Levers for Change: Pathways for State-to-District Assistance in Underperforming School Districts

William J. Slotnik, Levers for Change: Pathways for State-to-District Assistance in Underperforming School Districts (Washington, D.C.: Center for American Progress, September 2010).

Over the last thirty years, states have taken on an increasingly large role in district (and subsequently school) interventions (most recently through Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, and the like). But, according to this CAP paper, this may or may not be such a good idea. That’s because, if history is any guide, state-to-district interventions have repeatedly failed. The main problem, the author explains, is that states tend to compartmentalize their efforts—addressing the financial or organizational aspect of a district, for example, but ignoring the politics. Or pushing districts to fix schools’ achievement, while ignoring gaping budget holes. But where history shows repeated failure, it also teaches lessons for the future. First, states need to address all aspects of an intervention—organizational, political, educational—at once. Second, states need to do all of those things better, by establishing mechanisms for mid-course corrections (organizational), for example, and creating an effective communications strategy (political). For each lever, CAP provides a series of “litmus questions” for a state to find and examine its weaknesses and fix them. The premise of this paper may seem obvious, but with states taking increasingly larger roles in district reform (putting to use the Common Core standards, guiding SIG efforts, etc.), state-to-district interventions need now, more than ever, to be done well. And, this paper offers a blueprint.

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