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UConn Study Suggests School Districts Need Better Guidance For Crafting Reform Plans

Jimmy Emerson
Creative Commons

Researchers at the University of Connecticut say that a state effort to improve the lowest performing school districts lacks coherence, leading to questions about the program's effectiveness.

The Alliance Districts include the state's 30 lowest-performing districts, and collectively they've received nearly $550 million over the last five years in additional funds from the state. To apply for this extra money, these districts have to show what they're going to fix, and how they're doing to fix it. But the UConn study found that these plans varied considerably, and that the state lacks a system to figure out which plans would actually work.

"One big takeaway for me is, stop asking schools that are already not doing very well, or districts that aren't doing as well or are under-resourced, to do a thousand things well," said Jennie Weiner, a UConn professor who co-authored the study. "You're not going to get traction from that." 

These schools have been getting extra money from the state since the 2011-12 school year, and many have made significant improvements, though some haven't. 

Weiner said that among the districts that improved, their plans tend to have a few things in common -- things that are absent from plans of districts that have only slightly improved.

"We found that districts that seemed to be making some improvements in terms of student achievement particularly," Weiner said, "had a higher level of coherence, were more oriented toward equity, had a lot of issues around infrastructure. Meaning if they were going to implement a new reading intervention, they coupled it with professional development embedded for teachers and district-level support."

To put it another way, the ideas were only as good as the district's ability actually to do it. And that depends on how organized the district is and how supported teachers and staff are.

Abbe Smith, a spokeswoman for the state's education department, said the the process will likely evolve, and is open to making changes when things don't work.

"Continuing to refine the process and program is a good thing," Smith said. "It helps us strengthen how we support Alliance Districts and ultimately better serve our students. The process will likely evolve more as we engage in continuous dialogue with our districts and think about ways to build on what works, and to make changes when something does not work."

David finds and tells stories about education and learning for WNPR radio and its website. He also teaches journalism and media literacy to high school students, and he starts the year with the lesson: “Conflicts of interest: Real or perceived? Both matter.” He thinks he has a sense of humor, and he also finds writing in the third person awkward, but he does it anyway.

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