Tag Archives: API


I’m back.  I have been sleeping.  Drifting through the universe.  Holding on for dear life.

I’m trying to get my second book published and figure out where I go from El Milagro.  So I am going to resurrect my blog and lose myself in thought again.  Maybe Mondays.  I don’t know.

Here’s what I do know…

We got our test results back and they were very strong… very satisfying- at least  from the standpoint of trying to engender higher test results.  We had to give up a lot to get our 35-point growth on the Academic Performance Index (API).  We had to give up science and social studies, for instance.  We also had to give up the arts and music– not that we were ever real strong in those areas before.  We had to give up creative writing and critical thinking and dancing on the blacktop and “the Mission Project” and quality physical fitness time (though we implemented a new standard for nutrition) and problem solving and the science fair.  Our kids did not weigh in on either the ecological crisis in the gulf or Arizona’s immigration policy. In fact, they didn’t apply their learning to very many authentic tasks at all.

But we got to 835 on the API and there is satisfaction in improving our teaching and learning– if in fact we improved our teaching and learning beyond what is required to prepare children to take the California Standards Test.

This year we are striving to improve the API from 835 to 860.  But this time…we are bringing the rest of the state’s curriculum back and organizing around multi-age classrooms.  We are also emphasizing the importance of the 21st Century Skills… since we think it is pretty important that our children can actually compete in a future when grade school accountability movements may very well have run their course.

We will take the 35-point increase on the API because it is better to leverage growth than to have to explain why our students aren’t keeping up with the test prep academies.  We will be all about growing their basic literacy skills.  But we can’t be blinded for a moment by the bright flash of the API or the illusion that it is enough just to get higher test scores.

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Filed under innovation and change, school reform, standardized testing, teaching, Uncategorized


winner of bellMueller Charter School is a finalist for California’s prestigious Golden Bell Award.  That is significant.  It’s a big deal.  

Significant because it means that the California School Boards Association (CSBA), the organization that grants the award, still values schools that take care of kids and their families. Like Mueller Charter School and our Resiliency Quadrant System– a model for integrating sch0ol resources to more efficiently serve our  most high risk children.

Significant because it means the CSBA recognizes that we have to generate more than test scores… we have to find the way: 

To manage the  academic, emotional, social, medical, and mental health needs of all 1100 students;

to build on their assets; 

to foster resiliency in children and the adults that serve them;

to maintain morale, optimism, and efficacy that will ultimately lead to extraordinary school results!

And if you can find a school that is keeping kids whole,  you ought to recognize them with a Golden Bell award.

riskSignificant because it signals an appreciation for the inherently complex nature of teaching, and how real reform cannot come to our schools unless we overcome (or at least neutralize)  the many crises in our communities that affect our students.  And that takes innovation… finding a new way.  President Obama has urged that we stop treating unemployment, violence, failing schools, and broken homes in isolation and put together what works “to heel the entire community”.  Like the Harlem Children’s Zone. And at Mueller Charter School, the heeling power of the Resiliency Quadrant System has the potential to transform our community.

And finally, it is significant because excellence should be replicable.

In her recent article in Education Week entitled “Innovative Reforms Require Innovative Scorekeeping”, Lisbeth Schoor, a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Social Policy argued that:

“Reformers in virtually every domain– from education to human services, and social policy– have been learning that the most promising strategies are likely to be complex and and highly dependent on their social, physical, and policy context.  Very few efforts to improve education for at-risk students, prevent child abuse, increase labor-market participation, or reduce teenage pregnancy or homelessness succeed by applying a single, bounded intervention.  They depend on community capacity to take elements that have worked somewhere already, adapt them, and reconfigure them with other strategies emerging from research, experience, and theory to make a coherent whole.”

As a finalist for a Golden Bell Award, Mueller Charter School has been acknowledged for innovation, for serving our high risk students, for creating a system to engage children and their families. It reminds us that if we stay centered, stay true to our mission, and avoid the dull temptation to surrender to the search for higher test scores for their own sake… we have a chance to be more than just another high performing public school. We have a chance to be El Milagro.


