Building the Big Picture for District and School Improvement

The transition from NCLB to ESSA truly challenges the state of California and its almost 1,200 school districts.  The state barely achieved approval of its ESSA plan by the feds this year. Because most school districts do not have strong internal accountability systems, the application of the external accountability of both the NCLB and ESSA system creates pathologies within school districts system including but not limited to teaching to the test.

The current Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP) created a new set of pathologies in changing from central to local control.  The LCAP is complicated and seeks to serve a multiplicity of guiding principles as well as too many subgroups. The LCAP fails to use a strong theory of action to provide purpose, clarity, and alignment to both district and school plans. Combine the complicated nature of the template with the inability of many school districts to build and implement quality internal strategic plans, and you find yourself with plans that are long, disjointed, and do not tell a coherent story.

Michael Fullan conducted a review of California School Districts who are successfully implementing the LCAPs in his report called California’s Golden Opportunity  I would  like to build upon this work by suggesting some improvements based upon 40 years of experience and specifically with my work as a consultant with Performance Fact, Inc.  As in Fullan’s Long Beach School District exemplar, a relentless focus on the continuous improvement of a few aligned professional practices is the best way to ensure the improvement of student outcomes.

Building a district strategic plan using a theory of action is critical. It is not sufficient for the theory of action to give local control of the process to school districts and then embed it with a plethora of bureaucratic requirements involving multiple subgroups. A theory of action must begin with a focus on improving student outcomes based upon a careful review of student data.  All goals for a school district should address student outcomes which are the ends and not the means. Setting goals for parent engagement or building infrastructure are flawed because these elements, while important, are still means to the end of improving student outcomes.

The second key part of the theory of action is to identify a few aligned professional practices that work in harmony to help achieve the desired student outcomes.  Student outcomes are surrounded first and foremost by specific research-based teaching practices. These teaching practices are then surrounded by district, parent, and community practices that align and enhance the ability of teachers to continuously improve their practices. These aligned elements provide a consistent through line to the work in classrooms.

These essential elements can be woven into a one-page Big Picture Template that includes Educational Strategies, Professional Development and Collaboration themes, and Metrics. (See Figure 1)


Figure 1

The beauty of the Big Picture approach is that it creates a coherent and aligned system for strategic planning and implementation.  It provides a catalyst for deeper dialog about the quality and alignment of the student outcomes with professional practices educational strategies and professional development and collaboration.  It also provides model for school improvement planning and a clear through line to the work in classrooms. All stakeholders can easily determine whether the plan makes sense.  Support teams from the State and County will have a comprehensible and manageable template that they can use to provide meaningful feedback to District and School teams.

Within the system, there should only be 3-5 district student goals. For each of the goals there is an implementation plan that would include up to 3 key objectives per educational strategy and professional development and collaboration theme. The objectives are an opportunity to elaborate on support for the guiding principles and key sub-groups.  Each objective would include up to 3 tasks that identify a team leader, team members, timeline, and due dates.  These implementation tools could also be incorporated into a monitoring system that would gauge the extent and quality of the implementation of the educational strategies and professional development and collaboration themes.

Let’s dispel the fog of education that envelops our current state mandated LCAP process by embracing a Big Picture approach to district and school improvement planning and implementation that will create a quality system to improve student outcomes through an aligned focus on professional practices, educational strategies, and professional development and collaboration themes. Let’s ensure that our LCAPs tell coherent stories that make sense and that we can all be proud of and be held accountable to achieve.


Conrad, William. School Improvement Big Picture

Elmore, Richard and Fuhrman, Susan. Redesigning Accountability Systems for Education. 2004. Teacher College Press.

Fuhrman, Susan and Elmore, Richard. Redesigning Accountability Systems for Education. 2004. Teachers College Press.

Fagbayi, Mutiu. Performance Fact, Inc.

Fensterwald, John. Report says LCAP Needs Tighter Focus. 2015. EdSource.

Fullan, Michael. California’s Golden Opportunity. 2017.

Local School Accountability Plan. (LCAP) California Department of Education.



Rage Against the Thermometers – Assessment Illiteracy

As we wander about within the fog of education pursuing all manner of educational diversions in lieu of our main mission of student academic achievement, we find ourselves confounded by ideas that are essential to our work but are often poorly defined and/or misunderstood.  For 30 years I was an administrator in school districts leading efforts to improve two of the most infamous prerogatives in education: assessment and accountability.  It never ceased to amaze me the degree of assessment illiteracy demonstrated by educators. For the most part, teachers perceive assessments as impediments to instruction rather than the awesome support that they provide to both student learning and professional practices. This assessment illiteracy currently fuels what I call a rage against the thermometers.

The word assessment derives from the Latin word assidere which means to sit beside.  I would often use a painting by the famous African American Artist, Henry Ossawa Tanner, called The Banjo Lesson.  I shared copies of the painting to elicit teacher understanding of the meaning of assessment through the metaphor of this beautiful painting. Teachers would often brilliantly find elements of the education idea of assessment within the painting. They would identify how the old man supports the young child on his lap while holding the banjo so that the child can produce the music with expert coaching from the grandfather. There are so many more examples of quality assessment elements embedded within the painting. However, I will never forget a 2nd grade teacher from Redwood City who came up to me during the workshop with a complex review of the painting itself that included the use of light and color within the painting!  Her analysis is just another metaphor for to how educators can find their own meanings within the essential educational idea of assessment.


Figure 1

Jim Popham, emeritus professor at UCLA, addressed one of the important causes of assessment illiteracy within the education community at a luncheon of very self-important psychometricians in Los Angeles many years ago.  As they were eating, Jim scolded that the psychometricians by informing them that they most assuredly were going to go to hell for all of the complicated assessment regimens that they had foisted upon the education community. The spew of egg salad throughout the rooms was truly a sight to behold!  He shared many of the obtuse characteristics of Classical Test Theory and Item Response Theory for which psychometricians had done almost nothing to explain to educators.  He told the psychometricians that there might be a chance that they could go to purgatory if they made a concerted effort to better explain and communicate the purposes and uses of assessments to the K-12 education community. A nice recommendation but one that was never followed up on.

Educators may have difficulty understanding the meaning of assessment because it has two distinct components.  The first meaning of the word assessment derives from its function in the collection data or information from some stimulus or task aligned to a learning target or objective. This meaning is the one most often attributed to assessments by educators. The second and most important meaning of assessment focuses on the evaluation or the interpretation of what the assessment data means in relation to the learning target or objective.  Assessments have applicability to both student and professional practice goals and outcomes.  Educators often focus on the data collection component of assessment and find it onerous because they are not engaged in the second use of evaluations for interpretation, diagnosis, intervention, and monitoring. Many educators collect assessment data but do not necessarily engage in its second component of evaluation and interpretation creating and antipathy toward assessments.

Evidence of educator assessment illiteracy as it relates to the recognition of the evaluative nature of assessment is abundant. The Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy system (DIBELS) is a screening and monitoring assessment system that gauges the degree to which students in grades K-6 are on track for key early literacy skills that are critical to help them become fluent readers.  The five essential elements of early reading identified by the National Reading Council in the late 90’s include phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary.  The DIBELS assessment monitors the performance of K-6 students for these skills in comparison with normed peers in order to determine who is on track and who is not on track to become readers.

One of the early literacy skills that is critical for later reading success is phonics.  The DIBELS system uses an assessment protocol called Nonsense Word Fluency (NWF) in which students are asked to correctly pronounce nonsense words like NAK in order to gauge their ability to associate letter groups with specific sounds. Nonsense words are used to make sure that students can actually produce the sounds represented by specific grouping of letters because often students will have site recognition of words and can recall the letter sounds from the memory of the word not their phonics ability.

Teachers often do not understand the formative nature of the NWF assessment and what they should do in response to students who demonstrate that they are not on track for phonics understanding.  They would collect the data from the assessment but did not have the ability to use the data to identify at risk students, design and apply appropriate interventions, and then monitor the success of those interventions.  Some teachers inappropriately try and instruct students using the nonsense words within the screening NWF Test.  Teacher assessment illiteracy combined with their inability to evaluate the results of the assessment properly often lead to a rejection of the use of the DIBELS assessments as a valid and reliable system for monitoring student growth in development of the key elements of early literacy.

Teacher assessment illiteracy also manifests itself in the inability of teachers to see any value for assessments besides how assessments can be used formatively to inform student learning within the learning time frame. In reality, assessments fall on a continuum from most formative to most summative. Assessments can be used to inform student learning from moment to moment and they can be used summatively to gauge the effectiveness of teacher and administrator professional practices.  Figure 2 below demonstrates the Assessment Continuum with sample assessments for each of the key assessment elements of the Continuum.

Assessment Continuum


Figure 2

The effectiveness of the use of formative assessments in supporting student learning has been well documented over the years.  Black and Wiliam focused on the importance of the use of more formative and most formative assessments in gauging student learning, diagnosing error patterns in thinking, intervening to provide focused feedback, and finally monitoring student learning, Formative assessment opportunities often attempt to elicit student misunderstandings in order to better address them. It is recommended that there be at least three formative assessment events for every summative assessment event within a given unit of learning. (Figure 3).  Formative assessments are opportunities to elicit student misunderstandings through questioning or assessment tasks.  In this sense, we need to promote more failure in our schools followed by diagnosis, intervention, and monitoring. Hattie has reported an almost 0.7 effect size in the ability of quality formative assessments to improve student achievement. This would be analogous to moving a student who scores at a 50th percentile at the beginning of the year to the 70th percentile.

