What Districts Can Do To Support High Quality Education
by Michael Grady - May 07, 2007
Several large urban school districts have recently announced plans to convert some of their existing middle schools to K-8 designs. This has stimulated discussion about the relative effectiveness of one middle grade configuration over another. In this Commentary piece we argue that it's not so much about the number of grade levels a school serves but rather the capacity of the district to create conditions for excellent teaching and learning at scale. In turn we describe specific measures a district can take to create those conditions.
Increasingly, the middle school years are viewed as the start of the downward spiral in academic performance whose end point finds students dropping out of high school or graduating ill-prepared to succeed in college or the workplace. The chronic problem of low-performing middle schools has been highlighted recently in the New York Times and Education Week and was the focus of a January 2007 report by a New York City community coalition, calling for the city to take bold action to transform education for middle-grade students.
Some leaders of large urban school systems believe at least part of the problem lies in the organizational structure of middle schools or junior highs. Thus, the Baltimore, New York, Cincinnati and Philadelphia public schools have converted or are in the process of converting large numbers of their middle schools to comprehensive K-8 school designs. Yet, there is little in the way of definitive evidence from research about the relative benefits of 612 versus K8 models, though the results that have been reported are predictably mixed.
Indeed, findings from research on school effectiveness suggest that what distinguishes the higher- from the lower-performing schools is less about grade configuration and more about the fundamental conditions of learning, such as teacher quality, academic program rigor and coherence, principal leadership, instructional strategies, quality of community partnerships, effective use of data, and a culture of respect among adults, students, and parents. The report cited above New York Citys Middle-Grade Schools: Platforms for Success or Pathways to Failure? by the New York City Coalition for Educational Justice argues that the middle school crisis requires bold action to transform our middle grades, action that goes beyond changing the grade configuration in our schools and calls for comprehensive reform to ensure that all middle-grade students have access to:
well-rounded and rigorous curriculum that puts them on the road to college;
strong academic, social, and emotional supports for all students;
highly qualified teachers and principals who understand early adolescent development;
smaller class size.
This report (prepared with support from the Annenberg Institute for School Reforms Community Involvement Program), along with other research, prompts us to restate the original question: What is it that school districts can do to ensure that all students have access to the kinds of high-quality teaching and learning opportunities that prepare them for successful secondary careers?
This question has been central to the mission and work of the Annenberg Institute for nearly a decade. In 1999 the Institute convened the Task Force on the Future of Urban Districts, a group of leading scholars, policy-makers, and practitioners. Their research and deliberations produced the following three essential functions of a smart district, one that can ensure a high-quality education for students at every level of the system:
Provide schools, students, and teachers with needed supports and timely interventions: School districts have long provided instructional supports to schools, such as curricula, curriculum guides, and professional development; but too often these supports have been one-size-fits-all. The challenge is that each school based on the resources of its students, faculty, and community needs different kinds and combinations of supports to succeed.
Ensure that schools have the power and resources to make good decisions: Smart districts provide schools, students, and teachers with resources, authority, and supports tailored to their specific needs and capacities. They work closely with school-based staff to identify needs and work interdepartmentally; they collaborate with teachers unions to alter district-wide policies to meet those needs.
Use multiple indicators of school and district performance and practices to make decisions and hold people throughout the system accountable: To achieve results, school systems need to know current and past results and what they have to do to improve those results. By monitoring so-called leading indicators factors correlated with trends and outcomes districts can intervene to avoid potential problems.
From this conceptual foundation, the Institute created the Central Office Review for Results and Equity, or CORRE, a set of diagnostic tools that the district, in collaboration with school-based educators and community leaders, can use systematically to examine the current capacity of its central office to support high-quality teaching and learning, i.e., its capacity to function as a smart district. At the conclusion of the CORRE process, the district owns a set of findings and recommendations for building capacity to effectively support the three essential functions of a smart district.
Recently, the Institute has expanded the concept of smart district to smart education system, based on the growing realization that many actors and organizations in the community have vital roles to play in educating young people. In alliances with our national partners, we are working to identify the essential capacities of a smart education system at the community, civic capacity, and district levels. It is attention to these kinds of capacity-building and -expanding activities that hold the most promise for ensuring an excellent education for middle-school-aged children and, indeed, for all children in our public schools.