Grade Expectations


By Sean Brenner

Published Apr 1, 2008 8:00 AM

UCLA's School Management Program has helped hundreds of K-12 schools across the country improve their performance. And it has done it using techniques that, at first blush, don't appear to have a spitball's chance of success — like getting teachers to talk to each other.

"I thought they were dead wrong."

That's what Wellford "Buzz" Wilms, professor in UCLA's Graduate School of Education & Information Studies (GSE&IS), figured when he learned about the School Management Program's planned strategy for turning around troubled Baldwin Park High School in Southern California.

Before long, Wilms had to rethink his prognosis. "It wasn't a failure at all. It was a remarkable success," he says. "They made me eat a little crow."

Housed inside GSE&IS, the School Management Program (SMP) provides K-12 teachers and administrators with techniques for improving their schools. Since its creation in 1992, the nonprofit initiative has contracted with more than 800 schools, primarily in California but also in New England and New York.

"SMP promotes equity and access to excellent education for all portions of our society, so it fits squarely with GSE&IS's mission," says Aimée Dorr, the school's dean. "It's doing important work in a very important area, and in such a way that SMP is liked, valued and respected, which is the best possible scenario."

A student completes a group sentence in an exercise Baldwin Park staff were taught by SMP.

The initiative offers its clients a wealth of real-world expertise, thanks to a staff composed mostly of former teachers and administrators. Its methods include training teachers to conduct more productive "walk-throughs" of other classrooms in their schools and coaching them on how to share best practices with each other. Might not sound revolutionary, but for 15 years SMP's results have spoken for themselves.

Bettering Baldwin

One of the most dramatic cases was at Baldwin Park, which was plagued with classroom discipline problems and low morale among students and teachers. By the time it hired SMP in 2003, the school's performance on the California Academic Performance Index (API) was so poor that it was in danger of sanctions by the state's Department of Education.

Wilms thought Baldwin Park needed a top-to-bottom overhaul. "My idea was that if you wanted to change an organization, you have to get control of the core process," he says. "What I would have done was gather the teachers together with the principal, and maybe some students, and redesign the courses from beginning to end."

Dan Chernow Ed.D. '97, SMP's executive director, told Wilms that to help Baldwin Park, SMP would — as it had for hundreds of schools before — focus on showing teachers and administrators how to conduct more effective meetings. Wilms remembers thinking that the idea was "absurd," but he accepted Chernow's offer to follow the school's progress.

Before working with SMP, Baldwin Park registered an API score of 485, on a 1,000-point scale. Under a mandate from the state, the school needed to improve by 16 points.

In the first year of SMP's contract, Baldwin Park hit that goal — and then some: The school increased its API score by 66 points, and kept the momentum going by increasing the score 148 points — versus a target of 59 points — over a five-year period.

"For us," Chernow says, "it was just further evidence that when a school's leadership — the principal, teachers and others — identify for themselves the issues they need to work on and use their collective leadership skills to change how they do things, they can achieve those kinds of results."

Jessica Perez completes writing her group sentence during the write-around activity.