The five hot spots each represent a unique contextual challenge and opportunity. The TSAT’s goal is to develop a deeper understanding of these place-specific nuances in order to more precisely and effectively provide differentiated supports and resources that are targeted to what our schools and districts actually need.
This work provides perspective and looks promising.
|Note: The red dots represent Focus and Priority schools. The green dots represent “Reward Schools,” which are Title I schools that have achieved both high-performing and high-growth status. The different color areas represent the boundaries of Texas’ 20 regional education service centers (ESCs).|
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has made it through the congressional gauntlet and is currently riding a wave of bipartisan support in and out of Washington D.C. Proponents are optimistic that robust local control combined with clear “guardrails” for poor and minority youth are the appropriate mechanisms for realizing the vision of the finally reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Schools Act (ESEA).
Optimism about the potential for local wisdom to drive socially just innovation and interventions is warranted. However, a healthy dose of caution is also in order. If state and local education agencies continue to operate as they have throughout the No Child Left Behind era, it is safe to assume they will merely replicate the compliance culture they so loathe. ESSA’s passage presents an opportunity for honest reflection about how state and local policies and organizational behaviors will need to adjust to create the innovative local cultures we envision. Additionally, continuing to frame education as both the cause and the cure for poverty potentially serves as a distraction from other state and local policies (e.g., economic, housing, transportation, etc.) that have sustained racially segregated, low-income neighborhoods where the vast majority of low-performing Title I schools are located.1 Failure to simultaneously address these compounding factors increases the likelihood of leaving the underlying architecture of inequality undisturbed and the promise of local wisdom unfulfilled.2
Taking meaningful steps towards the vision laid out in ESEA – education is a civil right – and leveraging the core value of localism that anchors ESSA requires a more sophisticated process for analyzing school contexts, differentiating supports, and empowering families and communities to play a more central role in the improvement process. My colleagues in the Texas Education Agency (TEA) have taken some important initial steps in thinking comprehensively about local realities where struggling schools and districts are situated. They have been especially thoughtful about the implications for their behaviors. They would admit they have a long way to go, but their progress to date is informative to other state agencies that are making sense of how their roles will need to evolve in the ESSA era.
Getting Local: Early Progress on Place-Specific Support
My team at the Texas Comprehensive Center (TXCC) co-develops and facilitates numerous school improvement projects with TEA every year. Typically, decisions about where to deploy resources or whom to recruit for projects have consisted of a statewide invitation that would be embraced by a predictable ensemble of districts who are willing to collaborate with the state. Several months ago, one of our project teams began grappling with how we would operate differently if we based our decisions on need and equity and less on business-as-usual politics. We recognized that in order to do so we needed a new way of seeing the landscape of school performance in the state of Texas. We needed to get local.
This fall, ten TEA and TXCC staff engaged in a two-day training with an external consultant on building out geographic information system (GIS) maps on Esri’s web-based ArcGIS platform. Utilizing TEA data sets, the team built out multiple versions of maps that situated schools within a wide array of social factors data. Here is a shot of one of the maps.
|(A: Median household income, 2013. Dark grey represents $10K-$39K. B: Unemployment, 2013. Darker purple equals higher concentration. C: Percentage Black, 2013. Darker blue equals higher concentration. D: Percentage Latino, 2013. Darker blue equals higher concentration. E: Percentage White, 2013. Darker blue equals higher concentration. Source: U.S. Census)|
It did not take long to determine where the pockets of need are located and that each of the pockets is unique. To conduct a more thorough analysis of the maps, TEA established a cross-functional team consisting of an associate commissioner and members from the divisions of Program Monitoring and Interventions, School Improvement and Support, and Charter School Administration as well as staff from the TXCC and the Texas Center for District and School Support (TCDSS) – a team that supports school and district improvement across the state. Dubbed the Texas Strategic Alignment Team (TSAT), we collaboratively identified five priority hot spots that have focused our cross sector collaboration and alignment efforts. The five hot spots each represent a unique contextual challenge and opportunity. The TSAT’s goal is to develop a deeper understanding of these place-specific nuances in order to more precisely and effectively provide differentiated supports and resources that are targeted to what our schools and districts actually need.
A key step in developing a more sophisticate lens on campus and district contexts has involved overlaying school performance results over multiple social factors data. Doing so highlights the racially and economically segregated realities of many of the school neighborhoods where compounded social factors have existed for generations. The maps below depict the knotted racial and economic dimensions that surround many of our low-performing schools.
Deepening our understanding of the complex needs and contexts across Texas schools has not made the challenge of systemic improvement so epic that it justifies inaction. Rather, it has served as a calling to develop a more sophisticated and accurate grasp of extreme complexity in order to behave differently—to purposefully engage local wisdom and address place-specific challenges. The TSAT has taken some important first steps towards actualizing such an approach. Looking forward, there are a number of logical next steps:
- Formalizing the GIS tools and processes to ensure that state-level data analysis is situated in geographic and social contexts.
- Deepening our collective capacity to engage in cross-functional teams to ensure that inter- and intra-agency fragmentation doesn’t compromise our efforts.
- Codifying processes for engaging stakeholders in order to better understand the communities we serve.
- Developing new structures for support for metropolises and geographically isolated districts when traditional mechanisms have proved ineffective.
- Serving as a convener for cross-sector collaborations in urban centers where educators alone are insufficient to disrupt generational poverty.3
- Recognizing that low-opportunity neighborhoods and schools are also rich with assets that must be leveraged as core components of the school and district improvement process.4
Anyon, J. (2014). Radical Possibilities: Public Policy, Urban Education, and A New Social Movement. Routledge.
Dreier, P., Mollenkopf, J. H., & Swanstrom, T. (2004). Place matters: Metropolitics for the twenty-first century. University Press of Kansas.
Green, T. L. (2015). Places of Inequality, Places of Possibility: Mapping “Opportunity in Geography” Across Urban School-Communities. The Urban Review, 47(4), 717–741.
Kania, J., Kramer, M., & others. (2011). Collective impact. Stanford social innovation review.
O’connor, A. (1999). Swimming against the tide: A brief history of federal policy in poor communities. Urban Problems and Community Development, 77–137.
Sampson, R. J. (2012). Great American city: Chicago and the enduring neighborhood effect. University of Chicago Press.
Sharkey, P. (2013). Stuck in place: Urban neighborhoods and the end of progress toward racial equality. University of Chicago Press.
1 Anyon, 2014; Dreier, Mollenkopf, & Swanstrom, 2004; Sampson, 2012; Sharkey, 2013
2 O’Connor, 1999
3 Anyon, 2014; Kania, Kramer, & others, 2011; Sharkey, 2013
4 Green, 2015