Districts that Succeed: Breaking the Correlation Between Race, Poverty, and Achievement

  • By Karin Chenoweth
  • Harvard Education Press
  • 192 pp.
  • Reviewed by Sunil Dasgupta
  • July 30, 2021

When it comes to developing good schools, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.

For almost 15 years, and across five books, Maryland-based education reporter Karin Chenoweth has sought to identify successful schools in the hope of showing the light to failing ones. An endeavor that began with 2007 with It’s Being Done: Academic Success in Unexpected Schools has now graduated to Districts that Succeed. In the new book, Chenoweth draws lessons from five school districts she says overcame the consequences of race and poverty on educational achievement, a central and enduring problem in the United States.

One of the great debates that bedevils public-education decisions is the relative influence of home and school on the academic performance of students. Lyndon B. Johnson, a former Texas schoolteacher, believed strongly in the immense potential of education to change lives and strengthen democracy. As president, he signed into law the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which included the famous Title I, establishing a federal role in K-12 public education.

Johnson commissioned social scientist James Coleman to find proof that additional resources enabled schools to deliver improved educational outcomes for students, especially those from poor and minority families. Instead, Coleman found that achievement correlated better with home conditions. Students from rich and white families consistently performed better than students from poor and minority ones.

We often forget that comparison is the essence of the scientific method. Behind the data, the regressions, the logit, the surveys, and the case studies lies one simple thing: comparison between a control group and an experimental group. In social science, it’s almost impossible to establish these perfect groups, and harder still to isolate causality. There isn’t a bigger social-science experiment, of course, than education — or, more accurately, public education organized as an expression of collective action.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that debates over education effectiveness have remained unresolved for decades despite massive financial and intellectual investments. America’s decentralized and variegated education system of 13,000 districts makes it hard even to compare schools, let alone reach conclusions from those comparisons. But Chenoweth and her employer, the national nonprofit Education Trust, have long been interested in doing just that.

In 2017, Chenoweth found the work of Stanford education researcher Sean Reardon, who’d organized a national database of test scores and demographics that allowed her to identify school districts that appeared to break the link between race and poverty. In these schools, even kids from poor and minority families appeared to be doing better than kids in other districts with wealthier or whiter demography.

The stories from these five districts — Chicago; Steubenville, Ohio; Cottonwood and Lane in Oklahoma; Seaford, Delaware; and Valley Stream 30 in New York — suggest different pathways to success. Steubenville’s schools, for one, remained highly regarded even as the region’s Rust Belt economy crumbled. The reason? According to Chenoweth’s findings, it was strong district leadership and a culture of hardnosed, data-driven decision-making.

In Cottonwood and Lane, the superintendents of the two districts collaborated closely, transferring skills and knowledge from one to the other. In Seaford, Delaware, the district revamped its reading program with dramatic results. And in New York’s Valley Stream 30, in Nassau County, the district was able to rework its master schedule and programming to leverage its diversity.

The marquee case study in the book, however, is the Chicago Public Schools. Not only is Chicago the third-largest school district in the continental U.S., but it also had been one of the worst. Under Arne Duncan (who later became President Barack Obama’s first education secretary), the district turned around, introducing new ways of tracking high school performance and improving the training and readiness of principals to lead.

Chenoweth concludes that a successful school district has an ethos where it is “incumbent on all personnel to be instructionally effective for all pupils.” As a mission statement, this is what it should be; as a map, it needs routes. Probe further, and she is really extending the lesson from her previous books about the importance of leadership.

In her 2017 Schools That Succeed, Chenoweth noted that competent principals are critical. Without them, schools fall apart, good teachers leave, the community becomes alienated, and the downward spiral continues endlessly. But as she traveled the decade through several books, she realized the principals themselves were subject to the vagaries of the districts that appointed them. So, she shifted her unit of analysis.

This analytical shift required the retooling of her comparative method. Unfortunately, Districts that Succeed doesn’t include such retooling and leaves unanswered some big, district-level questions. For one: What role do school boards play in determining a district’s success?

Chenoweth also sets aside the issue of community engagement broadly and parental involvement in schools specifically. In an interview, she said that, on balance, she found the home-school partnership to be less important as a driver of success than school leadership, use of data, and collaborative learning among teachers. But without a clear comparison among all these components, it’s hard for readers to join her in making that determination.

Chenoweth also writes little about the importance of budgets and implies that money alone is not the solution to academic improvement. But in each of her case studies, the districts were able to mobilize resources not there before.

Lastly, there’s no getting around the fact that public education is a political issue, no matter how professional or well-led a particular district. The pursuit of public welfare via collective action will turn any activity into an ideological slugfest. Meanwhile, by their nature, governments have a hard time determining causation vis-à-vis social problems. Even when individual leaders hold a strong view about the why, they are often unable to develop public consensus around it.

As with most complex issues, the best approach to solving problems in education is generally the one that embraces an “all of the above” plan of action. That means at-risk students get a little bit of everything: early intervention, wraparound services, and high-dosage instruction. By highlighting five school districts’ varied but fruitful paths to success, Karin Chenoweth’s Districts that Succeed provides some useful, specific ideas on how to pierce the seemingly intractable problem of equity in American public education.

[Editor’s note: Sunil Dasgupta interviewed author Karin Chenoweth last month on his podcast, I Hate Politics.]

Sunil Dasgupta teaches politics and government at UMBC at the Universities at Shady Grove.

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