San Diego Unified took a step toward hammering out its school reform ideas today, laying out specific skills it expects students to master.

Many of its reform ideas have been just that — ideas — so far. Principals and teachers have been largely in the dark about them. The school district hopes the guidelines, approved by the school board today, will start to change that. The lengthy list of expectations, and how to gauge them, is a crucial step towards making its reform plans a reality.

San Diego Unified announced a new plan for fixing schools more than a year ago, under pressure from some parents and outside critics like San Diegans 4 Great Schools, who wanted to know why it was veering away from school reforms that the Obama Administration has touted.

The Obama plan focuses on ousting teachers to overhaul faltering schools or using test scores to gauge how effective they were. Instead, San Diego Unified pledged to empower teachers to come up with their own solutions from within schools. “Community-based school reform” has since come to encompass a vast array of plans, from emphasizing more critical thinking to addressing social and emotional needs.

The persistent problem, however, has been translating those high ideals into actual changes in the classroom. A few schools are piloting programs that reflect the reforms: Torrey Pines and Joyner elementary schools, for instance, have been held up as examples of teaching critical thinking.

But many other changes are still theoretical.

“These are all fine ideas,” school board member John Lee Evans said at the meeting today. “But how are we going to have a report that shows all these goals for student achievement are being met?”

Deputy Superintendent Nellie Meyer said this was the first step. The plans lay out what students should be able to do in each academic area, grade by grade, and what evidence can be used to see if they’ve gotten it or not.

“We said, ‘What do we need our kids to leave with? What is essential?’” said Sherry Lawson, who oversees math programs in the school district and sat on a team that developed math goals.

Students are supposed to be able to “deliver a clear, organized oral presentation with relevant evidence and sound, valid reasoning” by the end of eighth grade. Rubrics can be used to score them. Second graders should be able to “distinguish own point of view from that of author, narrator, or main character,” which could be measured by anything from videotaping kids to reading logs.

The school board also got a peek at a “student dashboard” that teachers would look at to track student success. It includes traditional measures like the state tests, but also has space for teachers to note “academic confidence” and “perseverance,” along with their career interests, suspensions and more.

Some of the details are still unclear. While San Diego Unified includes a long list of measures that could help show if a student has mastered a particular skill, it doesn’t set any clear markers, like a specific score that students should get, to determine whether or not they’ve met the bar for that skill.

And because the school district is trying not to rely solely on tests, many of the measures are inherently subjective, such as watching a video tape of a student.

The next test will be transmitting those ideas to school principals to put their ideas into play this fall.

The school district plans to create example work and diagrams for teachers to look at; committees are continuing to meet over the summer to keep developing those plans. Meyer said the information would roll out to school principals at the beginning of August, before the coming school year.

Earlier this year, confusion over the plans deepened after the teachers union, which had planned to partner with the school district in some of the reforms, stopped talking to the district, saying it would work on reforms alone because of trust issues.

Want to check out some of the goals for yourself? Here are the ones for academic achievement, which encompasses broad school skills, and for science, math and languages. Please post your thoughts on the blog!

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter:

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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