School districts occupy center stage in education reform in the U.S. They manage nearly all public funding and are frequently the locus of federal and state reform initiatives, e.g., instituting meaningful teacher evaluation systems. The most charismatic leaders over the last decade, people such as Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein, have received considerable national media attention. Financial compensation for district leaders is high, with many being paid more than the chief state school officers who oversee the entire systems in which they serve. Some private philanthropies pour money into initiatives to improve district performance. Others invest in ways that suggest that they too think districts are important but as impediments to rather than instruments of reform.
Despite the centrality of school districts in all the ways described, we know very little from existing research about how important they are to student achievement relative to other institutional components for delivering education services, including teachers and schools. Neither do we have information on the size of the differences in effectiveness among districts or whether there are districts that show exceptional patterns of performance across time, e.g., moving from low to high performing.
We begin to fill these information gaps in the present report by analyzing 10 years of data involving all public school students and school districts in Florida and North Carolina. We find that school districts account for only a small portion (1% to 2%) of the total variation in student achievement relative to the contribution of schools, teachers, demographic characteristics of students, and remaining individual differences among students. Within just the institutional components affecting student achievement, the effect of schools is about twice that of districts whereas the effect of teachers is about seven times larger than that of districts.
Even though district effects are only a small piece of the pie that represents all the influences on student achievement, there are still differences among the academic achievement of demographically similar students in higher and lower performing districts in North Carolina and Florida that are large enough to be of practical and policy significance. Combining the data from both states, 4th and 5th grade students in a district that is at the 70th percentile in district effectiveness are more than 9 weeks ahead of similar students in a district at the 30th percentile of effectiveness in their learning of reading and math. There are also districts that have displayed exceptional patterns of performance in terms of student achievement over the last decade, including districts that beat their demographic odds every year, districts that consistently underperformed, districts that had nose-dive declines, and districts that experienced transformative growth. These findings provide an empirical justification for efforts to improve student achievement through district-level reforms and should be a tantalizing fruit for those who want to better understand why some districts are better than others and translate that knowledge into action.