Embracing System Reform: Lessons from Five Award-Winning Schools

Whitney Gilbert

Heather Zavadsky, American Enterprise Institute (AEI)
July 2010

In this AEI policy paper Heather Zavadsky highlights five urban districts (also showcased in her book, Bringing School Reform to Scale) that are models of systemic, district-wide reforms. All five have won the Broad Prize for Urban Education for their ability to implement reform across the entire district, not just among failing schools.

They are: Aldine Independent School District in Texas; Boston Public Schools in Massachusetts; Garden Grove Unified School District in Los Angeles; Long Beach Unified School District in California; and Norfolk Public Schools in Virginia. While all these schools operate within varying policy, organizational, and community contexts, they faced similar challenges in lifting student achievement.

All five serve large percentages of minority populations, low-income students, English language learners. So how did these large urban districts serving some of the highest “at-risk” student populations succeed in outperforming their home states on multiple assessments? Zavadskly highlights key components of their success.

Aldine Independent School District and Long Beach Unified School District attribute their high performance to aligning curriculum vertically among all grades (pre-kindergarten through 12) and horizontally across all schools within the district. This change ensured their highly mobile student body would be taught the same curriculum at any school they attended (an important lesson for districts like Dayton that experience high levels of student mobility). Boston Public Schools redefined key leaders’ roles, reconstructed its HR department, and increased its use of data, creating clear goals and expectations for staff, students, and parents. Norfolk Public Schools also found success district wide by redesigning district curriculum (such as by reducing 24 reading programs down to one) and implementing a classroom-based professional development program to improve teachers’ capacity to deliver the instructional program.

The experience of these five districts proves that education reform can be scaled to the district level, although there’s no doubt that such reforms are difficult to replicate elsewhere. Still, the report offers multiple ideas for Ohio districts seeking wholesale reform. To read more about the experience of these award-winning districts read the entire article here.

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