CORE districts’ tackling of tough issues impresses federal official

U.S. Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education Deborah Delisle. Credit: John Fensterwald, EdSource TodayA high-ranking federal education official – a woman with Secretary Arne Duncan’s ear – said she liked what she heard at the first meeting of the committee overseeing eight California districts that have received the nation’s only district waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law.
Particularly intriguing was the discussion about using methods other than test scores to determine whether students are succeeding, said U.S. Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary education Deborah Delisle.
“I am really optimistic about the depth of conversation they are having today,” she said in an interview. “They are asking the right questions. It’s positive when people can come together in a room to talk about outcomes for kids in a meaningful way.”
Delisle flew in to Sacramento last month specifically to attend the meeting of the 14-member School Quality Improvement System Oversight Panel. Its job is to verify that the eight districts in CORE, or the California Office to Reform Education – Los Angeles, Long Beach, Fresno, San Francisco, Santa Ana, Sacramento City, Oakland and Sanger, all unified districts – have met the commitments they made in return for receiving flexibility with federal Title I dollars and a suspension from penalties under NCLB.
The CORE districts’ application for a waiver assumed a three-year timetable to meet the requirements. But last August, Duncan gave each of the districts a one-year waiver. It’s halfway through the year, and Delisle gave no hint whether, based on progress so far, she’d recommend to her boss to extend it. Next week, monitors from the federal education department will visit four of the districts to examine compliance. But Delisle also sounded like she was willing to give CORE more time and an opportunity to pursue some innovative ideas.
Members of the CORE district oversight panel include researchers and civil rights advocates, and representatives of the English learner and special education communities as well as of the California PTA and the state school boards and administrators associations. The California Teachers Association, Gov. Jerry Brown, the State Board of Education and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson were asked to send representatives to the committee meeting – but didn’t.
Torlakson and other state education chiefs lobbied vigorously last year behind the scenes against granting a waiver to the CORE districts as encroaching on states’ authority to manage education policy. The CTA opposed the waiver because CORE superintendents agreed to Duncan’s requirement that they create a system of teacher evaluations that will include standardized test scores as a factor. Brown, not wanting to take on the charged issue of teacher evaluations while trying to pass and implement the Local Control Funding Formula, viewed the NCLB waiver as a distraction. California is one of only five states that didn’t pursue a waiver and, Karen Stapf Walters, executive director of the State Board, said last week the state isn’t planning to seek one for the next school year.
Stapf Walters cautioned not to read anything into the absence of the governor’s and State Board’s representatives at the advisory committee meeting. She plans to discuss the possible appointments to the committee with the governor in time for the next meeting in June. CTA, however, indicated months ago it wouldn’t participate in the committee. And Torlakson’s office didn’t respond to a request for a comment.
Last August, with California not vying with CORE for a waiver, Duncan shrugged off criticism and granted the waiver – the first and only one to a group of school districts. He praised the districts’ “creative, thoughtful, innovative proposal” that he said would “promote deep student learning and effective implementation” of the new Common Core standards.
CORE’s distinct approach
As with all of the states, the CORE districts must satisfy the three commitments attached to the waiver: implementing the Common Core standards (the CORE districts are farther along, with foundations’ support, than most districts in California); making sharp academic improvements with the districts’ lowest-performing schools; and adopting new teacher and principal evaluations.
CORE’s School Quality Improvement Index will be rolled out over the next two years. The 100-point index would include academic progress (60 percent), social and emotional factors (20 percent) and school climate and culture (20 percent) with weights of some measures to be determined. Many of these metrics are also required by the state as part of a district’s Local Control and Accountability Plan under the new Local Control Funding Formula. Source: California Office to Reform EducationBut the CORE districts’ model is different from other states’ plans.
While districts in other states look to their state superintendents for orders and guidance, the eight CORE superintendents look to each other for advice, and board decisions are consensual.
Under NCLB, the process to improve low-performing schools was criticized as proscriptive and for a reliance on limited, punitive options that often didn’t lead to sustained improvement, such as firing half a school’s teachers and principal. CORE’s approach to school improvement pairs staffs of demographically similar “schools of distinction,” called reward schools, with the lowest performers, the bottom 5 percent, known as priority schools. Most pairings will be within the same district, but about a third of the 57 school pairings will be inter-district collaborations, with at least monthly interactions between teachers and administrators to share ideas and practices and eventually design a school improvement plan. Last week, teams of all of the paired schools came together for the first time in conferences in Northern and Southern California featuring CORE’s guiding spirit and promoter of teacher collaboration, Ontario education consultant and NCLB skeptic Michael Fullan.
Before NCLB all but collapsed under the weight of its own unattainable targets for student improvement on standardized tests, Duncan vigorously enforced it. Now, he has granted waivers to CORE districts and states that give more weight to non-test career and college metrics. The CORE districts are taking this a step further, incorporating not just graduation and dropout rates, but also school climate and culture measurements and the elusive but important qualities of motivation and grit, collectively known as social and emotional learning, or SEL.
Other districts and programs have focused on developing and trying to measure students’ habits of the mind, but not on a scale that will encompass CORE’s 1 million students, said Jorge Ruiz de Velasco, a research professor who’s now associate director of the John W. Gardner Center at Stanford University, which will guide and manage data for the CORE districts.
The CORE districts are developing a 100-point school rating system, the School Quality Improvement Index, to measure school achievement. The index is as follows:
Academic achievement, including results from the Smarter Balanced student tests aligned to the Common Core standards, progress or growth on tests, and the graduation rate will account for 60 points.
School climate and culture, including as rated by parent and student surveys and English language learner redesignation rates, comprise 20 percent. They’ll address issues of whether students feel safe and welcome in a school and whether minority groups have been disproportionately designated for special education services.
Social-emotional factors, as measured by absenteeism, suspension and expulsion rates and non-cognitive skills, such as persistence, empathy, self-control and what’s called “growth mindset” – confidence in one’s own ability to learn and solve problems – combined make up 20 percent of the score.
Focus on grit and habits of mind
The districts are already collecting most of these metrics, and many are identical to what the state will now require each district to compile under the new district accountability tool, the Local Control and Accountability Plan. But while there are strong similarities between the state and CORE systems, CORE’s index, which will be phased in over two years, and the emphasis on social-emotional factors are distinctive.

