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Analysis: Is your CA district ready to fix learning loss? New database has some answers

Arun K. Ramanathan | December 12, 2022

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School districts are facing the greatest educational challenge of the last 100 years — reversing pandemic-induced learning loss among tens of millions of students.

It is a moment that demands innovative programs that will be sustained over time and lead to rapid and lasting improvements. But experience teaches that in the face of great need, many districts will build long lists of nice-sounding, low-impact and contradictory initiatives, frittering away precious funding and energy while teachers, parents and kids are blamed for a lack of progress.

How can communities tell which approach their district is truly taking? In many ways, the determining factor is the school system’s underlying organizational strength.

A new tool from Pivot Learning called the District Readiness Index offers a way for education stakeholders, including parents, teachers and policymakers, to identify which districts are well positioned to implement substantial changes and which must address systemic issues that will hamstring recovery.

Following more than two years of data collection and analysis for over 420 California districts, researchers at Pivot Learning found that school systems that delivered for students performed well in five key areas: financial management, leadership and governance, work environment, school personnel, and family and community engagement.

In each of these areas, our team worked with education experts, including current and former superintendents, the California Labor Management Initiative, research organizations such as Policy Analysis for California Education and parent organizations such as Families in Schools, to identify a set of publicly available indicators to answer a basic but essential set of questions: Does the district have the financial flexibility to sustain reform? Do leaders stay long enough to see initiatives through? Does the leadership and the union collaborate to invest in teachers? Do they communicate effectively with local stakeholders and give them a seat at the table? And are they able to recruit and retain teachers and principals?

After analyzing pre- and post-pandemic student achievement results and controlling for demographics, we found that the districts with the strongest rankings also had the highest student outcomes in English and math. For example, more than half of students in top-ranking districts on the index met or exceeded English Language Arts standards, compared with a little over a third of students in lower-ranked school districts. In math, students in high-ranking districts performed almost twice as well as lower-ranked ones. While this finding may seem obvious, it’s the first time the education reform and research community has had the data to demonstrate the central importance of organizational health to improving student outcomes.

The potency of this finding has long been demonstrated in districts such as Garden GroveLong Beach and Sanger Unified, which have prioritized organizational health as key to their ability to make real and lasting gains for students. Underlying these results were not faddish new initiatives, but a sustained focus on a few strategic priorities and the organizational stability necessary to achieve them.

Over the past two decades, each district has had three or fewer superintendents, with smooth transitions between leaders. During this time, they have ensured similar stability at the school level by building and sustaining their own teacher and principal pipelines. Because of careful financial management and overall positive labor relations, they’ve maintained their fiscal stability. Indeed, Long Beach has socked away the largest financial reserves of any district in California, with the explicit goal of avoiding teacher layoffs as a result of declining district enrollment or a state budget crisis.

This combination of leadership, teacher, financial and labor stability, alongside strong community relations, has allowed these districts to maintain their strategic focus. Rather than spending every two years developing 200-page plans offering dozens of goals and new initiatives, they’ve focused on a few long-term priorities. For example, Garden Grove has had the same three student-centered goals since 2013 — academic success, personal skills and lifelong success — resulting in consistently impressive outcomes for its kids.

As a result, all three districts have been the subject of extensive academic research and heralded as national exemplars. In a state as large and diverse as California, the challenge has been identifying the specific organizational conditions that make them so successful and a larger universe of school districts that policymakers, district leaders and local communities can use as models when advocating for reforms in their districts.

What’s powerful about the index is that it identifies specific data-based indicators that districts can improve. In finance, several indicators assess spending in areas such as health benefits and the central office to gauge a district’s budgetary flexibility. In the community area, indicators measure how well it communicates and presents information to families. In personnel, there is critical data on teacher experience, distribution of novice teachers in high-need schools and demographics as compared with the student population.

While the index identifies areas of strength and improvement in almost every district, it also spotlights over 70 districts with strong foundations in all five areas that can serve as examples. For example, in the San Francisco Bay Area, districts can look to San Leandro Unified, and in Los Angeles County, they can look to Hacienda La Puente Unified.

As the country emerges from the pandemic, the question of organizational health in school districts may sound esoteric and abstract. But for a generation of children suffering academic and emotional impacts, the ability of their school districts to attend to the organizational factors necessary to accelerate learning has never been more urgent. The District Readiness Index should be a key tool for helping education leaders to change the dialogue to focus on the organizational factors that support long-term student success. Given the availability of similar data in other states, it is a tool that should be replicated nationally.

Disclosure: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provides financial support to Pivot Learning and LA School Report’s parent company, The 74.

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