Voices in Education

High School Reform the San Jose Way: It wasn't about testing, says the district's former superintendent
The following article originally appeared in The Harvard Education Letter (volume 21, number 3). Copyright 2005 President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

Although high school improvement in response to California’s test-based accountability system has generally been slow, the San Jose Unified School District has stood out by showing impressive gains. Yet according to former superintendent Linda T. Murray, the improvement has had little to do with the state’s accountability system.

State-mandated test results “really didn’t” drive the reforms her district implemented, Murray recalls. “It had less effect on our high school reforms than other data we had.”

San Jose Unified’s effort to improve its high schools began in the early 1990s, when the district was part of a national project, sponsored by the College Board, aimed at improving mathematics achievement by requiring entering ninth graders to take algebra. The results of that project convinced the leaders that they could make the entire curriculum more rigorous, according to Murray. “The pass rates in algebra were the same as when they were taking consumer math,” she says. “Kids could rise to the level of rigor in algebra in fine form.”

At the same time, the district, which had been under a federal court order to desegregate its schools, began to negotiate a consent decree that changed the focus from busing for desegregation to improving access and achievement for Latino students.

In 1996, district leaders began discussing a plan to ensure that all students would graduate from high school prepared for college. To implement the plan, the leaders conducted a series of town hall meetings and focus groups with community residents to educate them about changes in the economy and elicit ideas about the kinds of schools needed to meet the coming challenges. The most powerful testimony came from the students themselves, Murray says. “The kids said they could get by in high school without doing anything, and that teachers didn’t care,” she recalls. “They said they could do a lot more ‘if they ask more of us.’”

In response to the overwhelming demand for more rigorous coursework, the district implemented a plan to require all graduates to take a college-bound sequence of courses, including four years of English, three years of mathematics, and three years of science, beginning with the class of 2002. But the course requirements were only the first step. The district also put in place academic safety nets for students who were struggling and professional development for teachers who may not have been prepared to teach students with diverse academic backgrounds. And district voters approved two bond issues to renovate science facilities and build new laboratories to meet the expanded enrollments in laboratory science courses.

The results have been dramatic: The number of students taking advanced classes has doubled, grades are up, and the graduation rate—which some feared might suffer—has remained steady. In 2004, 65 percent of San Jose’s graduates were qualified to enter the University of California (UC) system, compared with 33 percent statewide. And 45 percent of San Jose’s Latino students were qualified to enter the UC system, twice the statewide rate.

Achieving this kind of transformation, Murray says, is a huge undertaking that requires creating new structures to support students and teachers, educating teachers to take on new roles, and mustering public support.

“I don’t think you can implement a reform like this overnight,” she says. “I don’t think there’s anything magic about it. It takes hard work.”

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