Do School Districts Matter?

In Ohio, there are over 600 traditional school districts. Some are large (the largest is Columbus City Schools at nearly 50,000 students) and some are small (the smallest being the “island” district, Put-In-Bay, with 71 students). But do these entities—school districts—actually matter in relation to student achievement? That’s the question Grover Whitehurst, Matthew Chingos, and Michael Gallaher of the Brookings Institution examine, in the aptly-titled report, Do Districts Matter?

To answer this question, the researchers use student-level data from Florida and North Carolina for fourth and fifth graders, from 2000-01 to 2009-10. The researchers isolate the impact of the district on achievement, while controlling for the impacts of teachers, school-buildings, and student demographics in their statistical model. The key finding: School districts, in the aggregate, have little impact on student achievement, relative that of school buildings—and to an even greater extent—classroom teachers.

In addition to the aggregate district analysis, the researchers also consider whether some districts have a greater impact on achievement than others. Using data from 2009-10, they find that, indeed, there are districts that have strong positive impacts and districts that have negative impacts. The difference between an effective and ineffective district? Nearly a half year of student learning, according the report.

The report’s authors concede that they haven’t gotten to the bottom of why some districts are more effective than others. But, through this research, we have strong evidence that indicates there are great districts and laggard districts—and we’d likely find the same in Ohio’s collection of school districts as well.

SOURCE: Grover J. Whitehurst, Matthew, M. Chingos, and Michael R. Gallaher, Do Districts Matter? (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, March 2013)

Aaron Churchill
Aaron Churchill is a Ohio Research Director at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute