Bringing School Reform to Scale: Five Award-Winning Urban Districts

reviewed by Jack Schneider - July 13, 2010

coverTitle: Bringing School Reform to Scale: Five Award-Winning Urban Districts
Author(s): Heather Zavadsky
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 1934742406, Pages: 264, Year: 2009
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Best practice literature in education has traditionally focused on the work of so-called exemplary schools, identifying particular systems and structures that might be reproduced in new places. Such work has acquired a significant following among education reformers in the past two decades, yet has largely ignored the work of the school district. Bringing School Reform to Scale, by Heather Zavadsky, seeks to fill that gap. Part of Harvard Education Press’s Educational Innovations series, which “aims to disrupt the status quo and inject new ideas into contemporary education debates,” the book is concerned with what might be learned from successful school districts and how those lessons might be applied in new contexts. And while Zavadsky notes that the book “does not provide a list of best practice silver bullets,” she does make the case that the work of these ostensibly model districts “can be done in any district given the right knowledge and tools” (p. xxi).

In seeking to identify exemplary district practices, Zavadsky looks at five winners of the Broad Prize for Urban Education; not surprising, given that she formerly served as project manager for the evaluation of Broad Prize finalists. Less expected are the five districts themselves. With the exception of Boston, whose former superintendent Tom Payzant penned the book’s introduction, they are not the usual suspects for such studies. Look at the stars on the map that adorns the book’s cover and you might guess Houston instead of nearby Aldine, Los Angeles instead of Long Beach, and Oakland instead of Garden Grove, whose star is oddly located roughly 400 miles north of where it should be (the star for Norfolk, VA is also misplaced, pinned to neighboring West Virginia). Why focus on these districts, one might ask, and not the more prominent ones they are easily mistaken for?

These five districts, as Zavadsky argues, are models. They have successfully met Adequate Yearly Progress targets, outperformed demographically similar districts in standardized tests, and improved graduation rates. Of course, these are blunt measures, and the notion that rising test scores indicate educational success is a problematic one. Yet, thorny as the topic is, tests certainly mean something. And when education policymakers talk about bringing reform to scale, this is largely what they’re talking about: raising achievement scores.

So what enabled these districts to raise their scores? Until 2007, administrators of the Broad Prize used the National Center for Educational Achievement’s Best Practice Framework as an organizational guide for site visits. District success was a product of five variables, or “themes,” including Curriculum and Academic Goals; Staff Selection, Leadership, and Capacity Building; Instructional Programs, Practices, and Arrangements; Monitoring, Analysis, and Use of Data; and Recognition, Intervention, and Adjustment. It’s a clean and straightforward organizational structure that Zavadsky uses in each chapter to detail district performance.

As one might expect, winning districts performed well on all counts. District leaders set and managed realistically ambitious expectations. They created alignment between goals and practices, and continuity across schools and grade levels. Leaders stayed in place long enough to realize specific goals and focused particularly on hiring quality personnel and providing strong professional development. They used data and intervened when numbers pointed out a problem. They encouraged collaboration in the district office and at the school site. And they successfully managed limited resources.

Common sense and scores of studies bear out claims about the importance of such factors. But some findings are less self-apparent. The importance of institutionalizing an annual curriculum revision process, for instance, has hardly become a cliché. The book’s strength, consequently, is in highlighting some of the less emphasized elements of successful district practice. Carefully grooming future leaders, as the staff from these districts observe, is essential for both continuity and stability. All of the districts had strong teacher induction programs lasting three years, rather than the usual one year. Leaders in these five districts took a new approach to professional development, working to make it more sustained, coherent, and relevant to district goals. And each of the districts focused on placing students in appropriate classrooms, working particularly hard to keep remediation within the instructional day. These are the kinds of conclusions that one might not come into the book expecting, and the kind that deserve further study in these districts and beyond.

Still, while the NCEA framework is a solid base upon which to build, it doesn’t capture everything. Zavadsky does include “influencing factors,” noting that the elements of the framework alone may not be enough. Yet the influencing factors she includes—School Board, Unions, Community, Parents, Governance, Resource Allocation, and Climate/Culture—are largely about relationships that are not under the district’s control. While districts can certainly tend to those relationships, these factors are tempting to brush aside if one is looking for replicable scenarios. A good relationship with the teachers union, alone, is enough to make these five districts different from many of their counterparts in other cities.

Zavadsky’s reliance on Broad Prize data raises another question about what’s missing from the book. What else, for instance, do these districts have in common other than the factors she uses to assess them? One factor not addressed is size. With the exception of Long Beach, with roughly 100,000 students, all five districts serve between 35,000 and 60,000 students—significantly smaller than the districts that are most frequently the target of reform. Additionally, while no one would argue about Boston, cases like Garden Grove, CA and Aldine, TX raise questions about what reformers mean when they use the word “urban” to describe schools and districts. Are low-income students of color urban even if they live and attend school in a suburban area? Zavadsky is working within limits here, and the five districts she examines are, in fact, winners of the Broad Prize for Urban Education. Further, these districts do have much to teach many of their peers. Yet for a book with the subtitle Five Award-Winning Urban Districts, it seems strange to include Garden Grove and not New York, which won the Broad Prize in 2007; stranger, still, to include Aldine, TX but not neighboring Houston, which won in 2002.  

Ultimately, Bringing School Reform to Scale is a strong contribution and makes a solid case for using the NCEA Best Practice Framework as a starting point for determining what school districts need to do. As Zavadsky puts it, “there are many great examples of schools or even districts that are improving student achievement,” but “many of those examples fail to provide an organizational framework to analyze and understand the practices that can be generalized” (p. 256). This book meets that challenge.

Still, there is a potential for hazard in a book like Bringing School Reform to Scale, particularly in an era of seemingly endless enthusiasm for “best practices” that will once and for all solve the nation’s schooling problem. The case studies that make up the core of the book are rich and systematically considered, and the common elements of practice it identifies in these five districts represent something close to a list of necessary, if not sufficient, conditions for success. But certainly any such list is a work in progress, and highly context dependent. In short, whether the work of award-winning districts can be brought to scale remains to be seen.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 13, 2010 ID Number: 16068, Date Accessed: 1/19/2022 6:38:42 AM

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