What guidance does research provide school districts about how to improve system performance and increase equity? Despite over 30 years of inquiry on the topic of effective districts, existing frameworks are relatively narrow in terms of disciplinary focus (primarily educational leadership perspectives) and research design (primarily qualitative case studies). To bridge this gap, we first review the theoretical literatures on how districts are thought to affect student outcomes, arguing that an expanded set of disciplinary perspectives—organizational behavior, political science, and economics—have distinct theories about why districts matter. Next, we conduct a systematic review of quantitative studies that estimate the relationship between district-level inputs and performance outcomes. This review reveals benefits of district-level policies that cross disciplinary perspectives, including higher teacher salaries and strategic hiring, lower student-teacher ratios, and data use. One implication is that future research on district-level policymaking needs to consider multiple disciplinary perspectives. Our review also reveals the need for significant additional causal evidence and provides a multidisciplinary map of theorized pathways through which districts could influence student outcomes that are ripe for rigorous testing.
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