As a laboratory for testing the lessons of educational research in the real world, the Compton Unified School District is perhaps as real as it gets.
Start with the daunting fact that the district is the only one ever certified by the state as an academic failure and a financial disaster. Then consider that the district’s leaders in the past have been accused of frittering away millions of dollars, engaging in cronyism and ignoring the needs of students who do not speak English fluently. And that the district chalks up test scores that are among the lowest in the state, causing the city’s elected state representative to angrily blast school leaders for what he says is gross fraud.
Now, however, a fledgling effort by a high-powered partnership is attempting to reverse that legacy by starting from the ground up. And in the process, beleaguered Compton could help other schools understand how to achieve excellence.
The Los Angeles County Office of Education, a USC researcher who is one of the nation’s top school improvement experts and the Haynes Foundation, the oldest philanthropic foundation in Los Angeles, not only believe that the district has the potential for improvement, but that the turnaround has to start by reducing the dominance of the central bureaucracy and returning authority to principals and teachers.
That idea has become almost a cliche in educational circles in recent years, but merely ordering a shift in power doesn’t help children learn more, said USC associate Prof. Priscilla Wohlstetter, who is one of the partners working in Compton.
“Our belief is that school-based management does have power elements . . . but it is much, much more than that,” said Wohlstetter, who is in charge of the largest study ever of school-based management. “You cannot assume that people at the school site are all of a sudden going to use that power in a way to improve curriculum and instruction.”
Wohlstetter and other members of her research team visited 27 schools in the United States, Canada and Australia to identify what combination of goals, training, resources and information-sharing make school-based management an effective improvement strategy rather than just a slogan. In Compton, she said, “we’re trying to put in place as many of the building blocks as possible.”
The biggest hurdle, said Jerome Harris, the state-appointed administrator who is overseeing the district, will be raising the sights of teachers and administrators. “We have a lot of excellent teachers, but we have had a negative culture that hasn’t worked in the best interests . . . of the children,” Harris said.
The state took over the district in 1993, and it will retain control until about $20 million in loans are repaid and academic performance improves.
Los Angeles County Schools Supt. Donald W. Ingwerson, who gained a national reputation as an educational reformer in Kentucky, had offered to assist Harris with that task even before taking the county job last August. “I got involved because I really wanted to see Compton find a way out of the dilemma it was in,” Ingwerson said.
Ingwerson applied to the Haynes Foundation for a $62,000 planning grant to pay for initial training in school-based management for the administrators and teachers at three Compton schools. And he got Wohlstetter involved to tap her research.
Wohlstetter found that “high-performance” schools were ones that had identified a specific academic focus--such as improving problem-solving skills in math--that shaped all other decisions.
But those schools needed technical knowledge about how to improve teaching, write budgets and work in groups. They had to have information about how their students performed compared to schools elsewhere. And they were able to reward teachers in some way for their extra effort. Finally, they needed the central district office to give them room to experiment, even while insisting on progress.
Surprisingly, perhaps, those elements are more crucial than money, she said. The schools involved in the initial phase of the Compton project--Stephen C. Foster and McKinley elementary schools and Willowbrook Middle School--each control between $250,000 and $400,000 in state and federal funds in addition to their regular budgets. But Wohlstetter said that in the past those funds were not focused on a particular goal, so their overall impact was diluted.
“We’re saying, make sure you are spending money in ways that further the school’s mission,” Wohlstetter said.
The three schools had several training seminars last spring, and each decided on a focus for the upcoming school year.
McKinley’s goal, for example, will be to ensure that every student can read and write by the end of the third grade. Foster plans to work on improving reading, and Willowbrook will focus on improving discipline and attendance.
Later this month, the teachers and principals will devise specific strategies to achieve their goals, write budgets to support those strategies and agree on how to measure their progress.
Teachers are enthusiastic about what many see as the first positive attention they have received in years. “We’re all excited about it,” said Jerry Singleton, a Foster fifth-grade teacher for three years. “We have the opportunity to pool our resources and try some new things.”
Pete Uyalor, a math specialist at Foster, said the teachers want to show that “it’s possible for kids to succeed in public school, contrary to what people say.”
Deniece Price, Foster’s principal, said the project will boost her faculty’s self-image. “The teachers here are really resentful of being depicted as being incompetent. . . ,” she said.
But as sincere as the desire for improvement is, it won’t come automatically. One problem is high teacher turnover: Fully half of Foster’s 25 teachers last year were new, many of them just out of college and working toward their credential. The shortage of bilingual teachers is particularly acute.