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Filed under charter schools, El Milagro, health care, innovation and change, President Obama

JOURNALING CHAOS 5: “School Runnings”


The “I Ching” teaches that “Before there can be great brilliance… there must be chaos.”

This is PART 5 in a series of blog posts that document our research, strategic thinking, observations and debates as we take on one of the last vestiges of the industrial revolution: the practice in schools of organizing kids into grade levels according to their chronological age.

At the end of the day on Friday I received a phone call from Max in the Superintendent’s office.  Max was contacting all the principals in the district to get our individual prediction on what we anticipate our API will be this year.  We all have a guess.  We live the API. 

woodThe API is California’s Academic Performance Index.  It is a long and tortured statistical calculation that synthesizes each school’s test results into a 3-digit number. Every student at every grade and every subject area is calculated and “processed” like an elegant wood chipper that grinds otherwise healthy leaves and limbs into useful chips. It weighs the number of students that score proficient and reflects overall organizational growth from year to year. Every school in California is obligated to somehow reach the API promised land of 800 or face the fate of the mastodons.

“To tell you the truth Max… I have no clue.  You want me to just pull a number out of the air?  

“Yep… the Superintendent wants every principal’s prediction.”

“Well…last year we ended up at 797 but our school-wide goal was 801.  We just missed it.  A little better result from this grade or that grade and we would have made it.  Just make up a number?”

“Whatever you think.”

skiWe just held the Olympic Festival yesterday, Max.  The best one in 9 years.  We had a 1000 students participating with well over 100 adult volunteers and parents and guests.  There were 25 different events for kids.  We had two former olympians.  We had India’s first ever winter olympian, for God’s sake.!  She is an Alpine ski racer, Max! But the Olympic Festival and our community spirit and Alpine skiers and our year-end celebration have nothing to do with our API.  It doesn’t compute.”

“I just need a number Dr. Riley.”

“Our 6th graders bombed the local measures.  I think they might have done it on purpose.  Only 7 out of 120 students were proficient on the math section.  How do I factor that in, Max?”

“Uh…can’t help you on that one.”

“But then again, on the MAPS assessments our 6th graders were right on pace.  And that is a much more difficult assessment, don’t you think?”

“No clue sir.  I’m not familiar with SNAPS.”

wall“And we know that if 50% of our students– especially 50% of our English language learners– don’t score proficient on the California Standards Test we will miss the AYP benchmark for the first time and we will go into Program Improvement. We know that.  We are climbing a mountain.  So we added a full hour to the instructional day and tried to target students who were borderline.  And every teacher provided English Language Development to every student for :35 minutes every single day. Damn…  that has to count for something!”

“So you want me to put you down for 801 again?”

“Yea, I guess so. NO! I can’t say 801… that was last year’s goal.  This year our goal is 840!”

“So you want me to put you down for 840?”

“C’mon Max…there is no way we hit 840.  Too many distractions over the longer day.  I think our teachers got burned out mid-year.  We pushed too hard.  By March we had to make adjustments just to keep their morale up. If we caught it soon enough and made the best of the additional hour and kept our focus in every classroom…  we could get a pretty good bump in our API.  But if not… if we really did lose a significant number of our teachers somewhere on the journey… we are hosed.”

“Sounds like you want to stay closer to the 801.  You have to say at least 800.”

“We could go backwards Max!  We could go back down to 790!  When the district told everybody in January that they had to resign to stay at El Milagro or return to a district school… it affected morale too.  18 of our teachers are district employees and 15 are employees of Mueller Charter School.  What a freakin’ mess!  It never should have worked out that way.  Five of our veteran teachers decided that they would leave El Milagro and go back to the district.  So we have been dealing with that and interviewing new teachers and writing letters of recommendations.  These are our colleagues we are losing!”

“Ok…  listen I am going to just say 795 for Mueller Charter School…”

“You know what the problem is here Max? The problem is we give the CST to students according to their grade level… instead of their level of mastery…”

Silence on the other end.

“Max… do you read my blog?”

“No I don’t have time to read blogs because I make phone calls like this all day and just try to stay ahead of the information that the superintendent is trying to gather.”

