Calif. Districts Team Up to Push School Improvements
Group seeks NCLB waiver
Frustrated by their own state's pace and direction of school improvement, eight California districts have banded together to move ahead on rolling out the Common Core State Standards and designing new teacher evaluations based in part on student performance.
The districts, which include the Los Angeles and San Francisco school systems and enroll more than 1 million students altogether, are also mounting a major breakaway from California in seeking their own waiver from mandates of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
The U.S. Department of Education has already issued similar reprieves to 34 states and the District of Columbia, but last month rejected California's waiver bid, which ignored one of the department's key criteria: teacher evaluations that include student outcomes. If approved by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan—a possibility that the Education Department has signaled could be strong—the district-level waiver could dramatically alter the relationship between the districts and the state education department when it comes to federal accountability.
Known as CORE—the California Office to Reform Education—the member districts also include Long Beach, Fresno, Sacramento, Oakland, and Clovis and Sanger in the Central Valley. Two additional districts—Garden Grove and Santa Ana, both in Southern California—are expected to join CORE as soon as this week.
The unusual, large-scale collaboration began among the districts' superintendents and has since trickled down to upper-level administrators and teachers. It started more than two years ago as an initiative to help state officials write a second Race to the Top application for California. The state fell short of winning in the first round of the federal education reform grant sweepstakes.
Since that time, CORE has evolved into a well-funded nonprofit that is focused on two commitments its member districts made in the state's second (and also unsuccessful) Race to the Top bid: crafting formative assessments and other tools for teachers to strengthen their instruction in the common-standards era and overhauling accountability for teacher and administrator performance largely through the design of new evaluation systems.
"What they are doing is quite innovative," said David N. Plank, the executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education, or PACE, a nonpartisan research center run by Stanford University, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles. "The districts are not in the same region, they are diverse in every dimension, and they are working strategically together to learn from one another and make constructive changes. It is critically important as an example of where the rest of the state needs to go."
But CORE's commitment to using measures of student performance as a component of educator evaluations has put it squarely at odds with state leaders, including Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown and Tom Torlakson, the state's elected schools chief. The governor's concerns over teacher evaluations kept him from endorsing CORE's plan to apply for the third round of Race to the Top, which sidelined the group from competing for the federal awards designed for districts. The California Teachers Association, one of the state's most influential political players, has generally opposed tying teachers' job ratings to student performance, but has also pushed to make the components of any new teacher-evaluation systems subject to collective bargaining.
"CORE wants to move on to some of the thornier issues more quickly," said John Deasy, the superintendent of the 670,000-student Los Angeles district. "We are saying to the state that even if we have some philosophical disagreements, we don't want to be held back when we think we are doing the right thing for our kids locally."
A spokesman for Mr. Torlakson said that the differences between CORE districts and the state education agency are more practical than political and that the superintendent believes the divergent ideas on how to improve education in a state with more than 1,000 school districts and 6 million students are a strength.
"When several districts with a similar approach want to work together and share resources and ideas, that can be extremely valuable," Paul Hefner, a state education department spokesman, wrote in an email.
The CORE districts came together in 2010 when then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, and former state schools chief Jack O'Connell were looking for a way that California could make a more viable run at Race to the Top money after the state's poor showing in the first round. Seven superintendents—Oakland joined the group later—helped state education leaders write the plan, said Rick Miller, the executive director of CORE, based in Sacramento. Mr. Miller was a deputy superintendent in the state department and he led Race to the Top application efforts under Mr. O'Connell.
"We were disappointed in the outcome," said Mr. Miller, "but the superintendents came back and said the experience had been so positive that they wanted to keep the group together to talk about how to improve achievement."
There was already a strong partnership between Michael E. Hanson, the Fresno superintendent, and Christopher J. Steinhauser, the chief in Long Beach, whose districts had been collaborating on various issues. At the same time, a San Francisco philanthropist named Philip Halperin was eager to support the work of the CORE districts and, through his nonprofit education reform organization, California Education Partners, provided $4 million to help establish the nonprofit CORE group and hire Mr. Miller and other staff members. The group also receives support from the San Francisco-based Stuart Foundation.
Mr. Miller said the superintendents took a "hard look" at the commitments they had made in the Race to the Top plan and decided to stick with two of three: preparing educators to effectively teach the more rigorous common-core standards in mathematics and English/language arts and improving the educator talent pool in part by using student outcomes to measure performance. The superintendents agreed to scrap the prescriptive models touted by federal education officials as the way to turn around low-performing schools.
"In the light of day, the superintendents were glad there were things that they didn't have to do," Mr. Miller said.
Common-core implementation has been the driving force of the collaboration, said Mr. Hansen, the Fresno schools chief. The standards have been adopted by California and 44 other states, plus the District of Columbia.
"We are all figuring out what has to be done to make the new standards work at a high level for students," he said, "and the more we bring people from the different districts together to work together and learn from each other, the more creative we become."
At the heart of the group's common-core work so far are a series of formative assessments directly tied to the standards in math and English/language arts in different grade levels that teachers from across the eight districts worked together to create, said Michelle Steagall, the chief academic officer for core. These formative-assessment "modules" include tasks for students to perform to help teachers gauge their progress and adjust instruction. Teachers in all eight districts test-drove the formative assessments last fall, and CORE is now gathering student work and teacher feedback to make revisions, she said.
All the common-core work done by the group will be freely available for use by districts around California and the nation.
Work on improving educator effectiveness—including evaluations—is also under way, with all eight districts on board using multiple measures, including student test scores, to judge teacher and administrator performances, Mr. Miller said. Last fall, Mr. Deasy in Los Angeles reached a breakthrough agreement with United Teachers Los Angeles to use test scores as one measure of evaluating instructors.
Models Not Identical
CORE is not designing an evaluation system to work exactly the same across all systems.
"We are sharing ideas and best practices, but we are not looking to replace the state department of education by putting structures in place that everyone has to live under," he said.
In the coming weeks, the CORE districts will zero in on polishing their waiver plan and getting the required political support they need, chiefly from Gov. Brown, Mr. Miller said. Securing the waiver, he said, would free up critical federal dollars that the districts could then sink back into supporting their common-core rollouts. One piece of the plan still in the works is a memorandum of understanding to allow other districts to be covered by the waiver, as long as they agree to all the tenets.
"It's always been our intention to open [the waiver] up to any [district]," Mr. Miller said.
State education officials said they are concerned about how they would fairly measure and compare the performance of schools and districts if CORE secures a waiver from the NCLB law.
"Having one group of schools operating under one set of accountability measures while the rest operate under another could create confusion," Mr. Hefner wrote.
Mr. Plank, of PACE, said that the work of the CORE districts—and their leaders who are willing to be aggressive in the face of political opposition—holds promise for all of California's districts.
"We need to let local districts try new things and see what works and what doesn't." Mr. Plank said. "All of us will learn, and the state will learn."
Vol. 32, Issue 18, Pages 1,11