Commentary: LBUSD Leads School Reform
2010-12-09 · By Editor
By Christopher J. Steinhauser, Superintendent LBUSD
A few months ago, a researcher from one of the world’s leading business consulting firms walked into my office. She wanted to know more about the Long Beach Unified School District’s successful practices. I glanced at her business card, and I thought there must have been a mistake. Her office was located in Dubai. Why would someone from an oil-rich nation 8,000 miles away be interested in Long Beach schools?
My question wasn’t fully answered until last week, when the researcher and her colleagues at the global firm McKinsey & Company released a report called “How the world’s most improved school systems keep getting better.”
The results of the study were some of the most affirming ever for Long Beach schools. Our school district was named one of the world’s 20 leading school systems – and one of the top three in the U.S. – in terms of sustained and significant improvements, in a report described as “the most comprehensive analysis of global school system reform ever assembled.”
Considering that McKinsey researchers serve more than 70 percent of Fortune magazine’s list of most admired companies, we were pleasantly surprised to be a part of this research.
Long Beach and Boston were the only two school districts worldwide to appear in the report. The remainder of school systems were categorized as nations, provinces or networks, including one other non-district school system in the U.S. (Aspire, a charter school system). Long Beach also was named as one of 13 “sustained improvers.” Topping the list were entire nations: Singapore, Hong Kong, and South Korea, followed by Ontario in Canada, Saxony in Germany, plus England and others (see the report at http://sso.mckinsey.com/schools).
Most encouraging for Long Beach was that many of the successful methods we use in our schools also are used by the world’s leading school systems.
In both Canada and Hong Kong, for instance, educators emphasize the sophisticated use of student performance data – in a non-punitive fashion – to help teachers improve instruction. Long Beach has long taken such an approach, using data to fuel greater collaboration among teachers, principals and the central office. All of our data also are shared with our parents through our online School Loop program.
As with Long Beach, these other successful school systems have gone far beyond standardized multiple-choice tests to create customized assessments that more fully measure student achievement.
The best school systems also partner with higher education on teacher preparation, much like Long Beach has done with its well established and nationally recognized Seamless Education Partnership with Cal State Long Beach, local businesses and others. We’re building on this partnership through The Long Beach College Promise, which offers our graduating seniors a free semester of tuition at Long Beach City College, as well as guaranteed admission to Cal State Long Beach. Already, we’ve seen 500 students this fall take advantage of the free semester at LBCC, and 661 of our June graduates enrolled at CSULB this year, an increase of 27 percent in just two years.
Also common to the most improved school systems worldwide was a commitment to supporting all students, not just some, so that they can reach high standards. Hong Kong has made such a commitment, moving beyond a selective system and instead customizing instruction that caters to students’ interests and aptitudes. Long Beach takes this approach, for example, by enrolling more students in college gateway classes such as eighth grade algebra and then providing them with the extra attention and instruction they need to succeed. Similarly, our Male Academy provides extra mentoring, tutoring and academic support for young men in our middle and high schools who sometimes need just a little more encouragement and assistance before they begin to thrive.
Long Beach was praised by study author Mona Mourshed for “tremendous gains in math.” The report notes that the math gains in Long Beach began when a highly effective math teacher, inspired by an aunt who taught in Singapore, began sharing his approach with other teachers. With full support from Long Beach’s central office, that teacher’s successful methods have now been replicated in elementary schools districtwide. The result is that math scores have improved between 20 percent and 75 percent in grades 2 to 5 from 2004 to 2009. Today, other school districts like Garden Grove, Fresno and Oakland have begun to use our elementary math program with great results.
The report praises Long Beach’s teacher and principal training, or professional development, including teacher coaching and mentoring. Again, we saw elements common to the world’s most improved systems.
Aside from showing that Long Beach schools are doing many things right, the report also affirms that we still have much work to do and that we must look beyond our school district, beyond Sacramento and beyond Washington for practical solutions, and then we must implement those solutions relentlessly here at home.
The report also leads us to wonder aloud. LBUSD has cut its budget for seven of the last eight years, including $170 million over the past four years due to the state’s budget crisis. We have 500 fewer employees this year than last year. If we’re still competing among the world’s best, imagine how well we could do if we had a stable funding source. Additional resources would have allowed us to do more.
But in spite of our faltering economy we have found ways to continue improving. And that’s good news, because our youngsters deserve a great education just as much as children in Singapore.
Christopher J. Steinhauser is superintendent of the Long Beach Unified School District.