The Opposite Ends of the Education Spectrum

Harold Kwalwasser, March 2, 2012

In 2009, I visited forty schools districts, charters, private and parochial schools. Because I wanted to know what is working in American education, most of them were already high performing or steadily transforming. A couple, however, were, to rely on a euphemism, “base lines.” Translation: they were troubled districts that were useful comparisons to the ones that were doing well.

When I finished, I was pretty confident I had identified two school districts that were at the opposite ends of the education spectrum. On the high performing side was the Blue Valley District in Overland Park, Kansas. On the other end, my own Los Angeles Unified School District, where I had served as General Counsel during the superintendency of Roy Romer, the former Governor of Colorado, whom education reform forces had brought in to oversee a major overhaul.

Blue Valley has the highest student achievement scores of any large district in Kansas, but admittedly, they are all far smaller than LA, which has some of the lowest scores in California. And there are certainly other ways in which the districts are distinct, some of which might make one think any comparison is a bit unfair. Blue Valley is mostly middle class and largely white. LA is largely Hispanic and mostly poor.

But here is where they connect. If you asked LA administrators and teachers what they aspired to, they would probably tell you that they wanted to be like Blue Valley in the following important ways:

Blue Valley’s central office, its principals, and its teachers share a vision. As one teacher told me, he had started at Blue Valley, left, and then decided to come back because it is “the biggest, baddest, most innovative” district anywhere in the region. The district is committed to continuous improvement. Everyone is encouraged to try out innovative ideas, all of which are tested rigorously and adopted when they work out. There is a trust among the central office, the principals, and the teachers that they can always educate their students better, and that everyone has a role in figuring out how to do that.

In Los Angeles, on the other hand, the district has to cope with the state’s notoriously dysfunctional politics that regularly play havoc with its funding and the rules by which it operates. On top of that, the board is prone to micro-management, usually unrestrained by any community demand it have a laser-like focus on the district’s toughest issues, like educating a large number of English language learners. And the union has historically seen its role as opposing management, not cooperating on reform.

As a result, there is little respect for “333 South Beaudry,” the district’s mammoth central office. Teachers and many principals do not value its decisions and resent its directions as noxious, know-nothing meddling in teaching, even when they are right on. LA will not move forward until its version of distrust starts to look more like Blue Valley’s version of trust.

Blue Valley also believes “every child can learn,” and means it. No sloganeering here. It is a “no excuses” district in the sense that the faculty really does believe that they can help every child, regardless of background or learning ability. The coursework is rigorous, and when kids are emotionally troubled, the district acknowledges its obligation to step in rather than let things fester.

Los Angeles, on the other hand, sometimes seems to be overwhelmed by the consequences of the poverty that grips so many of its students. Unquestionably, they have a tougher road to travel than white, middle class kids in Santa Monica or Orange County. But too many of the teachers have just given up in the face of all those obstacles. They have lowered their expectations and rationalized no longer having fire in the belly.

They shouldn’t. Think about the legendary Jaime Escalante of Stand and Deliver fame. He believed his Latino high schoolers in East LA could learn advanced math, and they did. He would have fit into Blue Valley, just fine, although nothing would have ever gotten him out of his old neighborhood. If LA is ever going to do well, the slogan will have to be “you gotta believe,” like Blue Valley.

Not all of the differences, however, are wrapped up in perceptions and attitudes. There are real distinctions in how the districts operate. Blue Valley closely assesses whether kids are mastering what they are learning and has a clear strategy for what to do for both the kids who are falling behind and those racing ahead. In other words, they see every child as an individual, appreciate all the differences, and tailor instruction accordingly.

To do that, they needed to build what has become a wonderfully robust computer system. It helps track and coordinate much of this instructional framework, and it allows all sorts of options in what, and how, things are taught. And that, in turn, only happens because teachers happily collaborated with each other, both to strategize about how to deal with specific student learning problems and to improve their own instructional skills.

In LA, the lack of trust and confidence means that teachers, particularly in elementary school, are heavily scripted – told what and how to teach and expected to do it without much variation. In many schools in the district, little is tailored to address the needs of individual kids. Moreover, the district’s databases are not yet robust. There are few frequent assessments, little collaboration among teachers to analyze whatever assessments do exist, and no organizational support that provides extra opportunities for help.

The strategy that works in Blue Valley could work in LA. In fact, it does work in lots of low-income schools like New Orleans’ cutting edge Recovery School District. Making LA look like Blue Valley, however, will take a systemic effort, as well as the trust and confidence LA lacks. These problems challenged Romer, and they continue to challenge the current Superintendent, John Deasy, even though he is a dynamic leader who has made some promising initial strides. Until then, Blue Valley and Los Angeles will remain far apart at the opposite ends of the education spectrum.

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