Long Beach, Aspire among best

Long Beach Unified and Aspire Public Schools, the state’s largest charter school operator, joined Boston Public Schools as the only systems in the United States selected in a comprehensive analysis that lauded and diagnosed the most improved schools worldwide.

In “How the world’s most improved school systems keep getting better,” the consulting company McKinsey & Company looked for common themes among 20 districts  and national school systems that achieved “significant, sustained and widespread improvement” in student outcomes. Some in the report – Singapore, Hong Kong, and South Korea – are always included among high achievers.  Others – Ghana, Jordan, and a region in Brazil – were cited for promise they’ve shown in raising achievement in developing nations. Boston, Long Beach, and Aspire joined England, Latvia, Poland and others credited with turning fair schools into very good schools, without retrenchment, over time.

Both Boston and Long Beach, California’s third largest district with 88,000 students, are no surprise. They have won and repeatedly been finalists for the $2 million Broad Prize, honoring successful urban districts that narrowed the achievement gap. (I have written about Long Beach twice recently, here and here.) Oakland-based Aspire’s average 824 API score ranks highest among public schools systems with at least 20 schools serving a majority of high-poverty students. Nearly three-quarters of its students are low-income. It was co-founded in 1999 by Don Shalvey, former superintendent of San Carlos School District, who is now the deputy director of the Gates Foundation, as well as chairman of Aspire’s board.

McKinsey’s researchers spent several days visiting Long Beach and Aspire schools and singled out their distinguishing characteristics in the 125-page report.

Aspire Public Schools

“Joint lesson planning has become a cornerstone of Aspire’s collaborative practice,” the report says. That happens a half-day every Friday. Lesson plans are evaluated by a strict rubric. While not mandated, the best are adopted. “The expectation of teachers is not only that they should develop and employ effective practices in the classroom, but that they should share them throughout the whole system.”

Aspire takes the same deliberate approach to its refined guidelines for instructional coaching. “Coaches are expected to spend 85 percent of their time with schools and are prescribed a minimum number of touchpoints with teachers.” Among the techniques: A coach sits in the back of the classroom, “wearing a microphone and the teacher a headset; the coach gives real-time feedback and guidance to the teacher while they teach to improve instruction.”

Aspire strives for consistency backed by data. The improved performance of its new schools can be attributed to Aspire’s ability to adopt what works and discard what doesn’t, Stephanie Wilson, the director of growth and strategy, told me. “We’re constantly refining the model,” she said. This year, Aspire’s four first-year schools averaged 786 on the API, compared with an average of 661 for its first-year schools five years ago. Students are chosen by lottery in all Aspire schools.

Long Beach Unified

At a time when urban superintendents average less than three years at a job, Long Beach is an anomaly. It has had two superintendents – Chris Steinhauser for the past nine years and Carl Cohn before him – over two decades.

“As a result,” the report says, “there has been remarkable consistency in the architecting of practices and mindsets. … Though there have been changes in the system’s priorities and approach, these have been the result of system evolution, not revolution.”

A constant turnover in superintendents leads to sweeping changes and fads that are then quickly abandoned; teachers get discouraged, Steinhauser told me. A math curriculum didn’t take off until the fifth year. Sometimes, the problem is in implementation; you have to allow time for course corrections, he said.

The ethos of continuous improvement is called “the Long Beach way” – and it starts with the close relationship between the district and the School of Education at California State University, Long Beach, which trains 80 percent of the district’s teachers. It is enforced in the collaborative approach of teacher trainers and regular walk-throughs in schools that are “analogous to the weekly ‘grand rounds’ in medical teaching, where medical peers present the patient case, ask questions, explore alternatives, make a diagnosis, and develop a treatment plan,” the report says.

Through the combination of efforts, “Long Beach’s culture of consultation, the collective ownership of its schools, data-driven decision making, and the focus on what students learn rather than what teachers teach are all deeply embedded in the system.”

Aspire and Long Beach were selected ahead of districts and cities in other states whose schools get twice as much funding. But Wilson and Steinhauser reject the notion – I can hear it coming – that their success proves that schools in California don’t need more money. Aspire’s central office relies on philanthropy, but its schools break even on state tuitions. Because of budget cuts, class sizes have grown, Aspire has turned more to part-time help, and “team members are filling in the gaps,” staying for after-school programs that no longer can be run, giving hours of extra instructional time. Further cuts could force Aspire to scale back on its plans to grow.

Long Beach has faced $170 million in cuts in state funding, Steinhauser said. “Can you imagine what we could have achieved, had we not had to cut the budget?” One example: Long Beach has been unable to expand a program focusing on African American males that has shown impressive results. Had there not been cuts, “I guarantee we could have accelerated closing the achievement gap by 50 percent,” he said.

And Steinhauser, as those who know him will testify, is not one to boast.

Author: John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (www.TOPed.org), one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

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