CORE districts' tackling of tough issues impresses federal official

Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education Deborah Delisle (photo by John Fensterwald).

U.S. Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education Deborah Delisle. Credit: John Fensterwald, EdSource Today

A high-ranking federal education official – a woman with Secretary Arne Duncan’s ear – said she liked what she heard at the first meeting of the committee overseeing eight California districts that have received the nation’s only district waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Particularly intriguing was the discussion about using methods other than test scores to determine whether students are succeeding, said U.S. Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary education Deborah Delisle.

“I am really optimistic about the depth of conversation they are having today,” she said in an interview. “They are asking the right questions. It’s positive when people can come together in a room to talk about outcomes for kids in a meaningful way.”

Delisle flew in to Sacramento last month specifically to attend the meeting of the 14-member School Quality Improvement System Oversight Panel. Its job is to verify that the eight districts in CORE, or the California Office to Reform Education – Los Angeles, Long Beach, Fresno, San Francisco, Santa Ana, Sacramento City, Oakland and Sanger, all unified districts – have met the commitments they made in return for receiving flexibility with federal Title I dollars and a suspension from penalties under NCLB.

The CORE districts’ application for a waiver assumed a three-year timetable to meet the requirements. But last August, Duncan gave each of the districts a one-year waiver. It’s halfway through the year, and Delisle gave no hint whether, based on progress so far, she’d recommend to her boss to extend it. Next week, monitors from the federal education department will visit four of the districts to examine compliance. But Delisle also sounded like she was willing to give CORE more time and an opportunity to pursue some innovative ideas.

Members of the CORE district oversight panel include researchers and civil rights advocates, and representatives of the English learner and special education communities as well as of the California PTA and the state school boards and administrators associations. The California Teachers Association, Gov. Jerry Brown, the State Board of Education and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson were asked to send representatives to the committee meeting – but didn’t.

Torlakson and other state education chiefs lobbied vigorously last year behind the scenes against granting a waiver to the CORE districts as encroaching on states’ authority to manage education policy. The CTA opposed the waiver because CORE superintendents agreed to Duncan’s requirement that they create a system of teacher evaluations that will include standardized test scores as a factor. Brown, not wanting to take on the charged issue of teacher evaluations while trying to pass and implement the Local Control Funding Formula, viewed the NCLB waiver as a distraction. California is one of only five states that didn’t pursue a waiver and, Karen Stapf Walters, executive director of the State Board, said last week the state isn’t planning to seek one for the next school year.

Stapf Walters cautioned not to read anything into the absence of the governor’s and State Board’s representatives at the advisory committee meeting. She plans to discuss the possible appointments to the committee with the governor in time for the next meeting in June. CTA, however, indicated months ago it wouldn’t participate in the committee. And Torlakson’s office didn’t respond to a request for a comment.

Last August, with California not vying with CORE for a waiver, Duncan shrugged off criticism and granted the waiver – the first and only one to a group of school districts. He praised the districts’ “creative, thoughtful, innovative proposal” that he said would “promote deep student learning and effective implementation” of the new Common Core standards.

CORE’s distinct approach

As with all of the states, the CORE districts must satisfy the three commitments attached to the waiver: implementing the Common Core standards (the CORE districts are farther along, with foundations’ support, than most districts in California); making sharp academic improvements with the districts’ lowest-performing schools; and adopting new teacher and principal evaluations.

CORE's School Quality Improvement Index will be rolled out over the next two years. The 100-point index would include academic progress (60 percent), social and emotional factors (20 percent) and school climate and culture (20 percent) with weights of some measures to be determined. Many of these metrics are also required by the state as part of a district's Local Control and Accountability Plan under the new Local Control Funding Formula. (Source: California Office to Reform Education)

CORE’s School Quality Improvement Index will be rolled out over the next two years. The 100-point index would include academic progress (60 percent), social and emotional factors (20 percent) and school climate and culture (20 percent) with weights of some measures to be determined. Many of these metrics are also required by the state as part of a district’s Local Control and Accountability Plan under the new Local Control Funding Formula. Source: California Office to Reform Education

But the CORE districts’ model is different from other states’ plans.

While districts in other states look to their state superintendents for orders and guidance, the eight CORE superintendents look to each other for advice, and board decisions are consensual.

