Successful School Reform

By Andrew Thomas and Priscilla Wohlstetter

Why do some school reform efforts work when others don’t?

As researchers from the University of Southern California’s Center on Educational Governance, we want to find the answer to that question. So when we had the chance to watch four urban districts work through the early stages of reform, we jumped at it.

In 2006, we helped the Weingart Foundation develop the Urban School Districts Reform Initiative (USDRI) and select four districts for grants ranging from $750,000 to more than $1 million. The three-year grants targeted specific projects at small-to-medium urban districts in Southern California: Desert Sands Unified, Inglewood Unified, Lennox Elementary, and Pomona Unified, each of which had a school reform plan under way.

Once grants were awarded, we formed a collaborative learning community with the foundation and the four districts, and observed each district work through early obstacles. Each reform varied in content and approach, yet each project followed a broadly similar strategy.

We identified six features of early success, key ingredients for any district’s reform recipe. They are: suitability, superintendent leadership, reform champions, retaining focus, advancing through stages, and communication.

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