Case Study: Where Angels Fear to Tread – Recovering the Lost Legacy of District 2 in NYC

Elmore and Burney (1997) and others have written extensively about the District 2 story including the efforts of two storied leaders throughout that period, Tony Alvarado and Elaine Fink. In this case study I will describe in some detail the inside subtleties and strategies of one particular project – and the most successful academically – of the many improvement scenarios that took place in that decade. District 2’s forty-eight schools had gone from ranking below the middle in mathematics to the top performing district in New York City. They had implemented a particular approach to coaching in all their schools – content-focused coaching led by Lucy West (see West and Staub 2003). This math coaching began 5 years into the decade, continued for 7 years, and was done differently from literacy coaching. 

It is my hope that this small, focused case study of the math project within a large education reform effort will inhibit school leaders of the present and future from rushed and superficial adoption of seemingly powerful approaches. Taking time to study a successful innovation in depth does not produce a step-by-step playbook to follow slavishly. This is not about formulas and structures. It is about uncovering the web of decisions and interpersonal moves that made it work. And at the base are essential principles to understand.