What ‘positive outliers’ do better

September 30, 2019
The Learning Policy Institute has identified practices that contribute to success in seven California schools that have been dubbed “positive outliers.” The latest report in LPI’s “Positive Outliers” series expands upon research released earlier this year that examined California school district performance data for African American, Hispanic and white students and then compared how these subgroups would be predicted to perform based on the district’s socioeconomic status. Those districts whose student subgroups outperformed the odds were labeled as positive outliers. While more than 100 districts were identified as positive outliers, LPI took a closer look at seven of them in this case study. They are:
  • Chula Vista Elementary School District
  • Clovis Unified School District
  • Gridley Unified School District
  • Hawthorne School District
  • Long Beach Unified School District
  • San Diego Unified School District
  • Sanger Unified School District
Report authors note that these schools and many others are rising to the challenge of Common Core State Standards, which emphasize critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration and communication — “deeper learning” skills that are essential for success in the 21st century. 
LPI authors identified nine lessons learned from these positive outlier districts, which are outlined here with some of the best practices that are described in the report. 1. Prioritize learning for every child  LPI: “In positive outlier districts, leaders set a clear vision for teaching and learning, which they communicated throughout the district. Equity was a central part of this vision.” Practice: In Clovis, their core values are based on the philosophy of the district’s first superintendent, Floyd “Doc” Buchanan, and contain “Doc-isms” such as “a fair break for every kid” and “we believe in people, not programs.” District personnel interviewed said vision statements were often repeated and actively used in decision-making. 2. Build relationships and empower staff  LPI: “District leaders supported instruction and intentionally built trusting relationships with teachers. Teamwork and collaboration were elevated as shared values and were central to the way districts approached continuous improvement.” Practice: In Hawthorne, all principals were required to spend each Thursday morning from 9-11 a.m. visiting classrooms. The superintendent called this “sacred time” during which principals would not be interrupted by the district office. Positive outlier districts noted that classroom observation had many benefits, including building common understandings between administrators and teachers. 3. Value and support stability and continuity  LPI: “Districts had relatively low rates of turnover in leadership and teachers. This stability contributed to the clarity of the vision and to the long-term coherence of programs.” Practice: In Sanger, a teacher pipeline cultivates leaders from within the district who are already knowledgeable in the district’s needs. Teachers have frequent opportunities for professional learning and mentorship, and could progress from serving as a professional learning community lead all the way to higher levels, such as district administrator. 4. Attract, develop, and retain well-prepared teachers/leaders  LPI: “Although many are high-poverty districts, the positive outliers generally avoided the worst of California’s severe teacher shortages. These districts proactively created strong pipelines for educator hiring, often through partnerships with universities.” Practice: In Long Beach, teacher character and disposition were assessed in the hiring process, with a goal to hire only teachers who believe students from all backgrounds could be successful. Districts also partnered with teacher preparation programs at their closest university and encouraged their graduates to come back to the district as teachers.  5. Build collective efficacy through shared instructional learning  LPI: “Positive outlier districts used collaborative professional learning as a key to improvement, building upon existing structures such as professional learning communities and supporting teacher and administrator learning and problem-solving.” Practice: In 2005, Sanger chose professional learning communities as its primary strategy for improving student achievement. It invested in teacher supports and sent teachers and principals to professional learning institutes in the belief that “repeated exposure to ideas and refreshment of knowledge” was essential to embed these concepts. 6. Take a developmental approach to instructional change  LPI: “Positive outlier districts took a phased approach to the implementation of the new standards, focusing first on providing time for teachers to unpack the standards and understand their expectations and then on engaging in professional learning to support instructional shifts.” Practice: Hawthorne uses a teacher-driven approach to instructional changes that is “careful and purposeful” in developing buy-in with staff. As an early adopter of CCSS, Hawthorne allowed time for teachers to study prior to implementation and engaged an external organization to facilitate monthly professional learning sessions to study the new standards.  7. Support collaborative, inquiry-based instruction and assessment focused on deep learning  LPI: “Positive outlier districts supported teachers as they made standards-aligned instructional shifts that provided students with greater opportunities to engage in inquiry and collaborative learning in order to make meaning of their learning.” Practice: In Gridley, one educator interviewed for the LPI report described how his science colleagues literally ripped up an old textbook in order to reorganize it according to new standards. Teachers in Gridley were also encouraged to change the physical environment and their instruction methods to encourage greater student collaboration, using flexible seating and adaptive furniture to encourage students to move and change groups as they work. 8. Use data and evidence strategically to inform teaching and learning  LPI: “Positive outlier districts used data and evidence to improve practice, not to punish teachers or students. Educators turned to multiple sources of data and evidence to inform teaching and learning, identify students in need of supports, and evaluate the programs and interventions.” Practice: For students who need early literacy support in Clovis, there is an “intervention wall,” located in a private staff area, with plastic pockets containing cards with students’ names and their scores labeled “Below Basic,” “Basic,” “Proficient,” and “Advanced.” The wall allows teachers to see exactly which students need support, and collaborate with their peers on strategies that can move every child forward. 9. Activate instructional supports for students based on their needs LPI: “All positive outlier districts identified students for additional supports and targeted interventions, such as Reading Recovery and English Language Development instruction, to support their success. Additional supports for student learning ... were increasingly framed in terms of multi-tiered systems of support and encompassed both academic and social and emotional learning.” Practice: In San Diego, the district tracks at-risk students with real-time data on attendance, behavior and grades, with color-coded scores that can alert district and site personnel to students who are off track so they can receive additional supports. Read the full report.
Linda Darling-Hammond, one of the authors of LPI’s latest report.
Linda Darling-Hammond, one of the authors of LPI’s latest report on “Positive Outliers,” speaks during an event Sept. 10 in Sacramento.

LPI looks at practices in high performing districts

Vernon Billy, CEO of California School Boards Association, moderates a panel discussion on “State Policy to Build District Capacity” with Matt Navo (WestED), Tom Armelino (California Collaborative for Educational Excellence), Mary Vixie Sandy (California Commission on Teacher Credentialing), Wes Smith (ACSA) and David Goldberg (California Teachers Association) on Sept. 10 during an event in Sacramento marking the release of LPI’s case study on California’s “Positive Outliers.”

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