District Reforms Past and Present: An Interpretation (Part 3)

There is no Google map for reformers to follow in turning around low-performing classrooms, schools, and districts. Nor have researchers been better than MapQuest.  They have plotted out multiple (and conflicting) routes to the what and how of school reform.

As I have pointed out in Parts 1 and 2, reform-minded policymakers, past and present, have jumped around searching for the best unit of change (e.g., classroom, school, district, state) that would transform teaching and learning while achieving different goals of public schooling. In the past three decades, state and federal authority over local schools has slowly increased to the point that current reformers believe districts offer the most leverage in altering what happens in schools and classrooms. Whole school reform has not been abandoned–think charter schools or Success for All –nor has altering individual teacher and principal performance been left in the lurch–think evaluating and paying practitioners on the basis of student test scores. But overall, a federal policy on reforming schools has emerged in the past decade where current policymakers (and donors) see districts as the prime mover to achieve major reforms.

Since there is no Google map or clear directions from researchers, in Part 2 I examined briefly two previous instances of district reform. As historians and social scientists do, I thought they might offer clues for informing contemporary policy decisions. In this post, I offer a third example, the Sanger school district near Fresno (CA),  and then I give my interpretation of these three cases of district reform.

Sanger Unified School District

In 2004, the California State Department of Education designated the largely minority and poor Sanger school district in the Central Valley of California and seven (of its 19) schools as failing under NCLB; the district with nearly 11,000 students was placed in Program Improvement, a state effort to turn around failing schools. Within five years, all seven schools had recovered sufficiently to leave Program Improvement and four of those schools eventually became State Distinguished Schools. In addition, by 2009, 12 of the 13 elementary schools exceeded the target score of 800 that the state set for the Academic Performance Index. This is an extraordinary accomplishment for a high-poverty, largely minority district facing all of the complexity that such systems encounter daily (Sanger-Report-2)

How did they do it? Opinions differ, of course, on which factors made the difference but researchers and informed observers agree on the following:

*Continuing superintendent leadership over the long haul; Marc Johnson has been superintendent since 2002 and Rich Smith, his deputy, since 2004.

*Steadfast focus on instructional improvement through direct instruction to meet state curriculum standards and improve performance on state tests.

*Establishing systematic and intensive district-wide professional development and school-based teacher learning communities aimed at improved classroom practices in daily lessons.

Evaluators described this strategy:

They adopted the [Rick] DuFour’s model of teacher professional learning communities (PLCs) as the vehicle for teachers to work collaboratively to improve student achievement and develop a sense of collective responsibility.

They chose a model of direct instruction, Explicit Direct Instruction (EDI), with structures designed to help low performing and language minority students work on grade-level standards with frequent checking for understanding. To support students struggling at grade level, district leaders designed their own version of

Response to Intervention (RTI), creating both in-class intervention and a range of intervention classes to meet the specific needs of students at risk of falling behind. To provide added help to English learners, the district expanded its emphasis on English language development (ELD).

Johnson’s vision and inspiration, Smith’s practical implementation of the vision, and teachers’ hard work in  the above multifaceted program help explain Sanger’s successful turnaround of a failing district.


So where are we in considering the district as an engine of reform in light of these three examples?

Even though the contexts are different in each of the examples, that is, when they occurred and the places in which the reforms unfolded, there are some common factors.

1. The districts have between 10,000-20,000 students.

2. The reforms required district  leadership of at least a decade or more. If superintendent turnover occurred, successors carried the reform torch and sustained it.

3. All three districts needed start-up funds to launch the innovation and then funds to sustain the reform. Moneies came from district budgets and were re-directed to the reform or came from outside sources, or both.

4. Each district built curricular, organizational, and capacity building structures to launch the reform. Shared beliefs about the reform, norms of collaboration and trial and error, and rituals developed that created a common culture for current and new teachers. Durable structures and cultures were essential to the longevity of the reform.

