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Source:Equity-Driven Achievement-Focused School Districts (50 page pdf file) A report on Systemic School Success in Four Texas School Districts Serving Diverse Student Populations

My Note:Despite the study being focused on practices from the state of Texas, recognize that our District now faces the real challenge of meeting the federally mandated No Child Left Behind Act which calls for the all children to be academically successful.

Equity-Driven Achievement-Focused School Districts

Excerpts from the study focused on District-wide practices.

Research Findings Summary
District Transformation Summary
Everyday Equity Summary


For the past two decades, beginning with Ronald Edmonds’ (1979, 1982, 1984, 1986) studies of effective schools, educational research literature has featured numerous success stories about individual U.S. public schools in which all students, regardless of race or family income, were succeeding academically. However, these stories have been almost exclusively about single campuses. In other words, many examples exist of remarkable individual schools—schools most often regarded as “miracles” or “mavericks”—that have achieved academic results that far exceed public stereotypes or general expectations for high poverty schools (Stringfield & Teddlie, 1989). Unfortunately, few examples of more broadly based school success for children of color and/or low socioeconomic status (SES) students exist. As Kofi Lomotey (1990) summarized, “One cannot identify a particular region of the country, a state, a city, or a school district that has been successful for any period of time in educating the majority of African-Americans in their charge” (p. 2). The same could be said to be true about the historic track record for widespread school success for African American, Hispanic American, Native American, and some Asian American children.

Credible claims of remarkable progress [in closing the achievement gap] for a few students, a few classrooms, or a few schools are common enough. Such successes are regarded as special cases, dependent on a few talented leaders. The more interesting and formidable challenge is to replicate success for many students in many classrooms across many schools, by improving the performance of many average teachers and administrators. (Ronald Ferguson, 1998, pp. 342-343)

In order to meet democratic responsibilities to the children of color and children from low income homes who persistently have been and continue to be under-served by U.S. schools, broader academic success for all children is essential. What is needed are entire school districts and, ideally, regions and states in which all schools, not just isolated campuses, are places in which children of color and children from low SES homes experience the same kind of school success that most white children and children from middle- and upper-class homes have always enjoyed.

Little research has been done on this type of larger-scale school success. For example, scant research exists on the effects of school district (as opposed to school campus) organization, operation, and leadership on student achievement (Berry & Achilles, 1999). The vast majority of school reform and school improvement literature has focused on individual campuses as the site of change. This has lead many scholars to conclude that there is not sufficient knowledge about the school district level in any area, especially not in the area of creating districtwide equitable academic success (e.g., Björk, 1993; Bredeson, 1996; Leithwood, 1992; Peterson, 1998; Wissler & Ortiz, 1988; Wirt, 1990). Some researchers, Elmore (1997) for example, have even begun to question the necessity of having schools organized into districts at all, if such an arrangement does not contribute significantly to student learning. Without research on academically successful school districts, whether or not district arrangements can or should contribute to student learning remains an unanswered question.

Recently, however, a few examples of sustained, districtwide academic success for children of color and children from low-income homes have appeared in states such as New York, North Carolina, and Texas. These states have highly developed and stable state accountability systems. Through these systems, it is now possible to identify districts that have large clusters of schools achieving at high levels that serve primarily low SES students and/or students of color. These school districts have created the conditions districtwide in which school success for all children, including the children with whom most school districts are not being successful, is not only possible but is a reality (see, for example, Elmore, 1997; North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, 2000; Ragland, Asera, & Johnson, 1999).

Texas has played a prominent role in the unfolding story of districtwide equitable academic success. In 1997, eleven Texas public school districts were identified by researchers at the Charles A. Dana Center and the Department of Educational Administration at The University of Texas at Austin as being among the best examples of districtwide academic success for low SES children. These districts had more than 5,000 pupils, and more than one-third of their high poverty campuses (schools in which 50% or more of students meet federal free or reduced price lunch criteria) were rated Recognized or Exemplary. To earn a Recognized rating in the Texas accountability system at least 80% of all students, as well as 80% of African American, Hispanic, White, and low-income students, must pass each section (reading, writing, and mathematics) of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS). To be rated Exemplary, schools and districts must have a 90% pass rate on the same measures.

Rather than focusing reform efforts primarily upon the building as the focus of school change, a district-level approach acknowledges the critical role of the central office and school board in making learning improvement. The strategic linking together of many institutional elements can support improved learning outcomes. (James Berry and Charles Achilles, 1999)

In 1998, only 15% of all Texas schools were rated Exemplary, and another 25% were rated Recognized. Thus, these districts had at least one-third (and in some cases all) of their highpoverty schools achieving at a level beyond 60% of the schools in the state. Researchers from the Dana Center and The University of Texas at Austin Department of Educational Administration made site visits to ten of the eleven districts (Amarillo ISD, Beaumont ISD, Brazosport ISD, Houston ISD, Laredo ISD, Los Fresnos ISD, Mission CISD, Pharr-San Juan- Alamo ISD, Weslaco ISD, and Ysleta ISD) to conduct a preliminary study during the 1997-98 school year. This research project served as the pilot study for a more comprehensive study of four districts that followed (see Ragland, Asera, & Johnson, 1999, for a complete report on the pilot study).