3_Loop_AssessmentsFigure 3

There is a growing understanding and use of formative assessments within schools even though it is often clouded with a plethora of naming conventions and definitions such as assessments for learning and assessment of learning.  There is a deep and widespread misunderstanding of the role of summative assessments in informing professional practice within schools and school districts. Many educators erroneously think that the only value of assessments is to directly inform student learning.  However, school organizations need to understand that summative assessments like state assessments can be used to gauge the effectiveness of curriculum and the systematic application of professional practices to improve student achievement overall and by subgroup.

Summative assessments are indicators of how successful adults are in helping students achieve. They are the thermometers or indicators of how well the professionals use their professional practices to help grow student academic success.  Yet these assessments in concert with external accountability systems have fostered widespread pathologies within K-12 education.  Rather than using these assessments to inform and improve curricula, professional practices, and assessments, educators use these assessments in an inappropriate way as instructional tools.  Due to the perceived pressure of the results of the test educators focus on teaching to the test and then rage against the test as impeding teaching and learning. Used appropriately summative assessments can go a long way in informing the system of its success or lack of success in implementing curricula and professional practices. Let’s take summative assessments out of the fog of education and bring it back into the light where it can be used appropriately and effectively inform student learning as well as the improvement of professional practices.

Summative assessments can provide student results of improvement (non-cohort), growth (cohort), standards, and equity.  These results can then be visualized and used to generate findings and answer questions related to the effectiveness of key initiatives and programs within the educational system. These summative results and interpretations play an important role in a well-planned and implemented strategic plan that would include specific student outcomes, professional practices, educational strategies and initiatives, professional development and collaboration, and key metrics. (Figure 4)


Figure 4

Quality curriculum combined with a few research-based professional practices that also includes valid and reliable assessments are the recipe for helping all students achieve academic success.  These elements constitute the three legs of a stool that supports improved student outcomes.  Because of the pressures of external accountability so well described by Elmore and others, we can see that school districts have engaged in pathologies that overemphasize the importance of summative tests even to the extent of inappropriately teaching to the test.

The solution to this problem is to make sure that school districts and schools develop and implement high quality and useful strategic plans that include a clear focus on student outcomes, curriculum, professional practices, assessments, professional development, and key performance metrics. These elements would form the basis for a high-performing educational system capable of improving academic outcomes for all students.  Assessments play an essential role in our work by providing both formative support for student learning and summative support for the improvement of professional practices.  Let’s get beyond our rage against the thermometers and dispel the fog of education by using assessments in ways that foster improved professional practices as well as student academic outcomes.


Black, Paul and Wiliam, Dylan. Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards through Classroom Assessment. 1998.

Center for Teaching and Learning. Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy. 2018.  University of Oregon.

Elmore, Richard and Fuhrman, Susan. Redesigning Accountability Systems for Education. 2004. Teacher College Press.

Hattie, John. Visible Learning: A Synthesis of over 800 Meta-analyses Related to Achievement.  2009. Routledge.

National Reading Panel. Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read. 2000.

Tanner, Henry, Osawa. The Banjo Lesson. 1893. Smithsonian

The Ultimate Fog Machine – the Colleges of Education

The most important factor influencing student academic achievement is the curriculum, instructional practices, and assessments used by teachers.  Recent research by John Hattie provide abundant support for the effectiveness of a wide variety of instructional practices that influence student academic achievement.  If the strongest influencing student academic achievement is instructional practice, then looking at student academic outcomes can be directly attributed to the effectiveness of teacher implementation of instructional practices.

Yet when we look at both NAEP and PISA results, we find that American students are far below proficiency levels. Data visualizations that I produced for school districts within my home county of Santa Clara, demonstrate mediocre to poor performance in ELA and Math for many school districts. You can see these data visualizations at  I have included the Math Performance for my hone district San Jose Unified below.  You reap what you sow.


Figure 1

It is apparent that our professional practices are still not up to the important task of ensuring academic achievement for all students.  The preparation of teachers to become experts in the use of curriculum, instructional practices, and assessments falls on the shoulders of our Colleges of Education. However, our Colleges of Education have become the ultimate fog machines in the production of teachers who are woefully lacking in both academic content knowledge and pedagogy.  This is not to deny that there are many special case examples of teachers who excel despite coming of underperforming Colleges of Education and there are some examples of high performing Colleges of Education.

The systemic failure of the Colleges of Education puts our school districts in a constant state of perpetual triage of professional development and coaching to shore up teacher deficiencies in content knowledge and pedagogy.  It is important that we dispel this fog and insist that our Colleges of Educations transform into respectable institutions of higher learning that prepare their candidates to become high-performing professionals who are ready, willing, and most importantly able to ensure the academic achievement of all of our students.

The Colleges of Education is a system that begins with the recruitment of potential teacher candidates, accepting teacher candidates, engaging them in a teacher preparation program, student teaching, and graduation and preparation for certification.  The caliber of students entering college in general is not too strong.  Research has shown that one half of students entering two-year colleges require remediation and one fifth entering four-year colleges require remediation.  Almost all students who engage in remediation courses never matriculate into college level courses. All of this a testimony of the inability of our K12 education system to prepare students for college.

Even as we see the caliber of college entering freshman being rather low with regard to academic preparedness, we also have the problem that our best and brightest college graduates do not see the teaching profession as a viable option.  A recent poll of voters aged 18-29 showed that only about one quarter would be very likely to recommend that a friend or family member become a teacher.  Top college graduates pick the teaching profession as last among a list of 14 possible professions.

Teacher Preparation Programs (TPP) do not have rigorous acceptance criteria either. 40% of TPP set a minimum grade point average for entrance. About 2/3 of TPPs accept more than half of applicants and one quarter accept nearly all applicants.   Teacher candidates with high ACT or SAT scores, GPAs, and class rank have been shown to perform better on assessments used to gauge teaching effectiveness.   While the academic preparation of teacher candidates may be a strong indicator of the quality of future teacher quality, it is not the only metric.  One must also consider the quality and rigor of the teacher preparation programs themselves.

When we look at actual Teacher Preparation Programs, we see a minimal focus on academic content, curriculum and practices. For example, the vision and guiding principles of the Multiple-Subjects Credential Program for Elementary Teachers at San Jose State University (SJSU) falls far short of explicitly identifying what teachers should know and be able to do when they enter into the profession.  The vision itself is a murky and politically correct statement of generalities that provide a light touch to the primary focus which should be academic content knowledge and expertise in the practices that will help all students achieve academic success.

The Guiding Principles that accompany the vision also reflect a bias toward a politically correct commitment that fails to call out the need for teachers to be able to effectively use research-based instructional practices at high levels of performance.  There is no indication in the principles that define the ability of teachers to be able to use assessments to gauge student knowledge and skills and to diagnose student learning needs and create high quality instructional interventions to address student learning needs that they monitor and continue to improve.  The words are a raft of educational jargon surrounded in a fog of political correctness signifying almost nothing.


Figure 2

Things don’t get much better when we take a look at the courses for the Elementary Education Teacher Program at SJSU and Preliminary Certification for the State of California.


Figure 3

From a big picture perspective, the primary requirement of a College of Education is to prepare prospective teachers in the fundamental elements of curriculum, professional practices, and assessments. The syllabus is very deficient as it relates to this requirement.  This syllabus appears to be a Pot Pourri of courses that meet the esoteric needs of college professors rather than a well thought out program of courses that actually prepare students for work within classrooms.  Noteworthy, in the syllabus is the absence of courses related to the teaching practices that teachers will need to use in classrooms except as it relates to Health and Special Education.  Additionally, no courses are required to provide teachers with a fundamental understanding and ability to effectively use assessments.

In order to engage in the Field Experience courses, one would expect that teachers would have engaged in a full array of courses aligned with teaching practices and assessments. It is almost as if the college ascribes to the idea that participation in specific curriculum courses is sufficient to prepare students for knowledge and ability to use professional practices.  Incorporating a course about the Critical Perspectives on Schooling in a Pluralistic Society within the Field Experience seems misplaced and not aligned with the need to prepare students for the fundamental elements of the teaching profession.  There is really not enough time within the program to focus on politically correct courses at the expense of courses aligned with the fundamental elements of teaching.

Additionally, it is not clear why there is a focus on Health and Special Education within the Foundation Courses.  Why do we include an emphasis on research in these important but second-tier areas and not include research within the other curriculum courses? Additionally, why are we dealing with classroom issues Language/Literacy for L2 Learners when we should focus on the main event of supporting English Language acquisition of L2 students through curricula, practices, and assessments.   Speaking of L2, it appears that the college supports the participation of L2 students within the teacher preparation program offering some courses taught in both Spanish and English.  Should we not expect our teacher candidates to be fluent in English before matriculation into a Teacher preparation program?

