School & District Management

Forward Motion

By Jeff Archer — September 13, 2005 9 min read
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When Dawn O’Connor returned to her job as a science teacher here last fall after five years away to raise her children, she found a very different school district. Unlike in the past, teachers were visiting one another’s classrooms. They were meeting regularly to examine student performance.

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“Before, when we got our scores at the beginning of the year from the year before, we said, ‘Oh well, we didn’t get the scores that we wanted,’ ” recalls O’Connor, who teaches at Ascencion Solorsano Middle School. She adds, “Other than my regular [job] evaluation, I can’t remember anyone being in my room.”

The change wasn’t by accident. Leaders of the 10,000-student Gilroy Unified School District sought to create a collaborative environment in which teachers make corrections throughout the year. Meeting in “data teams,” teachers compare notes and plan adjustments in their instruction.

Nor did the shift happen overnight. At first, the district pursued a top-down management strategy to establish a common language about teaching and learning across its 14 schools. Teachers sometimes felt stifled by the approach.

Now, they’ve got more breathing room. Instead of emphasizing the use of specific teaching methods, the district is stressing a common process of improvement planning at all schools. Teachers are held accountable more for their results than for how they teach.

Superintendent Edwin Diaz, who has led the district since 2000, says he couldn’t have given schools the flexibility they have now without first getting everyone on the same page. But he also doubts that sustained improvement would result if the central office continued to call most of the shots.

“We needed to shift from teachers just being compliant about implementing the strategies that they were trained in, to actually having to make decisions about which of those strategies to use and when,” he says. “Because we think that’s where you get the next big level of growth.”

The California district is not alone in seeking the right balance between site-based management and centralized decisionmaking, a key issue as superintendents concern themselves more with matters of instruction. Gilroy’s experience, in fact, shows how that balance can change over time.

Nestled in a fertile valley surrounded by green hills, Gilroy calls itself the garlic capital of the world. While agriculture continues to be a major employer, a growing number of new residents work in the high-tech industries of San Jose, about a 30-minute commute to the north.

For the school district, that demographic trend presents special challenges. Half of its students still come from low-income families, and about a third are learning English. But the influx of high-paid professionals has brought with it new expectations about educational attainment.

Six years ago, all of Gilroy’s elementary and middle schools had magnet programs that drew students from across the district. Each chose its own areas of academic focus, instructional philosophy, and schedule. Adding to the extent of variation among sites was a conflict between the school board and its then-superintendent that, by many accounts, left a leadership vacuum at the central office.

Gilroy was among the lowest-performing of the 33 districts in Santa Clara County. In 2000, half of its schools failed to meet their improvement targets on the Academic Performance Index, California’s test-based accountability system.

Gilroy Unified School District

Superintendent: Edwin Diaz

Enrollment: 10,000 students
47 percent Latino
31 percent white
8.1 percent Asian
8 percent African-American
30 percent English-language learners

Poverty: 52 percent come from economically disadvantaged homes

Results: The proportion of students proficient or above on state language arts tests levelled off in 2003-04, but scores jumped again in 2004-05.

Socioeconomically Disadvantaged Students
Proficient or above

2001-02 : 13.5%
2002-03 : 18.5%
2003-04 : 18.1%
2004-05 : 23.8%

Hispanic Students
Proficient or above

2001-02 : 17.5%
2002-03 : 22.6%
2003-04 : 22.4%
2004-05 : 28.6%

All Students
Proficient or above

2001-02 : 29.3%
2002-03 : 33.8%
2003-04 : 33.1%
2004-05 : 39.0%

Diaz, a Gilroy native, saw a clear link between the district’s decentralization and its lackluster performance. In his first year as superintendent, he visited classrooms in every school and saw great variation in the content and level of rigor of what was taught.

“I can remember one of our elementary schools that had some of the lowest test scores,” he says. “It was a math and science magnet. They had little 2nd and 3rd graders in these white lab coats running around, but none of the kids were at grade level in reading.”

Diaz began by phasing out the magnet programs in favor of neighborhood schools. The district rewrote its curriculum to cover what the state expected students to learn. New textbooks were bought, and the superintendent made clear that they were to be used.

For teachers’ professional development, Gilroy picked a program by a Fresno, Calif.-based company called LitConn. The training shows how to differentiate literacy instruction based on each student’s skill level. Although designed for teaching non-native speakers of English, district leaders believed all students would benefit.

Diaz wanted all teachers to go through the yearlong course, with the exception of high school math teachers, who received other training. Accomplishing that meant rewriting school budgets to include literacy facilitators—teachers without classroom duties who lead the LitConn seminars and provide on-site coaching. Every school has at least one facilitator.

“I think we have some well-documented science now on what are the most effective practices that we can say will result in greater student gains,” says Jacqueline M. Horejs, the assistant superintendent for educational services. “If that’s the case, then it’s important that everybody in the district knows what they are and implements them consistently.”

