To be considered successful in Tacoma, Wash., schools must show that they can deliver a lot more than good test scores.
They should be able to involve many children in extracurricular activities, attract lots of adult volunteers, and reconnect with teenagers who have dropped out.
They need to spark praise from parents and students for providing a safe and engaging place to study. They have to reach into their communities to make sure all eligible children take advantage of district pre-K and full-day kindergarten. They should be able to brag about how many students are taking college-level courses.
And they have to show strong student performance, and growth, on state tests.
Typically, districts judge their schools’ success by state test scores, attendance, and graduation rates, reflecting their states’ chosen accountability metrics. But this district of 30,000 students has pioneered a local accountability system with a different, much broader conception of success.
Now in its second year of full implementation, Tacoma’s “whole child” method of appraising schools incorporates more than three dozen indicators—in addition to mathematics and English/language arts achievement—that it considers pivotal to healthy learning and growing.
Spearheading the project to build that system was Josh Garcia, a former principal and high school math teacher who arrived in Tacoma as deputy superintendent in July 2012.
He started by reaching out to parents, teachers, and community groups through emails, surveys, and dozens of meetings. He wanted to know what they considered important in their children’s schooling.
“It’s important to have an honest conversation about what it takes to have a successful school and school system,” he said. “For years, we’ve never really been clear. We had to calibrate, to say, ‘This is our community’s definition of success.’ ”
A top priority was to choose indicators of success that were about students, not adults, Mr. Garcia says.
“The average person on the street doesn’t care if a principal is ‘highly qualified,’ ” he said. “It’s, ‘Are they passing classes? Are they engaged in extracurricular activities?’ ”
Jennifer Kubista, who has worked in the Tacoma school system for 12 years and is now its director of student life, said Mr. Garcia and Superintendent Carla J. Santorno led the district to do what it hadn’t done before: translate broad ideas into detailed goals.
“We had a mission and vision, but we never had a set of benchmarks written down in black and white,” Ms. Kubista said. “It’s really important to say that these are the key things we will hold ourselves responsible for.”
She credited Mr. Garcia’s leadership for keeping district staff members focused on concrete steps to improve school for students. His follow-through on data that showed troubling dropout rates, for instance, led to the establishment of a ReEngagement Center, where re-enrolled students can catch up with online coursework. The requirement to summarize their plans for social-emotional learning makes elementary schools focus on day-to-day activities to give life to those plans, she said.
“He’s relentless, but in a good way,” Ms. Kubista said. “That’s why you see principals pulling aside kids who are failing classes, asking them, ‘How can I get you back on track?’ It’s why people [in elementary schools] are thinking hard, ‘How are we helping kids learn to be self-aware, advocate for themselves, manage their behaviors?’ It’s just constant reminders of what we are responsible for and how to get there, and it’s all about how to support kids.”
Mr. Garcia, 41, credits the whole-child system’s focus with improving important outcomes in the district. Enrollment in district pre-K programs rose from 997 to 1,209 in the past two years. Barely one-third of high school students were taking college-level courses two years ago; now 56 percent are doing so. The four-year graduation rate has soared from 55 percent in 2010 to 78 percent in 2014.
A few states and districts have added similar measurements in their accountability systems. Kentucky, for instance, considers the quality of schools’ programs in nontested subjects, such as world languages, arts, and humanities. A group of California districts known as the California Office to Reform Education, or CORE, includes measures of school climate and students’ social-emotional skills.
But expanding accountability metrics is difficult, in large part because it can be tricky to choose the right proxies, said Jennifer Davis Poon, who oversees a group of states within the Council of Chief State School Officers that are working on new ways of judging schools.
“Many of our states are reluctant to include the skills and dispositions—the ‘fuzzier’ pieces—until they feel there are valid and reliable measures for them,” she said. “What Tacoma is doing is pretty cutting-edge.”
Plans, Not Consequences
Tacoma’s schools still must meet the performance targets—and bear the consequences—of Washington state’s federally mandated accountability system. But their own, local accountability system operates very differently; it emphasizes constructive change, not punishment, for schools and teachers. Administrators’ evaluations—including Mr. Garcia’s—rest in part on their performance against the whole-child metrics. But each school’s data are used to spark discussion and planning; the information is not incorporated into teachers’ evaluations or used to grade or rank schools.
“We go to schools and sit with the leadership team and review the data and talk about next steps,” said Ms. Santorno, the superintendent.
Currently, Tacoma’s whole-child data are available online, in an interactive format that allows analysis by poverty, race, grade level, and other indicators. School-level data are not available online; district administrators use the data internally to work with schools, Mr. Garcia said.
It’s important to have an honest conversation about what it takes to have a successful school and school system. For years, we’ve never really been clear. We had to calibrate, to say, ‘This is our community’s definition of success.’
The metrics are a work in progress. School board Chairman Kurt Miller said the board is considering whether to replace or add any whole-child indicators.
The work of shifting how schools judge success has taught Mr. Garcia some important lessons. The first is that it’s hard to overstate the difficulty of getting people to agree on indicators that are measurable.
“We want kids to be productive citizens. Well, OK, how do you measure that?” he said. “We want rigorous courses. What does that mean? What are the criteria?” One of the toughest decisions was reaching consensus on what constitutes “rigorous” coursework for high school students. The decision to accept only college-level work, and not technical-school studies, generated some pushback.
Another lesson was just how difficult it was to offer “honest” historical data. “We had to admit to our community that we had never kept data on some things,” Mr. Garcia said.
Perhaps the most important takeaway, he said, is that creating the accountability system is only the beginning.
“When you have to redo the way you’ve been doing business to improve the results, that’s when the hard work begins, and it can be paralyzing for some people,” he said. “But there are kids behind that data, and you have to keep saying that, making an action plan for them.”