In previous installments of this series, we’ve discussed the history of education reform, examined school testing, looked at a high performing system in Finland and examined the latest federal plans for reforming our schools. This time around we’ll take a look at what’s on the boards for students in the San Diego Unified School District and tell you about ways you can become involved in this process. As much of this plan exists only on the drawing boards, it’s hard to make any judgments at this point. The plan is, on its face, very different from what we hear coming out of Washington DC, so it’s bound to be getting national scrutiny in the coming years.
A good starting point for understanding the SDUSD’s plans can be found within the pages of It’s Being Done, a landmark book on schools written by Karin Chenoweth, a parent and former education writer for the Washington Post. The author focuses on schools that are doing well and have high percentages of students with low incomes/diverse ethnic backgrounds. Success, according to the book, is judged based on consistent high levels of test score performance, and though visits made by the author that suggest that these schools are not merely gaming the system. She concludes that there are five things in common that all these schools have:
1. A focus on ensuring a high quality alignment of teaching and curriculum with rigorous quality standards.
2. Using both aggregate data and data on individual students.
3. A willingness to re-examine what they’re doing on a regular basis.
4. Making the most productive use of school time possible and expanding educational time where needed.
5. A focus on ensuring teacher excellence.
It seems, according to book, that the key to breaking the cycle of failure is to change the expectations of all the parties involved. Ask many teachers about their greatest frustration and the usual first response is “different students” (Or “more motivated students” and “better students”). This observation is regularly followed by a great deal of head nodding and “amens.”
It’s Being Done shows us is that they really don’t need different students, what’s needed are thoughtful grownups–school leaders and teachers who are able to develop a focused goal and a plan to get there. This book distills the experiences from these fifteen schools that previously had low expectations, but are now high performing schools that we all can learn from. It’s not easy and there are no magic wands here, but it can be done.
The SDUSD plan for reforms is, in some ways, a step backwards. Public schools were originally community centered– a notion that’s faded into our distant memories as School Districts nearly everywhere have embraced centralization along with standardization. The San Diego plan is to break the district down into nine “clusters”, starting with the elementary and middle schools that feed into high schools. Within each cluster, schools are supposed to be collaborative, with teachers being encouraged to work as a team to gauge student progress. Teachers, will, in effect, be reviewing their methods, successes and failures with their peers (as well as with the other players).
Teachers will have access to individual student data via use of the DataDirector student achievement database, an interesting piece of technology that allows teachers to examine factors that contribute to individual patterns of behavior and allows them to think on a case-by-case basis. Studies based on utilization of this type of data driven programs have shown a positive impact on teacher classroom behavior and improved student performance on state testing in the areas of math and language arts. (For those of you wonky enough to want to know more about this, go here.) What this means in practical terms is that the learning experience of students can be adjusted on the fly, before smaller individual challenges become larger school-wide issues.
The success of each student thus becomes a school-wide challenge, and the district has adopted a program called Response to Instruction and Intervention (RtI²) that has emerged nationally as an effective strategy to support students. Key to the success of this program is a three tiered model that provides for universal screening and progressively increasing interventions for students with learning problems. (Wonk alert: more on RtI² here.) Parental involvement is an important step of the intervention process. This program encourages teachers, students, and parents within a cluster community to improve student achievement. For the SDUSD brochure, with all the details and flowery language, on these reforms go here.
The school district actually began these reforms last spring, with administrators, teachers and counselors from throughout San Diego attending training seminars on how these new systems work. The second phase of this roll out, now underway, means getting the parents involved. There will be town hall meetings in each area “cluster” in the next few weeks to explain the concept of community based reform and discuss other issues relevant to education in San Diego.
The meeting for the Point Loma/Mission Bay clusters is set for Wednesday, Oct. 6th, from 6:30- 8pm at Point Loma High School (Media Center) 2335 Chatsworth Blvd. Information about other cluster meetings can be found here.
“I want people to know that [education] is a long, long journey. We need to be patient. We plant seeds, set examples and if we are consistent with our words and deeds, we can produce tremendous young people. It is not a race to the top. It is a marathon and not a sprint.” Rafe Esquith
Rafe Esquith is an innovative, multiple-award-winning teacher who’s been at Hobart Boulevard Elementary School, in Los Angeles for more than two decades. Ninety percent of his students come from families living below the poverty level, and most are from immigrant families, with none speaking English as a first language. Yet Esquith’s fifth-grade students consistently score in the top 5 to 10 percent of the country in standardized tests.