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The purpose of this paper is to examine ways that public school districts are evolving as education systems that organize and manage instruction. Since the early 1990s, districts have been pressed by policies and philanthropic initiatives to improve students’ educational experiences and outcomes on average and to reduce disparities among them. This sustained press is yielding returns, with districts coordinating new domains of work aimed at supporting teachers and students in collaborating together in new ways, toward more ambitious goals, and to greater effect (Bryk et al., 2010; Cobb et al., 2018; Forman, Stosich, & Bocala, 2017; Johnson et al., 2014). The aim of this paper is to provide evidence of patterns in the distribution of this work among central offices and schools.
We draw on an analytic framework and associated typology of education systems advanced by Authors. The analytic framework casts district reform as dependent on five core domains of work: managing environmental relationship; building educational infrastructure; supporting the use of infrastructure in practice; managing performance; and distributing instructional leadership (e.g., Bryk et al., 2015; Cohen, Raudenbush, & Ball, 2003; Elmore, 2000; Honig & Hatch, 2004). In theory, these domains of work are distributed among central offices and schools in accord with four primary system types: managerial systems, market-driven systems, federated systems, and networked systems. This paper develop empirically-grounded case studies evidencing ways that these ideal types manifest in actual districts.
Our research draws from a qualitative, comparative study of four purposefully-sampled public school districts: two conventional districts (urban and suburban); one alternative district (a charter school network); and one “hybrid” in which a conventional district collaborates with non-profit support organization.
Our data include 59 interviews, field notes on 12 days of observation of district-level events for each district, as well as institutional documents collected during interviews and observations. The research team deductively coded data using the preceding analytic framework and probed within and across districts for thematic patterns and disconfirming evidence (Ragin & Amoroso, 2011). Patterns were then used to identify districts as specific types of education system.
Our analysis suggests that the four districts are reforming in ways consistent with three types of education systems:
• The urban district is evolving as a managerial system pursuing a standard educational approach district-wide in which schools are held accountable for fidelity of implementation.
• The suburban and alternative districts are evolving as network systems in the central office and schools collaborate to develop, use, and adapt a conventional, district-wide educational approach.
• The “hybrid” district is evolving as a federated system in which the central office supports schools is structuring resources supporting school-centered educational improvement.
By contrast, none of the districts in our sample exhibited characteristics of market-driven systems.
The proposed paper will contribute to a growing body of research yielding theoretical frameworks, practical frameworks, and research evidence detailing the evolution of public school districts in response to environmental pressure to improve day-to-day educational experiences and outcomes for all students.