A Superintendents’ Blueprint for Better Schools

September 17, 2012

What’s the secret recipe for school districts that outdo their peers?

The superintendents of four such Arizona districts have at least one thing in common. They have a record of scoring better on the AIMS statewide testing than is the norm for districts with each of their particular socio-economic characteristics.

But there is not a singular recipe that explains their performance.  No manual or blueprint that they all use.

The districts operate in different circumstances.  They have different points of emphasis.  They take different approaches.

This is not to suggest that they each pursue any one dimension of educational excellence to the exclusion of all else.  No doubt if one were to ask about some other specific, the answer would be “Oh yeah, we do that too.”

But any organization has only so much bandwidth for initiatives.  It takes time and energy to comprehend and implement one district-wide initiative, much less to take on many.

Each of the superintendents is passionate about what to them is critically important. From their descriptions, one can propose a list of capabilities that other districts might want – or even need – to master.

Here are five such initiatives, which together might comprise a blueprint for what it takes to be an outstanding school district, plus one other suggestion for putting the cherry on top.

1. Set an Audacious Goal

Calvin Baker admits he didn’t come up with it.  It was handed to him.  But he didn’t turn it away either.

Baker is superintendent of the Vail Unified School District on the far southeast side of Tucson.  Although Baker says the circumstances of the district are starting to change as the fast-growing area around it matures, Vail has to be judged in the context of an up-and-coming socio-economic bracket.

The district was struggling with all this a dozen or more years ago when Anne Gibson, a new member of the school board, laid down a challenge.  Vail, she said, was going to the best school district in the state.

Baker and his fellow administrators were taken aback but they didn’t try to hush Gibson.  She in turn didn’t stop talking about it.  Baker says she “was absolutely relentless in the casting of the vision.”  Gibson could be the poster parent for the movement to expect more of schools.

Of course, it only starts there.  A wish is just a wish until someone figures out how to make it happen.  That probably means developing a plan, setting subordinate goals, and then obsessively focusing on those objectives.  Making the case for setting goals.

Baker and his team took the bait.  They began running with Gibson’s vision.

They have been running faster and faster ever since.  In 2011 and again in 2012, Vail was ranked by the state Department of Education as the top large school district in the state.

2. Believe You’re Making a Life-Changing Difference

Karen Williams is a believer.  And she expects those around her to be every bit as passionate as she is.

Dr. Williams is superintendent of the Alhambra Elementary School District just to the north of downtown Phoenix.  The district serves neighborhoods that are largely minority and disadvantaged.  Williams makes no bones about the circumstances when she refers to “impoverished schools.”

The children of these neighborhoods have one hope, she says, of achieving the American dream.  That’s education.

In this she is a disciple of Dr. Anthony Muhammad, a school administrator turned education guru who extols how important it is for educators to believe they can make a difference in young people’s lives.

Williams says there’s a simple formula she’s learned in 33 years in education.  The biggest success comes, she advises, to those who choos effective research-based teaching programs and put them in the hands of great people.

It all “begins with the people you engage students with.  We exercise due diligence in hiring highly effective classroom teachers and support staff and finding highly effective principals to lead their schools.”

Her job is to create among them “a culture of believers” who are just as committed as she is to the proposition that a quality education provides the one and only avenue for their students to make successes of themselves.

3. Revolutionalize Lesson Planning

Lesson planning is as old as teaching itself.  But after all these years, the method of planning has changed for good.

In the old paradigm, planning was an independent activity.  Teachers prepared for the school year at their kitchen table. The result might have been only loosely linked to what the other 3rd grade teacher was teaching next door or to what the 4th grade teacher would be teaching those students next year.  And it bore little resemblance to what was being taught in other states.

The accountability movement has upset all that.  Arizona, like most states, has developed standards for what it expects students to learn each year.  Those expectations are now in the process of being made consistent across the country with the advent of the so-called Common Core Standards.  It behooves everyone to abide by the standards, but figuring out how to do that adds another layer of complexity to the planning process.

As a result, a new paradigm is emerging.  Planning is becoming a collective exercise.   And the Vail Unified School District is making an art form of it.

