The Shifting Landscape of the American School District

Race, Class, Geography, and the Perpetual Reform of Local Control, 1935–2015

by David Gamson (Volume editor) Emily Hodge (Volume editor)
©2018 Textbook XXII, 244 Pages


The Shifting Landscape of the American School District offers a new perspective on the American school district. The educational system of the United States has long been characterized by its tradition of local control, and the district has symbolized community involvement in education. Scholars have written insightful studies on individual city systems and school districts, but rarely has the district—as an organizational form itself—been the subject of scrutiny, and Americans have continued to take the district for granted as the primary unit of local schooling. In recent years reformers have also built many of their innovations upon the belief that it is the traditional, bureaucratic, hierarchical district that requires overhaul. The Shifting Landscape of the American School District seeks to challenge that perception. The editors argue that the pervasive view of district history—the notion that the school district is a holdover from the progressive reforms of the early twentieth century—has shrouded a fascinating story of the ways in which districts have evolved, innovated, and reacted in response to state and federal mandates, national reform movements, demographic shifts, desegregation, structural/organizational changes, and a shifting political climate. The chapters in this volume offer compelling evidence of the many ways that districts have expanded, contracted, integrated, consolidated, reorganized, and been torn apart over the past century. By covering a wide range of time periods, the authors are able to draw fascinating parallels between the past and present.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • List of Figures and Tables
  • Figures
  • Tables
  • Preface: Re-examining the American School District (David A. Gamson / Emily M. Hodge)
  • Central Arguments and Contribution
  • The Organization of This Volume
  • Cross-Cutting Themes
  • Notes
  • 1. The Relentless Reinvention of the American School District (David A. Gamson / Emily M. Hodge)
  • Recent Views on the District
  • Nineteenth-Century Organizations: From District School to School District
  • Creating New Institutions
  • The Apotheosis of the Large Urban District
  • District Reorganization
  • Too Much Community Involvement?
  • Continued Shifts in Thinking about the Nature of Local Educational Control
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • 2. The Geo-Spatial Distribution of Educational Attainment: School Districts, Cultural Capital and Inequality in Metropolitan Kansas City, 1960–1980 (John L. Rury / Sanae Akaba)
  • Adult Educational Attainment as a Focal Point
  • Kansas City as a Case Study
  • Mapping Adult Educational Inequality: Data and Method
  • Uneven Development and Educational Attainment
  • The Spatial Organization of Attainment
  • A Look at Adolescent Attainment
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • 3. District Consolidation, Detracking, and School Choice: Lessons from the Woodland Hills School District in Western Pennsylvania (Emily M. Hodge)
  • Background of the Woodland Hills School District
  • Legal Context
  • Drafting the General Braddock School District
  • Dismantling the General Braddock Area School District: Hoots v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
  • Consent Decree and Detracking Reforms: 1988–1993
  • Declared Unitary: 2003
  • The Woodland Hills School District Today
  • Changing Racial Demographics
  • School Choice: Private Schools, Charter Schools, and Public Schools in Woodland Hills
  • Tracking
  • Implications
  • Timeline of the Hoots Cases
  • Notes
  • 4. Crossing the Line? School District Responses to Demographic Change in the South (Genevieve Siegel-Hawley / Stefani Thachik)
  • School Boundaries and Segregation
  • Factors Related to Consolidation
  • Theory Related to Metropolitan Consolidation and School Desegregation
  • Research Design, Data and Methods
  • Cross-Case Analysis and Site Selection
  • Background: Responses to Demographic Change in Two Southern Metros
  • District and School Boundary Lines in Chattanooga-Hamilton County, Tennessee
  • District and School Boundaries in Richmond-Henrico-Chesterfield, Virginia
  • The Present Day
  • School Rezoning in Richmond Public Schools
  • Drawing New Zones
  • Public Sentiment
  • Analysis
  • Enrollment
  • Segregation
  • School Rezoning in Richmond Public Schools
  • Discussion
  • Limitations and Recommendations for Future Research
  • Policy Recommendations
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • 5. Fairness, Commitment, and Civic Capacity: The Varied Desegregation Trajectories of Metropolitan School Districts (Ansley T. Erickson)
  • Consolidation before Desegregation: Nashville and Charlotte Metropolitan Districts
  • Consolidation alongside Desegregation: Louisville and Raleigh Metropolitan Districts
  • Notes
  • 6. From the District to the State to the Nation: How a High-Needs District became the Testing Ground for Federal High-stakes Accountability Policies (Emily E. Straus)
  • Notes
  • 7. The Limits of Top-Down Versus Bottom-Up Educational Reform During the Great Depression (Karen Benjamin)
  • Educational Reform and the Crisis in Rural Education
  • Teachers, Child-Centered Education, and Depression-Era Retrenchment
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • 8. Demographics and Performance in New York City’s School Networks: An Initial Inquiry (Norm Fruchter / Toi Sin Arvidsson / Christina Mokhtar / John Beam)
  • Introduction
  • Background
  • Findings: Initial Analysis of Academic Outcomes
  • Findings: A Differentiated Analysis of Academic Outcomes
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • 9. Enduring Dilemmas in Democratic Urban District Reform: The Oakland Case (Tina M. Trujillo / Laura E. Hernández / René Espinoza Kissell)
  • Background: The Oakland Context
  • Literature Review
  • Urban District Reform
  • Empirical Investigations of the Oakland Unified School District
  • Full-Service Community Schools
  • Conceptual Framework
  • Structural Racialization and Targeted Universalism
  • Urban Regime Theory
  • Racialized Social Capital
  • Methods and Data Sources
  • Findings
  • A Superintendent
  • A High School Student
  • A Parent and Community Organizer
  • A Teacher, Coach, Activist and Scholar
  • A Public School Principal
  • An Education Reformer
  • A Board Member
  • A City Official, Community Activist, and Longtime Educator
  • A Local Venture Philanthropist
  • Discussion
  • Notes
  • 10. Institutional Theory and the History of District-level School Reform: A Reintroduction (Judith Kafka)
  • Institutional Theory and Schools
  • District Histories and Institutional Theory
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Contributors
  • Series index

