Credit: Julie Leopo/EdSource
The LAUSD School Board meeting on Aug. 30, 2022 in Los Angeles.

Four years ago, the leader of a California foundation asked me: “Are there other districts in California like Long Beach, Garden Grove and Sanger? My board doesn’t want to give anyone else money.”

When I asked her why, she described how their investments in other districts had gone sour because of superintendent turnover, strategy changes, financial instability and poor community relations. Her perspective made sense. My organization works with plenty of districts across the nation with similar problems. These highly unstable districts capture all the press attention and aren’t hard to find.

Finding districts with the organizational strengths of Garden Grove and Long Beach is more challenging. The research on these and other high-performing districts highlights aspects of their models that aren’t quantifiable like “strategic coherence.” But they also exhibit conditions that are quantifiable like superintendent stability, strong financial practices and low teacher turnover.

To create a system to better measure these qualities, with the support of several California foundations, we started to search for additional indicators that could be part of an index measuring overall organizational health, areas of strength and need, and identifying exemplar districts.

After talking to experts in education finance, labor relations, district leadership, and parent and community organizing, we established five categories for our index — community, finance, leadership, personnel and workplace. But once we started looking for indicators in these categories, we came up with way too many — over 250 at first count.

We culled this list by deciding that any indicator had to be actionable, publicly accessible and evidence-driven. This meant that my favorite indicator of school district health or dysfunction — the average length of a school board meeting — didn’t make the cut. Even though some of the usual suspects like Los Angeles, Sacramento and Oakland Unified topped the list for board meeting length, there’s sadly no research evidence that shorter board meetings result in better organizational health or student outcomes.

Once we narrowed down our indicators, our research team began collecting data. California has a rich set of data sources that allow for longitudinal data collection such as CALPADS and district Local Control and Accountability Plans, or LCAPs. Unfortunately, this data has never been analyzed and compiled in a single place that is accessible to the public.

Now it is. Last month, we launched the District Readiness Index, a free online tool that measures whether a school district has the necessary conditions to sustain and scale improvement in student outcomes.

In addition to making this data transparent, we also developed a scoring system and ranked districts as having strong, partial and few foundations for improvement. Most powerfully, using both the pre-pandemic 2018 and the recently released 2022 Smarter Balanced results, we found that districts in our “strong” category had considerably higher results in math and English language arts than lower-ranked districts, even when controlling for student demographics.

Now, anyone in these districts can look at the index and see how well they do on a host of important metrics, including some important new ones. For example, our team was able to calculate how well a district’s teacher composition matches up to student demographics. On this and any other indicator, district leaders can benchmark themselves against their neighbors or other similar districts with the goal of identifying the district-level practices that produce better results.

We can also answer the question posed by that foundation leader four years ago. There are far more exemplars than we suspected: more than 70 districts with the highest rating in all five categories. We hope that funders, district leaders, policymakers and researchers will take a deeper dive into the work of these districts to identify regional exemplars like Garden Grove and Sanger.

For lower-performing districts, government and philanthropy can now target their investments and supports in areas that are the necessary precursors for sustained improvement. For example, rather than investing in an exciting new instructional or school redesign initiative, they could focus their support on improving factors such as teacher and principal retention rates or the distribution of experienced teachers in higher-need schools that could determine whether an initiative succeeds or fails.

We also hope that the education community will finally shift its attention to the fundamental importance of school districts in improving student outcomes. For decades, much of the focus has been on the work of principals, teachers, students and parents rather than the organizations that guide their work.

In any era, but especially after Covid, it’s ridiculous to expect teachers and principals to improve student outcomes when their organizations don’t have the necessary strength and stability to support and sustain their efforts. The index acknowledges that fact and strives to quantify the elements of organizational stability and strength that should serve as the foundation for any education reform or improvement effort.

In the coming months and years, we hope to collaborate with the education community in California and nationally to refine and improve this new tool with that crucial goal in mind.

•••

Arun K. Ramanathan is the CEO of Pivot Learning, an Oakland-based nonprofit that works to raise academic achievement in public schools. Readers with questions and comments about the District Readiness Index can write the researchers at info@district readiness.org . 

The opinions expressed in this commentary represent those of the author. EdSource welcomes commentaries representing diverse points of view. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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  1. el 1 month ago1 month ago

    "When I asked her why, she described how their investments in other districts had gone sour because of superintendent turnover, strategy changes, financial instability and poor community relations." I think it's worth considering why those districts have superintendent turnover, especially why districts they invested in did. In particular, I note that withholding money from districts that have financial instability may... be a bit circular. I do appreciate a foundation recognizing that their investment might not be enough … Read More

    “When I asked her why, she described how their investments in other districts had gone sour because of superintendent turnover, strategy changes, financial instability and poor community relations.”

    I think it’s worth considering why those districts have superintendent turnover, especially why districts they invested in did.

    In particular, I note that withholding money from districts that have financial instability may… be a bit circular. I do appreciate a foundation recognizing that their investment might not be enough to create that stability.

    From the small corner of the world I inhabit, it seems to me that a significant cause of superintendent turnover, at least in smaller districts, is that we ask them to do too much with too little. It’s popular to say they are overpaid and overstaffed but I’ve personally seen good ones burn out, working quite long hours, and they don’t have a ton of respite if something happens to upset the balance that keeps everything running. It seems to me a lot of them quit after Covid just because it was the only way they could take a month off.

    Pay is good but it only goes so far; it creates maybe stability from having a superintendent poached for a more lucrative job. Pay lets them pay for someone to do their gardening and their cooking, maybe, to buy back some personal time. But there’s nothing quite like a robust and solid support staff that makes you happy to go to work in the morning and has your back when the day is difficult, and building that organization can be hard to do and frightfully easy to dismantle.

  2. Jim 1 month ago1 month ago

    While this is a worthwhile endeavor, the common etiology can be summed up as “parents.” Children get the schools that their parents insist on.