A School District Goes the Distance
As everyone knows by now, Aldine Independent School District in Texas won the coveted Broad Prize for Urban Education. And they did it without mayoral control (gasp) or even a single charter school (say it ain't so!)
So what did they do? For one, the board, administrators, teachers and community members collaborated on common solutions to the district's problems. For another, they worked hard to give teachers and administrators the support they needed. Most important, they committed to improvement for the long haul. No quick fixes at Aldine.
- Recognize that you have a problem. When student peformance cratered in the mid 90s, district leaders knew they had to do something.
- Set high expectations for students and staff. Yes, this has become a truism--but only because it's so very true.
- Give schools a first-rate curriculum. In 1996, Aldine created "benchmark targets," a curriculum aligned with state standards. Teachers asked for detailed curriculum to help them pace their classes.
- Use data well. "Data-driven decisionmaking" is all the rage. Aldine separated itself from the pack by using a good mix of data and helping staff use those data well. Their data included state, national and local test results. Teachers and principals didn't have to depend on end-of-year tests alone. Instead, they had plenty of "formative" assessments to help them diagnose students' needs.
- Help professionals do their best work! Professional development was a centerpiece of Aldine's reform effort. The district carefully aligned professional development with the its goals for improvement. Gone were the "drive-by" workshops that waste teachers' time and try their patience. The district used professional development to help staff become become the driving force behind the reform movement.
Of course, there is much more to the Aldine story than I can sum up here.* For example, Aldine created an alternative certification program to help the district grow its own teachers. In 2006, the district instituted a system of performance bonuses for staff. "Campus Steering Committees" in each school distribute the awards.
But a big lesson to draw from Aldine is the importance of staying power. The district is no flash in the pan. Before winning the Broad award, it was a finalist for four years running. By 2003, it was already one of the most impressive urban districts in the country. And all this began when district leaders and staff committed to change way back in 1995.
The district's rise has been gradual, and its work has been methodical. District leaders have steeped themselves in unglamorous process improvements.
Slow and steady really can win the race.
* For more information, see our report Beyond Islands of Excellence: What Districts Can Do to Improve Instruction and Achievement in All Schools.
It includes our Aldine case study along with studies of four other successful districts.
Update: Larry Cuban addresses similar issues in his new blog posting: Fixing Urban Schools: Sprinters or Marathoners? He believesthe marathoners beat out the flashy sprinters every time. Here's the money quote:
[Marathoners] carefully scrutinize and adapt reforms as they get implemented. Behind-the-scenes, they build teacher and administrator expertise to put changes into practice, mobilize staff and community to support long-term changes in teaching and learning, and, most important, create a pool of leaders ready to assume responsibility for sustaining the ever-shifting reform agenda.
Sprinters, by contrast, don't do this essential work, because they "are too busy eyeing the finish line" even as they promote the urgency of reform.
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Excellence is the Standard
At Pierce County High School in rural southeast Georgia, the graduation rate has gone up 31% in seven years. Teachers describe their collaboration as the unifying factor that drives the school’s improvement. Learn more...
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