BOUNDARY CROSSING, INSTITUTIONAL CHANGE, AND SELF EXAMINATION.
Updated: Mar 22, 2018
The era of the LCFF - arguably inspired by the federal grant competition known as the Race to the Top with its focus on improving low-achieving schools - and likely spurred by the ever widening achievement gap, will be viewed historically as a period in California education policy when the state shifted its compulsion from punishment to empowerment.
The State has repositioned itself to focus on building capacity for ambitious education reform agendas. From my vantage point as a superintendent of schools, organizational capacity serves as the quintessential conceptual lens to view recent education policy.
Paradoxically, accountability is now more of a local responsibility under the LCFF. While the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) has replaced the Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) program and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) now measures student achievement in grades’ 3-8 and 11, the California High School Exit Examination (CAHSEE) is out and an improved and a responsible Academic Performance Index (API) that no longer ranks schools is in. Why? It’s simple.
Recent policies and practices were ineffective in narrowing the achievement gap. In fact, past practices have a poor track record as achievement largely remains skewed towards higher socioeconomic populations. The sixty or so years of federal intervention, including the NCLB Act of 2002, has been an abject failure by most standards.
Especially when you consider that three major Supreme Court decisions in the 1990s authorizing a return to segregated neighborhood schools and limiting the reach and duration of desegregation orders have led to more segregation in schools today than before federal desegregation intervention. According to the Council of the Great City Schools, in 2015 there were roughly 15,000 schools identified as low-achieving in the United States. More than two of every three schools on the list reflected the myriad of social, economic, and political challenges that characterize the urban communities that they serve.
Schools that have beaten the odds have a few common factors: primarily experienced teachers, low absenteeism, and stable leadership. Self-sanctioned, these schools either succeed or lose their most successful students and their families. Schools that have not excelled also share a few common factors, notably inexperienced teachers, chronic absenteeism, and a consistent turnover of school leaders.
It all feeds a vicious cycle of fewer resources which leads to lower morale which leads to lower performance and so on and so forth, punctuated by student flight. Unstable is the ultimate condition that districts caught in this cycle find themselves. Instability at its worst drives districts into the ground and into state receivership. Districts that have that infamous footnote in their history disproportionately serve students of color. Inglewood (2012 to present) and Compton (1993-2003) are two districts in Los Angeles that are or have recently been in receivership. Instability and dysfunction can be identified at virtually every level of failed organizations. In one of the largest school bailouts in California history, gross fiscal mismanagement led to a state takeover of the Vallejo City Unified School District in 2004. Deep budget cuts, restructuring, and school closures soon followed. The district was in receivership for eight years, nine months and 17 days. It lost over 5,000 of its almost 20,000 students during that period. Vallejo has been one of nine school districts in receivership since the 1990s.
Even districts that have managed to elude receivership but historically underperform are fundamentally flawed from the top down, upon examination. On the other hand, high performing districts that disproportionately serve students of color are highly stable and functional, from the top down. High performing districts that disproportionately serve students of color have something else in common: there is no boundary that separates the district from factions within it or from the communities it serves. The concept is referred to as boundary crossing and it has been well documented in numerous studies. I am using the term to describe overcoming institutional barriers by crossing any or all of the longstanding lines that have been historically drawn in the sand, including partnerships with bargaining units, private organizations, colleges, cities, charter schools, or private schools. See one example here. An example of a longstanding institutional barrier that is being overcome is the cryptic and byzantine college admission process by promoting and assessing ethical and intellectual engagement in K-12 schools through admission policies. Learn about it here.
Well beyond embracing the model of community-based organizations (CBOs), which according to 20 U.S.C.A § 7801(6) are representative of a community or significant segments of a community that provide educational or related services to individuals in the community, high functioning districts also cross internal boundaries to overcome institutional barriers to create optimum conditions for learning, including a rigorous core instructional program, student motivation through engagement, a focus on student services, policies and practices that build mutual respect between families and school staff, and community engagement.
Districts do not often study themselves through a lens that examines the boundaries that separate its schools from its numerous internal factions and external forces. If they did they would have to own their behaviors, past and present. That is not a common practice in education. We are conditioned by a history of isolation and of being a monopoly. School choice law, charter schools, and other student-centric policies have put a stake in the heart of monopolizing students' futures. The pressure is on schools to perform.
Engagement with the community that my district serves is high, but that’s a phenomenon that has come and gone and recently has come back again. And while soaked in optimism, we still remain marginally splintered by political divisions and adult agendas. While external factors have driven internal changes currently underway, they could never change fast enough for the students who deserve better, today. The district’s new five-year strategic plan, referred to as the CAP, for Competitive Advantage Plan, is a blueprint for the future of any district ready to cross boundaries.