Under NCLB, the process to improve low-performing schools was criticized as proscriptive and for a reliance on limited, punitive options that often didn’t lead to sustained improvement, such as firing half a school’s teachers and principal. CORE’s approach to school improvement pairs staffs of demographically similar “schools of distinction,” called reward schools, with the lowest performers, the bottom 5 percent, known as priority schools. Most pairings will be within the same district, but about a third of the 57 school pairings will be inter-district collaborations, with at least monthly interactions between teachers and administrators to share ideas and practices and eventually design a school improvement plan. Last week, teams of all of the paired schools came together for the first time in conferences in Northern and Southern California featuring CORE’s guiding spirit and promoter of teacher collaboration, Ontario education consultant and NCLB skeptic Michael Fullan.

Before NCLB all but collapsed under the weight of its own unattainable targets for student improvement on standardized tests, Duncan vigorously enforced it. Now, he has granted waivers to CORE districts and states that give more weight to non-test career and college metrics. The CORE districts are taking this a step further, incorporating not just graduation and dropout rates, but also school climate and culture measurements and the elusive but important qualities of motivation and grit, collectively known as social and emotional learning, or SEL.

Other districts and programs have focused on developing and trying to measure students’ habits of the mind, but not on a scale that will encompass CORE’s 1 million students, said Jorge Ruiz de Velasco, a research professor who’s now associate director of the John W. Gardner Center at Stanford University, which will guide and manage data for the CORE districts.

The CORE districts are developing a 100-point school rating system, the School Quality Improvement Index, to measure school achievement. The index is as follows:

  • Academic achievement, including results from the Smarter Balanced student tests aligned to the Common Core standards, progress or growth on tests, and the graduation rate will account for 60 points.
  • School climate and culture, including as rated by parent and student surveys and English language learner redesignation rates, comprise 20 percent. They’ll address issues of whether students feel safe and welcome in a school and whether minority groups have been disproportionately designated for special education services.
  • Social-emotional factors, as measured by absenteeism, suspension and expulsion rates and non-cognitive skills, such as persistence, empathy, self-control and what’s called “growth mindset” – confidence in one’s own ability to learn and solve problems – combined make up 20 percent of the score.

Focus on grit and habits of mind

The districts are already collecting most of these metrics, and many are identical to what the state will now require each district to compile under the new district accountability tool, the Local Control and Accountability Plan. But while there are strong similarities between the state and CORE systems, CORE’s index, which will be phased in over two years, and the emphasis on social-emotional factors are distinctive.

Although the social and emotional ratings will make up a tiny piece of the index, Rick Miller, CORE’s executive director, said, “From our perspective, it’s the right thing to pay attention to, because burgeoning research indicates that social and emotional skills like growth mindset are as important or more important for college readiness than academic skills.”

But quantifying subjective qualities and measuring their growth will be difficult work. The brief discussion by members of the CORE oversight committee hinted at challenges to come.

Committee member Arun Ramanathan, executive director of the Education Trust-West, which advocates for minority children, warned, “There is lots of bias in behavior ratings, especially by race.”

And Jennifer O’Day, founder and chair of the California Collaborative on District Reform, which brings educators, policymakers and researchers together for district-level change, cautioned there are complications in measuring growth over time for qualities such as grit. “Ask a kid if he works hard, that changes once a kid understands what it takes to work hard.”

Delisle, a former state superintendent in Ohio, acknowledged in the interview, “Social and emotional components are complex, but worth pursuing.” She credited the CORE districts for not shying away from them.

CORE plans a pilot program in at least one school in every district over the next year and a half. The measurements, along with intervention strategies, would be integrated into the index in 2015-16.

When it meets next in June, the oversight panel will review the peer evaluations that districts have done of each other’s progress, the data that the districts have collected and the timelines for various pilot projects. The panel will recommend to Duncan whether each of the eight districts should be granted a waiver for another year.

Miller is confident the districts are meeting their commitments. The teacher evaluation piece remains a big challenge. Using test data as a factor in evaluations must be negotiated locally, and unions in Fresno, Oakland, Sacramento and other CORE districts continue publicly to say this is non-negotiable. But Los Angeles and Long Beach have negotiated contracts that would satisfy the multidimensional evaluation criteria, he said.

