Can public school systems be successful in educating high-need student populations? If so, what does it take—and do the same ingredients work everywhere?
The Rewards of Perseverance: A Case Study of Aldine Independent School District (AISD) is ERS’ newest case study that uses our School System 20/20 framework to better understand those questions.
For the better part of 20 years, Aldine Independent School District (AISD), located just north of Houston, Texas, has improved student outcomes and narrowed achievement gaps despite increasingly rigorous standards and an increasingly needy student population. From 1994 to 2014, AISD’s population of low income students has gone up by nearly 30 percentage points, from 55% to 85%, while academic proficiency rates have risen by nearly 20 percentage points, growing from 51% to 69%, and the achievement gap between white and black students has narrowed from over 30 percentage points to 12. How did they do it?
A succession of three superintendents has overhauled almost every aspect of district structure and policy to better align resources—people, time and money—with student needs. This meant “whole-system” reform—or the willingness to change fundamental aspects of the school system, rather than add new programs on top of broken foundations.
In all of their transformation efforts, AISD prioritized supporting teachers and leaders. They did not turn around the district all at once but brought in reforms piece by piece as circumstances changed. We have broken down their 20-year journey into three phases:
Throughout, AISD maintained relatively stable leadership and a clear culture dubbed “the Aldine way”: doggedly focusing on student needs; developing and promoting talent from within; and continuously working to reinforce what is working and to fix what isn’t.
This report is ERS’ second School System 20/20 case study. Last spring, we showcased promising progress in the turnaround of Lawrence Public Schools (LPS), located just north of Boston. One of the poorest and lowest-performing districts in Massachusetts, LPS was able to make impressive gains in student test scores, dropout, and graduation rates in only two years by providing targetted academic support, and then getting the right people in the right conditions for them to succeed. LPS took a different set of steps from AISD in response to different circumstances.
School System 20/20 evolved out of ERS’ 10 years of experience partnering with over 30 urban school districts working to make the big changes necessary to achieve results for every student. Drawing lessons from this experience and from our extensive dataset, we created a vision for school system success and series of diagnostic assessments that allow districts to measure and monitor how well districts use their resources to support excellent instruction. We use this framework as a lens for our case studies so we can identify common themes—like the importance of supporting great talent, and providing more time and personal attention for high-need students.
Neither the Lawrence nor the Aldine approach is the single “right way” to transform school systems. But what both districts and the School System 20/20 framework have in common is a focus on setting a clear vision for student success, the willingness to transform “legacy” structures and policies, and the tools to better align resources to that vision and student needs. And both stories provide inspiration that one-school-at-a-time reform is not enough; we must redesign entire school systems to ensure every student, even the most vulnerable, succeeds.
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