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Innovation Zone Sought by Calif. CORE Districts

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By Gabriela Mafi

Garden Grove Unified School District is one of 8 CORE Districts* known nationally for creating a shared school improvement and accountability system during the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) era. This innovative system focuses on traditional measures of school improvement such as test scores as well as non-academic measures including student academic growth, high school readiness, student social emotional learning, and school culture and climate.

Our collaboration continues today because by sharing data and lessons learned locally, we are improving student outcomes. California's education policy leaders are well-positioned to replicate this kind of learning for the state and for other local districts by supporting an innovation zone as part of California's state plan on school accountability.

'All Are Our Kids'

Garden Grove's strategic plan purposely focuses on three primary goals: academic skills, personal skills and lifelong success. We call this "The Garden Grove Way." The secret to our success is that we treat all students as if they are our own children, always putting their needs first. This innovative approach is paving the way for real results, including improved scores across all grade levels on state tests in English and math; high survey rankings from students about their school's climate and culture, a higher percentage of our high school students completing college entrance (a-g) requirements compared to their peers in the county or state, and a higher pass rate on Advanced Placement exams than the state, national and world average.

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) supports states' ability to promote the kind of innovation that makes Garden Grove successful. Under ESSA, as compared to NCLB, states have greater authority to design accountability systems that best advance positive education change in each state's context. In addition, ESSA also includes a waiver provision that gives states authority to pursue innovative ideas beyond statutory requirements to further improve student outcomes.

California's new school accountability dashboard is a step in the right direction for engaging with our students, families and schools, but California State Board of Education president Mike Kirst describes it as a "work in progress."  He says that it "will be a far more valuable tool one year from now and three years... as feedback is incorporated." An innovation zone can help further the kind of continuous improvement Kirst and other education policy leaders envision for the dashboard and new accountability system.

Innovation Zone Combines Local, State Indicators

An innovation zone would allow local districts such as ours to work with the State of California to further align local district accountability innovation with the emerging state system. In the accountability system created and maintained by the CORE Districts, both state and locally-developed measures of school improvement count and are reported to educators.  

In the proposed innovation zone, low performing schools could be identified by taking into account the State's accountability measures, plus the CORE Districts' tested metrics on student academic growth, high school readiness, school climate, and student social and emotional learning. Any school district that voluntarily agrees to share its data within the CORE Districts' accountability and improvement data system could be part of the innovation zone.  (Currently there are more than 800,000 non-CORE rural, suburban and urban school students in the data system.)

The chart below helps to explain how this might work. All school districts in the state would collect and report on the state measures (blue). In addition, the innovation zone districts would also collect, report and be held accountable by the state and federal government on locally driven measures including student academic growth, high school readiness, student social emotional learning and school culture climate (Gold).

 InnovationZoneMeasuresforAccountability.jpg

In our district, these locally-developed indicators are important determiners in measuring student, school and district growth. An innovation zone for continuous learning would allow the state to learn from their inclusion on a smaller scale in order to better determine if they would be appropriate to eventually be part of the full state accountability system. The innovation zone, then, becomes a truly ground-up but state- led testing ground for measures educators believe to be important for determining quality.

Flexibility Isn't Enough

It may seem that California's emerging system provides enough flexibility for districts to include their own locally-developed measures.  This proposal is not about flexibility. The proposed innovation zone is about local accountability and equity-driven decision making. Locally-developed measures should count toward identifying schools in the bottom five percent for three reasons:

  1. When the state and federal government determine accountability measures, local districts are highly incentivized to respond.
  2. Our ability at the local level to keep the focus on our highest need schools should be supported by one coherent system.
  3. An innovation zone affords the state time to test measures and learn before bringing more accountability measures to scale across the entire state.

Continuous improvement demands innovation. Piloting ideas and programs before bringing them to scale is common practice among the CORE Districts. This proposal emerges from that ethos and positions California to be even more of a national leader in accountability by building true, locally driven, continuous learning into our state accountability system.

Several other states have acted under state law to create these kinds of innovation zones, and several states are considering doing so under ESSA. But no state is better poised than California to take advantage of this opportunity to support local control and accountability.

 Gabriela Mafi is superintendent of the Garden Grove Unified School District and a Board member of the CORE Districts.

 *The 8 CORE Districts are situated in Fresno, Garden Grove, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento, San Francisco and Santa Ana, and together they serve more than one million students.

 

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