Distinguished School Awards Have Fans, Detractors


They won’t get one red cent if they win, but principals and parents at schools across the state still consider the hours they will put in this fall applying for the California Distinguished School Awards a great investment.

The Distinguished School designation--given each year to 5% to 10% of campuses in the state--has acquired enormous cachet since it was unveiled in 1985. Teachers clamor to be hired at such campuses. Parents rise early and drive extra miles so their children can attend. Real estate agents use the accolade as a selling point.

But this pat on the back for high-performing schools also is drawing some critics, who complain that the award favors affluent, suburban schools and shows, as much as anything, which schools have an army of volunteers willing to put in hundreds of hours to complete the application.

Others see the Distinguished School Award as divisive and misleading, saying the state’s criteria for winning are capricious and revolve around the educational fashion of the moment.


“It’s a sham,” said Larry Cuban, an education professor at Stanford University who has written on school reform. Officials do not spend the time or money to rigorously search out and evaluate excellent schools, he said. “We don’t know if these schools that are called distinguished are indeed distinguished.”

Tom Loveless, a scholar at the Brookings Institute, said the program has historically singled out schools not for excellence, but for engaging in “trendy practices.”

“It’s a tool of reform, cloaked in this clothing of being an award program,” Loveless said.

But the Distinguished Schools program has many fervent fans. Hundreds of schools, from tiny rural towns and sprawling suburban districts and crowded cities, applied to be among the state’s 150 winners this year. To gain the designation, schools must score in the top half of the state’s Academic Performance Index and write an exhaustive, 10-section application describing everything from campus culture to library services.


The pride and happiness brought by winning the award were on giddy and sometimes tearful display at the annual awards ceremony last spring at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim, attended by hundreds of teachers, principals, parents and students.

“Communities have lost faith in their schools,” said Mercedes Metz, a curriculum specialist at Toll Middle School in Glendale, which won this year even though 30% of its students are not fluent in English. Thanks to the award, her community believes in its campus again, she said.

“When you win a Distinguished School Award, it validates the community. The kids feel special. The staff feels special,” Metz said. “We are so excited.”


When then-state Supt. Bill Honig dreamed up the Distinguished Schools program in 1985, officials wondered if anyone would even bother to fill out the time-consuming application when there is no financial reward. They figured it would last about five years.

Instead, it took off. In just 16 years--with a budget of less than $200,000 a year--the program has managed to improve schools, boost teacher morale and demonstrate that not all California schools are failing, said Carol Kennedy, who administers the program.

“It’s taken on a life of its own,” said Kennedy, a cheerful former researcher who marshals a tiny, temporary staff each year to sort through the applications, visit the campuses, and mediate the inevitable disputes. “It never ceases to amaze me. It’s only a flag and a plaque.”

That flag is a symbol not just of achievement, but also of reform. It is the carrot held over the California’s 1,054 locally controlled school districts to induce them to adopt state programs.


A glance at the changing selection criteria offers a window into California’s endless cycle of once-heralded education initiatives, now abandoned like yesterday’s spelling work sheets.

In 1985, Distinguished Schools were those with high scores on the now-defunct California Achievement Program. After those tests were scrapped, the award was given to schools that incorporated technology into the curriculum, developed core studies and got parents into the classroom.


Teel Middle School in the Central Valley town of Empire won its first award this spring. To reach that pinnacle, the school essentially revamped itself, using the Distinguished School rules as a blueprint.

Teel created programs for at-risk students, putting failing students with one teacher all day long. It encouraged teachers to attend professional development programs, started campus beautification projects, promoted interdisciplinary learning and pushed students to use computers more.

Teel Principal Melva Rush said the new programs have had a wonderful effect on parents’ morale, and on struggling students who are now doing better.

But Loveless, the scholar from the Brookings Institute, a nonpartisan research and policy center, said refashioning schools to fit with ever-changing state reforms can be counterproductive.

“They have to get away from these trendy practices,” he said. “Things like interdisciplinary learning and the use of technology in the classroom.”


The jury is still out on how technology should be used in schools, he said. As for interdisciplinary learning, he said, “We have about 80 years of experience to suggest that it’s a failure.”

