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Voices: Replacing the broken urban district

Andy Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, believes rather than fixing urban districts, they should be dismantled and rebuilt. He shared his ideas at Friday’s Hot Lunch series sponsored by the Donnell-Kay Foundation.  

Public education is a set of guiding principles, such as: availability to all children; tuition-free; non-discriminatory; and preparation for success in career and higher education.


But these principles can be operationalized in countless ways. How we bring them to life is up to us. A good analogy is democracy. That too is a set of principles: suffrage for all adults; one person, one vote; secret ballots; and fair counting of results.

But it can take many forms. In the U.S., we elect a president and Congress separately. In the United Kingdom, the prime minister is part of their legislature.

The problem with urban public education is that we have been led to believe that there is but one real way to deliver public schooling: the district. In fact, many people believe that “the district” and “public education” are synonymous.

But they are not. The district is just one way to deliver public education.


We can do something different. We can protect the priceless principles of public education while ridding ourselves of this delivery system.

But it’s more than “can.”  It is “must.”

The traditional urban school district is broken.

It cannot be fixed.

It must be replaced.

In the early 1960s, we realized something was terribly wrong with the outcomes of our urban districts. President Lyndon B. Johnson made fixing inner-city schools a focal point of the Great Society. The Coleman Report, commissioned in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, found that our urban schools were unable to compensate for out-of-school factors, such as parental education and poverty – meaning that a child’s demographics were predicting her future.

And so for 50 years, we’ve tried to fix the urban district.

We’ve tried increasing funding. Since 1965, Title I has sent about $400 billion to low-income schools. The federal government has also created countless other programs. Local districts greatly increased their spending. State legislatures increased funding even more. More money came from philanthropic contributions.

We’ve tried accountability. We’ve measured and publicized the performance of urban districts for ages now.  Minimum competency testing in the 1970s then standardized states tests in 1980s and 90s. It reached its pinnacle with NCLB in the 2000s.

We’ve tried competition via inter-district choice, charters, tax credits, scholarships, and more. In many cities, a quarter, a third, in some approach half of students are choosing non-district schools.

We’ve tried human-capital strategies. We’ve tried different types of superintendents. We’ve had Teach for America and TNTP provide new teachers and a wide assortment of supports. We’ve had countless principal training programs.

We’ve tried interventions. Some states took over urban districts. More took over failing urban schools. NCLB forced states to put failing districts on improvement plans. Restructuring forced these districts to seriously intervene in their lowest performing schools. SIG has provided billions to urban districts to implement serious reforms.

The list of school interventions is jaw-dropping: needs assessments, staff surveys, conferences, professional development, turnaround specialists, school-improvement committees, training sessions, principal mentors, teacher coaches, leadership facilitators, instructional trainers, subject-matter experts, audits, summer residential academies, tutoring, research-based reform models, reconfigured grade spans, alternative governance models, new curricula, improved use of data – and it goes on.

What do we have to show for 50 years worth of these efforts?

After a half-century of work, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NAEP), most large urban districts struggle to get 15 or 20 percent of their eight-graders reading proficiently. Even supposedly stellar urban districts – winners of the Broad Prize – have the most dismal performance.

Those who know the urban district the best agree with my grim assessment. For example, the recently departed superintendents of Philadelphia and Chicago both left their positions saying that the district is broken.

But is there an alternative?

Yes, and it’s at our fingertips.

The traditional urban school district is broken.

It cannot be fixed.

But it can be replaced.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.