“Ok… just put us down for 805.”

“805…got it.  Thank you Dr. Riley, it’s been nice talking to you and….”

“And make a note Max that we are really looking hard at this whole system of grouping kids in grade levels according to their age.  It doesn’t make sense anymore. ”

“Ok I wrote that down.”

But of course I know he really didn’t.  And I realized immediately that this is exactly how the status quo stays in tact from year to year; how it absorbs change.  I had no business giving Max some arbitrary number meant to quantify the depth of teaching and learning that took place at Mueller Charter School over the course of an entire year.  The ups and downs.  The celebrations.  The growth and the turmoil and the daily struggle for fresh air. 805? 840?


It is the reason that we seek to challenge the very structure of how we group our students for learning and testing.  So I started to pull up my blog to re-read the questions I had generated last week and maybe add to the list.  Just then the phone rang again.  It was Max.

“Dr. Riley…  did you say an Alpine skiier from India?  Didn’t they make a movie about her?”

“No Max…  that was the Jamaican bobsled team.”

“Oh…yea…that’s right…Cool Runnings.”


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Filed under charter schools, El Milagro, standardized testing, Un-graded schools


testsWe are two weeks from the 2009 iteration of the California Standards Test.  The clock is ticking. We are prepared.  We are in a zone.  And we better be…considering the high stakes.

High stakes?  Isn’t that just residual hyperbole left over from the NCLB-era politics?  Well let’s check it out.  

Here are a dozen ways that standardized testing has resulted  in high “stakes” outcomes and their unintended consequences:

• High stakes because the results are going to follow every student for the remainder of their school careers.

• High stakes because schools will use the results to determine students’ eligibility for after-school programs and tutoring opportunities and Advanced Placement classes and extracurricular activities. Even for eligibility (and thus in-eligibility) for participation in athletics and the performing arts.

• High stakes because school officials will use the scores as a criteria for classifying children as gifted– public education’s most coveted label.  Similarly, they will cite these scores when diagnosing children as learning disabled.

• High stakes because schools will (illegally) weigh the portents of  these scores before admitting new students.  Or they will consult them– the final straw– before expelling or disenrolling kids; before recommending ‘delinquents’  to a continuation program or independent study or homeschooling or some other version of learning in Siberia.

In high stakes testing, the results matter to everybody. 


• They are “high stakes” because presidents and governors and mayors run for elected office on the promise of improving local trends in standardized test scores.  School board members too.  And the superintendents that school boards hire will survive on their ability to deliver higher scores on metrics like the Academic Performance Index (API).  Likewise the principals that the superintendents hire will come and go like bad wind and pretty much everybody will feel the pressure when the next wave of leaders are clearing out their desks and insuring their colleagues that they have always wanted to return to the classroom.  

• High stakes because that pressure to raise test scores will drive teachers with the most seniority (and experience) toward the schools with the higher API (800+) and lower stress levels. 

u-haul-1• High stakes because schools with low API’s (<700) will continue to replace those migrating veteran teachers with brand new inexperienced teachers who will take five years to learn their craft… and then they will migrate too.  And while they are learning, those younger teachers will be just starting to raise families of their own.  So you can expect those teachers to be out two to three months on maternity leave and to be temporarily replaced by long-term substitute teachers who have less training and less experience than the inexperienced young teacher they are replacing.

And the community will witness the invisible forces of the high stakes tests in ways they could never imagine.

• High stakes because when educated, upwardly mobile young couples start looking for a suitable neighborhood in which to raise their families they inevitably consider the quality of the schools.   They consult websites like greatschools.net and identify the school districts with the highest test scores.  And that is where they buy their home.  



• High stakes because when large groups of young, upwardly mobile couples get together to raise their children, they insist on state of the art pre-schools and they start volunteering in the elementary school before their kids are old enough to walk. So a whole community evolves around a culture of high achievement. It becomes pre-ordained and the Academic Performance Index of the schools go even higher.