As we can see from their vision, principles, and syllabi, it is clear that Colleges of Education like SJSU do not go far enough in their support of preparing teachers for the actual work that they will be doing in classrooms upon graduation and certification.  Additionally, the research agenda of professors within the college often do not always align with the classroom work of teachers.  Professors will often pursue research agendas that at best are tangential to the real pragmatic needs of teachers. Teachers and college of education researchers do not work together on mutually supportive research agendas.  It is as if researchers find the work of teaching below their status as the intellectual elite with the world of education.  An example of an article written by a professor at SJSU can be found below.

Ahlquist, R., Gorski, P., & Montaño, T. (2011). Assault on kids: How hyper-accountability, corporatization, deficit ideologies, and Ruby Payne are destroying our schools. New York: Peter Lang.

Not all of the work of professors is esoteric and divorced from the real-world work of teachers.  Brent Druckor an assistant professor at SJSU, engaged the Santa Clara County Office of Education, the Bear Center the University of California, and Palo Alto Unified School District teachers to build a useful progression of quality in the implementation of formative assessment instructional practices.  Brent made a great effort to build a progression of formative assessment performances that aligned with scale values being proposed by the Bear Center.   This work initiated a process to quantify a professional practice of teachers using a well-defined scale.  This effort is admirable, but a wide gulf still exists between the research work of the Colleges of Education and the work of teachers within classrooms.  There still is a long way to go but inroads are being made to better link teacher professional practice and educational research.

The continuous and relentless infusion of unprepared teachers into the K-12 education system by the Colleges of Education is a very serious drag on the ability of the system to provide high quality education to all students.  The solution to this enormous problem will not be found at the school or district levels. However, it would be a good idea for school districts to screen candidates for Student Teaching to meet certain performance criteria in curricula knowledge, instructional practices, and assessments.  Additionally, school districts should consider advancing and remunerating expert teachers rather than trying to fire them in order to hire younger but less-prepared teachers. The Colleges of Education will require transformative change that should begin with a Blue-Ribbon Commission sponsored by the Federal Government to expose the many structural and political problems with the College of Education System and make recommendations for a transformation of the system.

Improvement of the Colleges of Education will require consideration of the following essential elements;

  • Commit to a primary focus on building teachers who can successfully implement curricula, professional practices, and assessments in ways that advance academic achievement for all students.
  • Partner closely with school districts to continuously engage professors and teacher candidates in ongoing opportunities to practice knowledge and skills within the classroom and not just during the Field Practicum block of time.
  • Engage in mutual research between school districts and Colleges of Education that closely link to the instructional practices of teachers.
  • Create career pathway for teachers that begins with recruitment, education, internships, residency, and professional advancement.
  • Track College of Education graduates for success in the implementation of curricula, professional practices, assessments, as well as student outcomes.
  • Evaluated Colleges of Education based on criteria that align with these essential elements and make these evaluations public.
  • Colleges of Education should play an ongoing role in the career trajectory of teachers as they advance within their profession such as providing badges of increasing professionalism and expertise as it relates to their ability to implement professional practices.
  • Sanctions and rewards the Colleges of Education based upon the success of their graduates in demonstrating excellence in professional practices as well as helping all students achieve academic success.
  • Participate in Baldrige Award opportunities or similar on a regular basis in order to maintain and continuously improve their own practices and outcomes toward excellence.

The systemic structural shortcomings within the Colleges of Education are significant and must be addressed before we have any hope of dispelling the suffocating fog of education. It is not acceptable for school districts to engage in perpetual professional development and coaching triage to accommodate the holes that exist within teacher preparation.  It is better to address the needs of prospective teachers at the beginning of their professional journeys rather than later.  We must address the significant problem of the Colleges of Education as soon as possible with the eye to transformation rather than provide technical short-term fixes.  It will be the single most important thing that we can do to raise the status of the teaching profession, provide for respectable career trajectories for our teachers, and ensure that all children have the chance to advance academically within our society so that they are truly ready for college and career.


Butrymowicz, Sarah. The Hechinger Report. PBS New Hour. 2017.

Feuer, Michael, J. et al. Evaluation of Teacher Preparation Programs. 2013. National Academy of Education. Washington, D.C.

Hattie, John. Visible Learning: A Synthesis of over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. 2009. Routledge.

School Improvement Big Picture Web site.

Strauss, Valerie. Why today’s college students don’t want to be teachers. Washington Post. 2015.


Dispelling the Fog of Education with Systems Thinking

The rise and fall of fads within K-12 education is currently at an all time high with increasingly shortened life spans of up to one or two months.  I had the good fortune of reviewing the idea of systems thinking while reading the book Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge recently.  The education field borrowed the idea of Systems Thinking from business where it became the latest education fad in the late 1980’s and early 2000’s.  Big Picture systems thinking was the mental model behind the Standards movement that emerged during this time.  While the systems thinking fad has long run its course in education world, I argue that it is time to resurrect it to dispel some of the current suffocation from the fog of education.

K-12 Education is in a perpetual state of chaos because it fails to adhere to the basic tenets of a system.  The ability of K-12 education to focus on a few well-conceived goals is still well beyond its grasp. We focus on a myriad of goals from supporting students to supporting parents and the community. One of the main mission of K-12 education is to make sure that students achieve academic success as they prepare for college and career.  In order to achieve this very achievable goal, we must identify the key elements that include well-defined standards and learning target, curriculum, professional practices, and assessments.

K-12 education is in a perpetual state of chaos due to its inability to systematically and continuously improve professional practices within school districts.  It is simple. Just look at the student outcomes at almost every level within the overall “system!”  In previous articles, I described how American student performance on the NAEP and PISA far below proficiency consistently over the years.  State test data at the District level is not much better.  Having the opportunity to work with the East Ramapo School District in New York, I visualized performance on ELA state test performance for 3 years using out of every 20 values as well as a heat map. We generated this report and similar reports for subgroups as well as Mathematics in hopes of generating an emotional response that would inspire system changes to improve professional practices and that would improve student outcomes. But no luck was to be had as the School District continues to produce dismal results for its students and families.



Similarly, in my home district of San Jose Unified I visualized 3 years of State Math and ELA performance on state tests only to be rudely pushed out of the Board room with no recognition of the abysmal overall performance of students or a commitment to improve the system of professional practices to accelerate student academic achievement. Only a little more than one third of 11th graders meet or exceed Math standards and sadly only 3% of English Learners.


You reap what you sow.  So why don’t school districts like the East Ramapo School District or San Jose Unified take their dismal results as a clarion call to address the mission of teaching mathematics well?  For the most part, school districts are not really oriented toward a systems approach to achieving success. They are easily distracted with a multiplicity of goals, programs, and initiatives.  According to Jim Smith in his book, Good to Great, he claimed that highly successful organizations take a hedgehog approach to success in which they focus on one or two key important goals and get really good at achieving them.

For school districts, their hedgehog should be to ensure academic achievement by all students. Toward that end, they should organize their system to achieve this goal by making sure that there are high quality curricula, well defined professional practices, and aligned formative and summative assessments.  The system should develop implementation plans to ensure that all elements of the system are implemented in every classroom with a high degree of quality. The implementation plan should not only ensure professional development but also ongoing coaching and support to make sure that the system is effectively implemented.  Finally, the implementation process needs to be monitored and held accountable through regular summative evaluations.

What do we find in most school districts?  We find a culture where teachers have autonomy in what they teach, how the teach it, and how they assess it.  They are protected in their independent contractor work by the School Boards, administration and Teachers’ Unions.  And of course, within this milieu of varied teaching practices, there are examples of excellence that should be emulated throughout the system but not because of the isolated nature of teaching practice.

School districts will engage in strategic planning where they adopt a wide array of goals that are often means instead of ends.  They seek to address the perceived needs of the parents in addition to their primary responsibility of supporting the academic achievement of all students.  They often identify technology goals that are really means to the ultimate end of student academic achievement.  These plans will include general actions that never translate into specific accountable implementation plans.  They will often then purchase programs and hire consultants to conduct minimal and superficial professional development aligned to the general strategies without the necessary ongoing coaching and ongoing support. Importantly, there is really no expectation that teachers will fully implement the programs and/or practices and that teachers have the ability to make adaptations freely as they choose.

Even though chaotic, the K-12 Education system does exhibit islands of excellence in a systems approach that includes detailed and specific implementation plans along with evaluations.  I have previously described the work of Community Consolidated School District 15 in Palatine Illinois that maintained a system-wide focus on academic achievement with comprehensive curriculum, common professional practices, and formative and summative assessments. This system included detailed implementation plans a long with evaluation.  CCSD 15 won the first ever coveted Baldrige Award for Excellence.

The emergence of quality curriculum can sometimes occur within the chaotic K-12 education systems.  The Math My Way movement was a compilation of math curriculum and instructional practices that aligned very well with cognitive learning theory as well as researched-based instructional practices.  It emerged from the work of individual teachers in classrooms. However, these eclectic practices, while well-conceived, were not incorporated into an overall system of curriculum and instructional practice.

Zalman Usiskin from the University of Chicago took these random acts of excellence and built them into a comprehensive and developmentally appropriate curriculum called Everyday Mathematics.  The system includes developmental elements that include: use of concrete and real-world examples, repeated exposure to mathematical concepts and skills, frequent practice of basic computation skills, and the use of multiple methods and problem-solving strategies. Schools and Districts who adopt this well-conceived math curriculum and implement it well will achieve improved student math outcomes.

