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January 29, 2014

Stanford's Gardner Center partners with California schools on new reform plan

Researchers at the Gardner Center will help design a system for eight large urban school districts that examines social and emotional learning, as well as academic performance.

By Brooke Donald

School culture, student resilience and motivation are among measures researchers from Stanford's John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities will investigate in large California school districts. (Photo: Shutterstock/Aaron Belford)

Stanford's John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities is helping eight of California's largest school districts to adopt new measures of success – beyond standardized test scores – to improve student learning and close achievement gaps.

The work with the districts comes after each was granted an unprecedented waiver from certain rules in the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). It makes the Gardner Center the data and analysis hub for one of the most closely watched school reform efforts in the country.

"The new accountability system that the districts are proposing is hugely important and really path-breaking," said Amy Gerstein, the executive director of the Gardner Center. "It demonstrates a way to address severe inequalities for today's youth in opportunities and achievement. It's an incredible step forward."

The plan, called the School Quality Improvement System, breaks from the traditional model of using standardized tests as the primary factor for evaluating student performance. Instead, it incorporates a multifaceted approach, one that examines students' social and emotional behavior, school climate and academic standards.

1 million children

Researchers at the Gardner Center, which is part of the Stanford Graduate School of Education, will assist in the design and execution of the new accountability system, collecting and analyzing data from the districts, which represent more than a million children – a larger enrollment than most states.

"This is completely new territory," said Professor Prudence Carter, the faculty director of the Gardner Center. "No one else is working on an accountability system like this with a population of this size."

The system was conceived by the California Office to Reform Education (CORE), the umbrella organization under which the districts operate. CORE hired the Gardner Center for an initial one-year contract.

What sets apart the CORE plan is its attention to broad measures of achievement and its commitment to equity, closing gaps in achievement and serving students not previously counted in success ratings. That group includes many students who are minorities, English language learners and in special education.

"The districts' approved plan includes key accountability components that when implemented will surpass the rigor of the current NCLB system," U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in an August press release announcing the waiver. "The significance of their willingness to step up, and for the first time, hold themselves accountable for literally tens of thousands of children who were invisible under NCLB cannot be overstated."

With CORE, the Gardner Center will design tools to measure factors such as mindset, self-management and social awareness skills.

Parent, student and teacher surveys will be used to gauge campus climate and environment, and researchers will also look at absenteeism, graduation and expulsion rates to get a better picture of what's happening at a school.

Standardized tests will continue to be used to measure academic proficiency and growth over time.

Predicting success

"Do children feel included, welcome and safe? Are they supported, interested? Do they go to class? These are the kinds of questions we'll be looking for answers to in the data," said Jorge Ruiz de Velasco, associate director of the Gardner Center and an expert in state education policy and accountability systems.

These kinds of questions, said Ruiz de Velasco, also are strong predictors of success. Research has shown that kids with the most persistence, self-control and resilience often get the best grades and do better in the long run.

"There's a promise in working with the Gardner Center that we're going to learn a lot about what fuels achievement," said Rick Miller, the executive director of CORE.

The Gardner Center has had similar partnerships with schools in Redwood City, Garden Grove, San Francisco and Oakland, Calif.  It also was tapped for another project, with the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, to help improve early warning systems that focus on college readiness in several districts nationwide.

But this most recent work with CORE is notable for its size and also how it came to be.

The districts – Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, Fresno, Long Beach, Oakland, Sanger and Santa Ana – are the first to be awarded NCLB waivers on their own. Until now, flexibility under the law was only given to states as a whole.

This departure from the norm by Duncan has stirred criticism from those worried about districts bypassing state leadership and policies to work directly with the federal government.

But the unusual arrangement also has spawned a lot of interest, and raised the stakes for those involved.

"This is an extraordinary opportunity for the Gardner Center to dive into an immense amount of data on a very diverse population of students to learn what works and what changes need to be made to improve schooling and reduce disparities," said Carter, who researches social inequality.

The districts plan to share the lessons gleaned from the Gardner Center among themselves to learn best practices, and they intend to pair low performing schools with higher performing ones as mentors to help lift performance overall.

"To a certain extent, we can let the data – and the information we're learning from it – drive the direction we take in coming up with better practices," Miller said.

Ruiz de Velasco describes the performance evaluation as a "learning system."

"We don't just want to take data from the schools, but we want to give them something back," he said. "We're not just helping to design and test an accountability system, but we're helping implement a data-driven, professional learning system, one that will let them figure out what actions they can take to be better."

Brooke Donald is communications manager at the Graduate School of Education.

For more Stanford experts on education and other topics, visit Stanford Experts



Brooke Donald, Communications Manager, Graduate School of Education: (650) 721-1402,

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965,


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