• High stakes because the schools with low API’s struggle for any organizational momentum at all. They tend to serve families who are less educated and thus less upwardly mobile.  They tend to serve families that are in survival mode. They do not tend to attract the new young families who just moved to town and who are looking for the very best schools.  

• High stakes because the communities with large clusters of well educated and upwardly mobile families experience far fewer home foreclosures than those where families took greater risks with loans.  (In San Diego County, for example, the top five zip codes with the highest number of home foreclosures featured schools with an average API of only 754.) Home foreclosures lead to higher student mobility rates as families migrate toward more affordable housing options.  

High stakes.  

high-stakes2• High stakes because we are all compelled to strike hard against the mountainous challenge of quantifying children’s learning on the basis of  a single standardized test.  We will balance the winners and the losers and the inevitable damage caused when the best of intentions collide with unintentional consequences.  And that is, by definition, high stakes– where our systems align poorly or not at all. And  for that incongruence…our children pay.

In California, there are only two weeks remaining until we administer  the next version of the CST. When it is complete, we will dutifully send our thousand student answer sheets off to Sacramento with a blind faith that they will be accurately scored.  And the cycle of waiting for the results and the early analyses will begin anew.  

Our students are ready to play the game. It is high stakes. We are “all in”.


Filed under California charter schools, charter schools, El Milagro, gifted children, public education, standardized testing



Yesterday was my day to post on Leadertalk, which is one of several blogs managed by Education Week. Educational leaders are invited to participate– and my day is the 20th of every month.  So I am always thinking about what I want to post on Leadertalk.  It is harder to add photos and I feel a little more confined, like I have to be much more careful since it is someone else’s deal.  Nevertheless, as a neophyte blogger, it is a cool opportunity.

So I decided to post a hybrid piece, combining the elements of what I published here at El Milagro Weblog last week and my idea for today. 

Because as of today we are 5 instructional weeks from the California Standards Test (the CST’s!)  and our teachers are studying their formative data and making some very strategic adjustments in how they work with their students on the final push.  5 weeks is the blink of an eye and they know it.   We are still a long ways away from where we need to be.  In fact, our MAPS data tells us that 22% of our English language learners are now operating at a proficient level in language arts and 23% in math.  We need at least 50% proficiency to reach the state’s Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) goal.  

This is crunch time.  Our teachers are as serious and as focussed as I have ever seen them.  There is no panic.  There is no quit.  There are no false illusions about where we are.  So it will be interesting to see how our students perform on California’s standardized tests in May.  

field-goal1This is also the time period in which we cease to philosophize about the wisdom of standardized tests and what the pre-occupation with language arts and math might be doing to our students’ broader abilities to think and innovate and solve problems and reason.  This is not the time to engage in the political debate.   An NFL coach may not like the rules for sudden death overtime, but when you are out of downs on your opponents’ 20-yard line, you better just trot out your kicker for the game winning field goal and argue about the rules of the game later.

ny-timesjpeg2So we are playing to win.  And when we win, we expect that there will be some interesting headlines in the morning newspaper.  Something like:



“California Charter School Shocks Education World”


“Mueller Charter School Achieves Unprecedented One-Year Gains”


“State Department Questions Legitimacy of Dramatic Test Results


It is a healthy exercise  to visualize your organization’s success and there are many ways to do it.  But try visualizing the newspaper headline that captures the essence of your  mission and celebrates the moment at which all your collective dreams and ambitions come to full fruition.  What will the headlines say? 

“Charter School Caps Decade of Innovation by Tipping 901 on API”


As a visualization exercise, this headline is dramatic.  But it is more than an exercise… it is our mission.  And it is attainable.  We have implemented a longer day, a daily English language development program in every classroom, our assessment tools have improved and so has our capacity to use technology.  And those are just the highlights. So now all that is left is five weeks of instruction, a 45-yard field goal (against the wind)  and the long vigil at the news stand.  Just what will your headlines say? Perhaps ours will read:

“California’s Top-Performing

School Lives up to Its Nickname:

El Milagro!”


