Contrary to Conventional Wisdom, School District Central Offices Hold the Key to Education Reform A new report by Springboard Schools turns conventional wisdom on its head by revealing that school districts, previously thought to be roadblocks to reform, can play a key role in boosting student achievement. The report identifies a set of "promising practices," such as reporting publicly on student progress and creating a workable balance between centralization and decentralization, that have enabled some high-poverty districts to succeed where others fail. These best practices were identified through a statewide survey and studied in depth in three high-performing, high-poverty districts profiled in the report: Elk Grove Unified (Sacramento), Rowland Unified (Los Angeles), and Oak Grove (San Jose). Each of these school districts defies the odds by successfully serving high populations of English-language learners and low-income students. "For decades, school district offices were cast as villains in the drama of school reform-intractable bureaucracies that either got in the way or, at best, were irrelevant to the task of improving schools," said Merrill Vargo, executive director of Springboard Schools, a nonprofit and non-partisan network of educators. "In contrast, we've found that school district offices can play a key role in improving schools, especially for students on the wrong side of the achievement gap." "It's not one size fits all, it's high expectations for all," said Dr. Maria Ott, superintendent of Rowland Unified School District. "Driven by the diversity of our geography and students, we've successfully developed our own homegrown set of compromises between top down and bottom up strategies to ensure we meet the needs of all students."
Using a combination of a state-wide survey of principals in high- , average- and low-performing districts, intensive site visits and interviews with district leaders, the report, titled Minding the Gap: New Roles for School Districts in the Era of Accountability, identified five key ways that high-performing, high-poverty districts play an active role in student achievement. These districts Seek Transparency. Set explicit goals, identify key strategies to achieve those goals, and report publicly on progress in student learning results;
Balance: Centralization and Decentralization. Find a clear and workable balance between centralized and decentralized strategies, ensuring clarity on what will be centralized and where to maintain autonomy and flexibility;
Use Testing to Drive Improvement. Testing is not an end goal but a way to identify and respond to gaps, as part of a larger, continuous improvement process;
Invest in Professional Development. Place a premium on professional development so that administrators' and teachers' knowledge is continually updated and that they are provided with the tools they need to raise student achievement; and
Build Infrastructure. Build structures and processes by which teachers can be part of a learning organization supported by site and district leaders.
While these "promising practices" may seem like simple common sense, many school districts in California have not embraced them on their own. Too many California school districts stick to their old roles -- managing plant and human resources and setting goals for student achievement issues without linking those goals to appropriate actions.