Something struck me last year at the “Back to School” PTA meeting. It was hearing the principal of my child’s elementary school speak about the district’s goal of “raising achievement for all students, while simultaneously closing the achievement gap between socio-economically advantaged and disadvantaged students.” I realized that I have been hearing faculty, staff, administrators and others say this phrase many times, something that did not happen when my oldest child started kindergarten eight years ago.
Though at an implicit level this has always been a goal and hope of our schools, it has become the explicit mission of the Santa-Monica Malibu Unified School district and I think that has made a difference. Also, as a board member, I know that this phrase is not just rhetoric and that the district is successfully moving in this direction.
But what does this phrase really mean, and how do I know we are succeeding at this mission? Raising achievement for all students involves improving student performance, no matter what the level of academic attainment of the student. This means students performing at high levels are challenged and have the opportunity to advance academically, while struggling students and everyone in between improve their performance as well. I hear teachers throughout the district talking about differentiated instruction as an approach to challenging all students, and, as a classroom volunteer, I have seen it in practice in my three children’s classes. Narrowing the achievement gap means that students who have traditionally not done as well academically, particularly lower income and minority students, are not only gaining ground, they are catching up with their classmates who may come from more affluent backgrounds. Visiting schools around the district I have heard faculty and administrators talk about how they use information and assessments of their students’ work to address the specific learning needs of their struggling students and share approaches that have succeeded.
There are a number of ways of measuring our progress, including looking at results by ethnicity, income, and English as a second language for standardized tests, grades, promotion to the next grade, ongoing district assessments, access to advanced placement and honors courses, and graduation rates.
One measure, presented to the School Board last week, is the California Standards Test (CST), which has shown impressive growth for the district as a whole over time, particularly when comparing the most recent 2005 year with 2001. Rates of growth vary by grade level and can be found on the district website at www.smmusd.org, but in language arts it reaches as high as 13 percent in 5th grade, and 72 percent of fourth grade students scored at proficient or above (and California state standards are widely regarded as among the most rigorous in the United States). Math shows similar gains, particularly at the elementary school level. Rates of growth have been even higher for economically disadvantaged students, who have seen increases of as much as 25 percent for 9th grade language arts and nearly 20 percent for third grade math. While on average test scores for disadvantaged students remain below those of their peers, the gap is gradually narrowing.
These improved results are no accident. The shared mantra of “increased achievement for all while narrowing the achievement gap” has been a purposeful means for creating a shared priority. To begin with, teachers have made an incredible effort towards this goal, meeting weekly to share best teaching practices, develop curriculum, analyze data and strategize together to make improvements at the classroom and student level. The Board and administration have advocated for budgets that deliberately and strategically commit resources (people, systems, dollars) to areas believed to have the biggest impact on student achievement. Examples include hiring literacy coordinators and implementing programs that increase the number of students reading by third grade, restructuring summer school in order to meet the specific and unique needs of students who have failed, offering staff development focused on engaging all students, increasing the number of honors and AP level classes in order to improve access to classes that are gateways to four year universities, redesigning Santa Monica High School in order to offer a greater level of personalization for students. The district has taken some risks in terms of trying new approaches, relying on data and research before embarking on new programs. Not every reform succeeds, but as Board members we share the administration’s and faculty’s belief in analyzing the results, learning from our efforts and trying new, thoughtful approaches when old ones no longer work.I think there is much to celebrate, yet we still have work to do before all students master the standards and we no longer have an achievement gap (one that characterizes education across the country, by the way). For one thing, we continue to receive students with no preschool education, whose lives are disrupted by family breakup, who don’t have enough to eat, who struggle with emotional or physical challenges, all of which makes it harder to learn. Furthermore, although our faculty and staff to student ratios compare favorably with many districts in California, when I compare our class sizes with those of my family members in states like Vermont, New Jersey, Massachusetts and even Alabama, we look crowded, especially in middle and high school. Our ratio of guidance counselors, administrators and other staff to students lag behind the rest of the nation as well. The City of Santa Monica has been a remarkable partner in supplementing resources and programs, particularly those targeted at our most at-risk youth. However, state funding, which comprises the overwhelming bulk of our money and is also below the national average on a per pupil basis, forces us to make tradeoffs between class sizes, course offerings, intervention and enrichment programs, all of which are indispensable in helping on our course to “raising achievement for all students, while simultaneously closing the achievement gap between socio-economically advantaged and disadvantaged students.” Nevertheless, I am encouraged by the progress I see, both on paper in the experience of my children’s classmates, and expect to see continued growth.