In the past few years, there have been some big changes for school districts, and the San Diego County Office of Education (SDCOE) has been there as a partner each step of the way.
First the state passed the Local Control Funding Formula, a law that fundamentally changed the way districts get funding and implemented accountability measures.
Then, the state introduced Local Control and Accountability Plans (LCAPs) for districts to complete. These LCAPs include students, parents, staff, and community members, and lay out the district's plan to increase student performance and budget their funding.
The theme with these two big pieces is the local aspect. No longer does the state dictate funding. No longer are districts forced to follow a statewide plan that doesn't consider their needs at the local level.
Now, to help districts, the state developed the California School Dashboard. This public, online tool reports the performance and improvements of districts and schools by student groups across a range of measures, such as chronic absenteeism, graduation, English and math assessments, and college and career readiness.
The big shift with the evolution of this dashboard is that schools are no longer rated with a single number or a grade. There is now a layered look at how a school or district is doing in the areas that are critically important to a student's success in education and in life.
So, we've got the LCAP that determines the spending for our unique needs, and there's now a dashboard that shows how schools and districts are improving. But what about the districts that are struggling to meet the needs of certain student groups? This is where the County Office of Education comes in with something called differentiated assistance.
Differentiated assistance is a type of support that follows the same values as the other recent measures implemented by the state: It is local and designed to fit each district's unique needs.
It is available to eligible districts that meet certain criteria.
This is the first year of differentiated assistance, but directors, coaches, and coordinators in SDCOE's Learning and Leadership Services (LLS) have been honing their expertise in improvement science for several years in order to support districts.
The LLS team was instrumental in helping the state and California County Superintendents Educational Services Association create a framework for consistent support from county offices of education to districts eligible for differentiated assistance. LLS Assistant Superintendent Jean Madden-Cazares led an accountability subcommittee that was the main contributor to the Differentiated Assistance Protocols for Local Educational Agencies Facilitation Guide.
This year, LLS created a differentiated assistance series that mixes whole and small group work for the county's 10 eligible districts. Through the series, district leaders look at the strengths and weaknesses in their data, then conducted interviews to see what in their system could be contributing to their students' low performance.
For example, if the group of students with disabilities in a district had a high suspension rate, differentiated assistance has the district look at its suspension practices and stakeholders' experiences. In the past, a district with a high suspension rate might have looked only at the perceived problem, such as a few disruptive students or an inexperienced teacher.
"Are there consistent processes or practices across school sites with suspension? Have all the staff members been trained in those protocols? When do the suspensions occur? Is it the same reason for every student? We try to figure out what in the system is contributing to the issue. It could be because students are inappropriately placed or not being provided rigorous instruction and teachers need more support," explained Madden-Cazares.
"This is district by district, so each can find where there might be specific areas of improvement that can increase outcomes for all students."
Improvement through differentiated assistance is not a fast process or a quick fix, and that's something new and sometimes difficult to understand.
"The critical piece is helping everyone understand that this is going to take time. But districts are beginning to target where they need improvement and figuring out how to make it happen for their students," Madden-Cazares said.
The districts that went through differentiated assistance with the County Office receive a letter from our superintendent describing their work and next steps. The district's work can be woven into their updated LCAP. And throughout this new process, SDCOE will continue to be there to help as a partner to districts focused on improvement for all students.