Lessons from high-performersThey 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.
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