  • A core group of administrators and teachers translate the state standards from abstract concepts to practical lessons to be learned.  Vail calls this “unwrapping” the standards.
  • Teachers of a particular grade then come together on a district-wide basis to review and approve which of the standards are most important for students to absolutely master.
  • The teachers are then obliged to follow the resulting curriculum calendar, so as to assure that all students are spending the allotted time on each
    standard.  The calendar comes complete with lesson plans and instructional resources, including materials created in recent years by Vail teachers themselves.
  • Only after all of the above are teachers free to customize the specific plans and resources to fit their own style of teaching.  They are invited to post the best of what they do to supplement the existing materials.

The tangible result is a digitized playbook for teachers, which Vail calls “Beyond Textbooks.”  The intangible result is a learning system that is more centralized, more standardized, and more systematized.

Vail Superintendent Baker defends that.  “In order to make significant change, there has to be a very clear framework.  Teachers can hang things on it, but there has to be that substructure,” he says.

Equally significant, Vail is sharing the playbook with others.  The district has signed up 67 other districts in the state to use its website and all that it contains.

“I have absolutely no hesitation that this works,” Baker says.  “If you do what we are doing, if you follow our pattern, I guarantee you that your student achievement will go up.”

4. Provide the Tools

Vail is but one district using technology to its advantage.  The Sunnyside Unified School District is going to extraordinary lengths to put the technology in the hands of its students.

Sunnyside, located on the south side of Tucson, has a preponderance of disadvantaged students.  The response of Superintendent Manuel Isquierdo is to champion the notion that technology can be the great equalizer between rich and poor.  He cites digital curriculums, programs that can be tailored to each student’s learning needs, and accelerated learning opportunities of the type the district cannot otherwise provide.

Unfortunately, the disadvantaged students who would benefit most from all this are the least likely to own or even to have access to the electronics that make it all possible.

Enter Isquierdo.

First he orchestrated, with the help of $1.2 million in corporate donations, a program to put a laptop in the hands of every incoming high school freshman.

Then when the funding ran out four years later, he and the district board came up with an even bigger initiative.  They proposed, as part of an $88 million bond election last fall, to extend the program to more students (grades 4 to 12) for a whopping 10 years.

District voters, who must be every bit as disadvantaged as the students in the schools, saw the potential value.  They voted yes.

5. Evaluate Continuously

Outstanding test scores don’t magically appear out of the blue.  They’re the result of day-in, day-out effort.

Which is why the Kyrene Elementary District doesn’t assess the performance of students and teachers just at test time.  It assesses them all year round.

The results show positively for the district covering the Ahwatukee region on the southeast corner of Phoenix and spilling over into Tempe and Chandler.  The district is largely white and economically advantaged, which augurs well for test scores.  But its students test even better than one would expect.

Superintendent David Schauer credits this to a no-nonsense approach to education that is rigorous, focused and systematic.

For students, this means an ongoing assessment of how they are doing.  The idea is to catch problems early.  When intervention is needed, the district provides teachers with specific strategies for giving students individualized support.

For teachers, it means being regularly monitored to determine how well they are employing the desired instructional model. In Kyrene’s case, that’s the “art and science of teaching,” a framework that spells out 60 characteristics of a well-run classroom. These are techniques that teachers can develop and enhance throughout their careers.

For administrators, particularly principals, it means avoiding the distraction of the dozens of minor crises that arise each day.  Someone else can handle those.  The primary job of principals, Dr. Schauer says, is to be the “educational leaders” in their schools.  A lot of that involves assessing and coaching teachers in the “art and science” framework.

In all this, Schauer shies away from the word “evaluation.”  Given the focus on improving the skills of both teachers and students, the better label might be “development.”

Then . . . Strut Your Stuff

Just to show that achievement tests haven’t become the only measure of success, we return to Vail Unified for the cherry on top.

Credit for this also goes to Anne Gibson, the dynamo who challenged Vail to be the best.  Even before that, Gibson – with Baker’s blessing – initiated Vail Pride Day.

The community-wide event was developed to provide the district, its schools and their students an opportunity to show off what they’re doing in all kinds of ways. There are contests such as “Academic Jeopardy” and the “Math Bowl,” performances by school choirs, bands and orchestras, an art gallery, a science showcase, and events honoring teachers and volunteers.  Plus, every teacher has a bulletin board to display student achievements.

The festivities are popular enough to have spread to three days and multiple venues at the Pima County Fairgrounds.  There’s plenty of method to the madness.

“Communities and schools are unavoidably linked to each other,” Baker says.  “It’s almost impossible to have an outstanding school without an outstanding community, or to have an outstanding community without an outstanding school.”

Vail is one of the districts in the state doing its best to show what it takes.

– Richard Gilman

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