Education Up Front


June 18, 2003


Change in schools must deliver improved achievement

Most everyone would agree to some extent that we need change in our public schools today. Problem is, education stakeholders don't have a clear or unified idea as to what they mean by "necessary" changes, what change should look like, or what the impacts of change should be.

Effective change in our public education delivery system is far more complex than occasionally electing or defeating a school board slate at election time, firing an old superintendent and hiring a new one, or shuffling senior bureaucrats in the district's cabinet of senior managers and directors. If only it could be that simple.

To me it goes without saying, but I'll say it for the record here: Any change in our public school system must be solely motivated by the need to create measurable improvements in the quality of education our children are receiving in our schools. Period. Any other results miss the mark and would be inappropriate. Real and substantive changes must not be vulnerable to personalities or even to political leanings if our children are to receive the benefits of an improved education that equips them to succeed.

Nor should change be dictated solely by the state's pocketbook. Sadly, that's the case these days throughout the 1,000 or so public school districts in California that find themselves having to consider massive cuts in educational programs that have begun to make a difference in educational quality.

San Diego Unified alone is facing a nearly $150 million budget shortfall for the fiscal year that begins July 1 -- just 12 days away. Despite trimming central office staff and other expenses, some $36 million of that total may involve reductions in the district's Blueprint for Student Success -- a massive set of prevention, intervention and retention strategies designed to provide all students "the richest ... learning environment and sufficient time to meet high standards." The blueprint soon begins its fourth year in guiding what and how the district's 142,000-plus students are learning.

There are as many opinions as to the blueprint's effectiveness as there are critics and supporters. However, in a national context, the Council of the Great City Schools, after a three-year study, has ranked San Diego Unified as among the best urban districts in reading scores. It is no coincidence that literacy was the initial emphasis of the blueprint's approach.

However, that is but one indicator of improvement resulting from the massive changes brought about by the blueprint. There are at least four criteria for effective school change, some of which are taken into account in the annual "National School Change Awards" program conducted by the American Association of School Administrators at Fordham University's Graduate School of Education.

By using these standards, I believe we can evaluate and even measure change more productively:

  • How meaningful is the change being proposed or measured? Is it substantial or relatively superficial?

    Effective change must bring about measurable changes in attitudes, beliefs and values of those responsible for implementing the changes as well as those benefiting from the results. Anything less is nothing more than meddling or tinkering. Change must positively influence teaching practices at the classroom level. Most important, such change must be driven by teachers. They, in effect, must feel they "own" the change or changes being planned and implemented. That means they need to be involved in the concept and planning stages.

  • How deep and broad is the change? Is it relatively isolated or systemic? Is the considered change widespread throughout the school or confined to one or a few classrooms?

    Again, effective change comes about through a combined decision-making process about instruction, organization and governance factors at the school site. The only way change can work is for the people it affects to perceive that it is positive both in intent and results.

  • How is the change focused? Is it student-centered, focused on teaching and learning? Or are there other factors and variables at hand?

    Effective change brings about improved teaching that can be observed and measured through self-assessments, peer evaluation as well as student and parent feedback. Substantive change deals with such focused needs as determining content and performance standards, aligning curriculum to meet those standards, and providing instruction and assessment resources.

  • How is the change to be measured? Is it process- or outcome-oriented?

    The bottom line to this and the other criteria is whether the change will bring about sharp increases in student achievements measured by in-school measurements as well as outside evaluations such as the state's standardized testing program. What about documented increases in other measurable outcomes such as higher retention of students and graduation rates, college acceptance and job placements? These are definitely outcomes that should result from any change being considered.

    Effective change, however, doesn't produce results overnight. Anything involving human behavior, such as teaching and learning, requires proper planning and introduction and sufficient time for the results to play out.

    For that reason and others, we need to stay the course in the change strategies now under way that are showing the most promise. Included in that is San Diego Unified's blueprint. A $36 million hit to that program over the next couple of fiscal years will severely cripple its ability to do what it was designed to do -- provide a better learning environment for that district's students.

    To avert such a disastrous impact, however, will require a change in financial priorities on the part of the district that is even considering such a massive blow to the very core of its educational resources. Changing those priorities by the district's Board of Education will only come about through an effective advocacy effort on the part of parents, teachers, business people, and anyone concerned about the impact today's education will have on tomorrow's society. That's pretty much everybody, I should think.

    I say stay the course, learn from the challenges and make the adjustments needed to sustain the effort.

    We all need to get involved to be sure better schools and better-educated students result from any change taking place. Sometimes, that involves having to fight to protect the changes already in motion from disappearing.

    That time is now.

    Hovenic, Ed.D., is president and chief executive officer of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce Foundation and executive director of the Foundation's Business Roundtable for Education. E-mail her at


    June 18, 2003