Districts makes strides in bettering student outcomes through continuous improvement

Two California school districts in the process of shifting district structures, policies and culture are beginning to see a measurable effect on student outcomes, according to a recent report from the Policy Analysis for California Education.

Led by California Education Partners (referred to in the report as Ed Partners), the Azusa and Dinuba Unified School Districts have collaborated for multiple years to refine their continuous improvement approach and build capacity for sustained improvement. Ed Partners is a nonprofit education reform organization that works to help local educational agencies develop partnerships to boost innovation, share best practices and build internal capacity.

Dinuba first partnered with Ed Partners in 2013 with a focus on improving math outcomes, and Azusa began in 2016 with a focus on academic language development in all subjects for Latino students. Each district has expanded its work with Ed Partners to new learning networks, including those focused on student readiness for the transition from eighth to ninth grade, college and career readiness and preK-3 curriculum coherence. Both districts have committed to reducing the D/F rate for students — eighth graders in Dinuba and ninth graders in Azusa.

“Although neither district has realized its improvement goals, student academic outcomes in the districts have begun trending in a positive direction. The improvement teams have started to spread proven practices with the support of system leaders throughout each district,” the report states. “[Policy Analysis for California Education]’s data show that staff in each district — including those who have never worked directly with Ed Partners — have begun to internalize continuous improvement structures and processes and are now scaling these processes to address other problems of practice, even those beyond instruction.”

Researchers identified four features of reform that are consistently related to substantive and long-lasting instructional improvement:

  • Depth: Consequential reforms shift educational system beliefs, norms and pedagogy
  • Sustainability: Adopted reforms are only significant if they persist over time
  • Spread: Principles central to the reforms are taken up by increasing numbers of people
    across a system and are embedded in formal policies and organizational culture
  • Ownership: Reforms are often required and/or supported by external mandates or
    organizations, but districts, schools and teachers must own the reforms for them
    to stick

Both districts have successfully been leveraging all four, according to the report.

Where students are seeing improvements

While both districts had relatively low student outcomes relative to their counties and the state
when they began working with Ed Partners, each has improved student outcomes at a faster rate than
the county and state.

Dinuba USD students’ overall passing rate on the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress math exams increased by 16 points over five years compared with increases of eight points at the county level and seven points at the state level, closing the gap with the state by 60 percent. The district now has a higher passing rate than the county and has cut the gap with the state in half.

Similarly, Azusa USD has seen a 12-point increase in CAASPP math scores compared to increases of eight points and seven points at the county and state levels, respectively, closing the gap with the state by one third. Researchers cited comparable trends in English language arts scores among Latino students, who make up most English learners in the two districts. District staff referenced early signs of positive ELA growth according to multiple interim district measures, including MAP Growth, Achieve3000 and STAR Reading.

“The Azusa Unified and Dinuba Unified School Districts offer lessons for continuous improvement that support instructional shifts using teams and structures to promote teacher leadership and encourage cross-role and cross-site collaboration,” researchers concluded. “Highlighting how districts are able to build capacity for improvement and can inform what supports and resources may be necessary to help others progress similarly across California.”