Many people hope that magic solutions can be found to improve low-performing schools. Philanthropists, hedge fund millionaires, and others interested in reform have put their funds and faith in charter schools or virtual learning, as though these approaches have special powers that will produce a sudden breakthrough to educational excellence.

The evidence is not very encouraging that this will happen. For instance, a comprehensive study of charter schools by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University found that overall, charter schools did worse than similar traditional public schools. Only 17 percent of charters produced higher test scores than comparable public schools, while 37 percent “deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their students would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools.”

There is hope that neighborhood schools can get significantly better, but the answer is through hard work and not through magic. A prime example comes from the Creighton School District in Phoenix, Arizona.

Creighton has high enrollments of minority and poor students — 94 percent of the district’s students are Hispanic or other racial/ethnic minorities, and 91 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals. A few years ago, the school district was doing so badly on state-mandated tests that it was eligible for takeover by the state.

In the last four years, Creighton has turned around. In 2007-08, seven of its nine schools were deemed “underperforming” or “failing to meet the standards” according to state test results. In 2011-12, eight of the nine schools were rated as “performing plus” on state tests, and one school was rated as “highly performing.”

Evidence for this dramatic improvement can be found in student scores on the state reading test. The number of the district’s students scoring proficient or advanced in reading increased by 22 percentage points from 2007 to 2012. This is more than double the growth experienced by the state as a whole during the same period, according to a report by WestEd, a respected non-profit that helps states and school districts to improve (Creighton Elementary School District: A Review of WestEd’s Impact from 2007-2012).

What brought about this change?

The Ellis Center for Educational Excellence, a non-profit foundation based in Phoenix on whose advisory board I sit, decided in 2006 that it would focus its funding on improving public education through a district-wide strategy. Further, the foundation, led by Steve Mittenthal, made the difficult decision to concentrate its limited funds on one district over a five-year period. While many charitable foundations spread their funding over numerous recipients and limit the grants to a few years, the Ellis Center wanted to provide sufficient funding to make a difference and give the district sufficient time to institutionalize its new practices. Focus and steadfastness are hard tasks for foundations to achieve. Ellis is the exception.

Another key decision by the Ellis Center was to partner with WestEd. As a technical assistance group, WestEd was able to bring in expertise in assessment, staff development, and instructional practices that empowered Creighton to raise its performance.

None of this would have mattered, however, unless Creighton Superintendent Charlotte Boyle, the school board, teachers, and administrators were ready for change. Ellis made sure this was so when it held a competition for districts to receive the five-year grant.

Creighton and WestEd used four major improvement strategies: 1) refining the curriculum and aligning staff training and student tests to that curriculum;2) improving instructional practices, including those for English language learners, who comprise a large share of the district’s students; 3) developing and using tests during the school year, other than those used for accountability, to assess what students had learned; and 4) implementing a system of individualized instruction based on student needs. The district also sought to make these new practices part of ordinary schooling, since the Ellis funding would not be permanent.

All of this was hard work for the district. The Ellis funds gave the staff time and access to resources that they would not otherwise have had. It gave them “breathing room” to become better teachers and administrators.

The results offer hope that regular school districts can improve, even those with large numbers of students from low-income families or with low achievement. The lesson from the Ellis/Creighton/WestEd experience is that some extra funding committed over a substantial time can help challenged districts to improve.

There are other attempts to bring about improvement in poorly performing districts. The prime example is the Obama administration initiative focused on the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools. Many of those individual schools are receiving the same amount per year — $1.5 million — that Ellis is providing to the entire Creighton district. But the federal grants will last only three years and were provided so fast that some schools did not have sufficient time to plan for their use. The federal aid was also focused on particular schools, rather than on school districts. Because so many schools received aid, there is no guarantee of technical assistance of the quality that WestEd is providing to Creighton.

Time will tell whether the Obama administration’s experiment will be successful. One can only hope so, since its purpose is noble and the need is obvious.

We do know today that the five-year, district-wide approach taken in Creighton has been successful. What we do not know is whether the new practices have been embedded sufficiently in the ordinary fabric of schooling in the district to endure.

Creighton offers hope that ordinary neighborhood schools can be improved. The answer is not a magic remedy; rather, it is hard work making teaching and learning better. That is the promise of American public education — that all students will be well-educated — not just those chosen by lottery for a charter school that may not turn out to be better than the regular neighborhood school.

Our job is to help regular schools, which educate the vast majority of American students, become better. Public education is for all, not for the selective few.


This blog written by Jack Jennings first appeared on November 20, 2012 in the Huffington Post.