Yet even after the acquisition of well researched curriculum, our wayward K-12 system will probably not implement the curriculum completely and with fidelity.  A key sacred cow of American education is the belief that teachers should have a great deal of autonomy with regard to what they teach, how they teach, and how they assess.  This belief results in the very uneven implementation of quality curricula and instructional practices within school systems.  Yet there is a science of implementation that is being ignored by K-12 education.  Dean Fixsen from the National Implementation Network produced a quality system for implementation that defines and describes the key stages of implementation a long with the drivers that support it. Adherence to the essential elements of a quality implementation a long with evaluation will go a long way to ensure the improvement of student outcomes.

Time and again, I have experienced implementation that is so far from what would be expected from the tenets of the science of implementation as to be in another universe.  Implementation is usually an afterthought for District Administrators after the acquisition of a program or initiative.  District Administrators usually do not have the expertise required to professionally develop the program themselves and usually broker the work to professional development providers who may at best provide several days of professional development and then leave the implementation up to the teachers. Sound familiar?  I have visited classrooms where teachers had not even unwrapped essential elements of the Every Day Mathematics program saying that they thought that the project elements of the system were extra.  After a few years of spotty implementation, school districts will often jettison quality programs saying that these programs did not work well within our system. In reality though the program was not sufficiently implemented or evaluated.

While the implementation of key programs and initiatives is a major issue, the problem is exacerbated when school districts do not even select quality programs or initiatives but take on the responsibility of building the heart lung machine to do surgery themselves!   This phenomenon is especially true for supporting the acquisition of English Language and academic achievement for our English Learners.  SJUSD for example adopted the idea of Dual Immersion programs where non-English speaking children are placed in classrooms with English speaking students.  This program begins by teaching in the native language at least 80% of the time and slowly decreases over 6-8 years.  This means that it will take 6-8 years to ensure that our EL students acquire the English necessary to access the academic standards well.

Within this weak program, there are no specific English Language Acquisition or Academic Achievement goals. There is no specific day to day curriculum or explicitly identified instructional practices. Finally, there is no description of formative or summative assessments.  Teachers are provided with a pot pourri of curriculum and instructional practices that they can use as they choose while speaking to the students 80% of the time in their first language.  There is no detailed plan for implementation or evaluation. The District does not produce growth data on academic achievement or the acquisition of English.  Looking at the overall ELA performance of EL students gives you an insight into the effectiveness of the Dual Language Program. Only 9% of 3rd grade Els meet or exceed State Standards in 2017!


What happens when a lack of systems thinking, adherence to educational fads, failure to recognize research, assessment illiteracy, and poor implementation and evaluation meet the early reading needs of students?  Of course, we have the perfect storm of educational chaos and dysfunction.  In the late 1990’s a renowned team of experts in early reading did exhaustive research on how best to teach young children how to read.  Based upon their research, they identified 5 key ingredients to successful early reading that included phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.

Roland Good and researchers from the University of Oregon developed simple screening and monitoring assessments of the 5 essential early reading elements. These simple assessments would help educators keep all students on track to read by the end of third grade.  This work spawned the educational fad to support early reading through the use of the Dynamic Indicators of Early Literacy or DIBELS.  Unfortunately, the requisite professional development and coaching required for successful implementation of this excellent assessment system combined with tremendous assessment illiteracy eventually drove the screening and monitoring of early reading into an ad hoc reading record phenomenon carried out by individual teachers within their classrooms.

Sadly, when asked why a school district with a tremendous need to improve early reading performance of students, does not use valid and reliable screening and monitoring assessment systems, the pathetic answer is always: “We tried the DIBELS approach way back when and it just didn’t work. And besides it is so very old.”   When only one half of students in San Jose Unified School District are reading by the end of 3rd grade without having been carefully monitored and supported in Kindergarten through grade 3 in the five essential reading elements in a systematic fashion, we cannot be surprised.

So how does a school district get away with operating in such chaotic ways with hardly the hint of systems thinking?  One of the key reasons is the use of the idea of special case as a way to support “success” and protect against real accountability for system performance.  Special case is a self-similar phenomenon within the school system.  Teachers use it in their classroom when they only call on students who they know can answer their questions correctly.  Principals use it as they evaluate teachers and give high evaluation ratings based on one or two exceptional performances rather than the overall teacher performance over time.  District Administrators use special case to bamboozle Boards of Education with one off exceptional student performance that supposedly represent the whole system. Unfortunately, the Boards often buy these wonderful special case presentations.

What can we do to address the inability of school districts to think and act using a systems framework?  First of all, we need to demand that our school districts identify a vision and mission that puts student academic achievement at the forefront.  Secondly, we need to demand that school districts develop and use a very clear model for achieving this fundamental mission. This model should include the following key elements:

  • Identify clear and measurable student academic achievement goals with the expectation that all students will achieve these goals.
  • Acquire well defined curricula with day to day curriculum maps that are communicated to all stakeholders with the expectation that teachers use the curriculum maps.
  • Identify several key research-based and articulated professional practices at the district administrator, principal, and teacher levels.
  • Acquire valid and reliable formative and summative assessments to diagnose, screen, and monitor achievement of academic goals and learning targets for students.
  • Expect personal mastery of the curriculum and professional practices by all staff.
  • Foster regular opportunities for teacher collaboration and dialogue that focuses on review of student work and instructional interventions that will continuously improve student performance.
  • Follow a scientific method for the implementation of all educational programs and initiatives.
  • Evaluate both formally and informally all programs and initiatives on a regular basis and communicate findings and recommendations to all stakeholders,

What should the School Board do to support systems thinking? First of all, they should not succumb to the allure of special case extravaganza presentations made by District Administrators to cover for obvious deficiencies in system performance.  Every meeting should include a review and analysis of system-wide overall and subgroup student outcome data as well as a system wide data-informed review of the implementation and improvement of a few key professional practices.  They should expect and demand regular evaluation reports on both the implementation of key programs and initiatives.  They should make sure that the District Administration publishes easy to understand data supporting student outcomes and professional practices.  They should insist that evaluation results are accessible to all stakeholders in an easily understandable interpretable manner. The Board should also insist that detailed curriculum maps and assessment tool are available online for stakeholder to review. It would also be a great idea to engage the system in the opportunity to apply for a national award like the Baldrige Award.

What should District Administrators do to support systems thinking?  First of all, they should maintain a laser focus on academic achievement and not become distracted by the latest educational fad.  This means that they have clearly defined student academic outcomes. They need to acquire and use detailed curricula for all academic subjects and ensure that they are implemented in a complete and consistent manner.  They also need to acquire and scientifically implement formative assessments that inform both student outcomes as well as professional practices. They must support and coach principals in helping teachers collaborate and dialogue regularly using actual student work and assessment data to diagnose learning needs and intervene to support continuous improvement in student outcomes.  District Administrators should be master teachers themselves and regularly model lessons that include key teaching practices using an Explicit Learning model.  They should prepare and make regular student outcome and professional practices presentations to the school board that focus on system performance and not special case.

What should the School Principal do to support systems thinking?  The principal should ensure that his teachers understand the student academic goals. He should make sure that they have all of the curriculum resources and assessments needed to teach the academic subjects well.  He should organize and lead regular collaborations and dialogue where teachers review student work aligned with the learning targets and using both formative and summative quality rubrics.  He should support the teachers in using the assessment and the resultant data to develop appropriate instructional interventions to ensure that all students achieve the learning targets. He should use an explicit teaching practice to model high quality teaching practices for teachers. He should informally and formally evaluate teachers using a fair evaluations system that aligns with both student outcomes and key professional practices. He should regularly meet with parents and community members to communicate the academic focus, curricula, assessments, and professional practices.

What should teachers do to support systems thinking?  Teachers should clearly understand the student academic goals for all of their students.  They should teach the curricula as defined within their curriculum guides. They should administer both formative and summative assessments to generate data and student work that can be used in their regularly planned collaborations and dialog with fellow teachers to analyze student performance, design interventions, and monitor interventions to ensure that all students achieve the standards-aligned learning targets.  Teachers should engage in regular opportunities to reflect upon their professional practices in order to continuously improve and achieve mastery at high performance levels. They should regularly communicate with parents about both individual student performance, academic goals, curriculum requirements, as well as the results of both formative and summative assessments.

What should parents and guardians do to support systems thinking?  Parents should review the academic goals for their students. They should also monitor the assessment results for their children. They should make sure that their children get plenty of rest, eat well, have a private well-lit place to study and do homework, and get to school on time.  Parents should also meet regularly with the school principal to better understand and support the Big Picture for the work of the school

What should community members do to support systems thinking?  Community members should form school and district advisory committees that meet regularly to review systems data for both student outcomes and professional practices in order to hold the district accountable for outstanding performance in helping all students prepare for college, career and citizenship. The Community should also develop symbols such as awards and celebrations to honor and foster ongoing continuous improvement in professional practices and student outcomes.  Community members should work to support the school and district in applying for and winning national awards to recognize both stellar system professional practice as well as student outcomes.

