What is District-Syndrome?

dis·trict /ˈdistrikt/  syn·drome /ˈsinˌdrōm/
A condition whereby education reformers believe that education can only be improved at scale by working with the district.
“Business leaders created a city public education fund and made the superintendent the board chair because they suffered from District-Syndrome.”
“Education reformers viewed charter school expansion as a boutique solution because they suffered from District-Syndrome, which prevented them from understanding that you could scale the charter sector quicker than you could improve the district.”
  • Status quo bias: The district has been the primary mechanism for public education for over a hundred years.
  • Strong superintendent leadership: Thoughtful, passionate, and hard-working superintendents put forth compelling visions of district reform which reduces support for other reform alternatives.
  • Cognitive dissonance: The idea of improving public education without deep partnership with the district seems untenable for gut intellectual and emotional reasons – how can you make public education better if you don’t work with the primary provider of public education?
  • Tribal affiliation: Those who are trying to improve education view district leadership as part of their tribe, which they generally are.
  • International comparisons: Comparisons with countries with high-performing educational systems reveals that most improvements were made via district improvement, ignoring the fact that most of these countries have very different histories, cultures, and structures than we do.


  • Case studies: Researching cities like New Orleans, or countries such as the Netherlands, can help cure District-Syndrome.
  • Scenario modeling: Conducting realistic analysis of how long it will take to improve the district, compared to how long it could take to replace the district with something better, helps alleviate many causes of District-Syndrome.
  • Sector Analogies: Studying how other sectors have effectively decentralized and deregulated helps create a sense of possibility that can combat District-Syndrome.

/related syndromes/

  • Market-Syndrome: The mistaken belief that markets will solve all our education problems, despite the expansive research on how creating markets for merit goods can be difficult.
  • Charter-Syndrome: The mistaken belief that charter school expansion, alone, will solve all our educational problems.
  • Human-Capital-Syndrome: The mistaken belief that simply attracting better talent will solve most our educational problems.
  • Tech-Syndrome: The mistaken belief that, in the short-term, better technology will solve most our educational problems.

/to be clear/

I strongly want school districts to get better.

I admire many district superintendents.

I’m just deeply cognizant of how structural barriers make their work extremely difficult, no matter how brilliant the leader.

I believe that there are alternate paths, such as creating charter districts, that might increase educational opportunity at a faster pace.

I don’t know if I’m right about my preferred strategies, but I worry that District-Syndrome will prevent us from ever finding out.

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