Regardless of whether the Long Beach Unified School District wins the Broad Prize for Urban Education this month, it has already set a standard for others to follow.
The district of more than 90,000 students is the first winner of the award to return to the competition as a finalist. Its reappearance on the list after earning the prize in 2003 raises interesting questions about how districts sustain and deepen school improvement over time.
Located in Southern California, adjacent to Los Angeles, Long Beach is a heavily industrialized port city with a student population that’s highly diverse. Under the leadership of former Superintendent Carl Cohn, who led the district from 1992 to 2002, Long Beach made impressive gains in its elementary and middle schools. During his tenure, the district adopted a standards-based curriculum-and-assessment system, forged a strong partnership with local colleges and universities, and enacted a mandatory school uniform policy in grades K-8. It also ended social promotion in key grades and required all students to be able to read by the end of 3rd grade.
When Mr. Cohn retired, the school board did not follow the typical pattern of looking for a high-profile outsider. Instead, it unanimously selected Christopher Steinhauser, a self-described “poster child” for the district. Now in his 26th year in the school system, Mr. Steinhauser grew up in the city, attended the public schools and the local institutions of higher education, and began his career as a teacher’s aide at Signal Hill Elementary School. He worked closely with Mr. Cohn for a dozen years, first as the district’s director of special projects—heading up many of the new K-8 initiatives—and then as a deputy superintendent.
Far from jettisoning the earlier reform efforts, Mr. Steinhauser has built on them, taking some of the same strategies and tools that have worked in the elementary and middle schools and pushing them up into the high schools.
“It seems like things just continued forward when Chris came in,” said Christine Dominguez, the deputy superintendent for curriculum. “He has continued to focus on achievement, and we have not missed a beat.”
It would be tempting to ascribe Long Beach’s success to its homegrown workforce. Almost everyone here seems to have deep roots. Some eight in 10 school administrators at all levels have been hired from within the system.
“It’s a big district, but we work together. It has a team feeling,” said Elizabeth Hartung-Cole, the district’s curriculum leader for English-language development and foreign languages.
Yet under Mr. Cohn’s predecessor, Tom Giugni, Long Beach had a highly decentralized structure, in which schools were largely disconnected from the central office and expectations across the system were inconsistent. Mr. Cohn, who is famous for his participatory leadership style, instituted a series of quarterly retreats with the five-member school board to discuss the challenges facing the district. Together, Superintendent Cohn and the board identified a three-part goal—“raising standards in dress, behavior, and achievement”—that led to a series of long-term board initiatives.
Those efforts had a strong instructional bent. Long Beach first adopted content standards in core academic subjects in 1995, before such action by the state of California. Over time, district leaders added a set of core instructional materials, aligned pacing guides, and common assessments across the system. The district also embraced a common teaching approach—the Essential Elements of Effective Instruction, developed by the late Madeline C. Hunter, a nationally known educator and psychologist—so that teachers would speak the same pedagogical language.
Mr. Cohn also revived the district’s curriculum office, which had been disbanded under his predecessor, and focused the school system strongly on professional development. That included hiring instructional coaches, particularly for low-performing schools, and working with local colleges and universities to redesign the preparation of new teachers. The district also instituted a strong induction program for all novice teachers, and summer curriculum institutes for teachers and principals systemwide.
Within that common framework, the district has set up a structure that enables and encourages individual schools to innovate, based on their local context and on data. It’s also developed a series of “feedback loops” that engage stakeholders up and down the system, build trust, and provide information on whether initiatives are working.
Virtually everything in Long Beach seems to involve a committee. There are districtwide teachers’ councils at the elementary, middle, and high school levels that meet monthly and represent teachers from each school. There’s a parallel system of parents’ councils.
“And I go to all those forums,” said Superintendent Steinhauser, who insists that people call him Chris. “There’s always a place on the forum, ‘questions with Chris.’ Anything is open—except internal personnel issues.”
Although Long Beach is the fifth-largest city in the state, Mr. Steinhauser has an open-door policy that allows parents and teachers to see him without an appointment. And he’s continued Mr. Cohn’s tradition of listening, hosting his own series of monthly meetings called “Coffee with Chris.”
