I have a good friend who taught at a high school, while his wife taught first graders. He provided an important observation by explaining that his wife’s elementary grade students would do anything to please Mrs. Smith, whereas Mr. Smith had to figure out a way to please his secondary students.
This transition of instructional approaches reflects the natural development and aspirations of youth. What may have worked to inspire a first grader would fall flat with a rebel-without-a-cause adolescent. A grade-school student rarely asks “Why do I have to learn such-and-such? I’ll never use it in life.” Yet that is the most common refrain of a secondary student struggling with a challenging subject. Effectively engaging teenagers by connecting their formal education with their life aspirations is the key instructional ingredient for high school students.
Policymakers should heed this insight into the adolescent mind, since they determine what schools will be held accountable for and how they’ll be measured. We should not be subjecting secondary students – and their schools – to the same narrow performance indicators as elementary schools. And, yet, under the current accountability system in California – led by the “Holy Grail” of K-12 measurements, the API – that is exactly what we are doing.
Since Academic Performance Index ratings are such a priority for homebuyers, every California real estate agent knows the exact numeric score of all of their neighborhood schools. But does anyone, including those in the media who faithfully publish with great fanfare these annual scores, have a clue what those three-digit numbers actually tell us about a school’s performance? Most would likely be shocked and a little disturbed to learn that the API is primarily based on only a narrow bandwidth of largely decontextualized, fill-in-the-bubble English and math test questions. The API says nothing about a school’s extracurricular and athletic programs; nil about a school’s commitment to inspire civic-mindedness; and zilch about its elective offerings. Nor does this singular accountability index of California schools include anything directly related to preparing students for life beyond K-12 education. This isn’t exactly the transparent accountability the public believes they are getting from API ratings.
SB 547, a measure introduced by the leader of the California State Senate, Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), acknowledges these deficiencies. This important legislation calls for additional performance indicators to be included in the API for our state’s high schools, including how well they are doing in preparing their students for postsecondary education opportunities and the real world of work. While every politician seems to be parroting the line that all high school graduates should be “college and career ready,” SB 547 actually does something to quantify this lofty goal. It does so by broadening API scoring for high schools by measuring specific performance standards related to college and career preparation. You can look at the long list of recommended, measurable criteria here, but some of the most notable ones include the number of students successfully completing college preparatory coursework and a sequence of career technical education classes; the academic and workforce performance of students a year following their high school graduation; and rates of students earning an occupation-specific license or certificate while enrolled in high school.
The exaggerated importance of the API cannot be overstated. In California, our elected representatives have codified an educational system in which we only value what is required, funded, and measured. These are the curricular drivers in K-12 education. Therefore, the primary courses being taught in our classrooms today are those subjects that are statutorily mandated, have dedicated funding streams, and are tested to gauge a school’s performance, regardless of that coursework’s relevance to students or the world beyond school. Many engaging subject-matter disciplines and course-sequenced programs that fall outside these drivers are being squeezed out of the instructional day, leaving far too many adolescents feeling disengaged. As a result, a third of high school students are voting with their feet and simply dropping out.
Given the fact that Career Technical Education (CTE) is not required for graduation or college admission, lacks a protected funding stream, and is not included in the state’s accountability system, we have seen an historic decrease in access to these engaging programs in our middle and secondary schools. In 1987, three-quarters of secondary students enrolled in these courses at their high school campus; last year, only 29 percent were able to do so. This unprecedented slide continues unabated, as shop classes continue to get shuttered, Business and Home Ec classrooms get converted to remediation centers, and career counselors go the way of the dodo bird.
The fundamental purpose of taxpayer-funded, compulsory education is to prepare every student to become a self-reliant, responsible citizen. Does anyone believe our state’s current tunnel vision into a school’s performance is a sufficient indicator of a school’s true value?
It is time California policymakers hold high schools accountable for practical outcomes that we all expect and should demand. SB 547 is a critical means of doing just that
Fred Jones has nearly 20 years of policy experience in the State Capitol as both a legislative staffer and, since 2000, as a registered lobbyist and legal counsel to several education-related clients. His primary CTE-related client is the California Business Education Association, which is also a founding member of Get REAL California, a coalition of employers, labor groups, educators, and others concerned about CTE in California schools.