| ix →

Figures and Tables


Figure 2.1: 1960 Some College (Including Graduates) (Extracted from Social Explorer Plus)

Figure 2.2: 1980 Four Years of College or More (Extracted from Social Explorer Plus)

Figure 3.1: Map of Pittsburgh Region

Figure 3.2: Map of Twelve Original Communities Merged to Form the Woodland Hills School District; Percentage of African American Residents by Community, 1960

Figure 4.1: White Enrollment in Grades 1–8 by Board Approved Elementary Zones, Richmond City Neighborhoods

Figure 8.1: Elementary Schools—4th Grade ELA Proficiency Scores (2012)

Figure 8.2: Middle Schools—8th Grade ELA Proficiency Scores (2012)

Figure 8.3: Four-Year High School Graduation Rates (2012)

Figure 8.4: High School Aspirational Performance Measure/College Readiness Rates (2012)

Figure 8.5: Predicted Network Effects for Elementary Schools—4th Grade ELA Proficiency Rates (2012)

Figure 8.6: Network Effects for Middle Schools—8th Grade ELA Proficiency Rates (2012)

Figure 8.7: Network Effects for High Schools—Four-Year Graduation Rates (2012)

Figure 8.8: Network Effects for High Schools—Four-Year Aspirational Performance Measure/College Readiness Rates (2012) ← ix | x →


Table 2.1: Descriptive Statistics, 1960: Five Geo-Spatial Areas (weighted averages of tract data)

Table 2.2: Descriptive Statistics, 1980: Five Geo-Spatial Areas (weighted averages of tract data)

Table 2.3: Regression Analysis, Adult Education Levels in 1960 (Census Tract Data)

Table 2.4: Regression Analysis, Adult Education Levels in 1980 (Census Tract Data)

Table 2.5: Binary Logistic Regression: Junior Year Status or Higher, 17 Year-olds in 1980

Table 2.6: OLS Regression Variable Definitions, Census Tract Data.

Table 3.1: District Consolidation and Percentage Minority Enrollment by District, 1960–2010

Table 3.2: Changes in Racial Demographics, School Enrollment, and Income for Selected Woodland Hills Boroughs, 2000–2010

Table 3.3: Changes in Racial Demographics, School Enrollment, and Income for Selected Woodland Hills Boroughs, 2000–2010

Table 4.1: Student Enrollment by Race, 1992, 1999, and 2008

Table 4.2: Percent Students by Race Enrolled in Intensely Segregated Schools, Chattanooga City and Hamilton County Schools, 1992

Table 4.3: Percent Students by Race Enrolled in Intensely Segregated Schools, Richmond City, Henrico County, and Chesterfield County, 1992, 1999, and 2008

