts:

1. Acknowledged poor performance and sought solutions. In each district top leaders stepped forward and publicly acknowledged that student achievement was unacceptably low. They didn’t make excuses for poor achievement; they sought solutions.

2. Focused intensively on improving instruction and achievement. Improving teaching and student achievement were the most important goals of the district. Each district made hard choices to allocate their limited resources to this core mission.

3. Built a systemwide framework of instructional supports. District leaders created a framework of supports. They established a clear vision, set outcome goals, created districtwide curricula, and put forward a set of professional development strategies to support better instruction.

4. Redefined and redistributed leadership roles. No single stakeholder tackled reform alone. Boards members, union leaders, principals, teachers, administrators and community leaders played a role in reform.

5. Made professional development relevant and useful. The districts shifted their approaches to professional development. They decreased traditional teacher training strategies and replaced them with research-based strategies to improve teacher and principal skills. Teachers and principals readily shared ideas and investigated good practice; data drove the content of professional development; and staffing and scheduling structures provided for increased collaboration among teaching staff.

6. Recognized that there are no quick fixes. Education and community leaders recognized that improvement took time. They encouraged innovation and did not expect immediate results.

We will now take a closer look the strategies of building a framework of instructional supports and redefining and redistributing leadership roles. Together, they built a foundation for improving instruction that provided instructional support and connected principals and teachers to each other’s work.

Building the will for reform

Why were these districts willing to tackle reform? What distinguished them from other districts that operated under similar policy contexts and experienced similar challenges? The answer, in part, was the presence of key leaders–school board members, superintendents, and community leaders–who were willing to accept ownership of difficult challenges and seek solutions without placing blame. In each district, one or more leaders pushed their collegues to do something about the poor performance that state and local test data revealed.

Change did not occur overnight, or without deliberate work. But the willingness of leaders to question practices in the public arena spurred stakeholders at all levels to support and implement new strategies to improve teaching and learning.

Building a systemwide infrastructure to support instruction

As noted, the districts combined multiple strategies to support the instructional work of teachers and principals. More specifically:

* They established clear visions that focused heavily on instruction.

* Three of the five districts created districtwide curriculum.

* The districts built and enforced multiple measure accountability systems.

* They promoted the use of data and made data more readily accessible.

Building and using strategic visions

Four of the five districts began their reform efforts by reassessing and revising their visions. While this seems like an obvious step, prior to reform the districts operated with visions that were unclear and often unused. For instance, before Lorraine Costella became superintendent in Kent County, the district vision included 35 goals and objectives that were rarely used by the central office or principals to guide decision-making.

Today, after engaging in a collective vision development process, Kent County has five distinct goals that are written into strategic documents and used as the basis for planning, resource allocation and staffing decisions. Similarly, Minneapolis and Chula Vista engaged in extensive processes to develop and revise their strategical planning documents. By contrast, in Aldine and Providence the vision statements were largely centrally developed.

Regardless of the development method, the visions guided instructional work in all the districts. The tenets of the visions were incorporated into widely disseminated documents–strategic plans, grant proposals, board agendas, school improvement plans and the like. In addition, leaders used the visions regularly, invoking vision tenets at board meetings, when visiting schools or addressing parent groups.

As a result of these efforts, an understanding of the visions permeated stakeholders in most districts. A principal in Kent explained, “I don’t think there is anyone in this district who doesn’t understand that our goal is to do what is best for the children.”

In Minneapolis, a deep understanding of the vision was clear, particularly at the administrator and principal level. One administrator noted, “[Our strategic plan] has focused” the district, so “it is much clearer today what our goals are and [in which] areas we need to be spending our resources.”

Districtwide curriculum

Kent County, Minneapolis, and Aldine began their instructional reform with curricular overhaul. This reconstruction was a response in part to the state standards movement and in part to research that revealed that teachers sought greater curriculum guidance. Leaving curriculum decisions up to individual schools had created difficulty for both teachers and students in these districts. Teachers were uncomfortable with the lack of guidance in how to reach state and district standards. And students, because of high rates of mobility, often encountered a curricular maze as they moved to new schools.

To provide greater clarity on what to teach and greater cohesion from school to school, the districts engaged large cadres of teachers in developing their own curricula, aligned to state standards and district goals. As the process evolved in each district, teachers developed lesson plans and sample strategies to provide instructional guidance in the new curriculum. Administrators and teachers in the districts noted that the new curricula provided coherent instructional guidance that did not exist prior to the standardization.

