Our country’s urban school systems are broken, and they can’t be fixed: That’s where Andy Smarick begins his book The Urban School System of the Future, and it's the basis for his recent post urging that the Broad Foundation stop giving prizes to urban districts.

The award winners, Andy argues, are better examples of the dismal state of education in urban centers than they are shining examples of what’s possible. And given the eleven years Broad has spent searching for success stories, now is the time to acknowledge the futility of the exercise. “No more blind faith in an institution with a 50-year track record of failure,” Andy writes. “End. The Broad Prize. Now.”

While Andy’s crusade to end the urban school district as we know it could be seen as a challenge to the defenders of the status quo, it’s really more a challenge to fellow reformers working within the existing education system: Stop wasting your time trying to fix the unfixable and focus your efforts instead on something that has some hope of success.

Strands of this argument have been carried forward by others, but Andy pushes them to a stark conclusion: The very structure of the current district system—its focus on continuity, stability, and uniformity—works against the high performance and continuous improvement that are required to meet the needs of our most disadvantaged children.

But the reality, as is often the case, is far less straightforward and involves a messy and often contradictory story of how the same structures that helped us make real progress in the twentieth century could also be the ones now holding us back.

A fifty-year track record of failure or a hundred-year record of progress?

Andy argues that most of the problems in American education can be traced back to the fundamental flaws of the school district as the mechanism for providing K–12 education. But is Andy right when he asserts that “the urban district is quite simply a failed organization”?

To answer that question, the scale of time we examine matters mightily. Andy tends to start the clock in the 1960s, but “districts” as central organizing bodies of American education date back at least another 100 years. In order to fairly analyze their strengths and shortcomings, we can’t ignore two-thirds of their lifespan.

Schools districts emerged as an answer to the problem of how to efficiently provide universal K–12 education at scale. They developed alongside a series of complementary changes to the education landscape, including the rise of compulsory education laws, the progressive movement’s push to professionalize the delivery of education, and the systemization of education through common seat-time requirements and common assessments.

This set of policy changes began to take hold in the 1870s in many areas of the country, and in the fifty years that followed, they led to a complete transformation of American education, including the following:

  • Consolidation. A large-scale consolidation of school boards was undertaken, reducing America’s 119,000 school districts in 1937 down to 18,000 by 1970.
  • Compulsory education. Massachusetts enacted the first compulsory-attendance law in 1852. By 1885, sixteen states had followed the Bay State’s lead; by 1890, there were thirty-four states; and by 1918, every state required its children to attend school.
  • Expanding grades. High school education was transformed from elite preparatory academies in the 1870s into a standard element of the school system by 1920.

The rise of large districts led by professional administrators created a mechanism for the first time to dramatically expand the number of students served by our public schools and set basic standards for the education that would be provided. This, in turn, played a key role in helping facilitate the dramatic changes that took place in the decades surrounding the turn of the century.

1870–1970: A sea change in education

What improvements did this set of policy changes usher in? The things you would expect that standardizing, professionalizing and universalizing would help with:

  • Access. In 1870, 54 percent of whites of both sexes, ages 5 to 19, were enrolled in school. By 1920, the percentage had climbed to 65 percent, and by 1970, it had reached 91 percent. The rate for African Americans and other people of color was even more dramatic, increasing from 10 percent in 1870 to 54 percent by 1920 to 89 percent by 1970.
  • Attendance. The average number of days students attended school increased steadily from seventy-eight days in 1869 to 111 days in 1910 to 160 days in 1960.
  • Literacy. In 1870, 12 percent of whites and 80 percent of Blacks were illiterate. By 1910, the white illiteracy rate had dropped to 5 percent and Black rate to 31 percent. By 1979, the white rate was 0.4 percent and the Black rate had dropped to 1.6 percent.
  • High school completion. In 1870, the high school completion rate was 2 percent. By 1910, the rate had nudged upward to 9 percent. By 1940, it reached 50 percent. And by 1969, it had reached 77 percent. The median years of schooling completed climbed from 8.1 grades in 1910 to 12.2 by 1970.
  • College completion. Building upon this universal K–12 foundation, as students made their way through this new system, college completion rates also climbed, from 3.8 percent in 1940 to 13.6 in 1980 for women and from 5.5 percent in 1940 to 21 percent in 1980 for men.

By the 1970s, America’s leadership on universal K–12 education and open access to higher education had placed its educational system and educational outcomes at the top of the world.

1970–present: Growing challenges, slowing progress

While our education system is sometimes is portrayed as falling backwards, it is more accurate to say that since the 1970s we have lived in an era of slower progress and diminished expectations.

Through a series of blog posts, Kevin Drum demonstrates that far from showing a decline, NAEP scores show a slow and steady increase in American elementary and middle school student achievement. And in high school, while overall levels are flat, when disaggregated by race and ethnicity, each group of students is shown to be making progress, with the greatest progress for African American and Latino students.

Of course, the reason our overall high school scores have looked flat on average over the past three decades is because American classrooms are becoming much more diverse. Put another way, we are currently on an achievement treadmill, where our ability to better teach a diverse student population is just barely keeping pace with the growing diversity of our student population.

At the same time, the world hasn’t stood still, and many countries have made much greater gains than we have since the 1970s, leaving American students in the middle of the pack. And here at home, the increasing racial and socioeconomic diversity in schools, coupled with barely incremental achievement gains, has failed to erase the large geographic and racial inequities that continue to plague our country.

Thus, Andy is right to point to absolute levels of achievement in many of our largest cities and wonder how we can find much to celebrate. As he points out in his recent post, only 10 percent of the African American eighth graders in Houston (the 2013 winner of the Broad Prize) are reading at grade level. That’s far too low by anyone’s definition of success. At the same time, there are in fact large districts whose overall results are, if not great, at least average. Of the twenty-one large districts participating in the 2011 NAEP, 24 percent either matched or beat the national average for fourth-grade reading (Charlotte, Hillsborough County, Jefferson County, Austin and Miami-Dade).

In search of a second wave

Universalizing a public service like education is a lot easier than ensuring it is provided with excellence at scale. Indeed, as Andy rightly points out, the same principles of continuity, stability, and uniformity that helped us provide every child with an opportunity to get an education have tended to work against the innovation, customization, and continuous improvement that hold the most promise in ensuring the education we provide is truly great for every child.

That’s a classic “first-wave” problem. You get a huge boost when you universalize a public service, but eventually those gains plateau. Now, we have the much harder challenge of providing high-quality public education at scale because universal mandates rarely compel excellence. Andy rightly points to New Orleans as one of the most promising examples of how governing structures can create the conditions for excellence to emerge, with the new role of leaders being to weed out failures while helping grow examples of success. For example, since 2005 the percentage of eighth graders in New Orleans performing on grade level in math and English increased from 28 percent to 68 percent, just one point below the statewide average of 69 percent. Yet while celebrating the significant gains in New Orleans under this approach, we should also remember that closing the gap with the Louisiana average still leaves students far below the American average, because Louisiana is one of the lowest performing states in the country.

Of course, our job would be easier if we could say that the goal was simply to do better than outright failure. In some areas of the country, that is an accurate description of the state of our schools, and it is there that we should be urgently trying new approaches that take cues from models like New Orleans that have shown growing track records of success. But defining this next wave of education reform as only an answer to outright failure also sets the bar too low for what comes next. We need to embrace the challenge as “second-wave” reformers by not only taking on pockets of failure but also by advancing policies that can dramatically improve the many more fair-to-good districts—rural, suburban, and urban—that could and should be truly great.

Marc Porter Magee, Ph.D. is the director of communications and research at the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now (ConnCAN).