The districts have through next year to do pilot tests of new evaluation systems, giving CORE another year to make their case that the alternative – a return to the constraints of NCLB and loss of Title I money used as districts see fit – would be tragic.

“There is shared agreement that NCLB is not working to support kids or teachers,” Miller said. Saying he sensed an excitement among teachers in paired schools that “this is what working collaboratively is about,” he added,”We believe that that common ground will ultimately bring everyone together.”


Filed under: Common Core, Evaluations, Federal Education Policy, Hot Topics, Reforms, State Education Policy

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18 Responses to “CORE districts' tackling of tough issues impresses federal official”

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  1. Don on Feb 13, 2014 at 11:58 am02/13/2014 11:58 am

    • 000

    Let me tell you the story of San Francisco Unified’s attempt at pairing, as in sharing ideas between successful and not so successful schools. Former Superintendent Carlos Garcia (along with Tony Smith) entered the arena with the not-so-novel idea of developing a model whereby successful schools would share strategies and best practices with not so successful schools – the kind of central office “insight” that only desk workers could envision. I think they called it “the Matrix”. Imagine that – schools, institutions of education, learning from one another. Well… it isn’t so easy.

    Shortly afterwards Garcia set up his “Superintendent Zones” on the basis that small scale reform would be more effective than watered down district wide reform – no matter that most of the underperforming students in SFUSD were not at these few schools that receive the bulk of achievement-related largesse or that all students deserve support. This reform effort coincided with the $45M School Improvement Grant award which helped to fuel the Zones like igniting a truckload of Chinese firecrackers. By the way, despite media attention for the great success of the SIG program, a closer look at the actual achievement numbers reveals tepid overall progress despite the millions invested. But back to the story.

    So pretty soon SFUSD had hired brand new highly paid consultants and added to central office staff as part of the Superintendent Zone build out. Money was poured into these schools and even one principal remarked how they couldn’t spend it all. So they were just buying laptops for parents and no one knew where the money was going except the ones on the receiving end. They hired master teachers who taught no students and whose only job was to teach other teachers how to teach – employees who were already supposed to know how to do so and who already had supervisors to do who-knows-what?

    In the meantime, back at the district offices, principal meetings were getting testy. The Great Recession and its perfect storm education cutbacks were in full swing and high performing SFUSD schools were having their budgets slashed, sometimes in concert with increased PTA funding, while SIG schools were rolling in dough if not achievement. The so-called rich schools became the poor schools. SIG schools were getting an average of 2-3 times the funding per pupil between SIG, TIIBG, QEIA, T1, etc, etc. Principals at those schools were hardly in a mood to sit down with their counterparts in Superintendent Zone SIG schools and offer them their help while they were being bled dry. The district leadership saw the strife developing and pretty soon the idea of sharing the wealth meetings(academically speaking) didn’t look like one big happy family, but more like a brawl. So they had the Superintendent Zones meet independent of the other schools in the district. So much for sharing and what we were left with was a sort of district within a district.

    Sharing ain’t so easy as it seems.

  2. Manuel on Feb 8, 2014 at 3:49 pm02/8/2014 3:49 pm

    • 000

    Oh, where to begin….

    Let’s start at the beginning: the CORE Waiver was approved in August, 2013. To date, no major programs has been announced to the media about what LAUSD is going to do to implement the Waiver conditions, which are not imposed by the feds but by the Superintendents themselves as pointed out by John.

    However, if you dig enough and you know what to dig for, you can find out that LAUSD has a web page where it discusses what the CORE waiver means, there’s a FAQ, and a list of schools “identified by the waiver.” These schools, 208 of them, are going to participate in the Waiver activities, which include an intervention program during the Spring and another one during the Summer. Unfortunately for most students, only the schools considered to be in trouble will be the ones truly participating in both programs because the “Reward” and “Collaborative Partner” schools do not have students deemed in need of intervention.

