As his tenure at the helm of the Rochester City School District draws to a close, Superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard says the district has improved student achievement faster than most urban districts and has now reached a tipping point.
Experts on urban education agree with Brizard to a point, but as he leaves for Chicago, they say, the most important period for the district could be the near future.
Kenneth Wong, chairman of the education department at Brown University, said that in urban districts it generally will take two to three years for a superintendent to make measurable changes at the school level and four to five years to create systemwide change. This means Brizard leaves right on the cusp of what could be greater progress in graduation rates and standardized test scores.
"He was just about hitting that time frame that is normally the expectation to see systemwide improvement, and he did improve the graduation rate from lower than 40 percent to about 50 percent," Wong said. "In addition there are a lot more students taking AP courses."
Since Brizard took over, the graduation rate rose from 39 percent in 2007 to what the district said will be 51 percent in 2010, but some in the Chicago media and locally have taken issue with the district’s figures. The 39 percent rate came from 2006, before Brizard became superintendent, and in his first full year, 2008, the graduation rate was 52 percent.
Early improvements in graduation rates are often the result of a superintendent picking off "the low-hanging fruit," said Judith Fonzi, director and associate professor at the University of Rochester’s Warner Center for Professional Development and Education Reform. This could be as simple as improving record-keeping to track students better and note whether they graduate in June or August, she added.
Regardless, Fonzi said, she does not doubt that Brizard brought greater change to the district than in previous years.
"He was not just tweaking around the edges," said Fonzi, who works in the district with teachers and said she largely agreed with Brizard’s approach. "He really came in and took on the system as a whole and the status quo and said, ‘This has to change.’"
The most important initiative for the district now is to strengthen the connection between the high school curriculum and college readiness, Wong said.
Margaret Raymond, director of the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, said she cautions against using graduation rates alone to judge Brizard’s performance or the progress of the district, agreeing with Wong that college readiness is important as well.
"From my viewpoint, the real story requires both graduation and post-secondary statistics to accurately reflect improvement," Raymond wrote in an email message.
On that front the district still has room to improve. A state Education Department report showed that just 5 percent of students who graduated were prepared for college, judged by the number of students who received at least a 75 on the English Regents exam and 80 on the math Regents exam.
Brizard acknowledged poor performance by the district on those measures and said he welcomed the attention paid to post-high school readiness. He also noted that the district has improved to the point where 60 percent of students attending college go directly after high school.
While Raymond said she is not aware of any studies comparing districts at large, she can attest that in many districts of similar size there have been consistent efforts to improve outcomes since the mid-2000s without achieving the results Rochester has. In some districts, the needle has not moved at all on graduation rates, she noted.
UR’s Fonzi disagrees with Brizard on one point-that the district has reached a tipping point. The transformation has yet to happen, and now it will depend on who follows Brizard, she said.
"We are not past that critical point," she said. "So a new superintendent will either make or break it. These changes cannot stand on their own yet, so now the question is who wants to come into a district and continue someone else’s agenda."
Wong said Rochester is in a good position to build on Brizard’s achievements, especially with a new breed of superintendents who are more data-driven and have a greater focus on student learning. These superintendents are unafraid to try new approaches or to foster learning in novel ways, Wong said.
While school board members may not agree entirely with Brizard’s approach, they should consider some of the same qualities he brought, Wong said. He hopes they consider a candidate who is focused on student learning, is innovative, seeks evidence to guide approaches and is sensitive to larger management issues and to teachers and teaching.
"One of the biggest challenges in urban districts once a superintendent departs is the whole thing starts from scratch," Wong said. "The superintendent here has already invested in a lot of very important initiatives, and they’re beginning to produce measurable results."
Judging by the average timeline for urban districts, in the coming years Rochester should see even more rapid improvements as a new superintendent builds on the foundation Brizard has laid, Wong said.
"He’s just at a point where he laid a foundation in a positive way that it’s enough for the next superintendent to build on," Wong said.
There are other factors that set Rochester up for more improvement in the future, Wong said. Despite losing its mayor to Albany, the election of Thomas Richards as mayor adds a sense of continuity in City Hall.
A mayor can have an important role in the reform efforts of a school district, building partnerships that extend beyond the district or local government.
"It doesn’t just have to be mayoral control; there are other ways to get engaged," said Wong, who has studied mayoral control in urban districts. "A new mayor builds on and finds creative ways to make new partnerships. That could be an annual meeting of stakeholders including university presidents, school board members and members of the business community."
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