What Is the Impact of a School District?

desk and chairs in classroom.
desk and chairs in classroom.

This blog originally appeared on the StudentsFirst thinkED blog.

StudentsFirst CEO Michelle Rhee gave a keynote at the Brookings Institute to mark the release of a report on the role school districts play in raising student achievement. Accordingly, our thinkED blog will focus on the topic of school districts all this week.

Do school districts matter?

The Brown Center on Education Policy at The Brookings Institute released an interesting report today that asks, and attempts to answer, this very question.

It's an important question. The authors -- Grover Whitehurst, Matthew Chingos, and Michael Gallaher -- note that leaders of school districts soak up more than their share of the spotlight when it comes to education reform. And they're compensated well to boot. As a result, one might expect that when it comes to raising student achievement, school districts and their leaders are a pretty big deal.

The findings?

For the Brookings authors, the conclusion is, "Yes, but other factors matter more and additional study is needed." Districts do have a significant impact on student achievement. What we still don't know, however, is what exactly they do to cause it or what else districts might be influencing (more on that later).

The report looks at the reading and math assessment data over the decade for every 4th and 5th grader in Florida and North Carolina beginning in the 2000-2001 school year (about 500,000 students). They examined data for classrooms, schools, and districts, while controlling for student demographics.

They found that they could only account for about 1 percent of the variance in student achievement at the school district level. This is compared to nearly 2 percent at the school level and a nearly 7 percent variance at the teacher level. Other factors, like unexplained characteristics, student level differences, and demographic controls account for the remainder of the variance.

Breaking down the analysis further, the report finds that there are districts at both ends of the spectrum -- districts that negatively impact student achievement and districts whose impacts are significantly positive. In other words, there is a clear delineation among districts that add and subtract value when it comes to student learning.

What should we take away?

First, even though the effects of districts may be relatively small compared to other factors, districts are still important. In fact, the average 4th grader in a top-performing district in North Carolina was 80 percent of the school year ahead of the average 4th grader in the lowest performing district. How would you like to have an additional 7-8 months of learning packed into the same school year for your child?

Second, and perhaps more importantly, is the unanswered question raised by this study. There's no mention of the role or impact districts have on increasing the likelihood that other factors exist (like highly effective teachers and high performing schools). This is a big deal -- or at least, I sure think so.

District leaders are often the ones responsible for leading reform efforts, like improving teacher quality or creating new schools with special programs. District leaders find innovative ways to award greater autonomy for school leaders to achieve results. And district leaders are undoubtedly responsible for whether or not low-performing schools continue to exist (though it's not as easy to say the same when it comes to personnel).

From my own experience working in D.C., I witnessed the effects of district leadership on all of the issues above: closing underperforming schools and creating new programs; setting higher standards for teachers; and establishing a new performance pay system that enables schools to attract and retain the very best teachers in greater numbers.

As the study shows (and numerous others have indicated before), better schools and stronger teachers have a significant impact on student achievement. And we've even seen research that describes the impact of school leaders on factors like teacher quality and student achievement.

Going forward, I am interested in knowing how much of the impact from school and teacher factors can be influenced and controlled by, and therefore attributed to, the quality of the district itself. Because if a high performing district is also responsible for exposing more kids to effective teachers and providing more quality options to families, then yes, that district matters.

A lot.