5. Two of the three districts worked closely with the state. In the early 20th century, state departments of education (e.g., Indiana) were marginal operations offering little  to districts.

6. Teacher involvement was essential to implementing and sustaining the reform  but differed among the districts. Building teacher expertise and collaboration in Sanger and Union City began top-down and became central pieces–the common culture–to putting reforms into practice and sustaining them. Evidence of teacher participation in the Gary Plan other than teachers carrying out assigned duties, however, I could not find.

These common factors are hardly ingredients for a recipe that policymakers can use to cook up a successful district reform. They seem more applicable to moderate-size and smaller districts rather than big cities or large county districts. They require initially top-down and and sustained district leadership. They require monies  for building key structures and hard work among practitioners to create a culture focused on helping teachers work together for student improvement. Knowing the factors is one thing; putting them into action is another. Especially since time and place matter when district reform starts up.

Unlike Gary in the early 20th century where state involvement was minimal, Union City had the Abbott court decision in the mid-1980s that required New Jersey to give additional funds to those districts with many children from low-income families. Or in California in the past decade, Sanger officials re-directed ever shrinking state funds to ELD, RTI, EDI, and professional learning communities. In short, current state and federal authorities are up to their hips in pushing, guiding, and massaging district reforms. Context matters.

As many observers have pointed out, reforming a district to improve schools and classroom instruction is a complicated maneuver in a complex system such as public schooling. There are now more players involved with varying amounts of authority (e.g., federal, state, local, donors, community activists, teacher unions, students) than in prior times. Even when smart researchers use exemplars to show how schools, districts, and the state have to work together, the very exemplars– San Diego in the late-1990s or Community District 2 in New York City– disappear in a few years reinforcing the obvious point that reforming complex systems remains an enigma (Fullan, et. al..

The past gives clues to present-day reform-minded policymakers but no maps to follow.



Filed under school reform policies

21 responses to “District Reforms Past and Present: An Interpretation (Part 3)

  1. Hi Larry,

    Appreciate this series.

    I still struggle with the idea of “reform” being narrowly emphasized to improve traditional outcomes and measures. What if reform of the traditional district ultimately doesn’t serve the needs of modern learners despite their test scores going up? What if we’re in a period where we have to unlearn and relearn the premise of schooling before we figure out how to best change it to meet the needs of learners? For instance, should reforms be more aimed at creating spaces and experiences that develop kids as inquiry driven, creative and collaborative problem solvers who can interact with the world in both physical and virtual spaces? Or are we content to focus on state curriculum standards and accompanying assessments that by and large don’t measure a child’s ability to find problems, offer creative solutions, make meaningful artifacts of learning, be self-directed, self-organized learners, etc?

    No doubt, sustained leadership is essential for long term changes, and to be honest, I think that’s what undercuts more reform (regardless of how you define it) more than anything else. But I also am coming to seriously question the relevance of much of what we state as the intended outcomes of school (as defined by what we assess) in the context of the new learning realities that my kids face.

    • larrycuban

      Hi Will,
      Your comment hits at the the desired outcomes different groups of reformers seek. Currently, most federal and state reform-minded policymakers seek equity in cognitive outcomes for all students (e.g., get rid of achievement gap; everyone goes to college) and the goal of a strong economy through better schools (e.g., higher performance on international tests; graduates with skill sets for a knowledge-based economy). These goals–emerging in the late 1970s, a useful date is A Nation at Risk report in 1983–have been heavily influenced by business and civic leaders who link the quality of schooling to the strength of the economy. Efficiency and effectiveness are (and have been) key concepts in school reform for the past three decades. Measurement and auditing outcomes accompany these concepts as well.

      These goals, of course, are not the only goals public school reformers have sought in the past. In earlier periods, civic engagement, developing the mental, psychological, social, emotional, and physical capacities of each and every child, and career preparation have been sought by different generations of reformers. I believe, Will, that your comments call for other goals that historically have been sought by parents, practitioners, researchers, and taxpayers.

