Educational innovation wins California rural town top honors

150 150 Niki Woodard

Best known for producing olives, Lindsay is a small town in the southern San Joaquin Valley that is receiving national attention for its progressive education system.

The Lindsay Unified School District (LUSD), which serves 4,100 students, beat out more than 350 other applicants across the nation to receive a $10 million “Race to the Top” grant from the U.S. Department of Education. LUSD is one of sixteen competition winners, representing 55 school districts in eleven states and the District of Columbia. Two other school districts from California – New Haven Unified and Galt Joint Union – were also selected. 

“The Race to the Top-District grantees have shown tremendous leadership through developing plans that will transform the learning environment and enable students to receive a personalized, world-class education,” said U.S. Secretary of education Arne Duncan.

With this award, the rural town of Lindsay receives an incredible distinction. Moreover, the grant bolsters LUSD’s capacity to serve as a model of performance-based education for the rest of California and the nation. Already, interest in the district’s innovative methods has sent many school officials from near and far to the rural community, ensconced in citrus groves. LUSD posts open house tour dates on their website to consolidate the flow of interest in their schools.

Lindsay has been a pioneer in performance-based education. Lana Brown, LUSD Director of Curriculum, told California Forward that while many schools are dabbling in components of a performance-based system, she only knows of schools in Colorado and Maine that are fully embracing the model.

“We didn’t have a manual when we started five years ago. It was our entrepreneurial spirit that guided us,” said Brown, LUSD.

At the heart of the performance-based system is the belief that students—or, “learners,” as they are called in Lindsay—learn in different ways, at different paces. Individual learners are given the freedom and responsibility to determine how they master certain skills, and teachers work with individuals to tailor instruction toward their needs. Rather than assigning letter grades, teachers measure learners’ progress on a numerical scale, 1-4, where a “3” indicates mastery of skills and is the minimum requirement for moving on to new learning targets. Gone are the arbitrary letter grades that allow students to graduate to the next level, despite not mastering skills.  

In the performance-based system, a “4” is the ultimate goal, which means that learners have gone beyond mastery of skills to apply those concepts in new contexts. In this system, grade levels are almost insignificant as it is the mastery of identified skills that reigns supreme, e.g. a fourth-grader who can only read at the second-grade level will have an opportunity to master that skill before advancing.

Results have certainly been encouraging.  In the first three years of implementation (2009-2012) at Lindsay High School, scores on the California Academic Performance Index (API) have risen 91 points. English Language Arts (ELA) proficiency rates for 9th graders increased from 29% (2009) to 41% (2012), with similar gains for 10th and 11th graders.

Now that the school district has worked through the inevitable challenges of developing and implementing such a grand change in their education system and is demonstrating success, they are ready to help others in the education community.

The Race to the Top grant “is going to help us produce a model and a manual so that other districts can replicate the performance-based system. It will give them a road map to do it,” said Brown.

No doubt, we’ll all be paying a little more attention to the great ideas and outcomes emerging from this Central Valley community of forward thinkers.


Niki Woodard

All stories by: Niki Woodard