What ‘Extraordinary Districts’ Do Differently

 Education Trust podcast points to principal leadership, equity and early literacy as levers for improvement


​​​​​​What do districts with extraordinary gains in achievement for low-income and minority students have in common?

“They lead with high-quality education rather than programs and interventions that situate the student as the problem,” observed Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson, reflecting on the first season of the Education Trust’s podcast series, ExtraOrdinary Districts.

To kick off the second season, host Karin Chenoweth visited Chicago to talk with Jackson about three areas that effective districts prioritize for improvement—school leadership, early literacy and equity. They were joined by University of Michigan professor and literacy expert Nell Duke and Harvard University lecturer, economist and equity expert Ronald Ferguson. The podcast was taped at the University of Illinois at Chicago at an event hosted by the university’s Ed.D. program and its Center for Urban Education Leadership. Here are a few key points from the discussion:

Raise the bar for school leadership
Ferguson said he listened to last season’s ExtraOrdinary Districts feature on Chicago, and what stuck with him most was that although local school councils selected principals, they were required to choose them from a pool of candidates the district had vetted and declared eligible. “There has to be evidence that you can lead adults,” he observed.

DSC_5587.jpgJackson explained some of the backstory to Chicago’s procedure. While “the state was churning out a lot of principal licensures,” she said, many holding that credential “were not at the level we thought they needed to be to lead our schools.” The district decided to adopt a set of principal competencies—such as being skilled at managing school change—that aspiring principals are trained in.  Principal candidates are then screened for these competencies, and local school councils are trained to use them to select principals who best meet school needs.

How future principals are prepared is an important ingredient in their development as effective school leaders. The RAND Corporation released a report last spring found that six large districts in a Wallace-supported initiative were able to outperform similar districts in student math and reading achievement by improving how they shaped their principals, including raising the quality of preservice training.  “Between Chicago and the six districts Wallace funded, can we start to think about principal development as a serious lever for district improvement?” Chenoweth asked.

Ferguson observed that Illinois had come to that realization—it required reauthorization of all the state’s existing principal training programs after instituting more rigorous requirements for principal certification in 2010. “I’ve been so impressed that the state learned from Chicago [about] the qualities of leadership that matter so much,” he said.

“That was a huge deal,” Chenoweth agreed. “We know principal preparation programs are cash cows for universities—you take in the tuition money, you spend a little bit on adjuncts and you send the rest over to the engineering program.”

“That the state learned from Chicago,” said Ferguson, “is proof that systems can change to bring about more effective leadership.”

Put the strongest teachers in the early grades
Chenoweth played a clip from a podcast episode that told the story of a superintendent, a former high school teacher, who believed that early childhood educators were essentially babysitters and that real learning started later. “That superintendent’s ‘aha!’ moment came,” she said, “when he went to a more successful district and realized that district was successful because it took early reading instruction really seriously.” Indeed, schools often put their weakest teachers in the early grades and place their best in grades with standardized testing, according to Duke, the literacy expert.

Having begun her own education at a Head Start program on Chicago’s South Side, Jackson described why early education is crucial. “Much of how you think about yourself as a learner happens in that early stage,” she said. “If we miss an opportunity to start with that strong foundation, we’re going to spend the next 15 years trying to make up time.” At the same time, she acknowledged that while Chicago principals have been urged to put their strongest teachers in the early grades, “I would be lying if I said that we’ve been successful in making that shift.”

But Chicago is taking early education seriously, she said: The city is investing hundreds of millions in early childhood education, and by fall 2021, plans to offer free, full-day preschool to all four-year-olds in the city.

Set ‘non-negotiables’ for literacy instruction
Chenoweth said that she has interviewed educators who pay attention to all the elements of reading instruction—phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, building vocabulary and background knowledge. “That’s not work that is done in all districts,” she said. “I wonder why?”

DSC_5566-2.jpgDuring her years as a teacher and principal in Chicago, Jackson saw many reading initiatives come and go—including one with the components Chenoweth described—because they weren’t well-implemented.

The biggest problems with literacy instruction are basic, she believes. She recalled hearing about a study some years ago that found that students in Chicago Public Schools read, on average, less than a couple of pages a day and wrote less than a page each day of authentic text. “And CPS is not an outlier in that,” she said. “We can create these complicated and sophisticated programs and invest millions in teaching teachers how to do it, but it’s really as simple as how often we require students to read in our classes for a sustained period of time and to create authentic knowledge through writing.”

Those simple tasks can be challenging to carry out, but there are ways to make it happen, she said. “I don’t think it’s a revolutionary program that we pull out of the sky that’s going to help our students.”

One high school that Ferguson worked with on literacy required every teacher in the building to give at least one serious writing assignment and grade it with a rubric. “And then teachers had to sit with their supervisor and get feedback on how well they used the rubrics,” he said.

Duke commented that both Ferguson and Jackson seemed to be saying that leaders needed to make a few things “instructional non-negotiables.”

And getting people to carry out those non-negotiables? Not an easy task, Chenoweth said, underscoring the need for strong school leadership.

Use data to root out inequities
A clip from Chenoweth’s Season One podcast highlighted the types of inequities that are pervasive in school systems nationwide. In an interview, a school superintendent in Lexington, Mass., described his shock at finding that 49 percent of the district’s African-American high school students were in special education. The disparity “was a moral affront to him,” said Ferguson, who consulted with the superintendent.

The superintendent eventually found the root of the problem in early reading instruction, Chenoweth said. “If kids encountered any issue in learning how to read in kindergarten or first grade, there was really no help for them except for special education services.”

After persevering for years to change school practices, the district saw gains:  African-American 10th graders reached a proficiency rate of 96 percent in math and 100 percent in English on state exams, according to Ferguson. “It was about figuring out how to diagnose their students’ learning needs, organizing relentlessly to address those needs and making life uncomfortable for the adults who didn’t want to come along,” he said.

Chicago Public Schools found it had a similar problem with over-enrolling English learners in special education, according to Jackson. Digging into the issue, the district realized those students were being pushed out of bilingual programs too quickly. A revised policy lengthened the time students could spend in bilingual programs so that they had more time to learn English and hone skills in their home language, she said. Her takeaway? “Districts can learn a lot by looking at data and looking beyond the surface.” 

Season 2 of the ExtraOrdinary Districts podcast is available online here and through most podcast hosting services.

Lead photo (from left to right): Karin Chenoweth (podcast host), Janice Jackson (CEO of Chicago Public Schools), Ronald Ferguson (Harvard University lecturer in public policy), Nell Duke (University of Michigan education professor), Shelby Cosner (director of UIC's Center for Urban Education Leadership)​
Interior photo 1: Ronald Ferguson, Nell Duke​
​​Interior photo 2: Karin Chenoweth, Janice Jackson, Ronald Ferguson​