The new method, called "Continuous Improvement" or CI, marks a paradigm shift for the district. The idea for the change started about two years ago, when newly hired Superintendent Maurice Ghysels introduced his administrators to a business-related approach to education. Ghysels, who holds a Ph.D. in education with an emphasis on organizational development, worked in the corporate field during the 1990s.
After combing the country for resources, Ghysels and his team started a CI pilot program of 22 teachers last October. The teachers saw so much success in the classroom with Continuous Improvement, educators said, that the idea spread quickly throughout the entire K-8 district.
All five members of the school board endorsed CI this year. Teachers are now on a waiting list to receive training, according to district officials.
Under CI, students take responsibility for their education by creating classroom mission statements, setting personal goals, charting their own academic progress and leading parent-teacher conferences twice a year. They also create a personal binder to track their academic progress throughout the year, and work with their teachers at the beginning of the year to set the ground rules on what they believe makes a good teacher.
If a teacher is going too fast on a particular subject, students have a process to say so. In this way, students can determine how much time a teacher spends on a lesson plan.
Students also set goals for themselves. For example, if a student wants to achieve 80 percent on a math test but only reaches 70 percent, he or she can set a personal goal in the binder to improve by 10 percent. The teacher then shows the student what must be done to improve by that amount.
The teacher prominently displays a class performance metric in the classroom. When one student reaches a goal, the entire class performance goes up. If one student falls behind, the entire class performance goes down. Educators hope this will create social pressure among the students, and lead to continuous improvement for both students and class.
At the end of the semester and school year, instead of parent-teacher conferences without the student, under CI the student will now lead the conferences. The student presents an academic progress binder to a parent, including work examples. Then the student discusses areas in which to improve and areas in which there has been acceptable performance. Educators say having students lead the conferences has doubled parent participation.
Kim Thompson, fifth grade teacher at Bubb Elementary School, began using CI last October with her math class. She saw a 5 percent improvement over last year on the California Standards Test in math.
"They went up more than a grade level," she said. In her 12-year teaching career, she had seen such an increase before, but not recently, she said.
Teachers say the same has occurred with English language learners. Ranen Bhattacharya, a seventh grade teacher at Crittenden Middle School, began using CI last year with his ESL class.
"We structured a lot of goals around literacy, sometimes around homework, and goals about asking for help," he said. For ESL kids who often feel neglected in a school system, when they see themselves setting goals and achieving them, it shows personal interest, Bhattacharya added.
Admittedly, Thompson said, in some ways CI takes more work. She has to grade papers and provide feedback to students on a timely basis, but that has made her more on top of things, she said.
"It made the kids more focused and made me more focused. In the long run, everybody improved," she said. Because CI gives them a voice, "Students are engaged in the process, they're excited."
Superintendent Ghysels is quick to say that CI is not a panacea, and braces himself for challenges to come. But he expects to see positive results district-wide several years down the line thanks to CI.
"I just think it's really neat that we are in uncharted territory, and with your help we'll get to the other side," he told a group of 105 teachers in a training session Monday morning.
School administrators expect to have the entire district, kindergarten through eighth grade, up and running with Continuous Improvement by 2009. The district will spend a few hundred dollars — $271 plus a $100 daily stipend — to train each teacher. Mountain View Whisman is using staff development funds and a one-time state grant to cover training expenses, Ghysels said.
The district has trained 44 percent of its teachers so far. Teachers train at the Mountain View campuses of Microsoft and Synopsis, which are donating catering, consultation and use of their facilities.
'The right mindset'
Continuous Improvement's business terminology helps teachers to keep in mind who they serve, teachers said.
"People are very concerned about what their customers think," Bhattacharya said. "I think we should have that same kind of concern for our kids, and this terminology just helps us to have the right mindset."
Although students will set the ground rules in the classroom under this new paradigm, they still have to meet English and math proficiency standards mandated by California and the federal No Child Left Behind Act. CI gives teachers a better tool to meet those standards, teachers say, and gives kids a "buy-in" to their education.
"I'm thrilled with this," said Karen Robinson, principal of Crittenden Middle School. "This is exactly what we've been gathering pieces of."
While some individual schools in California have adopted CI, Mountain View Whisman will become the only district in California to use Continuous Improvement, and only one of a handful of districts nationwide.
A Web search found that Cedar Rapids Community School District in Iowa, Clark County School District in Nevada, the Racine School District in Wisconsin, and the Rock Island School District in Illinois were using Continuous Improvement. There are also school districts in Texas and Pennsylvania that have adopted CI.