This research report looks at the aggressive set of policies San Diego City School District used to improve instruction. It reveals how San Diego consolidated and redirected resources, redesigned the district office as well as work in schools, and mediated and leveraged state policy to further its reform agenda. The report also documents the difficulties of managing the politics and implementation of a coherent approach to change in a large district with an established culture of decentralization located in a state with a piecemeal, sometimes conflicting, menu of reforms.
A Research Report by Linda Darling-Hammond, Amy M. Hightower, Jennifer L. Husbands, Jeannette R. LaFors, Viki M. Young, and Carl Christopher, September 2003.
<p>During the 1990s, a new policy hypothesis—that focusing on the quality of teaching would provide a high-leverage means for improving student achievement—began to gain currency. This study of San Diego, California's highly focused reform initiative to improve the quality of teaching examines an effort to act on this hypothesis. Based on interview, observation, survey, and record data collected at the state, district, and school levels over a five-year time period, the study offers a look at how one large, urban district developed an aggressive set of policies to improve instruction. The research examines how the district consolidated and redirected resources, redesigned the district office as well as work in schools, and mediated and leveraged state policy to further its reform agenda. Among key reform strategies were:</p> <ul><li>An overhaul of recruitment, hiring, placement, and evaluation to recruit and retain high-quality teachers and principals in the district, while weeding out weak staff members;</li> <li>A massive investment in intensive professional development, including institutes, workshops and on-site coaching in every school, focused initially on developing teachers' and principals' expertise in literacy instruction, and later branching out into mathematics, science, and other subjects;</li> <li>A redesign of administration, replacing area superintendents with Instructional Leaders working closely with principals on improving the quality of teaching in each building and charging principals with focused evaluation and support of instruction;</li> <li>A major reallocation of resources to downsize the central office, consolidate fragmented programs and pots of money, and focus resources on classroom work;</li> <li>A much more centralized approach to providing curriculum and teaching guidance based on research on learning and teaching, including the development of special courses and district-wide strategies for literacy development as well as aspects of mathematics and science instruction;</li> <li>An effort to develop a culture and shared expertise to enable professional accountability and to redefine the state's accountability processes to support instruction without punishing students.</li> </ul> <p>The study documents substantial gains in student achievement and transformations of teaching practices, especially in San Diego's elementary and middle schools, over a five year period, in association with these policies. Schools and students that benefited most from the changes were often those that were previously lowest-achieving. However, schools that were most bureaucratically organized with the fewest opportunities for collaboration among faculty had more difficulty using new resources to transform instruction. The study also documents the difficulties of managing the politics and implementation of a coherent approach to change in a large district with an established culture of decentralization located in a state with a piecemeal, sometimes conflicting, menu of reforms. Looking at the process of school change from both the 'outside in' and the 'inside out,' the study details how the district and individual schools initiated, coped with, and transformed the many competing policies in the school environment. Finally, we document the district's more difficult process of seeking to improve high schools and its new round of reforms, just launched as the research was ending, to rethink the organization and design of the urban high school as a means of transforming the quality of teaching and learning within.</p> <p>The research ends with evidence of substantial transformation in the culture, organization, instruction, and outcomes of San Diego's schools but also with the changing of many members of the leadership team. The future will reveal whether the reforms with be sustained in the long run and whether San Diego's bet on professional learning—enforced from the top down as a key lever for change—will ultimately strengthen the teaching and learning capacities of local schools from the inside out.</p>