Table 4.4: Percent Students by Race in Intensely Segregated Schools, Chattanooga-Hamilton County, 1992–1993, 1999–2000, and 2008–2009

Table 4.5: Index of Dissimilarity for White-Black, White-Latino and White-Asian Students, Richmond and Chattanooga Metro School Districts, 1992–1993, 1999–2000, and 2008–2009

Table 4.6: White Enrollment in Grades 1–8 by Board Approved Elementary Zones, Richmond City Neighborhoods

Table 5.1: Consolidation and Desegregation Timeline and Structure in Each of the Four Districts ← x | xi →

Table 8.1: Percent of Variance in Academic Performance between Networks

Table 8.2: Percent of Variance in Academic Performance across Networks Explained by Student Demographics

| xiii →

Preface: Re-examining the American School District


This volume offers new perspectives on the American school district, an institution that is rather unique to the United States, and one that has long occupied a curious spot in our educational thought and history. At times depicted as the embodiment of localized nineteenth-century democracy or as an exemplar of Progressive Era educational reform, the school district became, by the 1960s and 1970s, the target of critics who viewed it as overly bureaucratic and pathologically flawed, unresponsive to parental and community demands, and incapable of fostering needed grassroots changes.1

In order to correct the perceived failings of school districts, especially those in large urban centers, reformers began offering a broad range of new educational initiatives in the 1980s and 1990s. Many of these proposals viewed the school district as a barrier to reform. For example, some policymakers sought to render the district powerless or obsolete through vouchers or charter schools; others advocated for standards-based reform and identified the state, rather than the district, as the appropriate site for prompting instructional change. Yet despite a half-century’s worth of critiques, the district has remained a remarkably resilient organization. In fact, more recently, teams of researchers who have closely followed powerful examples of district-led reform efforts argue that districts can reorient and re-culture their central offices to foment significant system-wide instructional change.2 This brief synopsis only scratches the surface of the ways that researchers and the public have viewed the district; indeed, part of the goal of this edited volume is to provide more detail about the ways that views of districts have changed over time.

Our aim is to devote serious scholarly attention to the school district as an institutional form. There is no one way to analyze the district, of course, and no single monograph could do complete justice to the multifaceted nature ← xiii | xiv → of American local educational control. Therefore, our approach is to offer a prismatic set of portraits that offer a fuller, multidimensional story. We believe that such a set of district cases provides a valuable contribution to the existing policy and historical literature on school districts.

In recent years, a number of excellent policy studies have been published on school district reform, with many focusing on the immense challenges facing individual districts as they endeavor to implement and sustain profound instructional improvements.3 Historians, too, have long been fascinated by districts, authoring comprehensive case studies tracking large city systems over decades of change.4 However, as strong as many of these histories and policy studies are, most tend to take the district for granted as the primary organizational unit of local schooling. On the face of it, this assumption makes sense: the American educational system has long been characterized by its tradition of local control, and the district has symbolized community involvement in education. Moreover, a good deal of scholarship has helped to reinforce the notion that the district serves as something of a stage upon which the more interesting dynamics of urban schooling unfold, in part because researchers have assumed that the district has remained a relatively static institution throughout much of the past century. This book seeks to challenge that perception.5

The school district, we assert, is no longer the largely autonomous entity it was at the end of the Progressive Era. The chapters in this volume offer compelling evidence of the many ways that districts have expanded and contracted, integrated and resisted desegregation, endeavored to reorganize or restructure, pushed for instructional and curricular reform, sought community involvement, and been buffeted by external factors. Historians have a special role in analyzing the unique American political entity of the school district, and we can perhaps have the most influence if we connect our research to the urgent concerns of today’s policymakers. Therefore, the chapters in this volume cover a wide range of time periods in part as a means to draw appropriate parallels between the past and present. Policymakers and researchers may well be surprised to learn that districts have long sought to accomplish many of the aims that they see as novel today, whether those efforts have focused on better instruction, sounder curricula, stronger leadership, or more equitable classroom and enrollment practices. This is where history can help inform better policy. One of our purposes here is to demonstrate that districts often hold the latent capacity to undertake significant change, but those potentialities are not always immediately recognizable when only examined over short periods of time.

