A Southern California District Resists Bad Education Policy

Jeff Bryant

“Aren’t you cold?”

My hosts waiting for me in front of Millikan High School were wearing full winter wear—dark coats and scarves, knit caps pulled over ears.

I’m in shirtsleeves.

“No,” I replied. It’s 58 degrees—a February cold wave for them but a nice spring day for me.

Photo credit: Jeff Bryant

This is Southern California, where perpetually sunny, temperate weather can make the place seem otherworldly for the rest of us.

The region best known for Disneyland—a.k.a. “the happiest place on Earth”—is also home to Hollywood, world leader of the make-believe industry. Signs at some intersections alert you to surfer crossings. Both the beer and the wine are local. People pick avocados and limes in their backyards.

I went to Millikan High School, in the heart of Long Beach, to find out what makes the public schools there special, too.

Like other writers focused on education, I’m drawn to any place that seems to be performing above average in the perpetually difficult work of educating students who struggle hardest in school.

I’ve called Long Beach an unlikely success story. The city has a history of gang violence dating back many years, which prompted school leaders to make the district the first urban system in the nation to adopt school uniforms in grades K-8. The city is the tenth most ethnically diverse in the nation, just after its neighbor Los Angeles. Twenty-six percent of Long Beach residents were not born in the United States, placing it in the top twenty list of cities in the nation with highest percentages of foreign-born residents. Nearly 70 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Yet Long Beach Unified School District has steadily improved its high school graduation rates—81 percent in 2013-14—and surpasses the rest of the state on key education measures, such as daily average attendance rates, percentage of high school graduates meeting state college level course requirements, and percentage of nonwhite students taking Advanced Placement courses in high school.

I was particularly interested in Millikan because high schools full of low-income students are commonly called a “disaster” in the public school system. High school students are “tired, stressed, and bored” we are often told, and it would seem that if the Long Beach story is going to have a weak spot, it would be most evident there.

More than half of Millikan’s roughly 3,600 students are Latino. Whites are a minority. Nearly half of the students are “socioeconomically disadvantaged.” And the school has a large share of dis-abled kids and English language learners.

Yet these kids tend to outscore their peers on statewide exams.

Graduation rates continue to improve, from 93.6 percent in 2012-13 to 95.2 percent in 2014-15, which beats the state average by 13 percentage points. In 2015, the most recent year measured, 100 percent of Millikan’s Latino and economically disadvantaged students graduated, along with 96 percent of white and 95 percent of black students.

Students are encouraged to take Advanced Placement courses, and the school picks up most of the tab. Millikan annually receives about $10 mil- lion in grants and college scholarships.

Singling out a school as a “success story” comes with considerable risks. Tales of “miracle schools” are routinely debunked. Some are test-prep factories. Others churn out students to inflate their graduation statistics.

But Millikan would be a good school even if test scores were not high. Its popularity in the community and its low teacher attrition are strong signs that the place is doing something right.

The entourage who meet me at the school’s front door includes lead teachers Leslie Gombrich and Gabby Mercado, who help direct two of the school’s “Linked Learning” initiatives.

Linked Learning strives to create career-oriented pathways to major California industries, including engineering, health care, and the performing arts.

In Carri Valdez’s eleventh-grade class, students are engaged in running a mock business or nonprofit, designing products and services, or advocating for a cause. All the projects are created by students who work in teams.

Volunteers from the businesses and nonprofits in Long Beach visit the classes to talk with the students about how enterprises work. And the students exhibit their work at local and state trade shows and compete in contests at the state, regional, and national levels – sometimes traveling as far away as New York City. A display case showcases awards the students have won over the years.

I watched teacher Michele Mize’s ninth-graders perform “nonfiction narratives” where they present stories, illustrations, and performances conveying the results of interviews they’ve conducted. The interviews must be with someone whom they know personally and incorporate lesson material from other classes they’ve taken.

I saw one student act out the story of her Mexican grandmother coming across the border illegally to the United States, and how she made a life in Southern California. Another student presented a collage about her Cambodian friend who traveled back to her native country only to return to the United States, and how alienated she feels.

Millikan teachers have clearly embraced Linked Learning. But not because they were forced to.

As lead teachers Gombrich and Mercado explain to me, Linked Learning was not a “program” mandated by the district. Not every district school offers these curricular pathways, and those schools that do customize them for their students. For example, Millikan’s PEACE pathway, which uses a social justice lens, was conceived by teachers who were concerned students weren’t sufficiently invested in their studies. District staff nurtured the idea, but teachers led the way.

Neither is Linked Learning a consequence of holding teachers accountable to standards or the outcomes of state tests.

