Reaching For The Sky In Public Education

By: Bill Levis Issue: Education & Workforce Development Section: Jewel Of Collaboration

Academic Success in Some of the Nation’s Toughest Areas

Reaching For The Sky Public education is serious business in California.

Many employers would say it is the state’s most important responsibility. The question is how students can be motivated to excel and to reach for the sky.

Chuck Holland is the Program Improvement Coordinator for the Riverside County Office of Education, which has 400,000 students and 23 school districts. A principal for six years in a district with high poverty and low English proficiency, he was one of five principals nationally to receive a blue ribbon for academic achievement.

His answer to the problem is both obvious and challenging. “You need high expectations and commitment to turn high achieving into reality,” Holland said. “Some adults only have low expectations. While money gives some students a leg up, many poorer schools are also high achieving. It boils down to the teachers in the classroom and reciprocal accountability between teachers and principals. Leadership has to have a clear vision that is understood by everyone.”

It boils down to the teachers in the classroom and reciprocal accountability between teachers and principals. Leadership has to have a clear vision that is understood by everyone.

“Everyone” does not only include only those in the education community. It also involves a commitment by business. Holland’s efforts led him to the California Business for Education Excellence (CBEE) Foundation when it “selected my school as one of its honor schools three years ago. I was impressed with their genuine concern for students in the state.”

In 2008, CBEE and Just for the Kids-California singled out 911 public schools for their Honor Roll. These schools had both high student academic achievement and had made significant improvements in decreasing achievement gaps.

The Star Schools Award was given to 214 schools with a large number of socio-economically disadvantaged students who had shown significant improvement in grade-level proficiency for four years. The 697 schools receiving the Scholar Schools Award also had significant academic achievement but do not have the large numbers of socio-economically disadvantaged students.

The California Business Roundtable (CBRT), composed of companies to provide leadership on high-priority public policy issues, formed CBEE to focus on raising student academic achievement. CBRT recognized that the state’s education system faces many formidable challenges, including improving academic standards and assessments to ensure that the standards are met.

Several years ago, CBEE issued a report focusing specifically on improving academic standards and assessments. The conclusion was not to spend more money on education but to spend what already have been allocated more wisely. Among the report’s 11 recommendations were:

Hold schools accountable to ensure that students at all levels are attaining grade-level proficiency in reading, writing and mathematics as measured by the California Standards Test – not just achieving “growth” – but meeting standards.

Give parents, teachers, and school administrators the tools to effectively utilize existing student performance data to identify achievement gaps.

Use best practices learned from high performing schools to aggressively intervene early to reduce achievement gaps in chronically low performing schools.

Even with these efforts and improvements, much more needs to be done. Education is still viewed as a top public policy concern along with the economy and jobs, according to a survey done for CBEE in 2008.

In polling done two years ago, state business leaders ranked the quality of public education as well as health care as the issues that worried them the most. In what can only be viewed as a blaring wake up call, business executives graded California’s K-12 public schools as a D+. Fifty-four percent of the respondents said the problem in schools was due to a lack of accountability and not a lack of funding. Failure to perform at grade level reading, writing, mathematics and science was identified as a serious problem by 75 percent of the participants while 70 percent also felt that too much money was being spent on bureaucracy and administration.

That is where the success of Chuck Holland and the Val Verde school district, where Holland was a principal for six years, is so impressive. “At least 25 percent of my students spoke a language other than English at home,” Holland noted. “Sixty percent of the students were on free or reduced lunch. Yet we were able to go from the outhouse to the penthouse.”

Holland said the key is a child-centered, and not an adult-centered, school. “You can’t do what is convenient for the adults,” he emphasized. “It is leadership’s responsibility to set high expectations. You have to provide teachers and students with the wings and the flying lessons to get off the ground. You need a plan to insure success and support high expectations. Leadership has to monitor what is being done. Everyone, from the principal to the teachers to the parents to the children themselves, has to be on board so the students don’t fail.”