Most of the school districts under examination in this volume have experienced waves of reform efforts over multiple decades, from smaller grassroots ← xiv | xv → efforts designed to alleviate racially and economically isolated neighborhoods to dramatic multi-year state takeovers of underfunded districts. In The Shifting Landscape of the American School District, we include chapters that look at how different configurations of district boundary lines across metropolitan areas influence educational equity and outcomes. We examine how districts have tried to navigate the tension between top-down and bottom-up reforms, like student-centered instruction and wraparound services, in ways that balance the democratic participation of teachers and community members with central office leadership.

Although our public schools and local education agencies have experienced turbulence over the past half-century, school districts remain at the heart of the American educational enterprise. Despite the national attention that has been devoted to charter schools, vouchers, and cyber schools over the past two decades, the vast majority of U.S. students attend traditional public schools. We still depend on that standard mechanism of local control—the district—to operate our schools. Yet, although we know a good deal about the development of local control in the nineteenth century and about the rise of large, centralized, and bureaucratized school systems during the Progressive Era, we know remarkably little about the evolution of the school district, this fundamental democratic institution, in the years since the 1930s. A central purpose of this book is to address this analytic oversight.

Over the past half-century, reformers and researchers alike have analyzed, critiqued, and reimagined the school district from multiple analytic perspectives. While many predicted districts would self-destruct or recede into obsolescence, the district (as we discuss in Chapter 1) has proven remarkably resilient. Whether this is a testament to its vitality or its resistance to change, there is no immediate evidence that districts will be disappearing anytime soon. When policymakers talk of accountability, it is usually the districts and their schools that take the brunt of much of the criticism—yet districts also bear the daily burden of providing education to millions of schoolchildren without ever receiving much acknowledgement for that accomplishment. We often forget that many of our biggest social concerns are filtered through the lens of the district, be those issues of race, equity, democracy, high-quality academic standards, or equal educational opportunity.

Central Arguments and Contribution

David Tyack developed one of the most comprehensive and lasting analyses of the “organizational revolution” that took place in early twentieth-century schooling, and he argued that an inner circle of policy elites had advocated ← xv | xvi → and implemented a “one best system” of education. This “one best system” was a school district organized along bureaucratic lines via a model borrowed from the business world, and it installed professional educators, replacing local, ward-based politics with a new form of middle class politics. It is Tyack’s one best system notion that has stood as the touchstone for many historians studying the district.

Over the past several decades, it has often been the one best system that reformers cite as a major problem in school reform. For example, in their well-known plea for the insertion of choice into public schooling, John Chubb and Terry Moe identify the root of the problem as “the one best system.” Despite raging policy debates and ongoing efforts to implement reforms targeting instructional practice, the “one best system,” say Chubb and Moe, “has consistently stood above it all.”6 The seeming ability of the school district to block fundamental change has frustrated a whole string of reformers who believe that school districts have become patently undemocratic.7


XXII, 244
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (March)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Vienna, Oxford, Wien, 2018. XXII, 244 pp., 13 b/w ill., 18 tbl.

Biographical notes

David Gamson (Volume editor) Emily Hodge (Volume editor)

David A. Gamson (Ph.D., Stanford University) is Associate Professor of Education in the Department of Education Policy Studies at The Pennsylvania State University. His research focuses on educational policy and school reform, past and present. Gamson has written about the role of school districts in Progressive Era reform and, more recently, has been studying the evolving roles and responsibilities of the school district since World War II, the changes to policies designed to provide equal educational opportunities over the past century, and the use of academic standards before the 1980s. Gamson has been a fellow in the Advanced Studies Fellowship Program at Brown University and a National Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellow. His publications have appeared in Educational Researcher; Paedagogica Historica; the Journal of Educational Administration; Mind, Brain, and Education; Intelligence; and the 2007 Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education. His book, The Importance of Being Urban, is forthcoming. During the 2015–2016 academic year, he was a visiting scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation. Emily M. Hodge (Ph.D., The Pennsylvania State University) is Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership at Montclair State University in New Jersey. Her work uses historical and qualitative methods, as well as social network analysis, to understand the changing nature of strategies for educational equity. Recent projects have explored how educational systems, schools, and teachers negotiate the tension between standardization and differentiation in the context of the Common Core State Standards, and the varied strategies state education agencies are using to support standards implementation. Hodge is a recipient of a Small Research Grant from the Spencer Foundation. Her research appears in Educational Policy, English Teaching: Practice and Critique, Education Law and Policy Review, Review of Research in Education, and AERA Open.


Title: The Shifting Landscape of the American School District