Lessons from high-performers

They focus on data and teachers

Impressive things are happening in little known districts like Sanger (10,000 students) and Hawthorne (9,000) as well as in bigger districts like Long Beach (the state’s third largest, with 88,000), Fresno (fourth largest), and Garden Grove (eleventh largest).

Significant numbers of English learners and minority students are becoming proficient on state tests in each of the districts. The progress has been consistent and impressive. And it’s been largely under the radar.

True, two of the districts have won the Broad Prize honoring the best in urban education (Long Beach in 2003 and Garden Grove in 2004), and three (Long Beach, Sanger, and Fresno) drew attention this year as leaders in the state’s second-round Race to the Top application.

But the districts have progressed by focusing inward, ignoring fads and avoiding controversies, board infighting, and labor strife that have beset large districts like Los Angeles, San Diego, and Capistrano.

Last week, the board of WestEd, the nonprofit education research agency, gathered together eight superintendents who are turning around districts in California to decipher the common ingredients behind their successes. I had the good fortune, as moderator of a panel discussion, of attending the symposium.

The eight superintendents were Marc Johnson, Sanger Unified; Christopher Steinhauser, Long Beach Unified; Michael Hanson, Fresno Unified; Laura Schwalm, Garden Grove Unified; Helen Morgan, Hawthorne School District; Sandra Thorstensen, Whittier Union High School District; Kent Bechler, Corona-Norco Unified; and Lou Obermeyer, Valley Center-Pauma Unified School District.

So what’s working for them? Number one, using student data to inform instruction.

That in itself is nothing new; it’s become a cliché for superintendents to say that they adhere to it. Yet often it’s lip service.

In the case of the “WestEd eight,” it is the core of what the districts do and the focus of the superintendents’ conversations with staff. It’s integrated in data systems, districtwide metrics, teacher evaluations, and staff collaborations that they have encouraged. It certainly is a reason why Garden Grove has become the first sizable urban district with an API above the target 800 even though English learners comprise 46 percent of its students – and why Ed Trust-West touts Corona-Norco’s proficiency gains in eighth grade English language arts in a new report on Latino students.

Attention to data and teacher development are goals that must be addressed by Race to the Top winners and are among priorities in the Obama administration’s proposed blueprint for revising the Elementary and Secondary Education Act – aka No Child Left Behind. But approaching data and teacher development collaboratively, on a districtwide basis, offers a different approach to school reform than the administration’s current push for quickly turning around the nation’s 5,000 worst-performing schools by forcing them to close or convert to charter schools or replace principals and pay teachers based on test scores.

Crisis-driven reforms stealing the show

Depending on how dysfunctional the district is, how impatient parents are, and how many good charters want in, there will be a need for individual school transformations. But, as Warren Simmons, executive director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, told the superintendents, their less flashy vision of reform could easily lose out to the crisis-driven, conflict laden version that’s getting more attention.

There were common elements of leadership and mission that I heard the WestEd eight describe.

Longevity: They are not your turnaround specialists brought in to bust heads and leave. Schwalm has been Garden Grove superintendent 12 years, Thorstensen has been in Whittier nine years, Steinhauser and Johnson have led their districts eight years, with Hanson five years in Fresno.

Steinhauser, Schwalm, Thorstensen, and Helen Morgan of Hawthorne have spent their careers in one district. They intimately know their communities and have built trust over time with their teachers and board trustees. They’d be the last ones to sign the Superintendents’ Manifesto, signed by New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein,  former Washington, D.C., chancellor Michelle Rhee and 14 other big-city supes. Not necessarily because they disagree with all of the points, but because in their universe, in the words of Michael Hanson, there’s no point in “lighting the fuse” of controversy.

Fidelity: Because they’re in for the long haul, they can stay en pointe and build systems that work. Long Beach has built a powerful student data system, LROIX, that tracks students’ progress and teachers’ impact on students.