It is beyond time to resurrect the educational idea of Systems Thinking.  It is the path forward in helping all school districts and schools stay on track for the continuous improvement of professional practices and student outcomes.  As Jim Smith once told us, we need to face the brutal facts of poor systems performance and avoid the allure of using special case performance as a proxy for overall and subgroup academic performance of all students. We need to stay focused on our main mission and avoid the myriad of educational distractions that accost us every day in education. Our main job as educators is to assure the academic achievement of all students so that they will be successful in college and career as well as become knowledgeable and active citizens. We can do this through a system-wide focus on student academic goals, curricula, professional practices, and formative and summative assessments.  The Systems Approach is the way to lead all of us to a better future.


Baldrige Excellence Performance Program.

Collins, John. Good to Great. 2001. Harper Collins Publishers.

Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy (DIBELS).

Everyday Mathematics.

Fixsen, Dean. National Implementation Network.

New York State Education at a Glance.

School Improvement Big Picture Web site.

Senge, Peter.  The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practices of the Learning Organization. 1990. Doubleday.




The Contribution of Whole Child Mania to the Fog of Education

Families and children want their teachers to treat them well, respect them, and to give them voice within the classroom. They want their teachers to know academic content and to be able to teach it to them well.  In other words, they want schools to prepare them for future success in college and career.  The goals of all schools are to prepare all students for academic success and for future success in college and career. A secondary goal of the education system is to prepare all students to be knowledgeable and active citizens.  Yet many school districts are still not up for this important task yet.  Three years of math data from my home district San Jose Unified School District (SJUSD) demonstrate that only 36% of 11th graders meet or exceed math standards in 2017 and a paltry 3% of 11th grade English Learners meet or exceed the math standards.


Figure 1

Only 40% of American 4th graders score proficient or better on the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Math test and only 1/3 of 8th graders are proficient or better.  The Program for International Assessment (PISA) results from 2015, placed the U.S. at an unimpressive 38th out of 71 countries in math and 24th in science

Of course, dismal academic achievement results should induce the passion to take action to improve student academic achievement.  Educators should review and improve curriculum, professional practices, and assessments.  However, that is often not what happens within the fog of education.  For the most part school districts redirect their focus from academic achievement to a the softer social-emotional skills such as those defined by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) such as self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, relationship skills, and social awareness.  While these skills are important, they represent means and not ends toward a school district’s main mission of supporting student academic achievement and civic knowledge.

The over-emphasis on the softer skills in my view represents a trend toward an imbalance in educational aims within American K-12 education away from academic achievement toward a focus on softer social skills improvement for students. The current trend toward whole child and social-emotional well-being draws attention and resources away from the main event for K-12 education: the academic achievement of all students.  Key issues with this whole child misdirection include:

  • Recognition that social-emotional skills are important but they are means to an end and should be incorporated seamlessly into curriculum.
  • Diminution of the importance of competition as a valid skill that can contribute to academic achievement.
  • Diffusion of resources and effort away from the primary mission of schools: student academic achievement
  • Usurpation of the role of parents in supporting the social-emotional development of their own children

I first encountered this new-found enchantment with social-emotional skills as a Senior Associate for Performance Fact, Inc. Our team used an outstanding system for engaging school districts in strategic planning that began with an in-depth inquiry with the students to find out what was important to them in their education.  The students were lucid and insightful in their expectations. They wanted their teachers to treat them with respect and to give them voice in the classroom. They wanted their teachers to know their content and to teach them well. Of course, they also wanted more recess time!

However, we often found different a different focus when we addressed what should be the key goals of the School District strategic plan with district-wide stakeholders.  We would provide them with 18 possible key goals to wrestle with.  Some of these goals included a variety of permutations of the social-emotional theme of whole child that would resonate well with the adults.  The goal of Mastery of Core Subjects often was frequently not selected as a goal.  Imagine that!    Adults would often say that they did not select it as a goal because it was a foregone conclusion that the school district would of course support the academic achievement of all students. And this would occur even after the review of academic achievement data that was color coded and appeared red due to low achievement rates!  Mind-boggling.  In one school district, the students on the Core Planning Team formed an ad-hoc team and drafted their own strategic plan that re-inserted emphasis on academic achievement that was eventually adopted by the whole strategic planning team.

Of course, this wandering about in the fog of education does not afflict all school districts!  I had the wonderful opportunity to work with Dr. John Conyers of Community Consolidated School District 15 in the late 1990s.  The administration and community maintained a focus on academic achievement for of all of its students.  Strategic planning and implementation carefully aligned student academic goals with curriculum, professional practices, and assessments.  Importantly professional practices were clearly identified and implemented and monitored system-wide.

For example, we identified the use of cognitive mapping as a key system-wide professional practice.  All levels of the system routinely used cognitive mapping from individual students, to classrooms, to schools, and the district administration.  Our system-wide efforts to continuously improve our curriculum, professional practices, and assessments bore fruit in outstanding student performance.  Our community was the first school district in the nation to apply for and win a coveted Baldrige Award.  We were not afraid to take a muscular approach to student achievement while also fostering a spirit of joie de vivre! We did not ignore social-emotional skills but rather embedded these skills seamlessly within he curriculum in order not to become sidetracked by an over-emphasis on educational fads like social-emotional learning.

Like a Mandelbrot set, one can find the self-similar artifacts of this over-emphasis on whole child at multiple levels within school districts.  As part of a federal grant called NASA Liftoff, I had the opportunity to coach high school science teachers in Santa Clara County.  One of the high school science teacher was unfortunately boring students with a review of test items from the State Science Practice Test during one of my visits. I pulled the teacher aside and asked her if there was some actual science content that she wanted her students to know.  She told me that they were focused on a math standard of Ratio and Proportion. (A seventh-grade standard).

I told the teacher that mindlessly reviewing state test items was a useless exercise. In order to model good professional teaching practice for the teacher, I provided each of the students with a square of window screening material and a ruler. I challenged the class to plan for the production of a larger screen that would have 1 million openings.  The students took on this proportional reasoning challenge. One student began to shed a tear as she looked forlornly at the small square.  The teacher wanted to immediately go to the student and give her some solace and the solution in order to protect her from any possible stress. I told the teacher to hold off for a few moments before we went over to support the student.

A little stress can enhance learning.  After a few moments, I asked the student about her plan. She looked up at me and told me that she was going to fail this assignment. I told her that in reality, she was actually failing the assignment in the moment!  But I told her that a little failure was good and that we could work together to find a solution.  It turns out that most students in the class were not able to apply the seventh-grade math standard to solve the problem so I initiated a lesson using the powerful instructional technique of Explicit Instruction.

This story highlights how an over-emphasis on social skills and the protection of students from all forms of stress are evident within classrooms. Teachers sometimes want to protect students from any and all stress, when in reality some moderate stress is required for all learning.  Additionally, the focus on academic achievement does not mean that teachers have to become drill sergeants imposing harsh instructional techniques on students. Curriculum, teaching practices, and assessments can be engaging and interesting and yet still focus on the ultimate achievement of learning targets that will advance student academic achievement.

I really experienced the extreme of feel good social emotional skills at the classroom level when I read an article in Education Week entitled Why we need Hygge Classrooms in America by Nancy Flanagan.  The article promoted the Icelandic inspired idea called Hygge or working extra hard to make children feel very comfortable in classrooms with endless supplies of hot chocolate and a multiplicity of bean bag chairs to relax on!  While advocating for the idea of Hygge in American schools, we will need to face the inconvenient truth that American students are being shortchanged on what really counts – a rigorous academic-focused education that prepares them for college and career. We rage against the thermometers of standardized tests which validly and reliably point to an undeniable truth that for example based upon the NAEP Math test only about 1/3 of our 8th grade students are proficient in math. While students of color, students in poverty, and students with disabilities are being shortchanged even more with the soft racism of low expectations.

Never mind all of this focus on the expectation for academic achievement for all students though. Let’s continue to promote Hygge and encourage our students to sit on bean bag chairs, sipping hot cocoa, and listening to stories as their academic preparation deteriorates and they comfortably coast to a life of service work at Walmart while living in an RV in the Walmart parking lot.

The over-emphasis on whole child also afflicts the work at the District Level.  Districts like to craft strategic plans that focus on the soft goals of whole child and social emotional well-being while ignoring their main mission of supporting academic achievement for all students.  Additionally, district administrators move away from resources and tools that would provide them with a big picture of student academic achievement and implementation of professional practices.

There is currently a strong rage against the thermometers of academic achievement such as State tests like the Smarter Balanced Assessment.  One district administrator at Santa Clara Unified School district once had the temerity to tell me that we were really not a State Test kind of school district!  During a strategic planning meeting in a suburb of Seattle, the union representative called me over to inform met that the Core Planning Team’s idea to engage parents in two meetings annually to review student academic achievement would never fly as the Union contract guaranteed only one parent meeting per year.  When I brought this challenge of the will of the team to the Superintendent, she told me that she would take care of it.  I will let you guess how many parent academic achievement meetings were incorporated into the strategic plan. Hint: it is less than two.

School districts are also reluctant to publish and use data visualizations that would illuminate student academic achievement or in the case of English Learners, English Language acquisition.  Of course, there is no publication of professional practices data. The state is often complicit in this obfuscation by communicating data in ways that are not easy to interpret. Within California, the State Board has built a color-coded Academic Achievement Dashboard that uses a convoluted methodology to inaccurately represent student achievement and fails to include high school student achievement.  This system provides excellent cover for school districts who want more focus on the whole child.

