The Long Beach Success Story

By Lawrence Hardy
World-class” has a nice ring to it, but what does it really mean?

Often, school districts use those words to highlight their aspirations, vowing in a vision or mission statement to become “a world-class school district” by some future date. It’s a promise that connotes a certain resolve and a realization that today’s students must achieve at unprecedented levels to compete in the global economy. But defining just what “world-class” is -- what a world-class school system looks like, how it’s organized, what its teachers teach and its students learn - -- that’s a lot more difficult.

A year ago, the McKinsey & Company consulting firm released a groundbreaking report, How the World’s Most Improved School Systems Keep Getting Better, that not only defined world-class in terms of national K-12 systems, but gauged where 17 countries with improving school systems stood on a continuum that ranged in quality from “poor” to “great.” The districts came from developed and developing countries on five different continents, and their levels of progress were similarly varied.

The U.S. wasn’t included but, somewhat incongruously, three of its school systems were. One was California’s Long Beach Unified School District, a mid-sized urban system that has moved from “fair” to “good” in less than 10 years and is well on its way to “great.” (The other two U.S. districts, which also rose from “fair” to “good,” were California’s Aspire charters and the Boston Public Schools.)

“England, Latvia, Lithuania,” reads the partial list of districts that had moved into the “good” range, according to McKinsey’s global rating. “Slovenia, Poland, Long Beach. ...”

Why Long Beach? What is it about California’s third-largest district -- one still dwarfed in size by Los Angeles Unified to the north -- that qualifies it to be measured against the very best in the world?

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