In its waning hours, the Obama administration gave conservatives poised to take the reins in Washington, DC a huge gift when it issued a highly negative report on the results of its efforts to rescue the 5,000 lowest performing public schools across the nation.
"Obama administration spent billions to fix failing schools, and it didn’t work," reads the headline at the Washington Post, where education journalist Emma Brown writes,
One of the Obama administration’s signature efforts in education, which pumped billions of federal dollars into overhauling the nation’s worst schools, failed to produce meaningful results … Test scores, graduation rates, and college enrollment were no different in schools that received money.
Conservatives are cashing in this gift as quickly as a winning lottery ticket, saying, as newly appointed US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos does in an op-ed for USA Today, that the Obama administration's failure to boost typical school performance measures proves "throwing money at this problem" will not work.
"They tested their model, and it failed... miserably," DeVos told a roaring crowd at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference.
The model she and President Trump are expected to push through Congress will provide parents more "school choice," likely via some sort of school voucher program, and ups the ante for what the federal government is willing to "throw" at the nation's troubled schools to $20 billion.
Conservative news outlets happily use Obama's education policy failure as a pivot to support the scheme DeVos and Trump are proposing.
In response, Obama supporters are fighting a rear-guard defense of his policies, cherry-picking data and digging for anecdotes to justify continuance of what his administration did.
If these two factions constitute the "sides" squaring off over federal education policy in the coming years, we're in for a dreadful debate.
The truth is, the policy agenda Obama set for the nation's schools was never going to work.
When his administration introduced its “Education Blueprint” in 2010, research experts warned the policies guiding the agenda were poorly grounded in research or not based on any objective studies, and Obama never made any meaningful course corrections as evidence of his wayward agenda mounted throughout his presidency.
Faced with these two utterly misguided directions for education policy, some argue for a "centrist solution," as if meeting in the middle of two bad ideas can somehow produce something good.
Where both sides in the policy debate start is with the assumption that real progress can't come from schools themselves but must be imposed from outside by folks who aren't professional educators. Both sides believe at their core that traditional school districts either ignore or actively resist innovation and that their processes are so ingrained they're incapable of change.
What if that assumption is wrong? What if there are school districts that are bucking the "failure" narrative? What could our policy leaders and think tank "experts" learn from them?
Recently, I traveled to a school district in search of answers to those questions.
An Unlikely Success Story
At first glance, Long Beach Unified School District in California is an unlikely subject for a success story.
The school district is big – the third largest district in California, with 84 schools, 78,000 students, and nearly 3,300 teachers.
It's student demographics resemble those of school districts that are regularly the lowest performing, with lots of racial, economic, cultural, and linguistic diversity. Only 13 percent of students are white, with the rest being mostly Hispanic (56 percent), African American (14 percent), and Asian (7 percent). Nearly 70 percent qualify for free and reduced price lunch, the most commonly used measure for low income. And 23 percent are English Language Learners with another 6.5 percent recently designated English proficient.
Yet in 2015, LBUSD posted high school graduation rates of 81 percent, after a third consecutive year of improvement. According to a local news reporter, "Students of color at Long Beach schools are outperforming their peers countywide and statewide." She notes. "At several LBUSD high schools, students of color now outperform their white counterparts in terms of graduation rates."
According to data compiled by the Los Angeles Times, Long Beach surpasses the rest of the state on key education measures such as daily average attendance rates, percent of high school graduates meeting state college level course requirements, and percent of non-white students taking Advanced Placement courses in high school.
A report from McKinsey & Company notes, LBUSD consistently increased its scores on the state's school performance index, improving by 154 percent between 2004 and 2013, the last year the index was used before the state converted to Common Core State Standards.
In the first year Common Core-aligned exams were given in California, "Long Beach students performed nearly as well as the state average," writes Lillian Mongeau for The Hechinger Report, despite the challenging demographics of the district. "Students from economically disadvantaged homes here performed slightly better than their economically disadvantaged peers statewide at nearly every tested grade level."
The district boasts an impressive list of accolades on its website, as well.
Charters? What Charters?
Ask local school administrators and teachers about the LBUSD success story, and you're not going to hear the same sort of rhetoric that fills the education debate on the national stage.
While LBUSD is a "district of choice," meaning parents can request to transfer their children to any of the district's schools, most families stick with their local school. As the LA Times article cited above reports, 75 percent of parents in elementary schools have their children attend their assigned school. That attendance preference drops somewhat in middle school to 62 percent and to 53 percent in high school.
And charter schools? There are only two in the district, and enrollment in charters has dropped from over 1,300 in 2011 to just 174 last school year, according to state records.
Because California adopted the Common Core, LBUSD uses the standards as well, but teachers I met showed little evidence they saw themselves as laboring under onerous standards. In virtually every interaction I had with teachers, the day-to-day work with students and their responses to the students' interests and needs, rather than adherence to standards, was foremost in the conversation.
Also in Long Beach, student performance is frequently assessed at classroom, district, and state levels, but test scores are never used to rank schools and evaluate teachers, as Obama's Education Department prescribed.
"The Long Beach Way"
Educators I met up and down the ranks of LBUSD refer to "The Long Beach Way" as a culture of continuous improvement that begins with a respect for teachers and a belief that internal accountability – rather than top-down mandates – is what drives meaningful change.
The Long Beach Way, I learned, is a relentless devotion to the process of "doing school" that puts the essentials of good education – curriculum and instruction and an intense devotion to the well-being of students – at the heart of the work rather than technocratic changes meant to solve problems quickly or disrupt the system.
And while the district has certain "non-negotiables," real progress is expected to come from the bottom up through collaboration and team work rather than demands and compliance.
So how did Long Beach get here?
When I posed that question to former California State Superintendent Bill Honig, who encouraged me to come see these schools, he replied, "Long Beach could do it because it has a long history of people who put curriculum and instruction first and who were willing to put into place the supports for that."
Honig maintains that any school district can do this. "But you have to have the clear belief to keep curriculum and instruction first. And you have to have a systems approach that resists simple solutions like firing all the teachers. Lots of folks new to education, especially those with a business background, don't have that point of view."
What does that point of view look like in practice? In the coming weeks, I'll explore that question and look at how these practices are grounded in research and expertise, where else they bubble up in school districts around the country, and how they can be supported and advanced as an alternative to the sorry excuse for an education policy discussion we see playing out at the national level.
I hope you'll join me.