In response, to a paucity of data visualizations that would help the community better understand and react to student academic achievement, I built a web site called the School Improvement Big Picture, where I created 3 years’ worth of data visualizations for all for all of the school districts in Silicon Valley for all key subgroups by grade and by year as well as by year and by grade in Math and English Language Arts. In conjunction with the Summer Olympics, I also created an Academic Olympics for Santa Clara County where everyone could celebrate the academic performance and improvement of our school districts.  You can see the fruits of this work at

I thought that it would be a good idea to create large laminated posters of this work to share with the School Board and Community at a recent Board meeting. Prior to the meeting, community members viewed and discussed both the Academic Olympic Awards as the overall and subgroup performance of the district in Math on State Tests.  One of the district administrators entered the room and immediately banished me to the outside using abusive language. District Administrators in my home district of San Jose do not practice the soft skills that they expect their students to learn and use.  I was not surprised.

English Learners and their families fall victim to the new infatuation with the soft whole child educational goals and processes.  In SJUSD, the administration places students in Dual Immersion programs where English Learners and White students can learn both English and Spanish together at the same time.  Unfortunately, during the first year of the program, teachers spend over 80% of their time speaking Spanish to the students.  This deference to EL students’ first language can result in 6-8 years of participation in the dual language English Language programs where their access to grade level academic content is severely restricted. Rather than promoting a more muscular and intensive system to immerse English Learners in English, SJUSD pursues a gentle but ultimately harmful approach to the intensive need for our English Learners to acquire English.

The over-protective orientation of school districts also affects Early Learning especially in the academic area of reading.  Only about one-half of third grade students in SJUSD meet or exceed reading standards as measured by the 2017 State Test.  The National Reading Panel in 2000 reported that there are five essential components that are required for early reading success and these include phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.  Many are now trying to discredit this report by saying that it is “old.”    Yet the finding of the National Reading Panel continues to hold up and have strong validity and value.

There are a variety of diagnostic reading assessments that school districts can and should use to continuously monitor student progress in the five key areas of early reading but in their approach to protecting young students at any cost, educators are reticent to use the assessments that would give them the diagnostic information that they could use to monitor and intervene to improve young students (grades K-3) in the understanding and performance in these key areas.  Additionally, it would be important for the community to see summary reports of student performance in the five key areas of early reading as a strong accountability measure.  But of course, our “Eyes on Print” educators are more likely to hide behind reading platitudes rather than address and use the science of Early Reading.

School governance plays a key role in the over-emphasis on social-emotional skills within our school districts and they contribute to deepening the fog of education.  School Boards must demand that the superintendents that they hire provide them with plans for systemic approaches to the development of rigorous academic achievement-oriented goals, high quality curriculum that includes the incorporation of social-emotional skills, research-based professional practices, and effective formative and summative assessments. School boards often do not make these expectations clear to their superintendents and then fail to adequately monitor and evaluate both student achievement or the implementation of professional practices. They succumb to special case presentations made by district administrators. These presentations inflate Scnool Board member egos rather than demand the ongoing presentation of systemic data about the effectiveness of the implementation of curriculum, professional practices, and assessments in conjunction with a careful review of systemic student outcomes.

The current zeitgeist of over-emphasis on soft social skills in K-12 Education is a strong contributor to the smothering fog of education.  We need a more muscular approach to a renewed focus on the academic achievement for all of our students. That focus in no way means that we should become drill sergeants of student education or become places where the joy of learning ends for our students. We can do both. We can ensure that our students are safe and that their social and emotional needs are taken care of by embedding social-emotional and whole child skills within the curriculum used to advance our students’ academic achievement.

There are many other factors that contribute to the fog of education besides over the top emphasis on social-emotional skills. I look forward to sharing these elements in future articles.


California School Dashboard.

Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL).

Community Consolidated School District 15.

Data Visualizations for Santa Clara County School Districts. School Improvement Big Picture Web site.

Flanagan, Nancy. Why We Need Hygge Classroom in America. Education Week. December, 2017.

National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

Program for International Student Assessment. (PISA)

Report of the National Reading Panel.

Sanders, Robert. Researchers find out why some stress is good for you. Berkeley News. 2013.

Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. Smarter Balanced Assessment


Dr. Bill Conrad

Student Voice vs Adult Excuses

Student Voices vs Adult Excuses

Dr. Bill Conrad

Commentary Submitted to Education Week

February 22nd, 2018

It is truly a breath of fresh air to hear the voices of the students who were impacted by the horrific massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Their words are clear, truthful, eloquent, and passionate!  They are a wonderful antidote to the toxic cloud of lies and mistrust that currently envelops our nation.  Our students will no longer accept adult excuses for intolerable situations.

Yet I am not surprised.  Over the past several years, I have had the privilege to engage students in focus group meetings in school districts across the country.  Students had the opportunity to share what they want from their schools as part of a strategic planning process.  The students expressed their ideas in clear and elegant ways. They want their teachers and peers to treat them with respect, listen to them, and encourage them to have voice within the classroom and school.  They want their teachers to know their content, teach them well, and prepare them for college and career.

The student ideas became the springboard for a diverse core planning team in generating overall strategic plans.  Often, though, the Core Planning Team would veer from the course and enter the fog of education where they would meander lost in the pursuit of the latest educational fads such as personalized learning, blended learning, student grit, and so on.  In one school district, in the suburbs of Seattle, the students had seen and heard enough of the educational blather and formed an ad hoc committee that generated a draft strategic plan that hewed closely to the students’ core principles and ideas. Their plan would have become a reality if it did not have to go through the meat grinder of the Teachers’ Union and a sycophant superintendent.

There continues to be a great gulf between what students, parents, and the community want from their schools and what the District and school administrators want.  Our educational hedgehog is to make sure that every student is on track for college and career when they graduate. We have the Common Core State Standards and the SBAC and PARCC Assessments to measure student success, but we continue to wander the desert establishing a myriad of goals not only for students but for parents as well!

The State Education Department in California developed a new color-coded Dashboard that attempts to keep track of student performance associated with a myriad of student goals.  Unfortunately, the state is moving away from reporting student Meets or Exceeds Standards for their Academic Indicator.  It is a gambit of arithmetic machinations that produce values that are misleading and mask the performance of subgroups of students.  The Indicator also does not include the academic performance of 11th graders.  It moves us backward in terms of accountability.

School districts in California, however, love the new system of pretty colors and they cherry pick the results to justify their Local Control Accountability Plans (LCAPs).  In response, I have attempted to produce a repository of data reports that more fully and accurately visualize 3 years of student performance in Math and ELA across subgroups and years for Silicon Valley school districts. I have even tried to inject a degree of joie de vivre into the effort by hosting an online Academic Olympics where District teams can compete.  You can find these results at

Needless to say, I have not gotten a great deal of support from District and County leaders who would prefer to hide behind the multi-colored skirt of Mother State. They also are not too keen on the idea of academic competition as it conflicts with the collaborative zeitgeist!  Some claim that I am just so 2000 and late – sharing Meets or Exceeds percentages is so yesterday. I should get with the new system of color-coding.  Actually, I feel so 5th century like a monk from the Dark Ages who attempts to preserve some of the wisdom of the ancients by producing data visualizations that are complete, open, transparent, and easy to interpret in hopes of a Renaissance of Accountability.

It is not appropriate for school districts, like my home district of San Jose Unified, to claim that they are a “green” or high achieving school district when fewer than half of their grade 3-8 students Meet or Exceed Standards and only about one-third of their 11th grade students are on track to be successful in college and career. The reality is that San Jose Unified School District is a mediocre to poor school District in terms of academic achievement. It is clear that their LCAP plan is not getting satisfactory results for their students yet.  Their LCAP is a nebulous bureaucratic document that fails to identify specific and aligned curriculum and professional practices that will produce improved student outcomes. There is no real detailed and aligned plan for implementation and there is no disciplined effort to monitor and report the degree and quality of implementation.

Until school districts get serious about the identification of student goals that align with the preparation of all students for success in college and career, the development of an accountability system with complete and comprehensive data visualization of both student outcomes and professional practices, and a detailed implementation plan that is explicit and monitored, we will continue to get poor student academic outcomes even as the results are masked by misleading State Accountability Dashboards.

We can and must do better for our children, families, and communities. We need to honor our student voices. The children have eloquently told us what they want.  We must stop making excuses and obfuscate reality. We must begin to act in disciplined, aligned, and accountable ways to ensure that all of our students are college and career ready when they graduate. No more adult excuses. The children are not going to wait much longer. They are empowered and they will move on with or without us.


The Fog of English Learner Education

The Fog of English Learner Education

Dr. Bill Conrad

621 Fuller Avenue

San Jose, CA



If school districts in Santa Clara County (SCC) really cared about teaching their English Learners (Els) English and keeping them on track for success in college and career, they would jettison the current system of perpetual language immersion and flawed instruction.  Data visualized for the recently completed Santa Clara County Academic Olympics demonstrate that the best SCC districts can do in preparing 11th grade English Learners for success in college English is about one quarter meeting or exceeding ELA standards in 2017, with most school districts in the single digits. San Jose Unified School District, for example, can only manage to get 6% of their 11th grade Els meeting or exceeding ELA standards in 2017 and only 3% in Mathematics!