It is leadership’s responsibility to set high expectations. You have to provide teachers and students with the wings and the flying lessons to get off the ground.

CBEE and CBRT are on board as well. “Jim Lanich, CBEE president, is a strong proponent of high expectations and using data from school districts so that best practice can become common practice,” noted Holland.

In California, CBEE publicizes data available from more than 9300 schools, 40 percent of all student grade level data in the state. As a result of the information found in the largest such database in the country, parents and educators can measure the “opportunity gap” to set improvement goals that can be achieved.

The challenges in various classrooms and schools can be compared and improvements can be measured over time. Specific analysis of the data to be used to pinpoint and articulate the best practices and successful strategies can be used to help other schools. It also can serve as a basis for the implementation of an accountability system for school improvement.

“The problem has been is that we haven’t shared information and we don’t expect enough,” Holland added. “We expect only one of three children to exceed in California. Under No Children Left Behind (NCLB), we are supposed to be at 100 percent either advanced or proficient by 2014. After seven years of NCLB, we are up to only 40 percent. This is not a good business model.”

Lanich pointed out that “California already spends $67 billion a year on education, yet our students are not prepared for academic success.” Those surveyed are looking for simple ways to evaluate whether their schools succeed and for parents to get the information needed to make informed decisions for their children and to hold schools accountable when students do not perform at grade level.

According to CBEE, high performing schools have five strategies:

Data drives and informs improvement.

Common myths and excuses are dispelled.

Visits to high performing schools to learn what works.

Productive, organized and focused grade level meetings.

Targeted assistance that supports improvement.

Additional keys to success:

High performers provide support to low performers and provide peer to peer support through grade level meeting.

High performing schools use data to inform decision making.

The principal is the instructional leader.

The school board, superintendent, principal and teachers ALL have levels of accountability for academic success.

High performing teachers know what to do when a student is achieving and have a system of support.

High performing schools have a system to support teachers who are reaching the objectives for their students.

High performing school districts have a similar system of support for a principal who is not meeting objectives with teachers.

School boards, superintendents, principals and teachers getting the job done are recognized and given the opportunity to explain their best practices so that others can copy.

Very simply stated, the mission of CBEE is to highlight high academic achievements and how they can be met. CBEE issued a statement last summer praising Governor Schwarzenegger for sending a message to the State Board of Education that the eighth grade standard includes proficiency in Algebra 1 and not General Math that tests sixth and seventh grade math skills.

Lanich emphasized that, “We should not perpetuate a two-track system of high standards for some students and lower standards and expectations for the rest. Students in the lower level math courses are disproportionately minorities and economically disadvantaged students. A watering down of rigor would be a huge disservice to these kids who need the most help. We must keep the expectations high and stay the course that all students take Algebra in the 8th grade.”

The CBEE president recognized that “more focus is needed in the earlier grades to support struggling students and to provide them with the foundational pre-algebra skills. We must stay the course and support the brave step that California took several years ago to require that 8th grade math be based on Algebra 1 standards only. This policy set in motion a huge increase in the number, and diversity, of students taking Algebra in the 8th grade. Students placed in the lower level course have not increased their proficiency; they have remained at about 23 percent proficient over the five year period.”

For Holland, Lanich, CBEE, CBRT and large employers in the state, setting objective standards high enough so that students have to reach for the sky to obtain proficiency is the only way to ensure that they are prepared for life after school.

Leave it to Holland to summarize the business philosophy the most succinctly. “CBEE has an incredible philosophy which is to shine a bright light on the best practices and replicate them with similar population and income level of students across the state and the nation.”

“CBEE is debunking the argument that academic achievement cannot be raised where there are serious adverse conditions. They are opening our eyes to new possibilities. By sorting through data, they are sharing best practices with all of us. I love the fact that it is the private sector that is doing this,” noted Holland.