Beginning around 2003, when Cincinnati's test score results were on par with Ohio's other struggling urban school districts, it began to break away from the pack, and in 2010 became the first city to receive "effective" ratings on the Ohio District Report Card. Its strong results have generally persisted. Scores on its 11th grade graduation tests in 2011-2012 are comparable to state-wide averages, which include wealthier suburban districts, and are well above the levels for other urban Ohio districts. Those gains occurred even as the city's demographic composition held roughly steady over the past decade. Its childhood poverty rate is among the nation's highest.
The core of Cincinnati's remarkable success is a data-driven collaborative strategy to promote good teaching and learning in ways that reject almost all of the current fashions of school reform. A good example of Cincinnati's approach is an elementary school-focused program that launched in 2009 under newly promoted Superintendent Mary Ronan. Called the "Elementary Initiative: Ready for High School," it has focused on revitalizing the district's 16 worst-performing elementary schools, some of which had been struggling for more than a quarter century. At the outset of that effort, administrators conducted an audit of those schools to evaluate the sources of their problems. What the auditors found was that a wide variety of instructional approaches (Montessori, Success for All, Direct Instruction, etc.) were not being followed as designed in classrooms. They also saw that many of the schools taught English for less than 45 minutes a day, that teachers were partial to whole-group instruction instead of breaking the class into smaller groups, and that testing data was not being used for any practical purpose.
Deputy Superintendent Laura Mitchell, who leads the elementary initiative, worked closely with other administrators and "lead teachers" who were enthusiastic about revitalizing the schools to develop a new research-supported curriculum and approach to instruction. Those changes included 90-minute blocks of literature-rich units, small-group activities with teachers rotating among students, and reorienting teachers' and administrators' approach to test results, so that they could be used as diagnostic tools for identifying particular areas in which students need greater support.
In addition, using federal stimulus money, the district sent the principals and lead teachers from the targeted schools together to attend leadership-training workshops at the University of Virginia. One critical area of emphasis of the Virginia program is a team-based approach to problem solving, in which administrators and teachers become accustomed to sharing ideas with minimal confrontation or defensiveness. In contrast to the norm where teachers are isolated in their own classrooms, Cincinnati's personnel learned to welcome ongoing feedback focused on improving the quality of instruction students receive. The stimulus money also financed what Ronan called a "fifth quarter," which extended the school year by a month, providing additional time for enrichment programs like art and music classes.