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Filed under California charter schools, El Milagro, public education, teaching, technology in schools


My students speak the language of their fathers and their fathers don’t all speak English.  California is a tough place to live and go to school if you don’t speak English. dsc_0125

We have a long and inglorious history in this state of lining up groups of people in our collective sights, and then stripping them of their fundamental rights through public elections (Remember Prop 8?).  So in 1998 Californians passed a state proposition that effectively banned bilingual education.

calImagine that.  While the rest of the world continues to require two and three languages for children, our state made bilingual education all but illegal.  I wondered:  is that really what Californian’s want for their children?  And if that is what Californians really want for their kids, why is a foreign language still a requirement for the vaunted University of California system?

And just in case any schools had ideas about ignoring the law (like, of course, we did at El Milagro), along comes NCLB  to squeeze every existing bilingual program that might still be operating in the state.

Because in California, the state board of education determined that children must take the state assessments in English. No exceptions.

parkingjpeg1So like all of their native US-born, monolingual, English-Only counterparts, our English learners have to demonstrate mastery of such things as reading comprehension, word analysis, mathematical operations, number sense, algebra and writing conventions.  They have to demonstrate that they know and can do what any child at their grade level should be able to do according to grade level standards.  And they have to do it in a foreign language called English. 

And of course the results matter.  Their school could fail to achieve the AYP goals for English language learners if they don’t get enough right answers on their test.  Their school could become a “Program Improvement School.”  There could be sanctions.  There could be consequences for their teachers and their principals. 

But that’s not all.

Schools with a high percentage of students struggling to learn English typically end up with a lower Academic Performance Index…

Results are published in the local media and the API of each school is compared and contrasted… 

calif-dist-schoolReal estate companies utilize sites like greatschools.net to market properties and neighborhoods with the highest scores…

Prospective new families then move to areas where they perceive there are the best schools…

…While communities with disproportionately large numbers of  English language learners  continue to experience declining enrollment, de facto racial and ethnic segregation, and high mobility.   

It’s a tough cycle to reverse. So schools, out of necessity, abandon their bilingual programs and opt for full English immersion and the bigoted doctrine of  “English-Only” wins. 

But isn’t there a better way? If you really want to assess what a child has learned , do so in the language with which they have the greatest degree of literacy– like the 14 other states (including Texas and New York) already do. 

If you are still unconvinced, please take the simple quiz below.  There are only three questions and if you are an educator or a parent or a concerned citizen—you have the answers!  Just imagine that your school’s reputation, your future, the entire social/cultural/economic fabric of your community depends on your score.  No pressure.  Relax and do your best—even if the quiz is in a foreign language:

Question Number 1:



Если ваша профессиональная репутация, ваша школа рейтинга, и будущее ваших учеников были все зависит от детей, каким образом осуществляется на стандартизированных испытаний, которые приведены в иностранном языке, вы должны:

А. выступаем за то, чтобы дети предоставили оценки на их родном языке ,

B. энтузиазмом участвовать в вашей государства осуществлять в учебных злоупотреблений;

C. вид, что исход отметив делать с языком, или

D. привести ненасильственного протеста

Question Number 2:

كاليفورنيا يطالب بأن تتخذ جميع الأطفال أنصبتها المقررة باللغة الانكليزية للأسباب التالية :

أ. انها حقا جيدة للأطفال

ب. لأنها أكثر موثوقية وسيلة لتحديد ما تعلمه الأطفال

C. لأنها ستوفر معلومات قيمة والمعلمين حول ما يعرف الطلاب

د. وسوف نتأكد من الطلاب لا يملكون غير عادلة رئيس جامعة كاليفورنيا تبدأ اللغة الأجنبية

Question Number 3

Λαμβάνοντας αυτό το παιχνίδι δεν είναι ένα έγκυρο κριτήριο της τη νοημοσύνη μου, διότι:

Α. Δεν μιλούν καμία από αυτές τις γλώσσες

Β. Είναι απλά μια προσομοίωση

C. Είμαι πραγματικά πολύ έξυπνη και μόλις πήρε suckered σε αυτό το κουίζ

D. Αν όλοι μιλούσαν αγγλικά δεν θα είναι απαραίτητα αυτό το κουίζ

checkjpeg1So how did you do?  Are you in Program Improvement?  You can check your answer and the translation here  on Sunday, January 4.


