After sixteen years of education policies that have kept schools focused on raising student achievement on standardized tests, we are beginning to see a gradual shift in several states toward greater emphasis on creating conditions that foster great teaching (from infancy to adulthood), and genuine evidence of learning.  Freed from the constraints created by No Child Left Behind (NCLB), school districts now have greater flexibility to enact strategies that motivate and engage students, that promote deeper learning and higher order thinking, and that address their social and emotional needs.

However, as we enter this period of greater flexibility in policy, school districts county governments and states are in need of thought partners that can help them in devising strategies that can be used to support student learning.  This is particularly an issue for districts serving large numbers of students in poverty, English learners, and students with special needs.  Many districts find themselves challenged with finding ways to address complex social issues such as trauma, mental illness, homelessness and bullying.  For too long, state departments of education have been more concerned with telling school districts what their problems are, but provided little support in helping them to figure out how to solve them.

The Center for the Transformation of Schools (CTS) at UCLA has been created to serve as a thought partner and critical source of support that will use research to support schools, districts, county offices of education and states in fulfilling their mission of ensuring that all children receive the education they deserve. The goal of CTS is to help schools implement strategies that raise academic achievement by getting students more motivated and involved in learning, building on their strengths and the cultural resources of their families, and that make it possible to use education as a means to break the cycle of poverty by expanding access to opportunity.  CTS will do this by moving beyond traditional approaches to reform that tinker with the operation of schools (and all too often, fail), to create new approaches to professional development and new school models that foster positive, healthy learning environments, and treat youth development and wellness as integral to the mission of educating children.

CTS will do this by making a commitment to equity in academic outcomes central to its mission. Despite the existence of policies that were designed to close the so-called achievement gap, race, income, and language continue to be strong predictors of academic outcomes.  CTS will help to disrupt these deeply entrenched patterns by: 1) engaging in research that identifies the most effective interventions and strategies to support student learning and mitigate the effects of poverty; 2) developing a network of schools and districts that are committed and willing to engage in transformative work and that can be used as a model for others; and 3) creating stronger bridges between health, education and social services to promote student well-being and wellness.

To accomplish these goals, CTS will work with education stakeholders to answer the following questions: How do we help schools to become more responsive and better able to meet the academic, social, emotional, cultural and health needs of students, especially in the most disadvantaged communities?  How do we unlock the lessons learned by our most effective schools to assist schools that have historically under-performed?  How do we make available the expertise and knowledge derived from research to support educators who are too often overwhelmed by the challenges that they and their students face?

Why a new center?

Efforts aimed at “reform” in education have been ongoing for the past 50 years or more. Over those years, the curriculum has been revised countless times, textbooks have been re-written, schools have been restructured, principals and teachers have been re-trained (and in some cases fired), and various models of governance have been attempted. The rationale for reform has been as varied as the remedies that have been applied. Yet, despite these efforts, deep-rooted problems remain, particularly in schools serving children of color, and low-income children generally. Many of these schools find themselves struggling to meet the academic, social, emotional, health and developmental needs of students, and are unclear about how to best prepare them to participate fully in today’s economy.

It is still too early to know whether the newly adopted Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) will fulfill its grand promise or usher in a period of educational renewal. ESSA has scaled back the federal government’s role in a prenatal to college public education system and placed the onus for improving schools squarely on district and states. However, having grown accustomed to complying with various policy mandates for the last fifteen years, many school districts and states are now struggling to find new ways to strengthen the capacity of school systems through more effective forms of professional learning and the redesign of assessment systems. In many cases, they must accomplish these tasks without adequate resources and in a political climate that is increasingly hostile to the idea of raising revenues to support schools through tax increases.

Schools that struggled under NCLB, especially those located in highly segregated communities where poverty is concentrated, will undoubtedly continue to struggle in their efforts to find ways to improve performance under ESSA. CTS will address this problem by offering new tools and support for schools, districts and counties that are willing to embrace more holistic models of learning.  CTS will also work with a cohort of educational leaders to utilize strategies gleaned from the Improvement Sciences (Bryk et al. 2015) to initiate smarter and more effective approaches to help districts and county offices of education in California and across the county in helping schools get better at getting better.

Drawing on the resources available at UCLA, one of the nation’s premiere public universities, CTS will serve as a focal point for collaboration among university faculty and students, and between researchers, practitioners and policymakers.