Meanwhile, schools that are doing a fabulous job but are not using the state’s ideas do not win, state officials conceded.

“What we’re using as the criteria are the state standards,” Kennedy said. “That’s our job.”

Cuban, the Stanford professor, questioned whether the state even does a good job of checking whether schools follow the criteria. Because state officials lack the time or money to put highly paid experts into English classes and science labs across the state, they rely on the essays schools submit.

“There are good schools in cities across the state,” Cuban said. “But the process doesn’t get at it.”

Such criticisms helped prompt the most recent changes to the criteria, Kennedy said.

Two years ago, fearing a public relations nightmare if low-scoring campuses were lauded, officials decided that without above-average scores on the new Academic Performance Index, schools cannot be distinguished.

The API, the state’s new accountability index, ranks all schools in the state on how well students perform on the Stanford 9 standardized test.

The change came as a slap in the face to many educators in urban schools, where large numbers of students are not fluent in English and score poorly on the tests.

Urban Schools Feel Slighted

Suddenly, no matter how hard their teachers worked, how much their students improved or how many programs they put in place with their meager budgets, they had no hope of winning a Distinguished School Award.

“It makes me wince. It makes me cringe,” said Al Mijares, superintendent of the Santa Ana Unified School District, where more than 70% of students come to school not speaking English.

His district has won distinguished awards, but with lower-than-average scores on the Stanford 9, none of Santa Ana’s middle or high schools were eligible this year. In urban districts up and down the state, the story was the same.

State officials said they are so conscious of not recognizing mediocrity that, when they found out two of Downey’s schools had won, they went over the applications again, so they could justify to the media how two campuses in a small working-class district in south Los Angeles County could possibly be among the state’s best.

Delaine Eastin, state superintendent of schools, said people in her office are torn over how hard the new criteria make it for poor urban schools to be recognized. Even the state’s financial-award program for the API takes into account the economic and language hurdles faced by children at inner-city campuses. Low-scoring schools that show improvement still receive financial awards.

At the Distinguished School Awards banquet this year, “the audience was a little more Anglo than it used to be,” Eastin said. “But there was still diversity in the room.”

More affluent schools have another advantage: parents with the skills and time to put together first-rate applications.

Lisa George, a Newport Beach parent, put together two successful Distinguished School Awards for the Newport-Mesa Unified School District.

More than 150 hours went into the Ensign Intermediate School’s application, she said, with stacks of reports documenting every aspect of her child’s campus.

Some schools even ask their legislators to lobby for them, Kennedy said. And sometimes the competition gets downright ugly, with schools tattling on each other in sheaves of letters--signed and unsigned--that arrive in Kennedy’s office each year.

In one case, a South Bay parent wrote to complain that one of the candidate schools was drilling children in devil worship. The source of the complaint turned out to be a Christmas tree in the office. “Sometimes, you just want to shriek down the phone: ‘It’s just a flag and a plaque,’ ” Kennedy said.

In ways, though, it’s much more. Officials in the Davis Joint Unified School District, one of the state’s highest scoring, said they learned that lesson the hard way.

Back in 1988, the two rival junior high schools from the college town applied--and won. The following year, Emerson Junior High was given a second award for sustained excellence. Holmes Junior High was not.

The awards played havoc in the community, said Beverly Maul, who at the time was an administrator at Holmes. Frantic parents in the Holmes attendance area began making their children ride extra miles on their bicycles through fog and wind to attend Emerson. “It was devastating for Holmes,” said Maul, now a principal at one of the district’s elementary schools. “We were pretty disillusioned by the whole thing.”

No school in Davis has applied since, Maul said. The trauma played a role, but many principals also concluded that, in a community that already values its schools, spending a huge amount of time applying for such an award is a waste of time.

State officials said they are perplexed by the anger.

“All [Emerson] got was a pennant. They didn’t even get a flag,” Kennedy said. “We keep waiting for Davis to get over it.”

But the district’s assistant superintendent, Carol Bly, sings a different tune. The rivalry and hurt feelings between the schools have died down, she said, and many principals new to the district think it might be time to make Davis schools distinguished again. After all, she noted, it’s a very prestigious award.