$5 million to dissect district reformsStuart grant to examin high achievers
Whether it’s an inspiring principal, teacher collaboration, curriculum changes, or parental involvement, it’s often clear why one school stands out above others. But why districts in California excel is a tougher question. The Stuart Foundation will spend $5.2 million over the next two years to seek answers and to encourage districts to share what they do well.
The focus on district improvement marks a shift in focus for the San Francisco-based foundation,* which has concentrated its spending on professional development. “Over many years in working in education, we keep seeing more and more that it takes interconnected parts to improve teaching and learning,” said Stuart President Christy Pichel. “It is important that changes be made at the district level.”
Stuart plans to divide the money into two grants, with $1.55 million supporting the ongoing activities of the California Office to Reform Education (CORE), a collaboration of seven unified districts that grew out of their effort leading the state’s second-round Race to the Top application. Now the districts – Long Beach, Fresno, Sanger, San Francisco, Clovis, Sacramento, and Los Angeles – have agreed on three priorities: sharing and using data to improve instruction; improving teacher preparation and recruitment, including creating better evaluation systems; and creating formative assessments for and implementing the Common Core standards in English Language Arts and math. CORE has working groups of key administrators in the districts, who are committed to candor about what works and what doesn’t.
CORE’s executive director is Rick Miller, former deputy state superintendent.
Research into what works
The larger $3.7 million grant will delve into the inner workings of 11 districts and charter management organizations that have raised test scores impressively for all student populations over the past five years. Three of the districts – Fresno, Sanger, and Long Beach – are CORE districts, and a fourth, Garden Grove, has been quietly working with them. The others are Oakland Unified and nearby Emery Unified. The charter management organizations are Aspire, Envision, Green Dot, and ICEF, plus a single Los Angeles charter, Gabriella Charter School, which Pichel said was chosen because it excels in the arts and works well with Los Angeles Unified and a district school on the same site. One objective will be to identify the common elements in which districts make and spread changes across all schools.
Stability in leadership – a superintendent in it for the long haul with a supportive school board – and a shared commitment to improvement among teachers are common elements in Sanger, Garden Grove, Long Beach, and Fresno. But Oakland, which experienced state oversight and decentralization through small and charter schools, has taken a different path.
The Effective Education Systems Initiative will conduct surveys of students on their perceptions of teachers and their schools; classroom observations; and interviews of classroom teachers, superintendents, and central office staff. Pichel is hoping that other districts will learn from the results.
* Stuart is one of the funders of TOP-Ed.