As one Minneapolis teacher put it: “[Because of the curriculum] we have more types of conversations going on about what we are doing. I might ask another teacher, ‘When are you going to do that standard?’ so we can coordinate. [Our] department meeting have transformed from what they topics like ‘what book are we going to buy?’ That was all we cared about, and then we would go back into our rooms and close the door.”

Data and accountability

Another important strategy for instructional improvement was extensive use of data. The districts did not just talk about data; they used data to guide important decisions about teaching and learning. Noted a Providence administrator: “Our decisions are made based on data, qualitative and quantitative. We look at student achievement data on an ongoing basis. We address it at principals’ meeting…. We used data all the time. The schools have to develop a school improvement plan and allocate their budgets based on data.”

In all five districts, staff used data to guide decisions related to instruction, such as budget allocation, staff hiring, and teaching and learning gap identification. At the school level, the degree of data use varied, but there were promising examples in all districts.

Principals and teachers analyzed data to monitor progress, to determine the effectiveness of their instructional approaches, and to figure out where to make adjustments. Teachers looked to data to determine specific learning patterns–for example, whether certain students exhibited difficulties in identifying words by sight, or whether they were still struggling with sounding words out.

A teacher in Kent County explained how data guided work: “We looked at our CTBS scores and our MSPAP scores, and our reading scores were flat. We needed a way to raise them. So the majority of everything that we are going to focus on this year is reading. We looked into research. Just last week, we visited a school in Delaware. They had a reading incentive program that was very successful for them. We went over and took a look at their practices and decided we should spend money on this approach.”

Redefining roles and redistributing the leaders

Redefining leadership roles and redistributing leadership was a vital strategy that served multiple purposes across the districts. In fact, in Providence and Chula Vista it was their primary theory of change–improve the skills of school leaders and increase the level of teacher leadership.

This extension of leadership required a rethinking of the functions of various stakeholders. School boards in most of the districts, for instance, worked to become policy focused. More specifically, the boards held their superintendents and staff accountable for progress but did not engage in the daily administration of schools.

An Aldine board member explained: “I am not an administrator; that is not my job. I am not a professional educator … [The superintendent and her staff] are the professionals, and we say to them, ‘These are the results we want to see; you are in charge of how to do it.”

By the same token, the central offices in these districts took on new roles. In fact, it could be argued that they took tip responsibilities that are often unperformed within districts, in many cases, leaders determined that there were certain roles that central offices were uniquely positioned to play. Leaders reasoned, if the central office did not take the lead, the role would not be performed. Such roles included creating a districtwide curriculum, building a high quality principal corps, and devising systemwide supports for new teachers.

As central offices undertook these new responsibilities, they paid considerable attention to collaboration with other stakeholders. In particular, they sought to augment instructional leadership capacity by reconceptualizing the leadership roles of principals and teachers.

Most of the districts actively embraced research that promoted the importance of shifting the role of principals from building manager–overseer of transportation, cafeteria and other operations–to one of instructional leader. Yet most of the superintendents found early in their tenures that their principals operated primarily under the building manager model. To shift principal roles and work, the districts stepped up their efforts to provide principals with clear expectations and training to become instructional leaders.

In Providence, for example, central office leaders established written expectations of principal work, adopting the Principles of Learning, created by the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute for Learning. Chula Vista engaged in a multi-year collaborative effort to establish performance expectations.

Whether written or oral, the goals for principal work were quite similar across the districts. Principals were expected to create environments conducive to collaborative, reflective and rigorous teaching. District leaders expected principals to become active instructional guides, to observe teachers daily, and to provide regular feedback.

While the expectations were high, central office leaders and staff supported principals. In four of the districts, principals met regularly to discuss challenges and share ideas. The districts also provided significant training for principals, sending principals to respected training academies and bringing consultants into the district to build skills systemwide.

The districts also looked to teacher leadership. Developing teacher leaders required not simply recasting roles, but actually building new positions. Teacher leaders provided assistance as subject matter specialists, mentors, professional developers, data specialists and other instructionally related functions.

School-based teacher leaders were a particularly crucial support for principals and teachers. These leaders worked closely with teachers to provide individual coaching, model lessons and spread good instructional practice within a school. School-based teacher leaders also extended a principal’s capacity to observe teachers, provide instructional guidance and coordinate school-based professional development. Teacher leaders often assisted principals in a variety of administrative tasks, such as scheduling, test administration and data analysis.