    What about the rest of the schools? This particular web page says nothing about them. But another activist parent pointed me to a web page containing an “status document” listing where each school is considered to be and copies of the Superintendent letter (dated December 6, 2013) sent to each parent at each school. The letter are all identical except for one or two paragraphs specific to each school. Those schools “in trouble” get a specific paragraph explaining their school status plus the following:

    Although the free-tutoring services will no longer be provided, as a Priority School your child’s school will receive additional opportunities to provide appropriate intervention for at-risk students not meeting grade-level standards. The District is examining various options for the provision of this support, such as expanding summer school opportunities and offering after-school tutoring programs to address students’ academic needs. Furthermore, since your child’s school is Title I this year, it will receive an additional allocation and the School Site Council will determine how those funds will be used.

    As you can see, there is no specific program defined and, to date, no one that I’ve spoken has heard anything. And the letter may not have made it to the homes of parents as not one of the parents I am in contact with has mentioned it (but I will be specifically asking about it now). I am at a loss how Ms. Delisle can state that “They are asking the right questions. It’s positive when people can come together in a room to talk about outcomes for kids in a meaningful way.” It might impress her, but the facts on the ground indicates that there is no urgency in addressing what they will actually do to improve academic achievement.

    Of course, it can also be said that by concentrating resources on the students who are in the lower tiers of the state assessments (even though the assessments are not there anymore), LAUSD is simply bringing up the scores of the lowest students, in essence “gaming the API.” However, if the upcoming assessments have the same distribution as any standardized test has, you cannot move the kids to the left of the average to the other side because the Bell Curve does not allow this type of change. But let’s leave that for another day.

    As far as I can tell, LAUSD has earmarked $39 million for intervention and $18 million for professional development and costs of all that collaboration. LAUSD had “stashed away” about $24 million which now has distributed among all Title I schools. These are the “additional funds” that local school site councils can then spend. However, examination of the budgets of some of these schools reveals that this new monies have been allocated within specific line items that change from school to school. In other words, the funds have not been specifically tied to instruction.

    So, is LAUSD doing progress in serving Title I students? Given that half the year has passed and these children have not gotten any services, I don’t think so. Why wait for the year to be almost over before services are made available? Needless to say, none of these decisions have been made with input from local school administrators nor teachers. It all comes from the top. Will it work?

    One more thing: no one that I’ve talked to has heard of the Superintendent’s plans for Spring and Summer intervention. Who will be providing these services? Will it be teachers who take the extra burden for extra pay? Will it be the substitute teachers? Will it be external contractors? For all we know, maybe they’ll just park the kids in front of a computer and call it a great success.


    • darleen on Feb 11, 2014 at 11:59 am02/11/2014 11:59 am

      • 000

      Manuel you and I are on the same page. There was not consultation with the parents and community from the nation’s second largest school district, the governing board did not even know nor approved for the waiver to be submitted, thus the question remains what is this really? This is a device to supplant and not ensure that all children receive resources and instruction. For those of us in this a long time, remember the old Ed Flex and the direction it was taking here we go again, new version, distract and attack. We can agree that no all of NCLB was great, however it did expose who was not getting served and it exposed several other methods of education mass destruction. In regards to United States Department of Education, this is nothing more than shunning their role and responsibility to ensure there is no accountability. Transparency and Accountability important to those who truly believe in children. Lack of profits those who are in this for themselves.

      • Manuel on Feb 11, 2014 at 1:29 pm02/11/2014 1:29 pm

        • 000

        darleen, at the risk of sounding paranoid, it seems to me that the US is going through the same thing that happened when the Rockefellers, Carnegies, Fords, et al, wanted public education to create docile workers and unthinking consumers 100 years ago.

        We just have new people: Broad, Koch, Gates, the Waltons, Jobs’ widow, etc.

        The difference is that the same revolution in technology that has made these people rich is empowering those who don’t want to be what the Billionaire Boys Club want. The Boys have given us SLCs, charters, standardized testing, Common Core, etc. They have managed to enlist politicians from both sides of the aisle, local officials, newspapers, etc., and thrown money into institutions and political campaigns. They, of course, fund numerous think-tanks and run multiple web blogs. What can we do against this juggernaut?

        The big question is how many people are going to buy into their weaponized philanthropy (as a friend of mine calls it) and how many are going to see that this is a pig in a poke. And how far we are willing to go in not buying that pig.

