Eight superintendents’ CORE push to improve California schools

Driven perhaps by frustration over what many see as California's failure to properly prioritize education, eight of the state's most influential superintendents have taken reform into their own hands.

Their non-profit coalition, best known for its initials - CORE - has a singular focus: to improve educational outcomes. Not years from now, but right now and for every student.

The current goal of the California Office to Reform Education is getting the common core standards in math and English language arts into the classroom - something the state has struggled to get its arms around nearly two years after its adoption.

We're LEAs (local education agencies) not SEAs (state education agencies) and we get that, but we also believe that our kids need us now, and simply saying we don't have the money to implement common core is an unnecessary barrier to place," said Michael Hanson, superintendent of Fresno Unified School District and president of CORE's board of directors. "There are ways for us to leverage one another to make improvements. They may not be fully funded, and they may not move as fast as we'd like, but it's imperative that we move to it as quickly as we can."

In addition to Hansen, there are seven other superintendents participating in CORE - representing Clovis, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento City, San Francisco and Sanger.

They first came together under the leadership of the Schwarzenegger administration and former state schools chief Jack O'Connell in 2010 when politics and indecision threatened to derail California's second chance at a near-billion dollar grant offered under the federal Race to the Top competition.

While it fared better than the state's first application, CORE's bid for the federal grant fell short, but the members found a lot of value in working together and decided to maintain their cooperative and perhaps advance their new role as a change agent for public schools.

Today there's an administrative staff - led by Rick Miller, a former deputy state superintendent of schools under O'Connell - that supports the board's efforts, facilitating communication on issues, administrating board meetings and managing the work across member districts.

CORE also benefits from financial support from outside contributors, chiefly California Education Partners - headed by former venture capitalist and San Francisco philanthropist Phil Halperin-which donated $4 million to the group.

In addition to their work around the common core, CORE also is working on another major issue that has stalled at the state level - developing a new system of support and accountability for teachers and principals.

Expectations are that CORE also will be entering the latest Race to the Top grant competition - opened just last week and offering a share of $400 million to support district educational programs.

Given their aggressive agenda and the influential membership,state officials might feel threatened by the group. Not so, at least as far as the Brown administration is concerned when it comes to their work on the common core.

State leaders, including the governor and superintendent of schools, have sought the superintendents' advice on education policy.

"[CORE's] view, which I have no problem with, is we can't just sit around and wait for the state to come up with Common Core implementation," California State Board of Education President Michael Kirst said. "But, they have quite a bit of foundation grants. That's how they're sustaining themselves, and that's why they're able to do things that other districts can't do."

CORE hopes to launch a pilot teaching program on the new common core standards this fall, and is heavily invested in developing a teacher accountability system based not only on test scores but on numerous other factors that affect a student's school performance.

"California Education Partners provides all of the administrative and operating support," said Halperin, a former general partner at Weston Presidio, a private equity investment firm based in San Francisco, and who has since 2004 focused on education reform and philanthropy through various organizations including his Silver Giving Foundation.

"We provide them strategic support in bringing other resources to the table, which we have; we've brought other funders to the table who are now part of this effort as well," said Halperin, also a member of the San Francisco Giants ownership group. "And then, we help guide the effort in collaboration with specific CORE staff."

Insiders say a key attribute of CORE members is a shared desire to continually learn - both from each other and from educators around the country. But that desire is fueled by the group's guiding principle: Students above all else.

"Kids come first and it's a student-centered agenda," Hanson said. "But we also think we've got a duty to pay forward whatever we're developing."

CORE superintendents, said Hanson, don't get hung up on being recognized for successful programs or contributions.

"People are paying tax dollars to employ us as public servants to teach kids," he said. "We've got to do all we can to help make that happen as fast as we can and that includes improving the craft as fast as possible and sharing any tools we develop."

Michelle Steagall, CORE's chief academic officer, supports the work on Common Core and is leading the group's second major initiative - teacher and principal support and accountability across the eight districts.

A former teacher, administrator, district superintendent and curriculum specialist, Steagall guide's CORE's Talent Management' team, whose focus is analyzing and measuring educator effectiveness and supporting teacher development and training, from college throughout a teacher's career.

"We are continually looking at what it is that makes educators the most effective and connected to student learning," said Steagall, pointing out CORE teams work together to bridge standards implementation and teacher effectiveness by setting clear expectations and providing the tools - training and support - necessary to meet them.

"We have the opportunity to truly enhance learning for over a million kids in the state of California," she said. "We need to engage what is changing in the instructional world and connect it to the professional development and evaluation world to support teachers so they can make the shift and enhance student learning."