Live From Summit 2014: Reimagining Urban School Districts

April 30, 2014

With 95% of public schools students in the United States attending traditional district schools, it is imperative that we find a way to improve school districts more rapidly, especially in urban areas where students are most at risk. Cami Anderson, the Chancellor of Newark Public Schools in New Jersey, and Paul Hill from the Center for Reinventing Public Education discussed options for scaling what works in districts in order to reach our most vulnerable students.  In particular, Hill and Anderson focused on the promise of portfolio management as a tool to “deliver the best set of schools possible” to communities through creating districts of autonomous schools, both traditional and public charter schools. 

What sounds like a promising solution in theory, comes with several practical implementation challenges and highlights the potentially unintended consequences of the expansion of autonomously run charter schools.

  1. When we create more school choice for families in a district there will be demand, but we will not always have enough supply of quality schools
  2. Limited numbers of quality schools often means that the highest-need students are left in the lowest performing, and under-resourced schools.  What can we do to make sure that autonomy is designed with these students in mind?
  3. Creating autonomous schools, and right-sizing a traditional district directly impacts employment opportunities of the adult family members of students, and thus threatens community and family stability.  If we don’t have a plan for dealing with this in our move to reform the district, we are harming students indirectly.
  4. Communities need to be part of any reform strategy within the district, or else they will not be willing to push for continuity when new leadership inevitably arrives.

Ultimately, Hill and Anderson contemplated the question of whether or not it we should wait for entrenched policy changes to come to the district, or whether we should push forward with reform on the edges through charter school creation. Both emphasized the need for increased collaboration between charter schools and district schools, with Hill stating “when there is an opportunity for collective action the chances for kids are much better.”  The challenges our largest urban districts are facing are great, but the responsibility for the performance of students in urban district schools needs to be shared by districts, charters, policymakers, and education reformers.  On the ground this will require mobilizing in support of policies that will help districts get better faster, including changing teacher tenure policies, advocating for transparency in student enrollment practices, providing equitable funding for schools serving the highest-need students, and sharing practices that are proven to push all students to achieve at high levels.