In my last blog I tackled the challenges school districts face creating an LCAP that is a true reflection of the educational needs of their communities, the grand vision for the improvement of education in the State of California in the LCFF era. But the true test education leaders face in this new era of accountability is the patience of policymakers who demand results now. We (my fellow superintendents) know that quick fixes and short-term gains (see API growth during NCLB era) do not lead to systemic change. In fact, they fly in the face of it and set districts back even further, creating or perpetuating a culture steeped in institutional barriers that becomes immutable to change. The poor get poorer.
Superintendents operate in the space between the political pressure that drives reform dejour (urgency) and the professional responsibility and moral imperative to build capacity within the organization.
I’ve written extensively on the topic because it consumes me, and my fellow education leaders who know that building capacity is the key to long term and sustainable change. Our jobs as change agents become increasingly more difficult year after year, leading to mixed results, and short-term superintendent tenures and premature retirements (ACSA officials report an average tenure of a little less than 3 years). When you're always running up hill it gets tiring.
The nonpartisan Local Control Funding Formula Research Collaborative (LCFFRC) sent a powerful message to policymakers: “Stay the course,” in a 2017 report that analyzed LCAPs four years after they were originally implemented as a tool for districts to set goals, plan actions, and leverage resources to meet student improvement goals. But the LCAP has morphed into a compliance document and accountability measure to compliment the LCFF.
The LCFFRC found that the common thread among districts that have navigated the LCFF and managed the LCAP successfully is stability, specifically in key leadership positions. While some of the faces may have changed, the mission and commitment to stability never did.
Stability is rooted in a positive institutional culture that shapes and motivates behaviors. Culture doesn’t change easily and not without suffering the perils of change along the way. Among the reasons some school districts and schools never break the cycle of failure is mismanagement and corruption or some combination of the two dysfunctions. I could point to many school districts that have historically failed while neighboring districts serving similar populations succeeded to varying degrees.
One way districts have broken the cycle of failure is through School Improvement Grants (SIGs). SIGs support school districts and their communities in preparing to implement innovative, effective, ambitious, comprehensive, and locally driven strategies to increase socioeconomic diversity in schools and districts that are chronically underperforming. Referred to as the Opening Doors, Expanding Opportunities grant program, the design allows maximum flexibility that is usually not an option for districts bound by agreements and past practices. Without the authority provided by the SIG, authorized under section 1003(g) of Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), the cycle of failure continues unabated.
If you’re not paying close attention you might have glossed over the SIG mission to “Increase socioeconomic diversity in schools” as the primary impetus for awarding these grants.
Underperforming schools and their districts have commonly suffered from the cumulative effect of declining enrollment and consequently serve a high percentage of children living in poverty as a result. Multiple years of higher socioeconomic student flight chip away at a district's and school’s socioeconomic diversity and ultimately qualify it as a candidate for a low-performing school grant at best or a takeover at worst. These chronically underperforming schools were unable to build the capacity to improve and instead spun their wheels until they wouldn’t spin anymore. The poor get poorer.
The irony lies in the fact that the very same system that punishes failing schools and districts is responsible for creating the failure (i.e. misguided policies like NCLB and their unintended consequences).
If the LCFF era is to realize its vision to level the playing field, it will need to give schools and districts time to build sustainable change. Public shaming needs to be in the rearview mirror, not on the dashboard. If you look at accountability movements closely you will notice they are more similar than they are different. If LCFF is going to be the exception the State needs to act soon before it’s too late.