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Professional Opinion

Changing Places and Changing Paces

As creative as a superintendent may be, education reform is limited by state infrastructure.

I've been personally and professionally blessed to have had the opportunity to serve some very diverse and large urban school communities in several states as superintendent of schools. These varied locales have given me the unique opportunity to look at the world of system reform through a broader range of lenses. These multiple perspectives have provided me with insights into the role state policies and infrastructure play in the pace at which systemic reforms can be implemented and accelerated.

The Formula for Success

In real estate many criteria are considered in pricing and successfully selling a home, but the most fundamental reason one home moves before another is most often boiled down to the three factors: location, location, location. Similarly, success in school system reform is composed of a great many criteria, but I've found that the variance of success from district to district and state to state can be broken into three factors: context, context, and context. In other words, the state in which your district is located and the infrastructure at the state level that can guide and assist in systemic reform can be a major force in a district leader's ability to bring about timely reform as measured by student achievement in a standards-based environment.

The policy environment, political backdrop, and stages of reform that are present at both the state and local level determine the levers of power and support the superintendent has at their disposal to execute meaningful change and the pace at which this can be done. I saw this firsthand in the 1990s moving from superintendent of the Santa Fe Public Schools in New Mexico to the superintendent of the Ysleta Independent School District in Texas. The contrast could not have been greater. In New Mexico there were no common curriculum standards, assessments or meaningful accountability systems for increasing student achievement at the state or local level, and as superintendent my efforts to put such a system in place for our district was like trying to build without a foundation; there was no broader support structure for the effort.

In stark contrast, when I left to be superintendent in the high achieving, eighth largest urban district in Texas, the Ysleta Independent School District, I walked into an environment with a finite curriculum of state standards firmly in place, aligned assessments, textbooks, and professional development, accountability requirements, and state laws, including some which linked student achievement to principal and superintendent evaluations. This aligned structure of supports at the state level coupled with district policies granting particular autonomy to the superintendent, such as the ability to make key personnel decisions without Board approval, allowed a much faster implementation of the standards-based reform agenda. Within two years in my position there, we were the first of the big 8 school districts to see a 90 percent pass rate on state achievement tests district-wide in this predominantly minority, low-wealth district. This simply could not have happened when I was superintendent in New Mexico within that time frame, perhaps not even within ten years without a major overhaul of the state system's infrastructure for standards-based reform, or lack thereof.

As I left Texas to become a superintendent in a diverse, large urban school district in southern California, I was aware that with the Bush administration moving from Texas to DC, a Texas-like educational accountability structure was basically going to be superimposed over all states. With that knowledge in hand, I didn't waste any time upon my arrival in California to start putting the infrastructure in place for my district to align with such an agenda before the trigger was pulled in 2001 with the No Child Left Behind policy frameworks. California had already begun moving in the direction of high stakes accountability so I was able to complement it with what I had learned so well in Texas. We were able to accelerate putting the infrastructure in place, align the instruction with data systems, structure district support teams and standards-based practices in order to meet our district AYP each year. Knowing the formula for success with calibrated systems alignment allowed me to get a jump on these reform strategies and move the system forward very rapidly, seeing test scores rise significantly in a very short period of time.

Testing versus Learning

Up to this point I have focused on the varying paces between places as far as systemic reform in a high stakes testing environment; however it is worth sidestepping for a moment to underscore that there is a huge difference between doing well on tests and learning more. My early educational work as a school psychologist and educational diagnostician gives me unique insights into the difference between learning and testing. But if the yardstick for judging school improvement is a student's test scores based on a finite and narrow curriculum, then we must recognize the success of our reform in these times will be measured by that narrow criteria.

One can look at it like a driver's test— if students are going to take the test in a small sedan, we would teach the student to drive a sedan, and not put them in an eighteen wheeler or a motorcycle to test their knowledge of driving a sedan. Similarly, if we teach the literacy and numeracy skills that students will be tested on to pass their academic driver's license test, and we have systems in place that align with those criteria by which they will be measured, it will be substantially easier to see pass rates increase. In other words, if we teach to standards (assuming they are in place and people are doing it effectively) and assess students with aligned instruments, by default, scores should increase. I think this is a very important point when we are looking at what we can attribute success to — people, infrastructure, systems, programs, and/or all the other complexities that make up systemic reform. However one might feel about high stakes testing versus actual student learning, it is the environment we are in and today's superintendents and other educational leaders are faced with the demand for accountability and are being judged on this imperfect criteria today.

Implementing systemic reform to meet the accountability standards with which we are now faced of course means understanding that it is a little more complex than simply assessing the state infrastructure. For example, it is particularly complex and critical to get the structural and people pieces in place to bring about meaningful change at the district and school level, but my point is to illustrate that as superintendent, the systemic interventions I selected for my districts in New Mexico, Texas, California and now Washington, were extremely reliant on the state's own alignment and infrastructure for standards-based reform in a high stakes testing environment. Currently in Washington, there are no aligned formative assessment systems for school districts statewide, only annual state exams, nor are there standards-based textbook adoption cycles and dedicated funding for that matter, and comparatively No Child Left Behind compliance appeared to me as basically voluntary until last year. The lack of infrastructure at the state level, leaves districts on their own to implement all of those systemic alignment elements necessary for standards-based reform initiatives to have their intended effects.

As a superintendent, finding the right district starting point for improvement is directly linked to whatever stage of reform the state is at on their own reform journey. Understanding the broader stages of system reform currently at play at the state level and the extent to which they are modified extensions of the federal policy frameworks and requirements, plays a powerful role and is a major force in a local school district's capacity to execute and pace those reforms. My recent experience with the Stupski Foundation out of San Francisco as a Superintendent in Residence made this very obvious when working with the New Haven School District in Conn., District U46 in Elgin, Ill., or the Pasadena Unified School District in Calif. Doing client research in these large districts, as well as in the Atlanta Public Schools in Ga., the Pittsburgh Public Schools in Penn., the San Antonio Independent School District in Texas and a few other states, helped to illustrate with a blinding clarity how the state policies and infrastructures were facilitating—or not—the pace of changes being attempted by district superintendents and their leadership teams.

We purport to be in a standards-based reform policy environment in the U.S., but you cannot have standards without standardization. The fact is that each state's standards and plans are different, including their policy frameworks and state infrastructure for helping districts to achieve those standards in a high-stakes testing environment. This does not allow for meaningful comparisons of student success across states. To complicate it even more, within states it is hard to tell if our kids are actually getting smarter or just getting better at test taking. Therefore, I return to my previous point—how fast and far a superintendent and school board can move a school system forward with meaningful systemic reform as measured by student test scores, can depend largely on three main factors: context, context, context.

Edward Lee Vargas Ed.D. is the Superintendent of the Kent School District, which has one of the most diverse student populations with 120 languages spoken and is the fourth largest school system in Washington State.