Although the social and emotional ratings will make up a tiny piece of the index, Rick Miller, CORE’s executive director, said, “From our perspective, it’s the right thing to pay attention to, because burgeoning research indicates that social and emotional skills like growth mindset are as important or more important for college readiness than academic skills.”
But quantifying subjective qualities and measuring their growth will be difficult work. The brief discussion by members of the CORE oversight committee hinted at challenges to come.
Committee member Arun Ramanathan, executive director of the Education Trust-West, which advocates for minority children, warned, “There is lots of bias in behavior ratings, especially by race.”
And Jennifer O’Day, founder and chair of the California Collaborative on District Reform, which brings educators, policymakers and researchers together for district-level change, cautioned there are complications in measuring growth over time for qualities such as grit. “Ask a kid if he works hard, that changes once a kid understands what it takes to work hard.”
Delisle, a former state superintendent in Ohio, acknowledged in the interview, “Social and emotional components are complex, but worth pursuing.” She credited the CORE districts for not shying away from them.
CORE plans a pilot program in at least one school in every district over the next year and a half. The measurements, along with intervention strategies, would be integrated into the index in 2015-16.
When it meets next in June, the oversight panel will review the peer evaluations that districts have done of each other’s progress, the data that the districts have collected and the timelines for various pilot projects. The panel will recommend to Duncan whether each of the eight districts should be granted a waiver for another year.
Miller is confident the districts are meeting their commitments. The teacher evaluation piece remains a big challenge. Using test data as a factor in evaluations must be negotiated locally, and unions in Fresno, Oakland, Sacramento and other CORE districts continue publicly to say this is non-negotiable. But Los Angeles and Long Beach have negotiated contracts that would satisfy the multidimensional evaluation criteria, he said.
The districts have through next year to do pilot tests of new evaluation systems, giving CORE another year to make their case that the alternative – a return to the constraints of NCLB and loss of Title I money used as districts see fit – would be tragic.
“There is shared agreement that NCLB is not working to support kids or teachers,” Miller said. Saying he sensed an excitement among teachers in paired schools that “this is what working collaboratively is about,” he added,”We believe that that common ground will ultimately bring everyone together.”
 
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