To make sure that happened, the district organized “walkthroughs,” in which administrators made classroom observations. Armed with checklists, they looked for such techniques as “linkwords,” a visual aid for teaching vocabulary, and “partner talk,” in which students consult one another before giving an answer.

In 2003, three years into the district’s campaign to bring about instructional consistency, not one of Gilroy’s schools missed its state improvement target. Overall, the system posted greater gains that year on the performance index than all but one other district in the county.

Teachers’ reactions to the district’s efforts were mixed, however. Some saw benefits in using similar tools. The approach meant, for instance, that they all knew the same way of assessing a student’s reading abilities. Others resented being told what to do. A few called the walkthroughs “drive-bys.”

Few within the district dispute that the efforts prompted teachers to employ the same practices. Not only did they learn the same methods in their seminars, but their literacy coaches also arranged for them to visit their colleagues’ rooms to see them in action.

“We didn’t always agree with the modeling,” says Theresa Graham, a 5th grade teacher at Antonio Del Buono Elementary School. “But at least we all got together to see what the district wanted us to do.”

As soon became evident, the district’s strategy had limitations. In 2004, Gilroy’s performance leveled off. Half of its schools again missed their improvement targets. Some saw their scores drop.

Diaz agreed that teachers needed more discretion. At the same time, he feared going back to the days when teachers acted like independent contractors, using whatever methods they felt most comfortable with regardless of whether they worked.

For help in finding a solution, the superintendent turned to outside consultants from the Center for Performance Assessment. The Denver-based group advises districts on creating accountability systems aimed at continuous improvement.

The result was a new planning process for all schools that went into effect a year ago. Each site annually drafts a document that summarizes areas of greatest need and strategies for addressing them. The plans cite test scores and list performance objectives for the coming year.

At Rod Kelley Elementary School, for example, staff members promised, among other commitments, a 12 percent jump in the number of students who scored as proficient on a district writing assessment. Part of their plan to achieve that target was to give students clearer descriptions of good writing.

Within schools, similar planning takes place in the new data teams, made up of the teachers in each grade or department. Every few weeks, they meet to compare how one another’s students are performing on a specific skill, and to brainstorm ways to improve.

Key to the district’s new approach was a change in the use of student assessments. After becoming superintendent, Diaz began giving districtwide tests three times a year to gauge students’ progress. Last year, he gave schools more freedom to decide which tests to use, while making it clear that they were to use tests more often.

“We had a lot of assessments that were in place mainly for monitoring,” he says. “I think we had a real gap in the assessments taking place in the classroom that were actually resulting in a different lesson the following day.”

At least one teacher from each team got trained on data-driven decisionmaking. The Stupski Foundation, a Mill Valley, Calif.-based group that has given planning and financial assistance to the Gilroy schools, paid for about 20 educators to visit the Norfolk, Va., school system, a district known for the technique.

Teachers’ planning rooms here now are adorned with devices for tracking progress. At one school, they’ve produced color-coded computer spreadsheets of students’ scores on multiple tests. At another, they use Post-It notes and poster boards to show which students have mastered which skills.

“There’s a constant conversation about what’s working, and what’s not,” says Graham, the teacher at Del Buono Elementary. “It’s ‘What did you do? How did you get that to happen?’ ”

Graham says her data team played a big role in improving 5th grade reading instruction at her school last year. By sharing ideas on teaching pupils how to recognize an author’s purpose, they all saw jumps in reading performance over the course of several weeks.

Teachers still have concerns. Last spring, the Gilroy Teachers Association filed a grievance against the district, arguing that data-driven decisionmaking takes more planning time than the teacher contract allows. But many teachers favor the collaborative approach over the district’s earlier efforts.

“It’s just now feeling like it’s starting to smooth out, and feel normal,” says Heidi Jacobson, who also teaches 5th grade at Del Buono.

The district’s recent efforts appear to have paid off. State test results released last month showed that, after plateauing in 2004, the portion of Gilroy students achieving at proficient levels in English language arts jumped six percentage points in 2005—the highest such annual gain since Diaz arrived.

Feeling validated, district leaders make no apologies for their earlier direction on instructional methods. Teachers needed to learn a new set of tools to use when students were struggling, they argue.

“We think we’re in a much different position now,” says Horejs, the assistant superintendent for educational services.

Even with the emphasis on school-based decisionmaking, many here expect that teachers will continue to use many of the same instructional methods. The difference, they say, is that it will be because teachers choose to do so.

“I don’t think we’re ever going to swing back to everyone doing their own thing,” says Tricia Satterwhite, a literacy facilitator at Ascencion Solorsano Middle School. “I think they’ve equipped us, they’ve trained us, and they expect us to work as a team.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 14, 2005 edition of Education Week as Forward Motion


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