        • navigio on Feb 11, 2014 at 2:35 pm02/11/2014 2:35 pm

          • 000

          I think virtually everyone will buy into it given the ‘opportunity’. Many people have deep-seeded pre- and misconceptions about public education as it is. It is very easy to prey on that misunderstanding and appeal to our desire for fairness and empathy (look at how vergara is being presented). It is even more difficult when the people who run our schools are actually making the same arguments, or even leading the way (eg deasy).

          Sadly, public education is very cyclical and recursive. When a school or district or even cultural trend begins to move in a certain direction based on perception, the response to that perception is generally a self-fullfilling prophecy. A great example of this is segregation dynamics: if one perceives a school or district to largely be filled with something negative (that is somehow distinct from one’s own family) and the response is to flee that environment for one with fewer of whatever that perceived negative is, then this results in actually creating a ‘remaining’ environment that is, by definition more full of that perceived negative. The perceived negative can be many things, including race, ethnicity, culture, test scores, income levels, special education rates, native language rates, etc.

          Regardless of whether the initial negative was in fact a problem (and not just a perception), this dynamic tends to create additional problems, and it fuels perception. This is why charter school enrollment is still (?) exponentially increasing and becoming more affluent and white.

          The only things that can be done to address this are to convince people to understand what really happens in schools (you will never do this via ad campaigns–they have to go into schools and see for themselves) and/or to make them understand what impact their decision to respond to perceptions has on the larger community. This of course is next to impossible in a culture that was borne of ‘rugged individualism’ and ‘compete with your neighbor’. One other thing is of course to convince people not to believe that rich people have better answers.

          The ‘leaders’ in our society (in education or otherwise) generally dont lead ‘normal’ lives. They talk to people who have the same limited views and tend to reinforce each other’s limited understandings. Even Diane Ravitch mentioned that this very insulation is what drove her for many years not being able to see the light (scary from someone who is an education historian by trade). This obviously doesnt make them inherently wrong, but it does make it valid to question their perceptions and the foundations for their arguments (and sometimes even motives–thats generally not even necessary though).

  3. guerita23 on Feb 7, 2014 at 5:41 pm02/7/2014 5:41 pm

    • 000

    How does one measure “grit”? If we had been “measuring” grit, resilience, etc. our schools would have been rated much higher all these years instead of being trashed by those with no education knowledge or experience. The monied interests and their minions are used to hiring “experts”–financial, fashion, medical, legal, tennis and golf pros, why not in education. They don’t have to know anything. They just pay for the opinions they want to hear and that are financially profitable for them. Pardon my cynicism, but I know too much firsthand.


    • Paul Muench on Feb 9, 2014 at 12:33 pm02/9/2014 12:33 pm

      • 000

      The deeper cynicism appears to be that we’ve had all the grit needed, but we haven’t gotten close to the results that are generally accepted as desirable. That would be many more students graduating from high school that are genuinely ready for college and careers. I think a more plausible argument is that NCLB has influenced teachers to give up on students by setting achievement goals that are perceived as unrealistic. And teachers giving up has influenced students to give up. Hence draining grit out of the education system. This story seems in line with general psychological knowledge about goal setting and attainment. At least that is a plausible explanation for giving waivers and letting CORE come up with different measures that support grit instead of defeat it.

      • Paul Muench on Feb 9, 2014 at 12:50 pm02/9/2014 12:50 pm

        • 000

        I suppose one could argue that if teachers had real grit that they would have mostly ignored NCLB all along. Of course in CA they had to administer the STAR tests. But I don’t know much about the internal political pressures on teachers from district leadership. It would be interesting to hear more about the district politics in regards to NCLB as I don’t recall seeing much news coverage on that topic. But since teaching is not piece work measuring outcomes is best suited for understanding and improvement and not motivating outcomes. So hopefully for the CORE districts that is the direction actually taken.

        • Paul Muench on Feb 9, 2014 at 12:54 pm02/9/2014 12:54 pm

          • 000

          Of course if our prior governors had set the same tone as Governor Brown, maybe districts and teachers would have generally ignored NCLB much earlier. Or maybe not as NCLB’s failure was not as obvious in prior years.

