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Monday, October 10, 2005 | Each school board member – Shelia Jackson, Mitz Lee, Luis Acle, John de Beck and Katherine Nakamura – views themselves as a school reformer. They recognize that student performance must be improved throughout the district, in every school.

Among the district’s highest performing student group, the children of college graduates, more than half do not achieve proficiency in the core curriculum. For students whose parents did not attend college, 80 percent do not achieve proficiency.

When the new board majority was elected last November, its members entered office with an urgent sense to strengthen instruction and curriculum.

There are three ways to pursue this: school site generated improvement; district initiatives; and outside intervention. The latter can come from universities, experimental schools, curriculum developers, etc.

These approaches are not mutually exclusive. Even the best designed school, district or outside curriculum program depends for its success on teacher enthusiasm, expertise and classroom implementation capabilities.

Changing existing practices, from inside or outside the school, is a complex process. It requires leadership; staff commitment; teamwork; school site planning; curriculum redesign; extensive professional development; ongoing assessment of student performance (to measure progress); and implementation problem solving. Few schools have had the opportunity to sufficiently develop these capabilities and this is one reason most improvement initiatives fail.

Some reforms fail before they start. This happens when they are not wanted by principals and teachers. If the school faculty is not committed to the reform and not deeply involved in making it work even the most promising innovation is doomed.

A school board cannot, alone, improve the curriculum and instructional practices of a school or district. They can provide leadership, a call to action and resources, but beyond this they have limited power to actually produce change. Change is, primarily, in the hands of principals, teachers and those who provide them with technical support services.

The teachers in attendance were enthusiastic, astute and dedicated. There can be little doubt but that a determined team of them, placed into a low performing school where 95 percent of students do not achieve proficiency in math could, working outside the box, construct an instructional program to reverse this.

Forty teachers, a dozen principals, seven students and a few parents addressed the board. They repeated the same message over and over: the math program works; it must be preserved; we’re getting fantastic results; we’re teaching problem solving; don’t steal the student’s mathematical joy; don’t listen to statistics; learning is happening; student performance is increasing; listen to us; this program works.

After each person spoke the audience erupted in thunderous applause. This great band even included a grandmother who came all the way from Coronado to sing the praises of the district’s program. I marveled at how her written speech was so similar to that of the teachers and principals.

The “listen to us, this program works” mantra was troubling. The district has a good K-12 mathematics curriculum. It, along with a well-planned English Language Arts program, are centerpieces of Bersin’s Blueprint For Success reform. But, after seven years the Blueprint isn’t working, at least not as well as it needs to.

Student performance scores have slowly improved in elementary schools. But little improvement has occurred in high school where only 11 percent of juniors and seniors are proficient in math. From grade 2 on, student proficiency continuously declines. It is 61 percent in grade 2; 44 percent in grade 5; 27 percent in grade 8; and 11 percent in grades 11 and 12. That is a problem of crisis proportions.

Where are the problem solvers among the principals, teachers and central office curriculum experts? They appear nonexistent.

That, in itself, is an even greater crisis. The workshop charade was choreographed by the central office. It is school improvement by public relations. The assumption is that saying “the math program works” over and over will make it so. But, ultimately, it is student performance that determines program success and 11 percent math proficiency is an institutional debacle.

The district’s well-designed curriculum is not working in the classroom. Why? Perhaps kindergarten and first-grade students lack the foundation concepts and skills required to succeed in it. For certain, with many students, the pacing of lesson units is too fast. They do not provide the amount of instruction and practice required to achieve proficiency in California Math Content Standards. Are these standards being explicitly taught? Only teachers and principals can provide the answer to these and dozens of related questions.

Les Birdsall is an education expert who has been involved in federal, state and local (district and school) improvement initiatives for 40 years. Read his education column every Monday.

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