John O. Simpson knew how the staff at school system headquarters operated: much paper shuffling but little contact with students. So after he became superintendent of the Norfolk school system in 1998, he told central office instructional specialists to get out of the building and spend at least 70 percent of their time in classrooms helping teachers.

Several people working at headquarters were not comfortable with the new rules; some resigned or retired. But for others, getting into the classroom became routine. Student test scores began to climb.

The rise in achievement and the narrowing of the test score gap between affluent and disadvantaged students led to the Norfolk schools receiving this year's Broad (rhymes with road) Prize for Urban Education. The Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation awarded Norfolk $500,000 and cited the school system's revitalization of its headquarters staff and relentless pursuit of classroom data.

The award, fast becoming a benchmark for low-income school systems tired of being singled out as bad examples, was given Sept. 20 at a conference in the District, where representatives from several competing school systems discussed how the D.C. schools, looking for a revival under new superintendent Clifford B. Janey, might someday qualify.

On most measures, the District's public schools rank among the worst in the country, even when compared with other school systems with similarly large numbers of low-income students who, research shows, are usually the most difficult to educate. Several Broad award winners and finalists said the secret to turning around a school system in trouble is making sure the focus is on students, rather than political battles similar to ones that have come to characterize the D.C. schools in recent years.

"The hardest part of this is not the students. They rise to the expectations very quickly," said Laura Schwalm, superintendent of the Garden Grove, Calif., school system, which won the Broad Prize last year. "The challenge is to get all the adults -- governance people, employee groups and other individuals -- to set aside their own interests and base all their decisions and actions on what will be best for the students."

For every persistent flaw in the D.C. school system, the Broad winner and contenders suggest a solution. Teaching methods in the District often vary from school to school and classroom to classroom. Norfolk, faced with a similar situation, turned 22 different reading programs into one standard curriculum. Aldine, Tex., one of this year's Broad finalists, has a common assessment of all students in all subjects every three weeks, and teachers know immediately if their classes have fallen behind. District teachers have had to measure student progress on their own, with computerized data systems often breaking down.

In the District, teachers often find themselves working alone with little support; in Boston, teachers meet in weekly study groups to discuss among themselves and with a coach how to reach classroom goals. Parents often complain of difficulty in dealing with the D.C. school system; 2005 Broad finalist New York City has hired a full-time parent coordinator for each school.

Not all experts approve of Broad's heavy emphasis on data and procedures in deciding who gets its award. Susan Ohanian, a former teacher and author of several books on improving schools, said that "the human element is not involved at all" and that school systems are praised for giving their poorest students what Ohanian calls the "castor oil" of prescriptive lessons and frequent tests.

But those who defend the award say there is nothing wrong with assessing how many more children are learning to read and do math. In the past four years, the proportion of elementary students in Norfolk schools who reached proficiency on state tests in both reading and math increased by 14 percentage points, the Broad Foundation reported. Middle school reading scores went up 12 points in that period, and middle school math scores were up 23 points. The foundation said the gap between the achievement of white students and minority students was reduced at all grade levels.

Lauren D. Campsen, principal of Ocean View Elementary School in Norfolk, said the more than two hours of language arts instruction her first-graders get is essential, particularly if they arrive at school trailing others in their grade. "If they are already behind and only grow a year in academic achievement," she said, "they are never going to catch up."

Good systems have "learned to rely on data," said Nadine Kujawa, superintendent of the Aldine schools. "Test scores and homework, for example, help us monitor each student's progress as well as the effectiveness of the instructional program."

Political problems persist in many school systems, however, and since 2002, the Broad Foundation has tried to show policymakers how to get along with one another in training sessions for 122 school board members in 29 urban districts. Paul D. Fraim, Norfolk's mayor, said his city has benefited from "regular, open communications and joint meetings between the council and school board," but he did not say how other cities might develop those good habits.

Thomas W. Payzant, the superintendent of Boston's public schools, said one reason for his 10-year record of stable and successful leadership that helped Boston become a Broad finalist this year was that he had the same supportive mayor throughout his tenure. Mayor Thomas M. Menino appoints all seven members of the Boston School Committee, which Payzant said keeps factionalism to a minimum.

Eli Broad, the insurance industry magnate who established the award, said District schools suffer from what he calls a "diffusion of governance" with Congress, the mayor, the D.C. Council and the school board sharing power -- and often having different priorities.

Norfolk's success stems in part from its established standards, its accountability and Simpson's strong leadership, Broad said. But much of that came about because "you had a board that was appointed by both the mayor and the City Council" -- a board that was united in its vision for the schools.

"It all comes down to management and governance," Broad said.

Ocean View Elementary teacher Allison Bower helps first-graders with their reading. Ocean View is part of the Norfolk system, this year's Broad Prize winner.Ocean View Elementary student Sariyah King works on reading and writing. In the past four years, the proportion of her peers in Norfolk schools who reached proficiency in reading and math increased by 14 percentage points.