Research Findings Summary

The major findings of this research study have been distilled into five areas, or themes listed below. An expanded explanation of all five themes follows in subsequent sections.

State Context of Accountability for Achievement and Equity

  • Texas made a change from inputs-driven accountability to results-driven accountability. The change required schools to get a specific percentage of students to pass a state assessment of reading, writing, and mathematics skills in order to maintain state accreditation.
  • The changed accountability system also required schools to get the same percentage of students from each racial and income group to pass the assessment in order to maintain state accreditation.
  • The combination of these two changes radically altered expectations for schools and districts the Texas public educational system.
  • These radical changes became the basis or the initiation of the successful changes in the four study districts.

Local Equity Catalysts

  • Local catalysts used evidence of inequitable student achievement to pressure the districts into improving.
  • These local catalysts included 1) revitalized federal desegregation orders, 2) monitors assigned to districts by the state due to dysfunctional district governance, and 3) local activists or community groups concerned about accountability data evidence of inequitable student achievement.

Ethical Response of District Leadership

  • In response to the new state accountability system and to local catalysts, a group of local district leaders, including the superintendent, decided to develop a district in which literally all student groups achieve at high levels.
  • While the superintendent was one of these local leaders, in all cases there were others, including district-level educators, school board members, and representatives from the community.
  • At its roots, this leadership response was an ethical or moral one in support of schools that pursued high and equitable achievement for all groups of students.

District Transformation

  • The study districts developed the key understanding that to be successful they had to change teaching and learning practices in the classroom.
  • The districts developed and promulgated a set of shared equity beliefs regarding the districts' in-common commitment to the achievement success of all children.
  • Specific processes, practices, programs, actions, and structures--focused equity practices--were instituted to achieve success for all students.
  • One key strategy used was proactive redundancy; this meant that the districts had multiple ways to achieve specific learning goals.
  • These districts understood that to get their professional staff to radically change their beliefs and practices about teaching and learning, the staff had to be treated in a positive, supportive way, what is here called positive support.
  • These new directions for the district meant new role definitions for the superintendent, the school board, district staff, principals, teachers, and other staff.

Everyday Equity

  • Changes in equity beliefs and practices occurred through time and profoundly changed the educators working in these districts.
  • The pursuit of educational equity and excellence became the new focus of everyday schooling.


District Transformation Summary

The problem faced by the district leadership was to move an entire district, a complex system, from the old ways, a set of deeply held assumptions, beliefs, and practices to the new way, an almost totally opposite set of assumptions, beliefs, and practices. The old set, as discussed above, consisted of input accountability and inequitable bell-curve academic results, with middleclass whites predominantly at the high end children from low SES homes and children of color predominantly at the low end. The new set reversed this: accountability would now be focused on academic results, and the bell curve was to be replaced with equally high performance by all students, including equally high performance by all student groups. For example, Sonny Donaldson, the superintendent of Aldine, said that what he repeated over and over everywhere he spoke was, "the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing." This was his way of saying to all his constituents, internal and external to the district, that the primary focus of district as an organization was learning and keeping it learning, and by learning he meant the learning of all students and student groups at equally high levels.

The sheer difficulty of this transformation, though, cannot be underestimated. Organizational research has long shown that a conversion of a complex organization from one deeply held set of beliefs and practices to a very different one is not easy to accomplish. Indeed, the organizational research literature is replete with examples of organized efforts to accomplish such a transformation, but most commonly the result is a failure to achieve a transformation this extensive. However, with these four districts there is strong evidence that they did succeed or, at least, have substantially succeeded in achieving the necessary transformation.

How did these districts do it? How did they get both beliefs and practices to change, most importantly the beliefs and practices of teachers? The answer to this is divided into six parts—changing classroom teaching and learning, shared equity beliefs, focused practices, proactive redundancy, positive support, and new role directions. Each of these areas is explored in detail below.

Shared Equity Beliefs

In each of the four districts studied, district leaders sought to ingrain three shared beliefs about educational equity throughout all levels of the school district.

  1. All children, regardless of their racial and SES differences, have the capability to learn and succeed at equally high academic levels.
  2. It is the responsibility of all of the adults in the district to insure that all of the children succeed academically.
  3. Equitable and excellent classroom learning is the primary focus of district operations.

Focused Equity Practices

The research team identified eight groups of practices that were shaped to influence, create, support, or reinforce improved instruction for all students. In all cases, though, these practices were integrated with the shared beliefs so that neither shared beliefs alone nor practices alone was sufficient. These two were always intertwined and mutually reinforcing.

