San Diego Unified leaders laid out their vision of school reform at a press conference Tuesday, one of the first times it has been outlined to the public. The reform plan is rooted in a simple idea: Teachers at each school should collaborate, study data and come up with creative ideas to craft their own reforms.

Schools that feed into the same high school should share ideas and strategize. And when reforms work, the school district will expand them.

While many schools are already creating their own reforms, San Diego Unified says now it is actually encouraging schools to chart their own courses and share ideas instead of dictating reforms from the top. It has also reorganized the school district to nurture local decisions, giving each geographic area its own leader. That philosophy stands apart from controversial ideas like merit pay or linking teacher evaluation to test scores, which have dominated school reform debates in California and nationwide.

“It’s not about getting bogged down in arguments or ideology,” school board President Richard Barrera told reporters. “It’s actually looking at what’s working.”

Superintendent Bill Kowba and Barrera argued that by the numbers what schools are doing is definitely working. San Diego Unified state test scores surged this year, even as its budget was slashed. Its English and science scores rank highly among California urban districts, marking another year of steady growth on state tests.

San Diego Unified also outscored the average for urban school districts across the country on a sample national exam given to fourth and eighth graders, though comparing school systems can be dicey because not all school districts have the same share of disadvantaged students or English learners.

Not all of the district’s reform ideas have been completely hammered out, leaving some of the plan short on specifics, such as how the school district will handle schools that try reforms and falter.

Because schools will dream up their own reforms, nobody knows how, exactly, schools will change under the new system. A working group of educators is still figuring out how San Diego Unified will measure its new way of reform and when it will happen.

“It’s great to talk about reforms,” said Bey-Ling Sha, an active parent at the Language Academy. “But I don’t understand what we’re trying to get at.”

The reform rollout comes as San Diego Unified is under fire from critics who believe the school district has cut itself off from the reform zeitgeist. They protested when the school district ducked away from Race to the Top, a competition for more stimulus money that stressed linking teacher evaluation to test scores. Changing teacher evaluation to include test scores, a big push from the Obama administration, is a nonstarter here, as is merit pay.

The same morning that Kowba announced the reform plans, a think tank gave the school district a ‘D’ for being averse to reform, charging that it was dominated by the teachers union and that city leaders shied from school issues.

“We need to look for out-of-the-box solutions — and a lot of those out-of-the-box solutions are going to come from other sectors,” said Stafford Palmieri, one of the authors of the Fordham Institute rankings.

The think tank, which favors charter schools and alternative ways to train teachers, rated school systems on how welcoming they are to outside innovators, gauging how well they recruit talent and find funding.

But school district leaders say that isn’t their idea of reform. Instead of seeking reform from the outside, they say they want to look within.

Barrera has pointed to schools like Euclid Elementary, a City Heights elementary school that has outperformed similar schools. There, teachers got time to work together and agree on ways to help English learners.

“When you talk about the debate over school reform,” Barrera said to reporters, “start with a simple question: Where do we see improvement occurring? Not whose theory is the flavor of the day.”

The think tank is just one of the critics aiming at San Diego Unified: A new group named San Diegans 4 Great Schools has called it a failing district, pointing to stagnant scores on a national exam, and questioned whether it should be run differently.

One idea is expanding the school board to include appointees. Backers say it could stop the revolving door of school boards, reforms and superintendents by stabilizing the school board.

Linda Sturak, a retired principal and a member of San Diegans 4 Great Schools, said she believes this reform plan is a good one. But she questioned how long it could last with a small, elected school board.

“This school board feels this way,” she said. “But what happens after the next election?”

While Kowba said schools had made good progress, he wants to focus more this year on math, the district’s weakest spot on state tests, by rolling out a new math curriculum and new teacher training in math. He also said schools had to “slash the achievement gap” between kids of different races and means.

Nellie Meyer, the deputy superintendent who oversees academics, said schools will also be encouraged to go beyond skills measured on standardized tests to stress critical thinking and creativity. The district has honed in on the idea of “a year of growth” — that schools should ensure that all children improve each year, not simply up their average. And Kowba said the school district would also emphasize parent involvement.

Letting schools work out their own reforms was welcome news to Carl Cohn, a former San Diego Unified superintendent who also backed the idea. “There’s too much rhetoric and media hype that suggests there might be new shortcuts to school reform. I don’t think there are,” said Cohn, now co-director of the Urban Leadership Program at Claremont Graduate University.

He said good relationships with staff are key. “You have to build trust.”

Some educators and parents fear that letting schools go their own way could add to inequities between different areas.

It is the polar opposite of the centralized, single-minded approach under former Superintendent Alan Bersin. Many of his reforms were recently deemed effective in a Public Policy Institute of California report. Researchers said consistency between schools was one of their strengths. The new reform plan is less uniform, which could pose problems if schools don’t actually share ideas.

“You run the risk of losing consistency,” said Wendell Bass, outgoing president of the Association of African American Educators.

As if to head off those worries, Kowba repeatedly stressed unity, using the motto, “We Are Unified.”

Kowba said that area superintendents who manage each cluster of schools would still communicate and share good ideas, allowing proven reforms to spread. School board member John de Beck argued that if smaller school systems like Coronado can choose their strategies, so can clusters that rival them in size.

“Give us your ideas,” de Beck said, “and we’ll make you prove that they’re good.”

Correction: The original version of this article stated that English and science scores in San Diego Unified ranked first among urban districts in California; they rank slightly lower. We apologize for the error.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at and follow her on Twitter:

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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