        • navigio on Feb 9, 2014 at 6:06 pm02/9/2014 6:06 pm

          • 000

          Paul M, teachers are smarter than that. The imposition of an arbitrary proficiency barrier is very distinct from using tests to inform something (maybe instruction, maybe programmatic strategy). It is easy to dismiss the former while continuing to pursue the latter (to what extent that is valid is a separate discussion). And relevant to your comment, without ‘giving up’ on anything. There is a LOT of ‘noise’ in teaching, and one of the things i’ve found most true about teachers is their ability to filter out that noise and concentrate on their kids. I have seen both ‘gaming the API’ strategy and the opposite as being pushed by district administration (where the former is the ‘political pressure’ to which you refer), so it largely depends on the district’s leaders. Despite that, teachers can still resist it when it becomes a barrier for kids (this may ironically be one place where tenure is actually a benefit 😉 ).

          • Paul Muench on Feb 9, 2014 at 10:48 pm02/9/2014 10:48 pm

            • 000

            Sorry, a bit too abstract to get a handle on your meaning.

  4. Jerry Heverly on Feb 7, 2014 at 4:02 pm02/7/2014 4:02 pm

    • 000

    I continue to believe that these metrics are so subjective and so subject to manipulation as to be nearly worthless.
    Suspension rates? schools will shift to rubber-room type options. Instead of suspending a kid they will warehouse them in supervised study halls. Suspension rates will plummet without anything really changing.
    Surveys could be revealing but the phrasing of the questions and the way surveys are distributed will be key. I doubt the public will trust the results of these surveys.
    Special ed and EL reclassifications are very subjective. I just signed off on two EL redesignations today but I have no real objective standard to guide me, it’s all my gut feeling. Special ed is such a drain on district revenues that it becomes hard to trust who is in and who is not.
    Even absentee rates and graduation rates can be altered by districts who are under pressure to keep the numbers looking good.
    One of the basic flaws in NCLB carries over to CCSS; that education can be weighed and measured in some kind of scientific method that can guide voters and legislators. Education is an interpersonal relationship between teachers and students that can’t be reliably quantified.
    CCSS will divert millions of dollars to public relations and statistical sleight of hand to fool the public.

  5. Paul Muench on Feb 7, 2014 at 12:56 pm02/7/2014 12:56 pm

    • 000

    Some really good thoughts here. But as usual I’m perplexed about the need for an index. Is that mandated by the federal government to obtain the waiver?


    • John Fensterwald on Feb 8, 2014 at 12:00 am02/8/2014 12:00 am

      • 000

      An accountability measure to replace AYP is, but CORE did its own thing, with multiple measures and an index.

  6. Richard Moore on Feb 7, 2014 at 11:47 am02/7/2014 11:47 am

    • 000

    Anyone else want to have an opinion about how Long Beach, et al, run their schools? The Feds have enough of my tax money to fly someone out to threaten the participants with the weight of national government. Sacramento is standing in the corner taking a time out because it got so mad that LB, etc. weren’t playing by their rules. Brown, as usual, just isn’t interested. I wonder what the people of Long Beach think. You know, the 12 per cent who show up to vote. What will we think about this in the future, when we write the history books? Oh, that’s right, CC$$ doesn’t have history standards… Who will tell us what to think? Who will monitor our growth and mindset? Will we be left to fend for ourselves in vast libraries of information containing all the wisdom of mankind? No, we closed those. What does the scripted lesson say? Phonics? New Math? Project Based Research? Oh, dear.

  7. el on Feb 7, 2014 at 8:56 am02/7/2014 8:56 am

    • 000

    I look forward to hearing more about how the collaboration between matched schools is going, and lessons learned. I’m especially curious to know if the “better” school ends up feeling that the pairing is a burden to them or if lessons are learned and synergy is obtained in both directions.


    • John Fensterwald on Feb 7, 2014 at 9:04 am02/7/2014 9:04 am

      • 000

      Good question, el. Knowing that there are talented folks and expertise in every school, it is intended to be a partnership. That has proved to be the case in the Long Beach-Fresno long-standing partnership, the model for this.

      • el on Feb 7, 2014 at 9:28 am02/7/2014 9:28 am

        • 000

        My thought is that it would be great to figure out how this works best for schools (pair programming is all the rage in computer technology right now) and to use that to help more partnerships to develop, including and especially among smaller districts.

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