For School Districts, Smaller Can Mean Better
By Arun Ramanathan
We've all heard that "bigger is better." A bigger slice of pizza is better. A bigger paycheck is better. A bigger school district is better. Actually, hold it right there: that one might not be true.
Big districts get all the attention. Their leaders make headlines when they announce their latest initiatives. They have hundreds of thousands of students and tens of thousands of teachers. What they often don't have is the best results for students.
A few years ago, the Education Trust-West published a revealing District Report Card that ranked and graded school districts around their performance for underserved students, particularly African American and Latino students. One of the most interesting results of these rankings was just how few big districts made it into the top ranks. Now, poverty certainly had an impact. Wealthier districts were more likely to post better results. But there were quite a number of low-income districts in the top ranks. And there were some very well-off districts near the bottom.
But without exception, all of the top twenty districts were mid-sized (under 35,000) to smaller (under 15,000) districts in isolated urban or rural areas which had largely escaped the lime-light. Their leaders and educators rarely received any attention from the press or were featured in major research reports. Meanwhile, several of the big urban districts which have historically received all the attention could be found in the bottom half of the rankings.
This isn't an indictment of those big districts. We know that they have many great principals and teachers. Instead, it's a plea to policymakers, researchers, philanthropists and the press to shift their attention to the smaller, under-the-radar districts that enroll the majority of students.
Sanger Unified located in California's Central Valley, just outside of Fresno, received some of that attention a decade ago. For years, under the leadership of Superintendent Marc Johnson, it had been producing the most amazing results, especially for its English Learners. But if it hadn't been identified and supported by the S.H. Cowell Foundation, it may never have received the attention it deserved. Since then, Sanger has had research papers and a book written about it, and, under Superintendent Matt Navo, it continues to be a lighthouse for other small districts -- so much so that it has to schedule visiting days to accommodate all the requests
The same attention could be directed at districts like Baldwin Park Unified, 20 miles from downtown Los Angeles, which ranked first out of 146 districts in the academic improvement of its students of color from 2009-2013. Or Wasco Union High School district where the A-G rates jumped over the last three years. Or Coachella Valley Unified School District, 30 miles from Joshua Tree National Park, where Superintendent Daryl Adams ensured that every student in one of the highest poverty districts in California had access to the best education technology. These stories are not uncommon.
These are the kinds of smaller, more isolated districts that my organization Pivot Learning Partners has worked with over the last two decades. We know they have strengths. Because of their size, they can implement new initiatives at faster rates and often do more with less resources than the bigger more attention-getting districts in urban centers. We believe that that they could do even more if we could provide them with the types of resources that big districts get just because they are bigger.
While they innovate and succeed in many ways, in an increasingly tech-fueled world, their technology infrastructure can fall behind. They often don't have access to top researchers, professional development providers and other supports that many urban districts benefit from. They have much more difficulty hiring teachers and other staff who stick to "bigger is better." They don't have the purchasing power necessary to afford the latest education tools and resources at reasonable prices.
Students in smaller more rural districts can't—and shouldn't—wait for these resources and supports to trickle down. Pivot recently launched an initiative we've called the Rural Professional Learning Network with fifteen districts to close those resource and technology gaps. Over the next two years, we expect to build a model on how to support rural educators as they work to implement our state's English, Math and Science standards. We are partnering with Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) to identify the specific needs of small and rural districts and the most effective state and local supports.
We hope that this will be the first step in a long journey to spur a whole new conversation in education about the power of "small" in improving student outcomes. The truth is that bigger is just bigger. Not better. Not more important. And we hope that the education establishment will finally recognize that.
(Arun Ramanathan leads Pivot Learning Partners, a state-wide education non-profit that partners with over 90 of California school districts to support their efforts to improve leadership development, education finance and teaching and learning.)