“You can fix schools all you want; if the districts within which they reside are dysfunctional, the schools will not stay fixed,” writes Karin Chenoweth, writer-in-residence at The Education Trust, at the start of her latest book, Districts That Succeed: Breaking the Correlation Between Race, Poverty, and Achievement, which was supported by The Wallace Foundation. After visiting dozens of high performing and rapidly improving schools around the country, Chenoweth came to this conclusion when she saw some of these schools fall apart after getting a new principal who upended the systems that were previously working. Districts are the ones that hire the principals, Chenoweth points out, and dysfunctional districts are more likely to hire the wrong person or fail to support a weak principal.
We sat down with the author to talk more about what she learned as she researched successful school districts and what she hopes readers will take away from the book.
Why did you want to look at districts? What role do they play in student achievement?
For years I have written about schools that serve children of color and children from low-income backgrounds and that are high performing or rapidly improving. Ultimately each is a powerful testament to the power of school leaders to be able to marshal the full power of schools to help students.
But by the time I wrote my last book, Schools that Succeed: How Educators Marshal the Power of Systems for Improvement, I realized that even when principals lead huge improvement, if the districts they live in are dysfunctional, the schools won’t stay fixed. Principals take other jobs, get promoted, or retire, and if district leaders don’t understand the kind of leadership schools need, they are liable to replace them with principals who don’t understand how to continue the improvement process and the school tragically falls apart. So, I wanted to explore what it looks like when district leaders do understand the key role of school leaders.
In addition, as I talk with highly effective principals, I have heard many stories of how they have to shield their schools from district initiatives and directives because district leaders far too often undermine school improvement rather than support it.
I wanted to dig into that more in this book by examining what successful and improving districts look like and how they function.
How does this book build on the lessons in your earlier book, Schools that Succeed?
Schools that Succeed laid out some of the very basic, sometimes prosaic, systems that effective school leaders use to ensure that teachers and staff are able to continually improve their knowledge and practice—systems of managing time, looking at data, making decisions, and so forth.
In Districts that Succeed, what I found was that effective superintendents and district leaders establish the systems and structures that allow principals to be successful. The scale is different, but the basic pattern is the same.
How do districts affect the success of principals?
The most powerful question in education is: “Your kids are doing better than mine. What are you doing?” This is a question that can be asked at the classroom level, the school level, the district level and the state level, and it is the start of improvement. But in order for educators to be able to ask that question, several things need to be in place:
- publicly available common data that can be compared;
- the time and space to be able to look at that data and think about it; and
- a culture of trust, where asking that question is seen as a sign of professional strength and judgment, not a confession of failure.
Superintendents and district leaders play a key role in establishing the time and space for school leaders to be able to come together to expose and share expertise. They also provide the key pieces of understandable data that can inform them—formative and summative assessment data, school climate and culture data, all kinds of data—and the research that can help inform possible solutions to the problems faced. They also establish a culture in which it is safe for educators to betray their weaknesses.
So, for example, when principals get together they should be able to see that some schools have much more family participation in curriculum nights than others and be able to ask their colleagues: “You are engaging a lot more families than my school is. What are you doing?” That question exposes expertise that can be shared and learned from. Similarly, the fact that one school has much better third-grade reading scores than others can lead to much deeper understanding of what goes into early reading instruction.
In other words, districts can play a powerful role in building the knowledge and expertise of school leaders. This is different from the traditional role districts have played, which is largely treating principals as middle managers who exist to carry out district directives and deflect the anger of parents away from the superintendent.
Can you share a highlight of your district visits?
I identify schools and districts to visit through a bunch of numbers—test scores, demographics, suspension rates, graduation rates, whatever data is available. I am looking for high performance and improvement. And what never fails to amaze and delight me is that when I go to see what lies beneath those numbers, I find smart, dedicated, hardworking educators who understand that they are doing important work and are eager to share what they are doing with the rest of the field.
So, for example, I initially identified Lane, Oklahoma, through the district analysis of Sean Reardon, professor of poverty and inequality in education at Stanford University. Lane’s students “grow” six academic years in the five calendar years from third through eighth grade. When I called to find out what they were doing, I talked with assistant superintendent Sharon Holcomb, who herself attended Lane as a child and has spent her entire career teaching and leading at Lane. She invited me to visit and I was able to meet students, teachers and parents. I met one parent who drove her children from another district because her son, who has epilepsy, had not been taught how to read and had been bullied and mistreated by teachers in another district. At Lane, she said, he has learned to read and is thriving. And Holcomb told me that that was what kept her and her colleagues working so hard: “Seeing kids that have been thrown out and discarded and seeing them improve—seeing them come from other schools just beat down and seeing them succeed here.”
By the time she finished her sentence, we were both tearing up.
What are the biggest barriers to districts learning from each other?
Years ago, we had no publicly available data that district leaders could look at, but we now have achievement, graduation, suspension and expulsion, and often school climate data. It is all publicly reported, so there is no real structural barrier to district leaders identifying districts that are doing better than they are and asking what they are doing. I worry about the effect that pandemic schooling will have on the availability of data, but we still have relatively recent data, from 2019.
But what the field of education doesn’t have is a culture of learning from others. There is a tradition in the field that every classroom, every school, every district is so different from each other that there are no lessons to be learned. District leaders who serve few African American students might think they have little to learn from districts that are primarily Black and brown. I was once dismayed and amazed when I heard of a principal who said that the examples of high-performing high-poverty schools held no lessons for her because she only had a few students who lived in poverty.
But learning can be generalized—kids are kids, schools are schools, districts are districts. They vary in all kinds of external ways, but at the heart all kids can learn and educators need to share information and expertise in order to help them learn.
What do you hope readers walk away from this book knowing or believing?
The expertise to help all children learn exists, but it doesn’t reside in any one person, and the answers don’t lie in one particular program, policy or practice. The expertise comes from the pooled understanding of professionals informed by experience, data and research and armed with curiosity and a willingness to learn. Only by marshaling them all together can we hope to help all kids learn to high standards. But we can do this.