While the districts used different methods to provide support, their goals were similar–to increase the ability of principals and teachers to lead instructional improvement at the school level and to deepen the level of sharing of good practice across the district.

Aldine showed particular strength in convening teacher leaders and principals. Central office leaders devised two structures that brought teachers together weekly–verticals and horizontals. Verticals brought leaders together with colleagues from different schools levels, while horizontals grouped leaders by level–i.e., all elementary principals, all middle school principals, etc. The regular meetings allowed principals to learn about district goals, share ideas and create informal networks of peers. Many principals spoke of communicating daily with a small group of trusted collegues.

When asked how the vertical and horizontal meetings affected performance in schools, one principal responded: “Tremendously, as far as I’m concerned. Because of these meetings, we’re communicating. [The verticals and horizontals] allow us to collaborate with our fellow principals and see what they’re doing.”

This regular convening of principals and teacher leaders facilitated many important goals. It provided the district with a means of connecting ideas and practices across schools within the district. Teachers and principals were able to regularly share ideas and challenges with their colleagues, and the central office had a cohensive means of communicating its messages with a large number of school-based leaders in the district.

Central direction and school-level flexibility

As outlined, the central offices, although collaborative, were often directive. Most established central visions and strategic plans, mandated districtwide curricula, and deployed districtwide accountability systems. School-level staff were expected to have deep knowledge of district strategic goals and curricula and conduct their work according to the goals outlined in these structures.

Although this directive approach might suggest that the districts imposed top-down reforms at the expense of school-level flexibility, that does not appear to be the case. Over time, district leaders determined that to improve instruction, schools needed to have the flexibility to hire teachers, use funds and structure their staffs and schedules as they saw fit. Principals and teachers from all districts expressed a high degree of flexibility in their work.

A Kent teacher explained: “Even though the district has the Essential Curriculum, we are not expected to be on the same page at the same time. And we’re not expected [to] have every child in that basal reader…. We assess each child, and we write our own prescription and then [for both] monitoring results and being able to prove that the children have actually made progress.”

Fostering a balance between district-level support and school-level flexibility to innovate was a philosophy echoed by leaders throughout the districts. Leaders expressed the understanding that, because challenges varied from school to school, school leaders would need flexibility to address challenges specific to their environments.

Changes in practice

After almost a decade of reforms, the districts engaged in significantly different practices than a decade prior. Before their reforms began, the districts had neither clear, well-understood goals nor effective measures of progress. Supports to improve instruction were haphazard. Boards did not make instruction and achievement central to their work. Principals were more likely to focus on administrative duties than on helping teachers improve their instruction and student outcomes. None of the districts had systemwide curricula to guide instruction. Without a common base from which to work, teachers and principals often received little guidance about instruction.

Today the picture is very different. Teachers and principals noted that the new vision in the districts had led to shifts in practice–greater use of data in decision-making, more collaboration among teachers, peer observation, and reflection on instructional strategies. A Kent County teacher explained this shift, noting, “I think we are beginning to work smarter. As a school we analyze data and look at areas where we are clearly deficient and we say, ‘Okay we’re low on reading. What does this mean? What do we need to do in first grade, second grade, third grade, fourth grade?'”

It would be wrong to imply that the districts had completely overhauled their approaches to professional development and instruction. Traditional approaches still remain. However, the districts were making progress in their efforts to improve practice.

The role of districts

This study suggests that districts, by providing a framework of instructional supports and redefining leadership roles, can actually increase the productivity of schools and the capacity of principals and teachers to act within them. More specifically, central offices can help schools acquire a host of primary and secondary services that would be inefficient for schools to develop on their own.

The strategies deployed at the district level–including ongoing supports for principals, mentoring programs for new teachers and districtwide curriculum to guide teaching–are not strategies that make most sense to be developed by each individual school. A certain efficiency and efficacy is achieved when a central office takes the lead in fostering these strategies.

Additionally, because a baseline of supports is in place (as was the case for schools in the study districts), principals and teachers are freer to pursue the next level of work to improve instruction. In the study districts, school leaders did not have to develop standards-based curricula; it already existed. Rather, they could invest their time and expertise in honing their pedagogical strategies to implement the curriculum.

Wendy Togneri is senior manager for Learning First Alliance ( Stephen E. Anderson is associate professor, International Centre for Educational Change, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Association of California School Administrators

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