What High-Performing Districts Look Like

Successful systems are carefully designed with each element reinforcing and strengthening the other to achieve a shared vision.

Change is Needed Now

The National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE), NISL’s parent organization, has spent almost 30 years studying the education systems of top performing countries. This research has identified the elements common to top-performing education systems around the world. More importantly, this research found that these systems are designed as systems, with each element purposefully reinforcing and strengthening the other. These systems are outperforming U.S. districts in student learning and equity, and they are yielding these results at a lower cost. So what are the elements of these systems and how do these elements fit together?

At the heart of these school systems is a focus on supporting all students so that they can succeed in college and careers. To do so, top jurisdictions begin their support of students early—providing strong supports for children and their families so that all students arrive at school healthy and ready to learn. They continue to ensure equity by providing more resources and better teachers to at-risk students so that they can reach the same high standards as their peers. Top-performing systems have well-developed, highly coherent and very demanding instructional systems that incorporate student performance standards, curriculum, assessments and instructional methods. The students not only have the instructional system to succeed; they and everyone else in the system knows what it takes to succeed as there are clear gateways, set to global standards, with no dead ends. Helping students clear these gateways are an abundant supply of highly qualified teachers who have been recruited from the top ranks of high school graduating classes and have made it through rigorous admissions screens before studying their content area, the craft of teaching, and the skills necessary to conduct the ongoing research necessary to continually improve their practice. These teachers enter schools where teachers are treated as professionals, with incentives and support to constantly improve their professional practice and the performance of their students. They enter a career ladder that offers increasing responsibility, authority, autonomy and compensation. Those higher in the ladder work to support those earlier in their careers, continually improving instruction at all levels. Teachers demonstrate and observe each other. They meet regularly to research, develop, evaluate and revise instruction. These top-systems offer a effective career and technical education that provides real opportunity for students, but also demands high levels of learning and instruction. School and system-level leaders are carefully recruited and supported throughout their career progression. At the top is a governance system that has the authority and legitimacy to develop coherent, powerful policies and is capable of implementing them at scale.

Must U.S. systems adopt all of these elements? No. They most likely can’t adopt all of these and shouldn’t. Rather, they must adapt these elements to their own context and focus on the elements that they have the most authority and capacity to influence, and that will have the most significant impact. What they should adopt wholesale are the twin goals of understanding how each element in their system supports or hinders the others, and undertaking the hard work to plan and implement a design that re-builds what may be ad-hoc elements into a cohesive, efficient and effective system.

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