“We just focus on instruction,” Steinhauser says. “That takes the noise out of the system” – the confusion and mixed messages from the state and federal accountability systems. Steinhauser turned down a $5 million grant last year because it didn’t mesh with the district’s 13 priority metrics.

Johnson has created teams of teachers – professional learning communities – whom he said hold each other accountable for results.

Responding to legitimate criticism of teachers that principals’ evaluations were too subjective and unpredictable, Fresno worked two years on creating consistent process and criteria for evaluating teachers. Its core mission is not about judging teachers but “supervising them, giving daily feedback to move people forward,” Hanson said.

In Corona-Norco, only those who share the mission and education values of the district are hired as administrators. In Garden Grove, prospective teachers go through a multi-level interview process, and the personnel director follows the new hires through the probationary period.

Tenacity: Some of the superintendents may be low-key, but they’re not pushovers. Some have moved dozens of poor-performing principals out of their jobs.

In Garden Grove, all teachers are committed to striving to move every one of their students one band on the state standardized test over the course of a year. (Example: For a student who arrives in September at far below basic, the goal is to test out at below basic by year-end; for a student who is proficient, the goal is advanced. Because moving from basic to proficient is the hardest to achieve, that’s a two-year goal.)

This is a simple version of the value-added measurement that has roiled Los Angeles Unified. The difference here is that Schwalm worked with teachers for four years before formally adopting it. While it is now a universal goal in every school, it is not a part of formal teacher evaluations.

During a time of severe budget cuts, Fresno adopted the policy that every student who gets a D must attend summer school, as part of its push to have graduates qualify a four-year public university (no grades worse than C- are acceptable). Hanson cut $3 million in adult education – in classes other than job training and core academics – to fund the expanded summer school.

Flexibility and collaboration: Long Beach and Fresno have created a unique partnership that has strengthened each district’s practices. It started at the top, with a close working relationship between Hanson and Steinhauser, and has broadened to include administrators, delegations of visiting teachers, and regular video conferences in the areas of math, English learners, and leadership development. Because both districts believe in the value of the partnership, changes within each district can move quickly.

Though not a formal partner, Schwalm speaks often and shares ideas with Hanson and Steinhauser. A successful math program developed by a Long Beach teacher took four years to take hold within the district  then spread through Garden Grove in half the time.

Sanger, Long Beach and Fresno are among the seven founding districts in CORE, the California Office to Reform Education, which will coordinate projects among them, starting with designing ways to assess and teach the common core standards. Then it will look for ways to share best ideas for evaluating teachers and principals.

The best districts are open to fresh ideas and new ways of doing things. But candor must start at the top, for self-improvement to take hold among the rank and file.


  1. These districts are beacons of hope in California and of what can be. I think your point on longevity is really important and cannot be overstated. Therefore, I think you have overlooked one important point – a stable a sane board. That makes a huge difference for these districts as urban school districts rarely have that. I would hope that there are opportunities in their partnerships to co-develop their boards and their boards to work with other less functional boards in order to spread best practice.

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  2. In addition to Robert’s comment about a stable & sane board, I’d add that one must consider the type of community served by each district. Different communities have different challenges…solutions at Long Beach will not have the same effect in more urban areas like LA or the East Bay. The biggest obstacle to reform efforts is that those involved are fixated on finding a model that is universally applicable.
    I think your last point, John, about flexibility and collaboration is key. I’d like to see urban districts cooperating with one another to address problems unique to their environment, but we never see reforms manifested in this way. Too often the solutions offered for all of California address only the problems typically faced by suburban schools, and I’m worried the interests of urban districts have taken a back seat. We need a reform culture that acknowledges the wide range of challenges at all levels, not just those in schools that can be fixed by a simple student data & teacher evaluations panacea.

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  3. As a former school board member, I agree totally with Robert about “a stable and sane board”.

    It simply amazed me how little base knowledge new board members had and how unwilling some were in acquiring this base knowledge.  All too often these people were making decisions about matters about which they knew little.  Now that’s what I call insane!   Basic requirement:  All board members must take basic training and continuing education… what’s good for the goose is good for the gander!

