Pieces of the Puzzle: Factors in Improving Achievement of Urban School Districts

Einstein famously opined that one only understands a subject that he can explain to his grandmother. If that’s the case, then Council for Great City Schools chief Michael Casserly understands a great deal. This AEI Outlook by Casserly culls the findings from the CGCS’s dense report on urban school improvement (released late in 2011), making them accessible to the grandmother in all of us. The study, which analyzes fourth- and eighth-grade NAEP scores for reading and math, finds that urban school districts have improved student outcomes more in recent years (2003-07) than has the nation as a whole, but that some have been markedly more successful than others. To probe the reasons, study authors profiled four districts: Atlanta (which made great gains in reading achievement, assuming its test scores are to be believed), Boston (which significantly boosted math achievement), Charlotte-Mecklenburg (a consistent high performer), and Cleveland (a persistently low performer). Researchers found several common characteristics that worked in tandem to create a purposeful and coherent “culture of reform” in the first three of those districts. Each had: strong leadership, robust accountability systems, a standard and consistent curriculum over the study period, meaningful professional development, solid central-office support, and clear data and assessments. Notably, each picked a plan (whether a specific literacy program in Atlanta or a common, concept-rich math program in Boston) and stuck with it. Interestingly, alignment of state standards to NAEP was not at all related to increased student achievement, even though NAEP scores are the metric here. Casserly relates this to the Common Core: CCSS adoption is not sufficient for upping student achievement; states must also implement them well as part of a comprehensive package of reforms. Cleveland’s new school-reform plan shows that it heard Casserly’s message; we wait to see if the city internalizes it through implementation.

SOURCE: Michael Casserly, Pieces of the Puzzle: Factors in Improving Achievement of Urban School Districts (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute, July 2012).