New California Agency's Goal: Bolster Districts' Turnaround Role

Offering support and assistance for local leaders, rather than prescriptive formulas, the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence is open for business

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Three years ago, California's lawmakers and its department of education embarked on an ambitious task of overhauling the state's accountability and school turnaround approaches.

The state's identification of which schools were failing—a system reliant mostly on test scores—and its remedy for those schools, mostly led by private consultants, had for years been haphazard, poorly aimed, and a waste of resources, state leaders concluded.

The outcome of that review: a new accountability system approved by the state board this month and a new state agency launched this year and focused strictly on continuous school improvement in the lowest-performing schools and districts.

Piloting the Work

That agency, the California Collaboration for Educational Excellence, is budgeted at around $24 million a year and soon is expected to take on a list of five pilot districts or schools and help them design and execute specific and tailored school turnaround programs.

And unlike in most states, districts will opt into the work, rather than having the state pick which districts need work.

What that work will look like is still being sketched out. The board will use its pilot districts to experiment with locally chosen strategies such as whether to fire a school's entire staff, provide intensive and more-tailored professional development, or design new curriculum and discipline methods.

Central to the work: assuring that district administrators will feel that they have more ownership.

"We believe the state agency is too far removed to be the ones to come in and tell districts to change their practice," said Joshua Daniels, the collaboration's director of outreach and communications. "We're not telling folks what to do, but we're partnering with individuals and working with their strengths."

Like California's recently approved accountability system, which doesn't yet identify the state's worst-performing schools, as required under the new Every Student Succeeds Act, the new agency approach has gotten pushback from some civil rights groups in the state. They view it as too weak and potentially ineffective in improving the state's worst-performing schools in which just a handful of students meet the state's minimum reading and math standards.

"We'll wait two to four years for a school to improve but that's a lifetime for these students," said Ryan J. Smith, the executive director of Education Trust-West, an Oakland-based advocacy group that pushes for rapid turnaround strategies. While Smith thinks the CCEE is a step in the right direction for the state, he has concerns about districts' option to volunteer for the work. "The proof will be in the pudding. Let's see if they act with a sense of urgency when they see black and brown kids failing."

At a Glance

Agency Name
California Collaborative for Educational Excellence

Independent agency created by state law in 2014, hired its first staff members in February of this year.

What It Does
Helps local districts implement their Local Control and Accountability Plans, which districts must come up with under state law to lay out academic goals, and the costs and strategies for achieving them.

California politicians and education leaders think school improvement is a continuous cycle that should not be done to or for a district, but in conjunction with district leaders.

How It Works
School districts decide areas they want to improve upon, and CCEE provides professional development and support to help district leaders meet their goals.

Professional Development
Will provide training to district teachers, administrators, and parents in the areas that the state board decides define school quality. Services to begin in November.

Pilot Program
This fall, CCEE will pick five districts it will work with over the next several years to help come up with short-term and long-term goals.

Leading the agency is former Long Beach Unified superintendent and former state board of education member Carl Cohn, a sharp critic of the No Child Left Behind Act who has regularly spoken out against heavy-handed turnaround efforts led by state departments.

The agency did not make Cohn available for an interview. But in prior interviews with local media, he has said that the collaborative will be a "nimble" agency that will "advise and assist" districts.

California has 6.2 million students in 1,022 districts. In total, the state serves about an eighth of the country's students, more than 75 percent of them students of color.

The scope and diversity of California's educational landscape, which stretches more than 163,000 square miles in urban, suburban, and rural settings, has long been a hurdle for the state's education department when it comes to school support.

The state has taken a local-control approach to education, downsizing the role of the education department and giving boards of education and district superintendents broad latitude in shaping schools' trajectories.

Its turnaround work is headed in that direction now, too.

Under the prescriptive No Child Left Behind law, which was replaced by ESSA, the state had two accountability systems, after the U.S. Department of Education repeatedly rejected California's applications for a waiver from the law's provisions.

One accountability system, known as the Academic Performance Index, ranked schools based strictly on test scores and graduation rates.

The other was a listing of schools that met the NCLB law's yardstick of adequate yearly progress and those that did not.

For schools that landed at the bottom of the list, the state forced districts to hire an outside consultant to conduct an audit and tell the district how to improve.

"It wasn't that it was bad, and it's not that what they were asking us to do was incorrect," Daniels said. "But many of the same strategies they would use, we would use as well."

Local Control

In 2013, the state passed the Local Control Funding Formula, a process that requires districts to spend state dollars on several academic areas, school wraparound services, and intervention efforts. And the state education department last month approved the creation of a report card that will grade schools on several indicators, including school climate, and chronic-absenteeism, and graduation rates. It will be published for the first time next year.

Many of the state's civil rights groups and charter advocates have criticized that system as having too many or too few indicators, and some have said it will only further confuse parents.

Related Blog

The new state agency will be charged with helping districts comply with the provisions of that report card. It will provide extra support to districts that have identified themselves as in need of improvement.

It also will provide professional development to districts for the set of indicators listed in the state's new report card. That could include staff retreats, workshops for teachers and administrators, online resources, and consultant work.

That work may take too much time, said Smith, of Education-Trust West.

"I agree with the idea of continuous improvement," said Smith. "But that doesn't mean there should be continuous non-improvement. There needs to be a sense of urgency, too. Some of these schools need to improve now and not decades from now."

Vol. 36, Issue 06, Pages 32, 34

Published in Print: September 28, 2016, as Calif. Agency's Goal: Bolster District Role
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