Filed under charter schools, El Milagro


(NOTE: As the Annual Yearly Progress (AYP)  goals continue to accelerate, more and more US schools will be categorized by the pejorative brand: “Program Improvement School”.  NCLB’s kiss of death.  By 2014 as many as 90% of America’s schools could be categorized as underperforming “Program Improvement” schools.  Perhaps it provides a handy label for politicians to rail on public education in general… but inside our schools, where we know our children’s names and faces, it is a different story.

This is the FIRST POST IN A SERIES as Mueller Charter School awaits its test results from the 2007-08 school year.)  


I watched Sport Center last night and the announcer declared that the Yankees beat the Red Sox with  5 runs, on 8 hits and 1 error.  The Red Sox had 4 runs on 7 hits and 1 error.  Game over.  Just like that.  Spectacular drama reduced to a box score.

All of the human emotion and energy was drained from the page and forever deposited into the timeless vaults of Major League Baseball.  All that was left behind were shelled peanuts and Bronx beer cups and a lost binocular case: the predictable debris of 55,000 spectators and a national television audience.   Soon all that would be swept away too.  But not the box score.  

 So where in this infinite compression of events does the box score reflect that an  outfielder played the game of his young career or that an old veteran pinch-hit in the  8th and struck out—leaving two runners stranded and causing management to question his future in the game.   Or that a maple bat shattered on a foul ball and flew into the stands just missing an eight year old girl who had turned to look for the vendor selling cotton candy. Or that the pitchers in the bullpen spit sunflower seeds on each other and flirted with the girls in Section 107 and that one of them got a date. Or that an umpire made an embarrassingly bad call on a routine play at second only to stumble as he jogged back out to his position beyond the infield grass.  The fans who were jeering him hesitated long enough to laugh as he nearly face planted within view of a momentarily hostile world. 

55,000 fans left with new memories forever fixed.  “Remember that game we saw at Yankee Stadium just before they tore it down?  When was that… 2007?… 08”    Lives were enriched,  But not the box scores. 

And yes there is a point here.

At Mueller Charter School we await the return of our students’ test scores– now just weeks away. A year’s worth of collaboration, energy, focused effort, commitment, heartbreak, tears, momentary triumphs, wins and losses—will all be reduced to a few lines. A box score. 

“Did you meet your AYP goals?”   

“Did you make significant gains on the Academic Performance Index?”

“Did you go into Program Improvement?”

“Did you prove your worth on the planet as a charter school?”

And we will answer:  “But what about the lives we touched?  The lives we SAVED?  The families we successfully linked with health care insurance… the kids that climbed out of the basement referred to as Far Below Basic… the kids who we sheltered while their father was sent to prison in Central California… the teacher who was ready to quit until she found salvation in her extraordinary students… the strides we made in utilizing formative data to make strategic adjustments…  the hundreds of students who now have enough of a foundation in English to compete academically—even if it wasn’t soon enough to benefit this year’s box score…”

“What about the community of teachers and learners and families who will declare last year a tremendous success, who will return from summer vacation energized regardless of what shows up in the box scores?  What about our indomitable spirit– the “this is our year”, the no quit, no excuses, no turning back– the community invested in the success of their kids?”

Who knows.  When we get our results back at the end of July we may conclude that we have finally overcome the adverse effects of poverty and the economy and family mobility and the challenges of learning English as a second language and that we actually met the AYP and API and PI expectations.  The data may authenticate the most productive year in the 15-year history of Mueller as a charter school.  The Board and media and world community may then suddenly sit up and take notice:  “Wow.  How about that Mueller Charter School.  How did they do it?”  Or not.

In either case we know for certain that a single box score out of context cannot predict whether the Yankees or the Red Sox will win the American League East.  Just as we know that the complex drama of teaching and learning and human relationships and keeping children whole– cannot be meaningfully reduced to a box score. 


Filed under charter schools, El Milagro, gifted children, public education, standardized testing