ExtraOrdinary Districts: Episode 1 – How Do We Know Which Districts are Extra-Ordinary?

Anyone who wants to identify “extra-ordinary districts” has a problem: The United States has more than 14,000 school districts and they vary widely. Some have hundreds of students; some have hundreds of thousands, and they have a dizzying array of demographics, assessments, and funding structures. How can you reasonably compare one against another?

This is a problem that Sean Reardon, Professor of Poverty and Inequality in Education at Stanford University, has tackled. It took him and a team of scholars at Stanford more than four years to put about 12,000 districts on common scales for socio-economic status and academic achievement. In 2016 they began to publish their results, and they continue to analyze and update the data.

In April, 2016, The New York Times published an interactive scatterplot of the results.

Episode 1 of Extraordinary Districts features Sean Reardon talking about how he did his analysis and the larger historical context in which his work exists.

In general, Reardon and his team found a strong correlation between socio-economic status and academic achievement. This analysis corresponds with that of James Coleman, whose report startled the nation’s educators when he found that family background – poverty and education levels – correlated more strongly with student achievement than the traditional measures used to judge school quality, such as funding and facilities.

Many have used Coleman’s findings and other, similar, analyses to argue that there isn’t much schools can do to help students living in poverty achieve at high levels.

Another line of research, however, grew up in the wake of Coleman’s findings. This line of research is known as “effective schools” research. Two of the better-known of the effective schools researchers are Harvard University’s Ronald Edmonds and world-renowned child psychiatrist Sir Michael Rutter.

In the early 2000s Education Trust began doing its own work to identify and learn from high-performing and rapidly improving schools with large populations of children of color and children from low-income families. It found that such “unexpected schools” shared the characteristics identified by Edmonds and Rutter decades before. That is to say, they have strong leaders who believe that all children can learn to high levels and relentlessly organize the schools around that belief. For more on what we found, go to Ed Trust’s High-Performing Schools page or read Karin Chenoweth’s latest book, Schools that Succeed.

More recently, scholars at the University of Illinois-Chicago used Sean Reardon’s analysis to examine districts in Illinois and found that districts that are more “effective” are able to blunt or even reverse declines in academic performance that might otherwise be expected to accompany increased poverty levels.

You might want to go to the New York Times’s scatterplot and see where your district falls. See if its placement makes sense given what you know about your district.

Look at other districts and see what intrigues you. What district would you like to know more about?

Email us and maybe we’ll be able to look at the districts you identify in the future.

For now, though, we’re looking at three districts that we – and Sean Reardon – find especially intriguing.

Episode 2: The Top of the Country
Episode 3: The Heart of the Rustbelt
Episode 4: The Work of a Generation

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New York Times interactive scatterplot

New York Times interactive scatterplot

The 1966 “Coleman Report”

“We can, whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us.” - Ronald Edmonds

“Even in disadvantaged areas, schools can be a force for good.” - Sir Michael Rutter

“All over the country are educators who – quietly and without fanfare – have figured out how to make schools better.” - Karin Chenoweth