Accountability Opinion

Can ‘The California Way’ Turn Around Underperforming Schools?

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — June 06, 2016 4 min read
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Farmland meets the desert a few blocks from the Palo Verde school district headquarters in Blythe, California. (CTK photo)

In the small oasis where the California desert meets the Colorado River, the 3,200-student Palo Verde school district has been struggling to improve for more than a decade. Now it’s become the pilot for the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence (CCEE), the state’s new school improvement organization.

I watched as the school board and district administrators joined CCEE executive director Carl Cohn in reading Michael Fullan’s new book Coherence, which shows schools how to activate the “right drivers” to create systemic improvement.

Beyond ‘Test-and-Punish’

The book use symbolizes California’s movement from test, punish, mandate, and inspect to a political and organizational environment where local districts and their boards are expected to solve their own achievement issues, including knowing what help to ask for.

It’s both an empowering and terrifying shift. As one board member said, “Failing was easy. You just had to follow someone else’s checklist, and if it didn’t work that was their fault.” I’ll write more about the Palo Verde district, headquartered in Blythe, as I follow their progress this year.

Here, I concentrate on two opposing ideas that are at play in improving schools and why I think what State Superintendent Tom Torlakson calls “The California Way” is also the right way. “The California Way rests on the belief that educators want to excel, trusts them to improve when given the proper supports, and provides local schools and districts with the leeway and flexibility to deploy resources so they can improve,” wrote Torlakson’s second term strategy team.

The test-and-punish model of school improvement is based on external accountability, intervention, and consequence.

For the last 15 years, federal and state policy evaluated schools almost entirely on their performance on standardized norm-referenced tests that allow easy comparison across schools and districts, but which capture little of the differences between them, other than race and poverty. Because these tests are designed to fit a statistical normal curve, it’s easy to differentiate schools, particularly at the tails of the curve, and apply the “failing school” label to those at the lower end. (See James Popham, “The Fatal Flaw of Educational Assessment.”)

Labeling, Then Intervention

Labeling is followed by intervention. California has had at least three intervention programs that, regardless of their acronym, largely worked the same way. Following a script that could have been lifted directly from early 20th Century scientific management practice, a team of outsiders examines a school district, applies a checklist of good and bad practices, and renders a report of improvements the school should undertake. Then, for the most part, they leave.

When federal or state law or regulations are concerned, intervention takes the form of mandates, a list of specific practices that a school or district must change to be “in compliance.” Districts tend to follow these requirements regardless of whether they make a lot of sense to the overall educational program.

The pointy edge of the “test and punish” logic is consequence. (Can’t you hear echoes of your stern father saying, “There will be consequences”?) Well, as it turns out, maybe yes, maybe no.

Cascade of Consequences

A cascade of consequences exists in federal and California law and regulation. They range from required notification to parents, to allowing them to enroll their students elsewhere, to reconstituting the staff and firing the principal. And there is the ubiquitous intervention team. For the most part, they haven’t worked. Of the 2,006 California schools branded with the failing school label “program improvement” for five years, only 46 exited the program in 2015. Of the 414 districts in year three of the program, only 1 exited.

Why is such an expensive, invasive, and long lasting process largely ineffective? At root, the intervention and sanction system made schools dumber as organizations. It moved responsibility for diagnosis and treatment far from the classroom. And educators engaged reform as an act of compliance rather than as a quest for improvement.

A Better Way

Now, consider The California Way alternative to test-and-punish:

  • Instead of leading with external accountability, it requires building internal vigilance and the development of local data.
  • Instead of compliance officers from the state, the local control system requires that both education professionals and their communities get involved. Instead of intervention, it leads with capacity building.
  • Instead of telling schools there will be consequences for failure, they are being told to learn from failure, and enough confidence is being placed in them so that they can learn.

I support this alternative, not because it is easy or a sure thing, but because it is the internationally proven path to improving school systems. Fullan makes the point in Coherence and elsewhere: no education system in the world has successfully led its education improvement efforts with test-and-punish.

The California Way is not speedy. Changing a school district from a culture of compliance to a culture of continuous improvement will test the patience of our political system, but we know that the alternative doesn’t work. Instead of being seen as a laggard in education improvement, California is being seen as a positive example.

The opinions expressed in On California are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.