The publication of my latest book, Districts that Succeed: Breaking the Correlation Between Race, Poverty, and Achievement, made me reminisce to when I was hired by Ed Trust in 2004 to learn from high performing and improving schools that serve children from low-income backgrounds and children of color. I didn’t know what to expect. I was identifying schools solely through their test scores, which conjured up images of test prep factories with robotic teachers leading bored students in uninteresting and trivial learning.

I am now amused that I even thought that was a possibility.

What I found was thoughtful, passionate, educators who believed in the capacity of their students to learn and who shouldered the deep responsibility of figuring out how to teach them. They cared about test scores because test scores were an indication of what children had learned, but they didn’t focus on the tests. They focused on making sure kids attended — and they made school a safe, fun place to learn so that kids wanted to come to school. They wanted students to learn a lot, but never forgot that sometimes kids — like adults — need a break. They held students to a high standard of behavior, but understood that part of the job of kids is to test limits and they reacted as educators, not punishers. Many times, I heard them say something along the lines like, “I treat my students the way I would want my children treated.”

I wrote about what I saw in those schools in a series of books published by Harvard Education Press, culminating in a 2017 book, Schools that Succeed: How Educators Marshal the Power of Systems for Improvement, published by Harvard Education Press.

Even as I wrote it, I knew that some of the schools I was writing about would falter and not stay successful. I knew because I had seen it before. When principals retire or take other jobs, their schools almost always lose a step. Sometimes they recover; sometimes they slip far into dysfunction and low achievement.

Watching schools fall apart had borne in on me what we know from extensive research — principals are at the core of school improvement. But it also made clear that the environments within with schools operate is also important. Superintendents and their school boards are responsible for who leads schools and under what conditions. And that means that school districts are critical elements of school improvement.

That is why I wanted to explore what goes into being a high-performing and improving district that serves children of color and children from low-income backgrounds. In my new book, I profile five such districts. I initially identified them using the vast data set of Sean Reardon, Professor of Poverty and Inequality in Education at Stanford University, supplemented with state report card data. I was following the advice of education researcher Ronald Edmonds, who advised, “First, you identify schools that produce the outcomes you’re interested in. Then, you watch them and try to figure out what makes them different from ineffective schools.”

He was talking about schools and I was looking for districts, but the idea was the same. I looked for academic achievement as measured by test scores and then observed to try to figure out what made them different from ineffective districts.

My findings were similar to what I found when I just looked at schools. I found district leaders who believed in the capacity of students to learn, and who shouldered the responsibility to ensure that their schools had leaders who could establish cultures and systems that ensured that students and teachers are able to continually learn and improve.

Of course, what that looks like day-to-day differs greatly among the different districts I profile. In fact, the districts couldn’t be more different in outward appearances.

There’s tiny Lane and Cottonwood in southeastern Oklahoma; Valley Stream 30 in suburban New York; rural Seaford in lower Delaware; small, urban Steubenville, Ohio; and gargantuan Chicago, Illinois.
Different locales, different demographics, different assessments, different funding, different governance structures — in other words, they all had very different contexts. And yet, at the heart of these districts are educators who believe in the capacity of all kids to learn, grow, and achieve — and in the responsibility of adults to help them do so.

In this time, when public education and the democracy that both nurtures public schools and is enriched by them are imperiled, the students and educators in these districts provide hope and a path forward.

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