When state budget shortfalls forced Long Beach to cut an additional $15 million from its budget in school year 2004, Mr. Steinhauser convened a committee of stakeholders—including administrators, teachers, and other community members—to make recommendations to the school board that avoided layoffs or direct cuts to school sites.
“Everything we do in this district, it seems to be they want buy-in from everyone,” said Cheryl Cornejo, an administrative assistant in the high school office. “It’s not a top-down approach. It’s top-down support with bottom-up leadership.”
When it came time to address the high schools, Mr. Steinhauser said, “we took the best practices from K-8 and said, ‘How can we replicate that in high school?’ The best practices were having people involved in the process of change.”
The first task was to get principals on board and deepen their learning. Beginning in June 2002, the district created two professional learning communities of principals that meet monthly with Maggie Webster, the assistant superintendent for high schools, to focus on the data needed to track high school reform efforts and on the learning needs of teachers.
Students in Long Beach performed better on California’s reading test for grades 2-5 than those in most other big-city districts, after controlling for differences among districts in the percent of children who are in poverty, who are learning English, or who are members of minority groups
SOURCE: American Institutes for Research
“When I met with all the principals, the weak link in the chain was what was happening and not happening in the classroom,” Ms. Webster recalled. “It was the instructional piece.”
So the district decided to copy a practice from its middle schools, known as “key results walk-throughs.” The purpose of the walk-throughs is to strengthen dialogue between central-office staff members, school leaders, and teachers about ways to improve student achievement. They’re conducted for a half-day at each of the high schools two or three times a year and include teachers, as well as instructional coaches and school and district administrators.
At first, the central office identified the questions that would guide the walk-throughs, but over time the sessions have focused on each school’s action plan, which identifies its goals and performance targets for the year.
“Teachers did not necessarily embrace walk-throughs,” said Rosalind Morgan, the principal of Jordan High School. “There was a lot of pushback. In the old system in high schools, nobody ever visited classrooms—they just didn’t.”
The Long Beach Unified School District has a range of intervention programs for struggling high school students. Some of these programs are homegrown; others have been adapted from outside sources.
• LINDAMOOD BELL,, an intensive, small-group, double-block class for students reading below a 4th or 5th grade level.
• LANGUAGE!, a double-block, sequential literacy program for students who need help with phonemic awareness, decoding, spelling, writing, and literal comprehension.
• LITERACY WORKSHOP,, a single-block, district-designed class for students who read two or more years below grade level and who need work in acquiring and practicing essential reading-comprehension and writing strategies, with a focus on reading nonfiction texts.
• ALGEBRA (ABCD), a two-period algebra class for students identified as needing additional support.
• ALGEBRA CD, a class for students who failed the second semester of Algebra 1-2 the previous year, allowing them another chance to complete the graduation requirement in the subject.
CAHSEE ENGLISH AND MATH:
Classes for 11th and 12th graders that review the skills needed to pass the California High School Exit Examination. Saturday CAHSEE tutoring is also provided for small groups.
Work with about 250 students who haven’t passed the state’s high school exit test, have high absentee rates, and multiple D’s and F’s.
SPECIALLY DESIGNED ACADEMIC INSTRUCTION IN ENGLISH:
District-developed outlines for every academic course offer suggestions for how to make lessons accessible to English-language learners, including lists of academic vocabulary that should be explicitly taught. The district is piloting a Saturday program for English-learners at seven middle schools to support learning in U.S. history, science, math, and English, with in-depth professional development and coaching for teachers.
SOURCES: Long Beach Unified School District; Education Week
To allay concerns that the walk-throughs would be used to evaluate teachers, all of the documentation is kept at the school and the feedback sheets from classrooms are shredded at the end of the day. Between visits, each high school department is expected to pursue improvements and conduct its own walk-throughs to monitor progress.
“I think the walk-throughs have made teachers think more about their work,” Ms. Morgan said. “One of my most hesitant teachers went on a walk-through last year and said, ‘You know, I saw some good things.’ And he’s moved his desks around. If you want somebody to change their practice, you’ve got to help them with that as part of the professional development.”
