NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Factors in Improving Achievement of Urban School Districts

July 30, 2012

America's urban schools are under more pressure to improve than any other institution in the nation. But instead of folding under the pressure of increasing demands and mounting criticism, many urban school systems and their leaders are rising to the occasion. They are innovating with new approaches and aggressively pursuing reforms to boost students' academic performance, says Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools.

Results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) on large-city schools offer some understanding of the progress that has been made in this regard. They signal broad improvement by the nation's urban schools, but also allow for in-depth analysis of what strategies implemented at the individual school level were most responsible for that improvement.

The Council of the Great City Schools and the American Institutes for Research sought to examine these emergent patterns, and identified the following methods for their contributions to improving educational outcomes:

  • Leadership and Reform Vision: Strong leadership on the school board and superintendent levels was highly conducive to students' educational progress across the board.
  • Goal-Setting and Accountability: The higher-achieving and most consistently improving districts set clear, system-wide goals and held staff members accountable for results.
  • Curriculum and Instruction: Those districts that witnessed the greatest improvement were also those that had created explicitly defined and uniform curricula across the district.
  • Professional Development and Teaching Quality: High-performance districts supported their programs with well-defined professional development or coaching tied to instructional programming, allowing them enhance teacher and staff skills in priority areas.
  • Support for Implementation and Monitoring of Progress: Rapid improvement was also seen in districts that not only mandated reforms, but employed secondary systems of oversight to ensure their implementation.
  • Use of Data and Assessments: Students that benefitted most were those in districts that made ample use of quantifiable data to gauge students' understanding.

Importantly, the researchers found that these common themes seemed to work in tandem to produce an overall culture of reform. Each factor was critical, but it is unlikely that, taken in isolation, any one of these positive steps could have resulted in higher student achievement.

Source: Michael Casserly, "Pieces of the Puzzle: Factors in Improving Achievement of Urban School Districts," American Enterprise Institute, July 10, 2012.

For text:


Browse more articles on Education Issues