San Diego Unifies its Strategy
Fresno Bee
November 15, 2004

By Edward M. Brand

Eliminating the achievement gap between students of color and their white and Asian peers has always been a moral imperative. But today, more than ever, erasing the achievement gap has profound economic impacts.

Consider that China is expected to have the world's largest economy by the end of this decade. Already, India has 400 million people in its middle class, and that nation is forecast to have the largest population by 2015.

If our country is to stay competitive globally, we need to have the best, well-educated work force in the world. To do that, everybody in the system must be successful.

A year ago, 42 superintendents and their board members in San Diego County came together to sign a California High School Exit Exam Compact that guaranteed every 10th-grader in the county would pass the math portion of the high school exit exam by 2006.

Simple on its surface, this historic agreement joined every school district in the county -- from the smallest with 40 students to the largest with 138,000 -- in the goal of narrowing the achievement gap.

In San Diego County, every ethnicity, socioeconomic group and demographic element is represented. Superintendents, board members and community leaders collectively decided that rather than dealing with a series of individual districts, we would treat reform like a living organism.

What we do at one end of the system impacts all parts of the system. With 500,000 students to affect, San Diego could be the model for the rest of the state and the country. We chose the California exit exam as our benchmark.

Early on, we realized that just because this is a high school problem, it didn't mean there wasn't a K-12 solution. It's never been about slowing down the students who are excelling. It's always been about accelerating those who are below the benchmark.

What has happened since the districts signed this historic agreement? We have all created a common vocabulary and outlined our student needs. We implemented a focused, countywide teacher training program in two newly developed intervention curriculum -- one for students who are at risk of not passing algebra and one for students at risk of not passing the exit exam. We understood that to help teachers who did not have solid math backgrounds there needed to be scripted lessons that pulled key concepts from as far back as fourth grade.

We extended learning times through before- and after-school programs, parallel math course offerings and innovative class schedules.

We aligned 42 school districts' data-collection systems so we could share data and strategies in meaningful ways.

We synchronized teaching and intervention strategies for our most at-risk students -- special education and English language learners.

And we have now taken these concepts to scale.

We're not claiming victory yet, but we are encouraged. Two years ago, the exit exam pass rate for whites and Asians was 37 percentage points higher than that for blacks and Hispanics. Last year that gap was reduced to 25 points.

We know we're on the right track. This is our Manhattan Project. We have come together to overcome an age-old crisis that ultimately affects the quality of life for our entire state. We will not rest until this gap is eliminated.

Dr. Edward M. Brand is superintendent of the Sweetwater Union High School District, the largest secondary school district in California. He is California's Superintendent of the Year.