A Curry professor looks at what’s so great about Fairfax County schools.
Photo courtesy of U.Va. News Services.
Rising poverty. A growing immigrant population. Political pressures from special-interest groups. A barrage of federal and state regulations. These are pressures facing public school systems nationwide in the suburbs, not just in cities, and Fairfax County, Va., is no exception. Yet it continues to enjoy a glowing reputation as one of the best school systems in the country by almost any set of measures or standards. What sets it apart from most others, says Daniel L. Duke, a University of Virginia education professor who specializes in organizational change and school design, is not its size or resources, but its success in dealing with the many challenges it has faced over the past 50 years.
In his new book, “Education Empire: The Evolution of an Excellent Suburban School System,” Duke illuminates the complex task of running a school system and how Fairfax does it, offering lessons from which other school systems might benefit. Its successful attributes include a demonstrated openness to innovation and change and a commitment to address and balance competing interests and problems, he said. Having a stable organizational culture where excellence and improvement are central elements gives a context for changes.
“Fairfax is one of the school systems that doesn’t bury its head in the sand” when it comes to challenges, said Duke, director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for Educational Design.
When teaching in the U.Va. Curry School of Education’s Northern Virginia satellite program for educational leadership, Duke said, he was impressed with those participants who worked for Fairfax. He decided to look into the school system’s history and see how it had become the outstanding system it is known as today.
“We live in a time when it’s popular to criticize school systems, especially large ones, for not meeting educational needs. Here’s a school system that’s defying the trend of declining quality and support,” he said. “They’ve actually raised the overall performance level of students.”
Fairfax is the largest school system in Virginia and the 12th largest in the country, educating more than 166,000 students in 205 schools.
Duke brings up the success and improvement in students’ academic achievement to argue that the Fairfax County Public Schools system is the best in the country. According to 2003 rankings by Newsweek, Fairfax high schools sit in the top 4 percent of all U.S. high schools in the number of students taking Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams.
Through a 50-year period, the Fairfax system has weathered enrollment increases and decreases, responded to the political winds of accountability and high-stakes testing and worked on meeting the educational needs of a diverse student population. The Fairfax school system attends to just about every stage of learning — it not only offers preschool programs, but also administers the largest adult learning enterprise in the country and an extensive English as a Second Language program to assist students from 56 different language groups.
The school system doesn’t hide the fact, however, that an achievement gap between white and minority students still exists, as it does in schools around the country, but makes it known that narrowing the gap is a top priority.
As Duke explains in his book: “By dramatically increasing access to rigorous academic programs for minority students, targeting additional resources for schools with high numbers of at-risk students and developing a comprehensive data management system to track student progress and guide timely interventions, Fairfax has done as much as any school system — public, private or parochial — to ensure that all students receive a first-rate education. Even more remarkable, in some ways, is the fact that Fairfax has achieved all this for less money per student than many school systems.”
Duke, who has published 25 books on timely education topics, discusses other possible reasons for Fairfax’s continuing ability to deliver a high-quality education to its students, stressing the system’s outstanding staff and professional development opportunities.
The system also is efficiently run, he points out. Fairfax remains one of the wealthiest districts in the nation, and 87 cents of every tax dollar the school system receives goes to a classroom or school, rather than bureaucracy, he said.
Duke repeatedly shows how the administration did not sit back on its laurels when schools received some measure of achievement. “The organizational culture values inquiry, data, reflection and [foresight in] anticipating problems,” he said.
The Fairfax community’s willingness to pay for and support education cannot be discounted, he says. “There’s an active and savvy community who wants to get the best for its children. Much of the success [of Fairfax] depends on satisfying a lot of interests,” Duke said.
Although more than half of America’s children are educated in suburban public schools, their development has not been adequately studied. Fairfax is “a bellwether” and a model that offers hope to all school systems, both suburban and urban, Duke says.
Why Fairfax County Public School System is Best in Nation
Fairfax County, the largest school system in Virginia and the 12th largest in the country, educates more than 166,000 students in 205 schools. University of Virginia education professor Daniel L. Duke argues in his new book, “Education Empire,” that its success is due to several factors:
- creating a stable organizational culture open to innovation and change
- being committed to addressing and balancing competing interests
- taking the time to anticipate problems and research educational trends
- offering rigorous academic programs for minority students
- targeting additional resources for schools with high numbers of at-risk students
- developing a comprehensive data management system to track student progress
- maintaining an outstanding staff and addressing their professional development
- working with the community
In 2003 rankings by Newsweek, Fairfax high schools were in the top 4 percent of all U.S. high schools in the number of students taking Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams.
This article originally appeared on Top News Daily on July 22, 2005.