Why do English Learners perform so poorly in both ELA and Math?  School districts in SCC employ a system of teaching English that prolongs the learning of English for EL students from 6 to 8 years using the soft racist rationale of preserving native language and culture.  “Dual Immersion” classes provide the opportunity for already entitled White students to learn Spanish while extending English Language learning by Els for up to 8 years.  While it is admirable for school districts to promote bilingualism, it is truly a second-tier purpose that mainly does a disservice to the majority minority group in San Jose – the Hispanics at the expense of quality language instruction for numerous other second language groups.

The primary purpose of schools is to prepare all students for success in college and career. For English Learners this means learning both social and academic English as quickly as possible in order to stay on track for success in English Language Arts and Mathematics.  This imperative should create a sense of urgency on the part of principals, District leaders and teachers rather than the current relaxed pursuit of all manner of “culturally sensitive” approaches to language learning within the suffocating fog of English Learner education.

The current zeitgeist for English Learner education is quite complicated and bureaucratic and built upon the notion that it will take at least 6 years for English Learners to gain enough English to be academically successful.  If your system includes “dual immersion” classes where students hear their native language 75% of the time, where other EL students engage in only 30 minutes of daily English Language Development classes, and where regular classroom teachers use a self-selected potpourri of instructional strategies for EL students, of course it will take up to 8 years for our EL students to learn English!

We need to think differently about the acquisition of English Language by ELs.  School districts in SCC should develop, implement, monitor, and evaluate a rigorous and intensive plan for ensuring that all EL students achieve English Language fluency within two years or less while participating in a 12-month intensive program with continuous access to grade level academic content.  SCC might look to Canada where they have adopted a powerful system to support language acquisition and academic achievement by their ELs. In this system, English Learners maintain close contact with grade level academic content while they intensively learn English. Canadian EL students acquire English at a rate twice as fast as in the United States. The new plan for SCC could also include the incorporation of successful technology solutions for learning English such as Rosetta Stone.  It is not impossible to imagine our EL students being able to acquire English in a short time.

There is good news in the data showing that students who have been Reclassified-Fluent English Proficient (RFEP) are successful in achieving grade level standards in Mathematics and English Language Arts.  Data from the Academic Olympics demonstrate that 11th grade RFEP students perform comparably or outperform the overall student population for ELA within SCC school districts.  There is hope!  However, only a small percentage of EL students are reclassified annually.  Only about 15% of EL students in Santa Clara County are reclassified annually which would ultimately meet the extended 6-8-year goal of reclassifying all EL students.

With lackadaisical District EL professional practices, a low reclassification rate is not surprising.  Complicating the issue, is the byzantine and overly bureaucratic process required for reclassifying EL students.  An EL student must be Houdini in order to extricate themselves from the English Language system to become Reclassified-Fluent English Proficient.  Students must meet high criteria for English Language proficiency including:

  • Achieve high levels of performance on 4 language proficiency criteria;
  • Perform academically at the same level as their peers;
  • Gain teacher approval; and
  • Gain parent approval

Based upon the prolonged system for supporting EL students in acquiring English as well as the convoluted process for reclassifying EL students, one would think that the system is set up to guarantee ongoing federal funding and the protection of jobs.  School district diversion in supporting English language acquisition by parents; failure to allocate federal and local resources in support of English Learner students; and lack of rigor in the implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of English Language acquisition programs contribute to poor English Language acquisition and academic achievement by our English Learners.

The families and community must continue to hold school and district professionals accountable for the planning, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of high quality and research-based programs designed to support our English Learners.  We cannot depend upon the opaque State accountability dashboard.  We need to see and monitor easy to understand data on both professional practices, EL student outcomes, and evaluation findings.  I have requested this information from the San Jose Unified School District.  I hope that you will step up as well.  You can learn more at the School Improvement Big Picture Web site.

Our English Learners and their families expect that our school districts ensure that our ELs learn English and stay on track for success in college and career without the need for remediation.  We do not have the luxury of giving ourselves 8 years to achieve this vision.  We must demand that our district leaders and teachers emerge from the fog of English Learner Education and begin to act with urgency in support of our English Learners and their families.


Let the Games Begin

Let the Games Begin
Dr. Bill Conrad
Article Submitted to San Jose Inside
February 5th, 2018

Gather round my fellow citizens to hear the amazing tale of your faithful servant in his quest so reminiscent of the ancient travails of the magnificent and great Greek King, Odysseus.  As you recall, the story begins with my many consultations with students, parents, and community members across this great nation.  We sought to answer the question: What do our children want from their schools?  The children eloquently communicated that the they wanted their teachers to listen to them, to respect them, and to give them some voice in their learning. They also wanted their teachers to be experts in their content knowledge and teaching skills in order to prepare them for their future college and career aspirations.

Many of you reported to me that you were baffled by the way in which school districts reported student performance on state tests that are designed to measure the degree to which our children are on track to be college and career ready.  The data presented to you within the LCAPs were minimal, cherry picked, and aligned with a state accountability gambit of spreading the scale score points around.  You also reported that the LCAPs themselves enveloped you in the fog of education with eclectic and bureaucratic solutions to address poorly defined student needs.

Thus, upon hearing your pleas for relief, I girded my loins and travelled to Mount Sacramento to do battle with the 32-headed Hydra of Santa Clara County School Districts’ data.  The battle that ensued was ferocious and engaged all of my computational and physical skills to overcome this voracious beast.  I even had to consult the oracle of Python in order to develop a computer code that would visualize the data for each school district in ways that were truly open, transparent, and interpretable.  The magnificent beauty and radiance of these data displays can be found at a web site called The SIP Big Picture (

Some of you have reported to me that you have visited the site and have been enthralled by the elegance of these one-page displays and how they have helped you truly understand and interpret not only the overall performance of your school district by grade and by year but also the performance of a plethora of subgroups over time.  I am overjoyed with your responses.  Yet some have reported to me that after viewing the displays for a short time, they have become afflicted by the pernicious MERO effect (My Eyes Role Over).  You beseech me: What are we to do?  Fear not as I have consulted the Muse Madonna who exhorts us all to have Fun!

In the spirit of fun, I have resurrected the idea of the Academic Olympics in conjunction with the upcoming Winter Olympics in Seoul this February.  I reorganized the data in such a way that you can now view Academic Olympic Events on my web site.  The first event that has been recently posted is the 11th grade Overall Math Performance on the State Math Tests.  Each event will have a compulsory component: the overall percentage of students who meet or exceed standards on the State Math Test in 2017. The second component is the free style event that will be the 3-year improvement in performance on the State Math Test.

Congratulations to the Fremont Union High School District who achieved a 77% Meets or Exceeds percentage for the 2017 State Math Test and won a Gold Medal for overall Math Performance. Congratulations also to the Gilroy Unified School District who won a Gold Medal for demonstrating an 8 percentage-point 3-year improvement on the State Math Test from 24% of 11th grade students Meeting or Exceeding Standards in 2015 to 32% Meeting or Exceeding Standards in 2017.

Please go to the web site ( where you can see if your school district received a medal for this event.  You can also view the rankings of all of the school districts in Santa Clara County in case your school district did not medal. Have some fun!  I will continue to add events daily in conjunction with the real Winter Olympics in Seoul so return to the sit often!

As you might imagine, the State, the County, and the School Districts are averse to the idea of a competition. The sources of power would prefer that you continue to remain within the fog of education feeding upon the miniscule morsels of selected data that they provide to you.  We must break out of these artificial bureaucratic chains of restraint and demand a full accounting of student performance. In fact, we should also demand a full accounting of the professional practices of teachers, principals, and district administrators from a system view and not just a special case view.

Being of advanced age, I could use some support in my ongoing quest to visualize data to meet your voracious needs.  Please use the comments section on the web site to let me know if I should pursue the many headed Charter school hydra for Santa Clara County or if I should pursue student performance in English Language Arts.  I am also available to support you in representing the student results through the Academic Olympics or the actual Data Visualizations to your parent groups or even to your School Board.  Also, please let me know if you could spare a few drachmas to help me continue my quest as I occasionally need the sustenance from a Gyro at Nick’s Greek Restaurant in San Jose to pursue the Quest.

In conclusion, let us not become lost in the darkness of poorly conceived accountability, but let us instead light our Olympic torches and together ignite the Olympic Flame of openness and transparency to the success of all of our students in achieving their college and career dreams.



Fake Accountability

Fake Accountability
Dr. Bill Conrad
January 9th, 2018

It is truly surreal to see the Federal Department of Education under the mendacious Trump administration call out the California State Board of Education for significant and accurate flaws in its State’s Accountability Plan for K-12 schools.   The primary responsibility of our school districts and schools is to ensure that all students are academically prepared for college and career when they graduate from the system.  The new State Accountability Dashboard only contributes to the fog of education.

The state adopted rigorous Common Core State Standards in ELA and Math that identify what students should know and be able to do at grades 3-8 and 11 to be on track for college and career by the end of 12th grade.  The state also participated in the development and implementation of a high-quality assessment called the Smarter Balanced Assessment (SBA) to gauge whether or not students meet or exceed these standards.  The state crafted an academic indicator for its Accountability Dashboard that is more about protecting the adults in the education system than it about clearly holding school districts and schools accountable for student academic performance.