When I ask Valdez how her lessons mesh with Common Core and prepare students for the state standardized tests, she replies, “I don’t worry much about that,” but then, glancing warily at her coprincipal standing next to me, asks, “Is that a problem?” He smiles reassuringly.

Mize says her classroom instruction has always focused on the “soft skills,” such as critical thinking and creativity, that the standards emphasize. “I’m very confident of what I’m doing in the classroom,” she says.

These flashes of teacher-driven creativity don’t come about through happenstance. It’s by design. District leaders value what teachers do, and they put in place structural supports that make it more likely the talents of teachers come out.

“We know everyone in our schools has the best intentions,” says Nader Twal, who taught at Millikan for ten years before becoming a teacher leader and, eventually, a district administrator. “Our focus is to build the capacity of our teachers, not to determine their incompetence.”

The Long Beach district’s stellar support of its teaching staff is reflected in its low teacher attrition rate of 7 percent, much lower than the national average for urban school districts.

Deputy superintendent Jill Baker and Pamela Seki, assistant superintendent of curriculum, instruction, and professional development, told me about the district’s approach.

First, Baker says, it addresses problems with student performance by asking, “What’s going on in the whole system?” This systemic outlook seeks to identify and address all drivers of student performance, not just individual teachers or school leaders.

Second, rather than focusing on hitting a specific mark on student tests, teachers are expected to be constantly working at improving their practice. To this end, the district has committed to providing ample opportunities and resources.

“The consequence for low performance is more support,” Seki says. “Our evaluative process is appreciative, not punitive, but it still pushes individuals toward continuous growth.”

Common Core is an imperative, but implementing the new standards has been governed by another nonnegotiable: collaboration. Teachers and principals received Common Core training together. Data from tests aren’t used as benchmarks of teacher and school performance as much as they’re used as diagnostic tools and conversation starters. And while the district keeps a close eye on students’ academic progress, that data is balanced with evidence of social-emotional progress.

Finally, change is a methodical process rather than a knee-jerk reaction. Ideas for new programs start with asking teachers and principals questions rather than imposing solutions. Advice from outside experts is always considered in the local context. And members of planning committees and work teams are expected to reflect multiple points of view.

“Instead of just handing principals a statement of seven things they’ll be evaluated on, we gave them voice in deciding what was worthy of being evaluated,” Baker explains. The downside of this is that “it takes time.”

“But it’s worth it,” Seki adds.

Education policies that focus on the nuts and bolts of what teachers actually do in the classroom, how administrators get the best performance from faculty, and how to work with communities to develop schools from the bottom up are generally pooh-poohed in influential think tanks and policy shops in Washington, D.C., and state capitals.

“Platitudes . . . learned in ed school,” is what Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst of the Brookings Institute calls them.

That contemptuous attitude toward teaching still dominates education policy making. But there are signs its influence is on the wane.

Get-tough education-reform policies endorsed by President Obama gave states incentives to impose Common Core standards, rate teacher performance based on student test scores, open more competitive charter schools, and take steps to “turn around” low-performing schools by firing all the staff or handing the school over to a charter operator.

But California never adopted the reform doctrine across the board.

And instead of massive budget cuts, California is putting more money into its schools and has taken steps to make school funding more equitable. Long Beach’s increase in per-pupil spending now surpasses the state, and the district spends considerably more on certified personnel and instruction than is typical of California districts. Instead of tormenting teachers with constant evaluations, many California school leaders resist using student test scores to judge teacher performance. The state refused to include a teacher evaluation system based on student test scores in its application for a waiver from No Child Left Behind mandates.

Charter schools have proliferated in the state, principally due to the support of Governor Jerry Brown, who founded two charter schools in Oakland when he was mayor of that city. But in Long Beach, there are only two charter schools, and enrollment in these schools has dropped from more than 1,300 in 2011 to just 174 last school year.

And the adoption of Common Core has proceeded relatively problem-free. In the Long Beach school district, teachers trained on the new standards for two to three years before imple-mentation. These changes have turned “the education policy of the last four decades on its head,” argues Claremont Graduate University professor Charles Taylor Kerchner. The results are starting to show.

Late in the Obama Administration, No Child Left Behind was rewritten in a way that curtailed the federal government’s enforcement of evaluations based on standardized tests. No doubt many states will continue to proceed down this failed pathway, but many more can now pursue the alternatives California is embracing.

President Donald Trump and his Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, have reinvigorated old conservative notions about a free-market approach that floods the education system with many more privately operated schools. But the teachers in Long Beach are showing that when given sufficient resources and supports to meet the needs and interests of students, they can get the job done.

And it’s not make-believe.

Cross-posted from The Progressive

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