San Diego Unifies its Strategy
November 15, 2004
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
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.