To boost test scores, schools clamor for a horseman’s advice


On a ranch of willows and wild grass outside Sacramento, the cowboy cooed to his tawny mustang. Then he led Little Buck through basic commands — back up, step forward — and rewarded him with a biscuit.

Dennis Parker is a part-Cherokee trainer in rural Zamora, Calif., who sports a silver ponytail beneath his cowboy hat. But his recent demonstration was aimed at training a different breed grappling with far bigger tasks: educators under mounting pressure to raise students’ standardized test scores.

As a dozen educators watched, Parker explained that good relationships are key toward boosting achievement and that horses and humans both respond to similar strategies. Build rapport with friendly chatter. Gain respect by giving out tasks. And give treats not simply as rewards but just to be fun.


“Can you do that with your kids?” Parker asked. “It’s like training horses; you don’t break them, you teach them.”

As test results loom larger in myriad ways on campuses today, Parker, 66, is in hot demand as a school-turnaround guru. Melding years of classroom experience, academic research and motivational techniques, Parker has boosted student performance in hundreds of campuses in 14 states in which he has worked.

Parker helped Wilson Elementary School in the Santa Ana Unified School District, for instance, increase test scores by 147 points on a 1,000-point scale in the last three years. That gain, three times as large as the district’s overall increase, has pulled up the school’s scores — which had been the worst in the county — to the state average.

“He’s fabulous,” said Cindy Toovey of the Orange County Department of Education. “His ideas make students actively engaged in learning in hundreds of ways.”

Parker’s model, called Strategic Schooling, begins with building campus rapport and trust. Students set achievement goals, practice test questions all year and win rewards for improvement.

In what he calls the single most important strategy, Parker insists that teachers cover all content in the state tests. Many do not, he said, because they follow textbooks that don’t include everything California students need to know.

Parker also trains teachers in small but effective ways to engage students, such as giving them choices in their learning and constant use of graphics and other visuals.

His techniques may sound like Teaching 101, but educators who use them say that Parker presents and packages them in practical, easy-to-follow yet effective ways.

“Everyone in education is asking us to do more with less, but the stuff he asks us to do ... gets huge results and they’re easy,” said Hita Broomand, a special education teacher at Pioneer High School in Woodland, Calif., who attended Parker’s recent ranch seminar.

In Los Angeles Unified, 28 of 30 schools Parker worked with in the last few years improved their performance by an average 33 points on the Academic Performance Index. Jefferson Elementary in the San Joaquin Valley was identified in 2010 as the state’s top “persistently underperforming” elementary school but improved test scores by 39 points last year, the first gain in five years, after a three-day training with Parker.

The consultant, a former Spanish teacher and state education administrator, works mostly with low-income schools and said his ultimate goal is to help disadvantaged students succeed, regardless of race and class.

“Trying to help underdog schools and kids beat the odds and be successful is the most worthwhile endeavor” in education, Parker said.

His training program costs schools $2,500 a day. He still has a waiting list despite some loss of business amid a state budget crisis.

Artesia High School Principal Sergio Garcia said Parker’s rates are lower than many consultants, who charge $10,000 or more a day for teacher training and other services. The field began booming in 2000 with the advent of federal grants for school improvement plans; many consultants are now marketing ways to adapt to new national curriculum standards. Garcia was so impressed with Parker he began working with him to expand the model to other schools.

Tina M. Trujillo, an assistant professor of education at UC Berkeley, said she is concerned about so many private contractors in public education and that ubiquitous testing is squeezing out art, music and other subjects.

“We are moving away from investments in traditional school districts and relying more heavily on untested providers of assistance to schools that serve the most vulnerable populations,” she said.

Several teachers at the recent ranch seminar said they were initially skeptical of Parker. Broomand, for instance, said she thought stories of his successes were “a bunch of malarkey” until she visited Artesia High School, which had the worst test scores in Lakewood until it hired Parker six years ago.

Under Garcia and his staff, Artesia High’s API score leaped to 765 last year from 594 in 2005. The school has nearly caught up with neighboring Gahr High, which has a more diverse and middle-class student body.

Parker’s strategies are visible in every Artesia classroom.

In Jaime Aguirre’s algebra class, students worked in pairs to solve equations on white boards. Aguirre roamed the room, checking work: “Oh, you’re awesome. OK, what’s wrong with this?”

Parker watched intently, a smile crossing his face. “Perfect. Just perfect,” he said.

Later, in a huddle with teachers, Parker praised Aguirre for involving all students by pairing them and giving them feedback. Parker pushes teachers to have all students answer all questions; for example, by having them reply in unison. Doing so allows students to answer as many as 7,000 questions in the classroom per year, compared with 300 if called on individually, he said.

On Aguirre’s walls: a chart of every algebra concept the state expects students to know, with check marks next to those covered. A-plus, according to Parker.

“What gets taught is the single biggest predictor of student performance,” he said.

Parker also pushes concrete goals for test results, citing research that the human mind is a “goal-seeking device” that uses feedback to hit targets. At Artesia, that feedback — student test results —is posted on classroom walls. All students who improve their test scores or score at grade level or beyond in any subject get their names listed on a “wall of fame” banner and receive such rewards as a ticket to a sports event. Nearly 80% of the 1,400 students made it last year.

“Improving schools is not rocket science,” Garcia said, “but nobody has packaged it like Dennis.”

At Wilson in Santa Ana, Parker demonstrated the art of building relationships, using his horse-training techniques with fourth-graders. He bantered with them, saying they looked like sixth-graders. He used fun language — learning is “easy easy lemon squeezy” — and let the children choose the colors of classroom magnets. Offering choice helps children — and horses —become more cooperative, he said.

Personal rapport, he said, is one of the most overlooked tools in the quest to raise test scores.

“I work on relationships as much as the curriculum,” he said. “Kids won’t exert a lot of effort if they don’t like or respect their teachers or have a say in their day.”