Rather than link school and district accountability to the percentage of student overall and subgroup performance at these bands, the state devised a system that obfuscates actual student performance. The state academic indicator gambit works like this.  Students achieve scale score points on the ELA and Math state tests. The scale score is assigned a proficiency level based on where it falls within four proficiency bands.  Students are expected to score at the Meets or Exceeds proficiency bands.   The system subtracts individual student scale scores from the low-end scale score in the Meets Standards proficiency band.  These subtracted values are then added and divided by the number of scores to produce an Accountability value.  A color and ranking is then assigned to the derived value.

For ease of explanation, let’s say that the range for Meets Standards on the 5th grade Math test is between 100 and 150 Scale score points.  Imagine that Student A scores 90 points (Below Proficiency); Student B scores 110 points; and Student C scores 115 points.  The state system would then subtract each student score from the low value of 100 scale score points) for the Meets Standards proficiency level resulting in derived values of -10, +10, and +15.  The system then adds these values and divides by 3 resulting in a derived value of +5.  This +5 value would receive a green color or highly proficient on the state accountability system.

This system masks the performance of low performing students by redistributing “excess” scale score points of high performing students.  Unfortunately, Students B and C will probably not be able to accompany Student A to college to provide their excess test scoring capacities.  Additionally, the state does not include the 11th graders in this system presumably because there are not enough scale scores to spread around!  Rather than an innovation as David Plank suggests in the article, the state system is a subterfuge designed to protect the adults in the education system rather than the students, parents, and community.

In their Local School Accountability (LCAP) report, San Jose Unified School District (SJUSD)reports that overall academic progress as Green or High.  I wrote a Python script that comprehensively and clearly visualizes San Jose Unified School District performance on the state Math test by grade and by year as well as by year and by grade.  Please take a look at this report.  As you can easily see from the overall performance, fewer than ½ of all students meet or exceed Math standards and slightly more than 1/3 of eleventh graders meet or exceed Math standards.  The state allows SJUD the ability to claim a High Academic Performance. For Students with Disabilities, SJUSD reports an orange color (Medium) with no values.  But my table shows a continuous drop in the Math performance of Students with Disabilities across grades with only 5% of 11th grade Students with Disabilities Meeting or Exceeding Standards in 2016-17, an increase of 1 percentage point from the previous year.

Obviously, there is a big disconnect between the color-coded state academic indicator and actual student performance on the state Math Test.  The State Academic Dashboard is truly Fake Accountability and as our mendacious president might say: So, Sad!  There are real consequences as well.  The community thinks that student academic performance is satisfactory when it really is not!  The result of course is that almost 40% of California students enrolling into the California State College system require remediation.  The parents and students want and expect that their schools and school districts prepare all students for college and career. Parents and students have filed a lawsuit against the state to seek redress to their very legitimate grievance.  Yet the state continues to contribute to the fog of education by building an accountability system that is contrived to make the adults look good at all costs.

Enough is enough.  If you would like to see comprehensive pictures of how your school district performs in Math on the state test, please visit  Share these data visualizations with your District and School leaders.  Ask your leaders to set up posters of these one-page data visualizations within the District and schools.  Use the data visualizations to advocate for the improvement in curriculum, professional practices, and assessments. Please send me a comment on my web site if you want me to build a visualization tor your school or district.  Let’s get active. Let’s truly hold our educational leaders accountable with real data.

Strength in Numbers

Article submitted to San Jose Inside

The Strength in Numbers motto adopted by the Golden State Warriors Basketball team beautifully represents the organization at multiple levels.  The most obvious manifestation of this motto can be found immediately upon opening their App or visiting their Web site where they proudly post their current Win/Loss record along with an abundance of other team statistics.  Wouldn’t it be great if our school districts, schools, and charters in Santa Clara County proudly pronounced their own Strength in Numbers by posting their own comprehensive “Win/Loss” records as evidenced by the percentage of their students who meet or exceed Standards on the State Math and ELA tests?

Sadly, when we visit our School District, County, or State web sites, we often do not see how the children are performing academically.  I have had the opportunity to work with school districts across the country for over 45 years.  Most recently, I have engaged in conducting surveys and focus group meetings with students to find out what is important to them as we initiate District Strategic Planning processes in school districts in Washington State and the State of New York.  For the most part students want their teachers to treat them well and to respect them.  Most importantly, though, they want their teachers to prepare them for their future college and career goals. As we subsequently engage with parents and community members, we find great concordance with the student aspirations.

It is my belief that students, parents, community members, teachers, and administrators should be able to access and interpret comprehensive and complete data visualizations of student academic performance. The interpretation of these data visualizations should lead to the development of student goals for the district and schools that will ultimately support most students in achieving their dreams of being successful in college and career.  To this end, I have begun to build data visualizations of student academic performance for English Language Arts and Mathematics at the following Web site:  This will be a Herculean task but hopefully not a Sisyphean one! Please visit the site, get some data, and cheer me on!

At this site, you will find a Math Data visualization for San Jose Unified School District (SJUSD) among others.  You will find two heat mapped tables for student performance.  The first table provides a comprehensive view of student performance on the State Math test for 3 years. The table is organized by grade and by year.  The color continuum goes from red (low performance) to green (high performance).  The State Math Test is aligned with the Common Core State Standards in Math which identify what students should know and be able to do in Math in order to be on track for college and career.  Viewing the table, you can begin to answer the following fundamental questions:

  • Is there overall improvement in grade-level student performance over time?
  • Is there subgroup improvement in grade level student performance over time?

The colored heat maps make it easy to see patterns and to develop findings for these key questions.  Overall, student performance is low (yellow) with most grades consistently scoring under 50% meeting or exceeding Math standards.  There has been some modest improvement at each grade level over 3 years. (with the exception of 11th grade) The Asian subgroup demonstrates consistent high (green) performance over time while the English Learner subgroup demonstrates low (red) performance over time.

The table on the second page shows student performance by year by grade level.  Viewing this table, you can begin to answer the following questions.

  • Is there overall grade-level improvement in student performance within a given year?
  • Is there subgroup grade level improvement in student performance within a given year?

Within any year, there is no improvement in Math performance as you go from 3rd grade to 11th grade in any given year. In fact, there is a drop in performance every year between student Math performance in 3rd grade compared with student Math performance in 11th grade. (Yellow to Red). The Asian subgroup demonstrates consistently high performance (green) across grade levels within any of the three years while Students with Disabilities demonstrate consistently low (red) performance across grade levels within a given year.

You can see that using the colored heat maps. it is easy to discover patterns and findings of student performance.  Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to access data visualizations of this kind for your school district and school?  Regrettably, neither the County nor the State offer any real help in producing easy to interpret data visualizations.  In fact, the State has been complicit in obfuscating student performance by developing an Academic Indicator Dashboard that contributes to the fog of education.

The state system works like this. If the low end of the scale score band for Level 3 (Meeting Standards) is say 100 scale score points and student A scores 90 scale score points on the Math State Test for their grade level, and student B scores 110 scale score points, and student C scores 115 scale score points, the system subtracts each student scale score from 100 arriving at derived values of -10, +10, and +15. Tallying these values gives you +15 and then dividing by 3 students gives you +5. This value is slightly positive but would receive a green color or a HIGH performance on the Academic Indicator.

This is a flawed process because it is merely a redistribution of “excess” scale score points and does not give you a true reflection of actual student performance. It masks the fact that Student A is not scoring within the proficient band by redistributing scale score points from students B and C to student A. Unfortunately, students B and C will probably not be able to follow Student A to college to help remediate issues he may be having with college level math!  This would be like the NBA allowing teams to take excess points from their Wins and then distributing them to their losing scores in order to bolster their Win/Loss records!

Interestingly, the state does not include 11th grade students in this process and builds a second indicator for 11th graders called College and Career. Could it be that there is not enough extra scale score points to spread around for 11lth graders?

SJUSD reported the positive picture that they were a green school district for the state academic performance indicator on their state mandated Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP).  From the previous data visualizations and interpretations, you can see that SJUSD is not yet a highly proficient school district as it relates to student Math performance.

So rather than helping school districts visualize a comprehensive, open, and transparent performance on state tests as an academic accountability indicator, the state of California obfuscates performance using a “Spreading the Scale Score Points” gambit. Of course, the school districts and schools love this system because of its simplicity and ability to mask actual poor performance. The state loves it because it artificially supports their LCAP system as “getting” student results. The adults are saved with this system while the students, parents, and community wait for a true comprehensive picture of student performance

If you are interested in viewing a comprehensive and easily interpretable data visualization of your school or district’s student academic performance in Math, please visit my web site at If you do not see your school or district data visualization, please send me a note via the web site and I will hasten the development of your report.

We need to support our school districts in becoming more like sports team such as the amazing Golden State Warriors who have well-defined goals, metrics to gauge success, and a theory of action to achieve those results.  Let’s help our school districts follow a similar path to success! A little competition is a good idea!

I look forward to the opportunity to continue to share my over 45 years of insights about teaching and learning in the future for San Jose Inside.