    And I totally agree with Mr. Fensterwald’s comment, “They (superintendents)  intimately know their communities and have built trust over time with their teachers and board trustees.”  So well put!  Those who have fully integrated into their communities are the true change agents. And that takes longevity! 

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  4. A sane and stable board is indeed necessary for a district to stay on the track  to improvement. Several months ago, the Fresno Unified board appointed a sub-committee on Sustainability.  The committee began to plan and carry out ways to educate the community on what school board members do.  In early September, the board offered a workshop to all candidates (there were two challengers and both attended).  The workshop explained the district’s Core Beliefs and Commitments, Theory of Action for Change, Goals, and major policies that were written to guide the staff work and carry forward their district’s reform efforts.  There is now in place a detailed plan on how new board members (should any be elected) will be welcomed onto the board and brought up to speed.  The work will never be done, because sustainabilty must be an ongoing effort.

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  5. Are these districts really are the ones doing the best?

    I find it interesting that few “model” districts are chosen based on student performance data.  Garden Grove USD really deserves to make the top-district list, but other choices are downright puzzling.  For instance, in terms of district API growth over the past year, San Diego USD (+19) and San Francisco USD (+16) once again outperformed Fresno USD (+12) and Long Beach USD (+5).  Hardly seems like Long Beach is as successful as this article suggests.  Even districts characterized as being beset with “controversies, board infighting, and labor strife” are showing significantly stronger student achievement gains district-wide.

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  6. Kudos to these leaders and their Districts.  Students from all backgrounds can learn if given the opportunity, good teachers, along with good instruction that focuses not just on data but on the essential learnings is a key to improving achievement as measured by STAR/API/AYP.  It is my hope that these Districts models served to help other Districts and at some point achievement as measured by these assessments becomes second natured so that standards can actually be raised, and critical thinking and problem solving become the new essential standards that students become proficient at.  much negative has come out lately about our failing public schools, and much of that is misleading.  Yes, some schools and District are doing poorly, changes can and will be made.  However just to say that a few bad teachers can be removed all will be well is not a good plan for success.  Yes, eliminating teachers and administrators who are not doing the job and are unwilling to make the changes needed for student success is needed.  However, what the above named Districts are doing, using data, providing solid instruction, with strong interventions, and well designed and consistent staff development in combination with collaboration can make a difference.  Strong teachers, great leaders, motivated students (the teachers and administrators create the motivated students), along with a well designed program focusing on essential standards, critical thinking, problem solving, while using and sharing student data that is used to improve not just student performance, but more importantly teacher performance will bring success.  All this can is is happening in places where kids are the focus and school employees have high expectations and love their students.

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  7. “True, two of the districts have won the Broad Prize honoring the best in urban education (Long Beach in 2003 and Garden Grove in 2004), ”

    So what does that mean,  John? To what extent were district resources enhanced? Are the budgets of the other districts supplemented by private/foundation dollars?

    CA’s tests are generally considered pretty poor measures of student learning. Typical multiple-guess format checking for short term memory. (I gave them to kids for many years.) ETS was chosen as the vendor because its product was “cheap,” not because it was good. Is it really the goal of education in the state to base school success on the narrow metrics of these tests? If you slice the meaning of improvement down to a narrow (and educationally meaningless) point many things are possible.

    What happens when the new national standards (I know we should never call them that) and the new assessments kick in?

    “But candor must start at the top.” How true. How true.

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  8. Not only is a stable board necessary, but also a stable superintendent. My personal concern is for Fresno Unified which is definitely trying to improve. I worry that Mr. Hanson has his eye on a national prize, beyond the small town of Fresno.

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  9. Not a word about Long Beach and Garden Grove which HAD among the highest staffing ratios for school librarians in the state. GGUSD’s staffing is now gone. CA has the lowest staffing of school libraries in the nation.
    As for the Broad money — the districtd don’t see a penny of it. It is used a scholarship money to send kids to college — which means it actually goes to the colleges.

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