Join Me on a Journey to ExtraOrdinary School Districts

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For more than a decade I have been writing about high-performing high-poverty schools — some of which have been recognized by The Education Trust as “Dispelling the Myth” schools. The idea behind the name is that they dispel the myth that there is little schools can do to help students overcome the obstacles of poverty and discrimination.

Over time I have observed that even schools with relatively few external resources can become “Dispelling the Myth” schools when their leaders know how to help their teachers learn from each other and the larger field.

My most recent book, Schools that Succeed, distills what I have learned from successful school leaders, and I would like to think that it provides educators with a lot of energy and good ideas about how to improve their schools.

But at the end of the book I hit a more somber note when I say that even the most successful school will eventually fall apart if the district within which it sits is dysfunctional.

I have seen this again and again. For example, when I first visited M. Hall Stanton Elementary in North Philadelphia in 2005 it was a cheerful, well-organized school where children were continually engaged in learning. This contrasted with the stories I heard about it before Barbara Adderley had arrived as principal, when kids were unruly, parents and teachers unhappy, and little learning was going on. When Adderley left in 2008 to take a job in her hometown the school was in good shape, with three staff members ready and qualified to take the job as principal and continue the systems and processes that had made Stanton successful. Instead the district appointed someone from outside the school who dismantled pretty much everything.

It didn’t take long before there was an exodus of staff, a breakdown in discipline and order, and a plunge in achievement. The school was closed a few years later.

I consider Stanton to be a tragedy of urban education, and I think of it as a symptom of district dysfunction. That is, it sat in a district that did not know how to systematize and continue success.

This got me thinking about what districts that were not dysfunctional would look like. I wanted to find districts that help schools to improve rather than undermine them.

But how to find such districts?

The technique I’ve been using for years to find schools — essentially looking for “outliers” within states — is much more difficult when looking at districts, because there are so many factors to consider — size, socio-economics, academic achievement, assessments — the list goes on and on.

But just as I was finishing Schools that Succeed Sean Reardon came to my rescue. It turns out Reardon, a well-respected scholar at Stanford University, also wanted to find school districts that do particularly well for their students who live in poverty. Well aware of all the analytic barriers to finding such districts, he and a team at Stanford spent upward of four years putting most of the districts in the country (about 12,000 of them) on a common scale of socio-economic status of their students and academic achievement of their third- through eighth-graders.

In 2016 the New York Times published an interactive scatterplot of his analysis, and it is a lot of fun to go and find the districts you know about to see where they fall on the spectrum.

As soon as I saw it I knew I could spend years going to the outlier districts he identified.

All this is by way of announcing a new Education Trust podcast, ExtraOrdinary Districts in which I travel to ordinary school districts that are getting extraordinary results for their students. I hope you’ll join us on the journey.

In the first episode we meet Sean Reardon and see where his work sits in the grand scheme of education research. In the second episode, we visit the top-performing district in the country. It is a wealthy district, but what is really notable about it is that where once it had wide gaps in achievement, today it doesn’t. In the podcast we find out how, in 2006, the relatively new superintendent stumbled on the evidence that his African American, Latino, and low-income students were doing poorly – and what he and the other educators in the district did to fix that over the next seven or eight years.

And then we visit two other districts. Before you find out which ones, look at the scatterplot and see which ones you would go to if you had the chance. Which ones intrigue you the most? Let us know if we picked what you picked — and if not, which ones you would like to know more about. Maybe we’ll be able to go there in the future. Email me at And keep in touch — let us know what you think of the podcast. This is a new venture for Ed Trust — and for me. We’d love to know how to make them better.

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