Panel Paper: A Case Study of an Urban District’s Effort to Prioritize a Subset of Low-Performing Schools

Thursday, November 8, 2018
8206 - Lobby Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Coby V. Meyers, University of Virginia

Much of the school turnaround movement has focused singularly on low-performing schools without the consideration of the systems in which they operate (Finnigan & Daly, 2016), but recent shifts in American policy have resulted in increased focus on the district role in supporting, and potentially leading, school turnaround (Center on School Turnaround, 2017). In this study, I conduct case study research of one urban district that prioritized rapidly improving 10 of its lowest performing schools. Specifically, I ask the following research questions:

  1. In what ways did district leadership strategically facilitate district-wide improvement across turnaround conditions (e.g., leadership, instructional infrastructure, etc.)?
  2. What barriers impeded the district’s transformation effort, and how or to what extent has the district been successful in overcoming them?

I am associated with a university-based school turnaround program that develops systems leadership in districts and schools over nearly three years. The urban district studied here was a program partner with 10 participating schools, eight of which increased student achievement among other successes. For this study, I analyzed multiple district- (e.g., launch and improvement plans) and school-based documents (e.g., school improvement plans), as well as quarterly programmatic reports about the district and its schools. In addition, I conducted three district site visits, where I conducted rounds of interviews with district leaders (e.g., superintendent, Transformation Zone lead, and others) and five school principals in the zone. I conducted approximately 20 interviews for this portion of a larger study.

I used NVivo qualitative data analysis software to analyze document data deductively (LeCompte & Schensul, 2010) against programmatic expectations to identify district leader behavior, actions, and choices potentially key to launching initial turnaround (Hitt & Meyers, 2017). I then coded interviews again using an inductive content analysis approach (Elo & Kyngäs, 2008) to extend conceptual understanding of mediating factors of successful district leadership. To do this, I employed grounded theory’s open coding scheme (Strauss & Corbin, 1990) and constant comparative method (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) to build a conceptual understanding of a phenomenon without using a priori hypotheses.

The results suggest that all stakeholders believe that district leadership fought district and community norms strategically to create a zone for a subset of schools, prioritizing human and fiscal resources in them regardless of tradition or pressures from school board members or parents. Thus, the district sent a clear message of equity over equality. In so doing, the Transformation Zone was leveraged as a way to pilot and then disseminate knowledge and practice to other schools in the district.