  1. Generating, directing, and maintaining focus
  2. Developing and aligning curriculum and delivering instruction
  3. Building and supporting capacity in people to contribute and lead
  4. Acquiring, allocating, and aligning fiscal, human, and material resources
  5. Collecting, interpreting, and using data and monitoring results
  6. Supervising, evaluating, and holding people accountable
  7. Refocusing energies, refining efforts, and ensuring continuous performance
  8. Creating and nurturing alliances

Proactive Redundancy

Although "proactive redundancy" could be considered an aspect of the practices that the districts used, it is separated out here because of its importance and because it is new to most understanding of how schools work. Proactive is taken to mean acting before a need emerges, and redundancy is taken to mean more than one process (i.e., practice, program, procedure, action, or structure) that targets a change of the same practice. Thus, proactive redundancy means designing two or more "processes" whose goal is to change a same specific practice. This type of redundancy is similar to the protective processes of “dangerous” industries, such as nuclear production plants. Because of the seriousness of an emergency, these plants have redundancy built in to protect against such emergencies. Similarly, because of the importance to these districts of attaining academic success with all students, they proactively develop redundancies in their processes to ensure that all students are learning.

For example, if a district wants to ensure that teachers are being successful with the children in their classes, it may require principals to visit classes weekly to examine teaching. In addition, they may do targeted monthly testing of some sort to check whether children are learning. This provides two focused processes to ensure that the specified goal—teachers’ success with students, in this case—is being accomplished. This is proactive redundancy.

New Role Directions

The four study districts obviously had operated functionally as school districts long before their recent transformations. In fact, before the advent of the state accountability system, the districts generally held positive views of the success of students in their districts, even though in general students of color and students from low income homes did not do well. As was described in earlier sections, the “old way” of doing things supported a district operation focused on inputs and efficiency. The “new way” of doing things in these districts, however was focused on accountability and equity, and this "new way" thus required roles of district personnel to shift substantially.

  • The superintendent’s new primary role is to keep the main focus of the district and the community on equitable and excellent learning.
  • The principal’s chief role is leadership for equitable and excellent learning.
  • The new role of the central office is to support and assist principals and teachers in educating all students.
  • The primary role of board members is to set goals and establish policies that promote equitable and excellent learning.
  • The school district and community are integral to each other and must work together to support equitable student learning.


Everyday Equity Summary

The new accountability system has changed the nature of education in Texas. Under the old system a lower level of achievement was expected of children from low-income homes and children of color. Under the new system, schools and districts are expected to do equally well with literally all children. The four study districts are among the first and most successful at this task, and their success has surprisingly changed them at a deeper than expected level.

When these districts first launched their change efforts, they were spurred on by the local catalysts of community groups or activists or by a judge overseeing their desegregation orders. This catalytic activity in every case was based on using the new accountability system to show that there were achievement inequities by race and SES student groups. Then, the response of the leadership, including the superintendent, was predicated on ethically accepting this new challenge to obtain equity and excellence in achievement results.

Thus, when these districts started their transformations, they were typically focused on the immediate and reachable target of getting all schools off the "low performing" list. Once they accomplished this, they then focused their new goals on getting a Recognized rating as a district. As they had success at each step of the way, they would re-set their goals at a higher level. But they did not know when they started that these higher levels were even possible. These districts "learned" to have higher and higher goals based on their success with lower ones.

Of course, part of this was caused by the accountability system. State accountability requirements have increased year by year, but the four study districts set higher goals, many of which exceeded the state requirements. Whereas at the beginning, these districts were pursuing just the targets set by the new system, their success transformed them and their understanding of what they could accomplish.

An unexpected thing happened to the educators in these districts, though, on their way to this progressive success. It changed the educators. Under the old system, educators constantly saw and heard that there was racial inequality in society, and this was verified and reproduced in school achievement results. However, most educators knew that adults of color, some of whom were community activists, had accused the schools of racism because of how poorly children of color did in school. Whether the educators agreed or not, inequitable academic success by race was endemic to the schools, even though it was sometimes criticized.

In the study districts, under the new system, the assumptions about children of color and poor children began to change. As educators experienced new success with these children, the educators began to see that they could accomplish even higher success. One teacher’s description of her own transformation serves as an eloquent illustration:

"The first few years, not days, first few years, I cried a lot, which means like 3 years. It was hard. I didn’t know what a main idea was, what context clues were, I didn’t know anything. I had to educate myself.…enough to be able to pass that along to the children and make them successful. My [TAAS] scores at the beginning …weren’t very good and I wasn’t very proud of that. I was so embarrassed, really, that they weren’t very good. So then I just kept working, and working, and working and reading and going to workshops and in-services and things that would help me help the children be successful."

For another approach of fostering positive change, read this article titled Positive Deviants.


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Last modified: September 22, 2004

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