How to Turn an Urban School District Around—Without Cheating

Cincinnati has improved students' test scores by fostering cooperation between teachers, administrators, and local community service organizations.


The recent public school test-cheating scandals in Atlanta and Washington D.C. are insidious not only in their impact on their own communities, but also in feeding a broadly held misperception that urban school districts are beyond salvaging. Reports suggesting progress in any city are now more likely to be dismissed out of hand as the product of selective data collection or outright misconduct. That's what makes the case of Cincinnati, Ohio, so interesting and instructive.

The Cincinnati school district has improved both test scores and graduation rates since 2003 while -- unlike Atlanta and Washington -- transparently pursuing highly collaborative reform strategies that, counter to the current trend, don't rely on rigid hierarchy and punitive accountability. Because Cincinnati has implemented proven instructional approaches while nurturing a culture in which administrators, teachers, parents, and community groups closely communicate and work together as teams, the case serves as an important counterweight to the public school stories that have been dominating the news in the past few years. It also can serve as a roadmap for reversing course from the high-pressure tactics that gave rise to the cheating scandals and led to little progress elsewhere.

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.

Another important element of Cincinnati's success story has been close collaboration with community service providers, to reach those areas of a student's life that strongly affect academic performance, but which schools generally cannot control. Beginning in 2007, more than 300 leaders of local organizations in the greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky area agreed to participate in a coordinated effort called Strive. Participating organizations are grouped into fifteen different "Student Success Networks" by type of activity, such as early childhood education or tutoring. Representatives of each of the fifteen networks meet with coaches and facilitators for two hours every two weeks, developing shared performance indicators, discussing their progress, learning from each other, and aligning their efforts to support each other. An article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review highlighted Strive as a model worthy of emulating, with its distinctively centralized infrastructure, dedicated staff, structured processes, and close relationships with school personnel and parents.

Four years after the elementary initiative was launched, all 16 targeted schools have emerged from what the Ohio accountability system labels "academic emergency," with 12 attaining the mid-level "continuous improvement" ranking or higher. There's little reason to suspect the validity of those scores because the school system has been completely open about the changes it has undertaken, which have hewed closely to strategies that research has shown to work. Though Cincinnati was one of the districts recently mentioned by Ohio state auditors concerned about data for certain studentsĀ disappearing, the accompanying report makes clear that in Cincinnati's case these concerns are confined to technical issues over transfer students' data: There is no indication of any systematic attempt to cheat, nor would the cases identified have had much of an impact on the district's scores overall.* University of Virginia personnel, journalists, and community service providers affiliated with the Strive initiative have all directly seen the positive transformations affirmed by the test results.

What can other urban school districts do to replicate these results, and move away from the highly confrontational reliance on market-based incentives that have dominated educational policymaking in recent years? First, it is vital to build trust between school administrators and teachers unions. It is no accident that Cincinnati Superintendent Ronan and the city's teachers share mutual respect. Ronan, 59, spent her entire career in Cincinnati, beginning as a middle school math and science teacher in 1976. Later she became an elementary school principal and climbed the administrative ladder while forming strong relationships along the way. Julie Sellers, the president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, told Education Week: "[Ronan] probably knows more teachers than any superintendent. I think it has been beneficial for her to get buy-in. Teachers feel comfortable talking to her. There's nothing we don't do in Cincinnati. These are the best urban, high-poverty schools in the country."

Studies by the Consortium on Chicago School Research and the National Center for Educational Achievement, as well as Berkeley public policy professor David Kirp's new book on another successful high-poverty school district in Union City, N.J., affirm that deep collaboration between administrators and teachers is an essential ingredient in schools that demonstrate sustained improvement in student outcomes. It not sufficient, though. Also required are effective approaches for developing coherent instructional systems with active teacher input; close attentiveness to testing data to identify problems students are having so they can be provided with extra support; and strong connections between the schools, parents, and community groups. The use of tests as a tool for improving instruction lies in stark contrast to the current focus on using test results to punish or reward teachers.

Through enormous effort and years of perseverance on the part of Cincinnati's leadership and stakeholders, all of these forces have come together to produce hard-earned progress. Cincinnati shows that an urban school district can succeed -- without cheating. The first steps toward emulating that success, however, will require walking back from the animosity toward teachers unions and coercive sanctions that have derailed public education policy in the United States.

*This post has been updated for clarity.