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Simple Approaches to School Improvement

December 23, 2013

Schools in the city of Sanger, California, struggle with many of the educational challenges you’d anticipate in a rural, farming community, populated largely by migrant workers with low incomes and little English. Yet in the past decade, Sanger schools have beaten the odds, improving educational outcomes for their students in many significant ways. 

You can find the details in this AP story by  Gosia Wozniacka, at the San Diego Union-Tribune web site: Farm town develops education success formula. The story echoes much of what David Kirp said about improving schools in his book Improbable Scholars, (reviewed here). While his book focuses on Union City, New Jersey, he does refer to Sanger as an example of similar conditions producing similar improvements.

The most important take-away from these stories is that school improvement does not require dramatic overhauls in curriculum or governance. Rather, it’s mainly a matter of stability and trust, the key conditions that allow people to build a shared understanding of the challenges they face and how to best serve their students, developing home-grown solutions that everyone commits to supporting.

Here’s a sample of the article, which I hope you’ll read in its entirety:

Faced with failure, most districts respond with quick fixes geared for immediate results but few long-term gains, said Jane David of the Bay Area Research Group, co-author of a study about the district. Instead of spending on costly programs or teaching aids, Sanger set out to change its culture.

The district made “an investment in time versus money,” said Matt Navo, Sanger’s superintendent. “It allowed us to use personnel who already existed,” train teachers and provide additional help to students by changing schedules and trying new approaches.

Key to change was a model requiring collaboration among teachers, data to track students and holding teachers accountable to each other.

To better understand why students like Sanchez struggled, the district created its own standardized tests. Teacher teams regularly analyzed scores to determine what succeeded and what failed. They set goals, exchanged strategies and tried out new teaching methods. They even retaught each other’s students.

Some teachers initially resisted, but administrators emphasized the approach was not punitive.

“There wasn’t that fear of failure, so we could be creative and innovative,” said Cathy Padilla, principal at Jefferson Elementary School.

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