    • Jared Cavagnuolo

      Since you bring up the question of what the purpose of school should be in the 21st century, I found the case study of the Gary, IN school district from part 2 of this series very interesting. It seemed to me that in that case, the district leadership saw schools as the vehicles to develop not only academic but also practical skills that would benefit people later in life. While the times have obviously changed dramatically since then, this method of educating students in a work-study-play-community environment seems like it would create more opportunities for the type of inquiry, creativity, collaboration, and problem-based learning that you mention to occur. The spaces in which people interact and collaborate to solve problems may have become more virtual than physical, but in my opinion the overall philosophy remains similar.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks for your comment, Jared. Ronald Cohen wrote a history of the Gary Plan–which basically lasted, in part, to the early 1960s. It is called “Children of the Mill.” Much of the Gary Plan was integrated into the modern elementary school.

  2. Been following this with interest. There are some parallels here to items I have been outlining in my space about how distance education has evolved in my province over the past twenty-five years. I, too, see the benefit of staying with the broad vision and have become (painfully) aware of how difficult it is to effect positive change in a complex environment.
    As to your closing line the two things I would add are, first, at least a good understanding of of the past helps to ensure that the efforts made toward the long term goals do not get ruined through incompetence and, second, perhaps keeping an effective information flow between the leaders and stakeholders gives the best hope for ensuring that, even if we cannot see very far into the future, like a driver on a road, at least we can see far enough ahead to make the smaller course corrections needed along the way.
    BUT–from time to time, as I see it, we need to meet on a larger scale [think the council of Nicea for example ☺] and review our core values with an eye toward setting the broader vision for the foreseeable future–maybe every 10-15 years or so. In Canada, for example, in the late nineties the CMEC led the Pan Canadian Science Protocol, a project that has proven more than useful…but now, about fifteen years later, it’s time for a new look.

    • larrycuban

      Maurice, thanks for the comment. Certainly agree with the importance of looking in the rear view mirror to check out past reforms. As to your other suggestion of large-scale meeting (and reports) to “review core values with an eye toward setting the broader vision of the foreseeable future,” such reports have been issued often in the past 30 years–in the U.S., I think of “A Nation at Risk.” For the U.S. with historical commitment to multiple goals encompassing advancing economic growth, civic engagement, literacy, career preparation, equity, and personal advancement–it is hard now and in the past to get agreement around the values embedded in these goals. Especially when the past three U.S. Presidents have pushed schools to do the best they can to prepare graduates who can advance the economic well-being of the nation.

  3. Bridget

    I don’t believe the all of those reform minded policy makers really have the best interests of our students in mind when I see some of the damage done to our public schools in the name of Ed Reform. When non-educators are the drivers of this so called reform, the results will be disastrous for children. Why should ALL students go to college? In my state there are opportunities to earn a living as a skilled worker making three times what I make as an educator. I agree with Will that we need to relearn what traditional schools offer, but I disagree with the current “education deform” movement that is driven by an ALEC agenda that removes educators and proven educational research from the discussion. Public education should be for the public good. Until the causes and sources of poverty are addressed, education is just a scapegoat for a bigger problem in our society.

    • larrycuban

      Bridget, thanks for your comment. The goals of reform have shifted historically over the past century in U.S. public schools. My response to Will’s comment, makes that point. In your last sentence, you point out how policymakers, time and time, again have taken national social, economic, and political problems and “educationalized” (a word I have borrowed from David Labaree) them. Poverty is one example. Stalled economic growth is another.

  4. Cal

    A couple thoughts:

    1) I don’t think cheating was involved, but given the many times sharp score increases have been accompanied by , any research reporting dramatic increase in proficiency scores should at least include the possibility, if only to dismiss it. In reading this report on Sanger’s improvement (http://www.stanford.edu/group/suse-crc/cgi-bin/drupal/sites/default/files/Sanger-Report.pdf), I didn’t find any mention.

