In the seven months since Sacramento City Unified School District won unprecedented federal permission to use new methods at low-performing schools, the urban district has begun ranking campuses and sending educators to other schools to coach their colleagues.
These were among the early steps in plans to improve performance among 43,175 students, many of whom live in poverty and are learning English along with their everyday studies.
Even as the district rolls out the plan, the teachers union – which never signed on – is fighting to stop it. The Sacramento City Teachers Association, in particular, objects to a promise that Sacramento City Unified and seven other districts made to link student test scores to teacher evaluations.
“We have been really, really clear in California ever since (federal grant competition) Race to the Top that we did not believe using student test scores to evaluate teachers was a good idea,” said Dean Vogel, president of the California Teachers Association, which has been providing support to the SCTA.
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Sacramento City Unified is part of a consortium that represents more than 1 million students in school districts in Fresno, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Oakland, San Francisco, Sanger and Santa Ana.
The group, California Office to Reform Education, or CORE, made national headlines last year when the U.S. Department of Education granted it district-level waivers from No Child Left Behind, a broad federal law that sets performance requirements for schools. The decision was a departure from the normal practice of only granting states such flexibility.
No Child Left Behind expects all students to test at a “proficient” level on state tests by this school year, a bar so high that 42 states and the District of Columbia, in addition to the CORE districts, have obtained waivers from the law on the promise that they will find alternate ways to improve education.
CORE plans to apply for a second-year waiver by May 1, said Rick Miller, the group’s executive director.
California’s bid for a waiver from No Child Left Behind was rejected in late 2012 after it omitted a promise to evaluate teachers, a priority for the Obama administration.
The Sacramento City Teachers Association met this month with labor and community activists to discuss objections to the CORE approach. Besides its concern about linking teacher evaluations to student test scores, the teachers union criticized spending scarce district funds on travel for teachers to pair with other instructors within their own district or with consortium schools elsewhere in the state.
Opponents also complained that the eight superintendents acted with scant public discussion or formal trustee votes that normally accompany major decisions. Union leaders began circulating a petition calling for trustees to withdraw Sacramento’s waiver from federal rules.
District board President Patrick Kennedy said Sacramento trustees were kept informed and gave their assent for the waiver, though they never voted last year. But he said the district needs to do more to engage the public.
“I think some of that (public involvement) criticism is probably warranted,” Kennedy said, noting that board members plan to convene a community meeting in April on the CORE waiver.
“At that time we will get the facts from all sides,” Kennedy said. “It will give us an opportunity to look at this without all the political noise, and determine whether the programs within (the waiver) are in the best interests of teachers and students.”
So what happened in Sacramento in the first year of the waiver?
The district gained flexibility in spending about $4 million in federal dollars meant to aid low-income students under No Child Left Behind. Because federal rules gave parents control over how they wanted to supplement their children’s education, much of the money previously went to for-profit tutoring companies. Critics said the companies have had too little oversight and taught subjects often not aligned with students’ regular curricula.
Sara Noguchi, interim superintendent at Sacramento City Unified, said the district can now “spend that money the way we see fit, so long as it’s tied to intervention for students” who need help in specific subject areas such as math.
Under No Child Left Behind, schools that failed to show adequate yearly academic progress for five years or more were relegated to Program Improvement status, facing the threat of sanctions such as restructuring, staff changes or closure. Last year, 64 out of 75 campuses in the Sacramento district were in Program Improvement, including 28 that had reached or exceeded the five-year mark.
In one example of restructuring under NCLB, former Sacramento City Unified superintendent Jonathan Raymond unveiled his “priority schools” program in 2010 to drastically overhaul seven struggling campuses. The district inserted new principals, who were given authority to remove teachers.
The CORE waiver does away with Program Improvement but replaces it with another set of sanctions for schools that don’t improve.
The Sacramento district this year started ranking campuses in three categories based on state test scores: reward schools (top performers), focus (midperformers) or priority (lowest performers). It also began pairing teachers with others in the district or in the CORE consortium to share strategies and experiences.
The document outlines steps to prevent lowest-performing schools from languishing, starting in Year 1 by allowing a principal greater flexibility in staff and scheduling. After four years, those campuses can face more intensive intervention, up to and including conversion to a charter school or closure.
The CORE plan views school pairing as key to improve schools, according to the federal waiver application. The aim is to have teachers and principals develop ongoing coaching relationships through monthly meetings and regular contacts.
This year, Oak Ridge Elementary in Oak Park, a formerly overhauled campus, is paired with Edward Kemble Elementary in south Sacramento. At both schools, nearly all students qualify as low-income and more than 40 percent are English learners.
In an example of a cross-district pairing, Sacramento’s top-performing Fern Bacon Middle School is paired with Elmhurst Community Prep in Oakland.
Sacramento City Unified has done virtually no work on the controversial task of linking student test scores to teacher and principal evaluations.
Noguchi said she hopes the district and the union can dispel tension and “get past the mistrust.”
“Nothing can usurp the collective bargaining agreement,” she said. “If we are not in agreement, it’s pointless.”
The teachers union remains frustrated over how the district filed its waiver application last year.
At its community session earlier this month, union leaders lambasted the Sacramento district for depicting in the application “several meetings with teacher representatives,” including a May 1 meeting in which teachers were said to have asked questions about the teacher evaluation process. When pressed, the district in February acknowledged that no May 1 meeting had occurred. Rather, that exchange was part of written correspondence that the district had with the teachers union president.
SCTA complained to the federal Department of Education about the lapse and, earlier this month, Assistant Education Secretary Deborah Delisle said in a letter that her staff would investigate and “take what we learn ... under consideration” should the CORE group apply for a waiver extension.
District officials called the May 1 meeting reference a mistake in a long, 423-page, application. Further, they said, union leaders rejected an opportunity to meet with the CORE group last spring about the waiver.
CTA’s Vogel was unapologetic about bypassing the meeting.
“Word was out that the teachers had never been consulted. They were all invited to a meeting so they could hear the CORE team explain the waiver to them,” he said. “They said, ‘No thank you.’ ”