As with the district’s earlier reform efforts, the high school initiative has sought ideas from the outside, but tweaked them to fit what people here call “the Long Beach way.”
At the high school level, the focus has been on establishing a college-going culture, opening up rigorous coursework to underrepresented groups, and reducing the number of graduates who need remedial classes in college. The district began by working with its higher education partners, for example, to determine the knowledge and skills students would need to succeed in college-level mathematics and English courses, and it used that information to design its end-of-course tests.
“Certain things we knew had to be top-down in order to happen,” said Mr. Steinhauser, who pushed for greater access to Advanced Placement and honors coursework starting in 2003 by mandating that every student take the PSAT to identify potential.
“It exploded,” recalled Wendy Hayes-Ebright, the AP coordinator for the district. “We had lots more kids in AP classes that year. A lot of kids who’d never been in advanced programs got in there and were not successful.”
In typical Long Beach style, the district put together an AP leadership team—consisting of an administrator, a counselor, and as many AP teachers as were interested from each of the high schools—to figure out how to get the work done. That led to concrete changes to support teachers and students. For example, every site now has an AP coordinator, usually a counselor, to help solve problems. The district launched an AP summer institute, endorsed by the College Board, and offered it free to any Long Beach teacher. This past summer, the institute provided training in 21 subjects from pre-AP English to studio art.
The school system also paid any interested teacher to develop a “summer bridge” program to help students make the transition into AP courses, and allowed each teacher to determine both the content and the length of the program. Now, it’s tracking how those students fare on their AP exams to identify what worked and what didn’t.
“There are advantages to being big,” Ms. Hayes-Ebright said. “One thing we do is we pilot things. Who wants to try it? For the most part, we’re not cramming it down people’s throats. We pilot things, and we make it a hot commodity.”
The district has also created an extensive data system, including common end-of-course tests, more frequent interim assessments, and survey data, to help the central office, schools, and teachers understand what needs to be modified or abandoned. Much of that trove of information is now being put online in a readily accessible format through an academic-data browser developed by the office of research, planning, and evaluation.
Every high school has a professional learning community, composed of administrators, teacher leaders, department chairs, academic coaches, counselors, and other school personnel, whose job is to look closely at the data to design a school-level action plan that fits within the larger district goals. And every high school has been charged with creating small learning communities to help provide more personalization for students. Unlike districts that have stressed the creation of smaller schools, Long Beach has retained its commitment to its 4,000-plus-student high schools, many of which have deep roots in the community.
“The vast majority, if not all the major reforms, have involved teachers, at least at the school site,” said Nader I. Twal, the small-learning-communities coordinator for Millikan High School. “There are definitely places where people are unhappy, but the fact that the reform is sustained, that you see test scores going up, … speaks to what’s happening.”
Whether that culture can be sustained despite changing circumstances is the question.
The Teachers Association of Long Beach, which has a long history of working collaboratively with the district, has in recent years become more confrontational. Teachers last year won a wage hike after protracted, and sometimes bitter, negotiations.
“It has become a little less collaborative,” said Michael Day, the president of the union, an affiliate of the National Education Association. “Our last bargaining session became a little tense, and then when we supported a slate of school board candidates that the superintendent did not support, that didn’t do much for collaboration.”
Since Mr. Steinhauser took the helm, five new members have joined the board—two in the past year.
“We’ve been shaken a little bit,” said John Meyer, the board president. “And what I’m most concerned about is getting back to the consistency we had for so long.” But Mr. Steinhauser insists the Long Beach way, with its emphasis on serving students, will survive.
“Last year was the most difficult year in union relationships that I can remember in my 25 years in the system, and we had the highest gain on test scores in district history, across the board, K-12,” he said.
“The ‘Long Beach way’ is you focus on kids. Kids come first,” the superintendent said. “So if it’s not going to support the kids, then we shouldn’t do it.”
Coverage of district-level improvement efforts is underwritten in part by grants from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.