District Policy Environments & the Quality of Teaching

Principal Investigators

Milbrey McLaughlin, Stanford University
Joan Talbert, Stanford University


This project examined the district policy context as a critical setting and opportunity for the improvement of teaching. In two sets of districts, the study explored how district actors interpret and mediate policies from outside district boundaries and how, at the same time, they construct a consequential local policy context for teaching through routines (e.g., personnel policy and practices) and through innovative ventures (e.g., collaborating with non-formal education actors outside the district).

The project included two components and samples. One component focused on districts within the four Core Study states (CA, NY, NC, and WA), and afforded a comparative look at districts within diverse state and regional policy contexts. OERI and the Spencer Foundation, which underwrote the comparative survey, jointly sponsored this component. Another component was limited to California and 118 districts in the six-county Bay Area region and afforded an intensive look at how districts mediate conditions in a common state and regional context. It built upon and extended these researchers' work on the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative (BASRC), including regional surveys of district administrators and principals and intensive case studies of diverse districts reputed to be strong policy contexts for teaching excellence. These components complemented one another and provided different opportunities for breadth and depth of analysis.

Main Research Questions

  • How (if at all) are priorities for teaching and learning established at the district level? What are they? Who participates in defining them? What is their authority? Are these priorities connected by a strategic vision regarding their joint relationship to teachers' work and careers?
  • How do core district functions (hiring, professional development, evaluation, communication, accountability, etc.) support these priorities or not, both in conception and in practice? Do district policies, taken together, focus or diffuse espoused priorities for teaching excellence? Are various district policies consistent with one another as supports for teaching excellence?
  • How does the district mediate and manage its surrounding policy environment? How does the district interpret and implement state and federal policies and programs? How does it interact with parents, the community, and the private sector around issues related to teachers and teaching? To what extent has the district built coalitions with the unions, the business community, higher education, and others in support of a teaching excellence agenda?


Case study research, survey research, document analysis


Research Completed


Hint! Click on a title to see more information about it. Click on that title again to hide the information.

  1. Building Instructional Quality and Coherence in San Diego City Schools: System Struggle, Professional Change
    Policy Brief 9, September 2003.
  2. Building Instructional Quality: "Inside-Out" and "Outside-In" Perspectives on San Diego's School Reform
    A Research Report by Linda Darling-Hammond, Amy M. Hightower, Jennifer L. Husbands, Jeannette R. LaFors, Viki M. Young, and Carl Christopher, September 2003.

    This research report looks at the aggressive set of policies San Diego City School District used to improve instruction. It reveals how San Diego consolidated and redirected resources, redesigned the district office as well as work in schools, and mediated and leveraged state policy to further its reform agenda. The report also documents the difficulties of managing the politics and implementation of a coherent approach to change in a large district with an established culture of decentralization located in a state with a piecemeal, sometimes conflicting, menu of reforms.

    PDFAbstractOriginal StudyOriginal StudyOriginal Study
  3. Connecting Districts to the Policy Dialogue: A Review of Literature on the Relationship of Districts with States, Schools, and Communities
    A Working Paper by Julie A. Marsh, September 2000.

    This Working Paper reviews literature about the key roles that districts play in supporting improvements in teaching and learning, including the district role in implementing state policies and enacting school-level change and what the key factors are that enable districts to effectively support improvements. It also considers how community involvement and collaboration contribute to districts' improvement efforts. The paper suggests directions for future research to advance the state of knowledge on school districts.

    PDFAbstractOriginal Study
  4. Reforming Districts: How Districts Support School Reform
    A Research Report by Milbrey McLaughlin and Joan Talbert, September 2003.

    By detailing the experiences of three reforming California districts, this research report offers new evidence of district effects on school reform progress and improved student outcomes. The case studies offer instructive exception to conventional wisdom-or myths-about district reform. Among the refuted myths: teachers and principals resist a strong district role; turnover derails efforts to establish and sustain a consistent reform agenda; and local politics will defeat any serious reform agenda.

    PDFAbstractOriginal StudyOriginal Study