    2) The test score improvements are elementary school level, for the most part. At the high school level, the only mention of improvement I could find was on the CAHSEE, going from 72 to 84%, and in CAHSEE terms, this puts them pretty much at par with every Title I mostly Hispanic, ELL school I can think of (including two I’ve worked at).

    3) Sanger High School scores are still, again, typical for a Title I mostly Hispanic high school: http://star.cde.ca.gov/star2012/ViewReport.aspx?ps=true&lstTestYear=2012&lstTestType=C&lstCounty=10&lstDistrict=62414-000&lstSchool=1036094&lstGroup=1&lstSubGroup=1 , which suggests that all the elementary school improvement didn’t result in better high school achievement (something that both you and I know is a constant evasion in school miracle reports)

    4) I see nothing in the list of remedies that has consistently proved out, so I’m skeptical that any of them were really relevant. What I wonder, really, is the degree to which elementary school kids can improve performance simply by being told by their teachers that school performance is important. If they’d never been told this before, then an emphasis on test scores could do a lot with a young population. Older kids, with much harder subjects, not so much.

    • larrycuban

      Hi Cal,
      Responses to your comments:
      1. I know well one of the authors of this report and I found out that the scrutiny of each school’s test scores by district officials was intense. Whether authors should have mentioned this is a judgment call.
      2 & 3. You are on the mark about the high school. The gains have been highest in elementary schools and the high school professional development, professional learning communities, and much more–including direct instruction–have been slow in unfolding and has yet to make inroads across the board in high school departments. There will be a change in district leadership next year and I would guess that the high school will receive far more attention.
      4. I believe that what has occurred in the elementary level is an accumulation of interlocking changes that included a great deal of teacher involvement across grades and much collaboration in and out of classrooms. When people talk about a “culture of ;earning”, one really has to see it in action since it goes well beyond how many PLCs there are, how many workshops taken, etc. I have been fortunate in my career to have seen and been part of such “cultures” in schools and at least one district. That “culture of learning” has yet to include the high school.

      As always, Cal, thanks.

  5. DFW Teacher

    A question that haunts me: Is there a large urban school district in the US that CONSITENTLY brings its large numbers of low SES and minority children to levels of high academic achievement? Since I cannot find one, I have taken a rather pessimistic view that we are involved in nothing more than an experiment process much like Edison’s search for a filiment for the incandescent bulb. We know 1000’s of things or combinations of things that don’t work but no one has “struck gold”. How can we reach such heights with technology yet have the successful education of our low SES and minority children elude us? I know this is probably a false equivalency, but still…

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, DFW teacher. Long Beach (CA) has had a sterling record on improving academic achievement over nearly two decades–yes, over twenty years. What I mean by that is that a largely poor and minority district with 90,000 students has continually worked and succeeded in raising academic achievement, increasing numbers of students graduating high school, reduced dropout rate, and sent more and more students to college. It ain’t perfect but it is one example. Other examples are winners of the $1 million Broad Prize for urban districts that have improved students’ academic achievement. Long Beach won in 2003 and has been a five times finalist since then. Look at other winners of the Broad Prize.

  6. One of the things I’ve noticed Larry over many years now, certainly in the UK, but in other excellent schools I’ve been lucky enough to visit in Russia, Scandanavia, the Caribbean and Eastern Europe, is how the very best of schools do have one thing at least in common. Teachers in such schools never see their role in the narrow economic, social or employment terms reformers so often do. They know what they do every day has much more impact on the children they teach than that.

    More and more I’ve begun to think that many of the most “innovative” reforming voices, nurse a covert dislike of schools as educational tools because the reformers themselves either have had personal bad experiences in them, or they have never been lucky enough to experience, or work, in an excellent one. This recent debate offers some prime examples.

    • larrycuban

      A fine historian of education and social scientist David K.Cohen once called the folks who “nurse a covert dislike” of public schools in the U.S.–“school haters.” We have them in the U.S.; they seldom own up to it.
      I will read the debate you sent. As always, Joe, thanks.

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