CTA and Quality Education Investment Act: selling the same old snake oil

Drug companies often hire researchers to evaluate the prescription medicines they’ve designed. Without fail, the studies reveal – surprise! – that the drugs work. Then, when they want the public to pay top dollar for a product, the drug companies dig up wise-looking doctors in lab coats who tout the “research-based” benefits in television commercials.

Last week, we learned that the California Teacher’s Association has taken a page from the drug companies’ book. First, they asked a research firm to evaluate the nearly $3 billion education reform program that they helped design, promote, and turn into law, the 2006 Quality Education Investment Act (QEIA). Then, when the researchers discovered that the program “worked,” CTA ran commercials on the radio touting its benefits.

Not surprisingly, the reforms included in QEIA are the same ones CTA has been promoting for years: reducing class sizes, expanding professional development, and adding staff. According to the commercials, these are the education reforms the state should be investing in.

Before buying these lines, we took a closer look at CTA’s claims.

Let’s start with the claim that, “for the 2009-10 school year alone, QEIA schools, on average, experienced nearly 50 percent higher growth on the California Academic Performance Index (API) than similar, non-QEIA schools.”

Fifty percent seems high. But our question was: 50 percent of what? According to the report, QEIA schools made gains of 21.2 points, while the other similar schools moved up 14.4 points. This difference of 6.8 points amounts to 50 percent, but given that this gain is calculated on a 1,000-point scale, 6.8 points is marginal at best. The average QEIA-funded school still needs to gain approximately 100 points in order to meet the state goal of 800.

So we looked in the report for more persuasive evidence of impact. We searched for information on how many QEIA schools had exited the final years of Program Improvement – the federal designation of a failing school. We searched for the number that had moved out of the lowest 20 percent of schools (only these schools were eligible for the program). We looked for overall state rankings and wondered how many students were passing the state tests.

Strangely, all of these critical signs of school improvement were missing. In fact, the study’s only evidence of “proven success,” was the extra 6.8 points. To satisfy our curiosity, we dug up some more data by visiting the California Department of Education website. We found that in 2009-10, close to 80 percent of QEIA sites were still in Program Improvement and more than 95 percent had yet to meet the state API target of 800. After the 2008-09 school year, 71 percent were still ranked in the bottom 20 percent of schools. On the state’s most recent exams, students in QEIA schools underperformed the state average by 20 points in English-Language Arts and by more than 10 points in math.

While we recognize this is a multi-year program, the fact still remains that these schools, which are receiving billions of dollars, are doing only marginally better than those that have not been pumped full of additional funds. As we illustrated in our May 2010 research brief, “Keeping the Promise of Change: Why California’s chronically underperforming schools need bold reform,” California has a long history of spending millions on school turnaround grants for marginal improvements in our state’s highest-need schools.

The sad part of this is that the intended beneficiaries of those dollars, California’s mostly poor, African American and Latino students, desperately need immediate funds to fundamentally reform their schools now. And although many local leaders and educators in the targeted school districts had ideas about how to spend school improvement dollars to significantly reform their schools, no one bothered to ask for their suggestions. Instead, QEIA was another piece of reform legislation dreamed up in the dark back rooms of Sacramento.

If asked, perhaps some of the state’s local education leaders would have taken a look at the broad evidence on the limited benefits of class-size reduction and most of the other QEIA strategies – and would have instead chosen to invest in things more likely to result in long-lasting impact. Perhaps they would have recognized that the most important factor in improving a school isn’t the number of students in a classroom, but the quality of the teacher in the classroom. Then, they might have chosen to spend the dollars on evaluation systems that measure teacher effectiveness, incentives to attract the best teachers to high-need schools, support for struggling teachers, and rewards for the best teachers.

The CTA opposes any legislation that will allow us to reform the teacher evaluation system and use that information for high-stakes staffing decisions. In contrast, reformers around the nation are recognizing that an effective teacher in every classroom is the most effective school reform strategy. By investing in reforms in the way we evaluate, develop, assign, support, and reward our best teachers, we can expect to see gains in our neediest schools that are truly worth celebrating.

Arun Ramanathan is executive director of The Education Trust—West, a statewide education advocacy organization. He has served as a district administrator, research director, teacher, paraprofessional, and VISTA volunteer in California, New England, and Appalachia. He has a doctorate in educational administration and policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His wife is a teacher and reading specialist and they have a child in preschool and another in a Spanish immersion elementary school in Oakland Unified.

Bring in new faces and voices to Sacramento for real change

Our electorate occasionally acts schizophrenic. Take the call for change. In the midst of one of our country’s longest running economic downturns, there’s a palpable anger against politicians and the political system. According to the rhetoric, they got us into this mess, and the answer is to boot them out. On Tuesday, this anger is likely to force a change of power in Congress – with Republicans taking over from the Democrats.

Outside of California, the role of the Tea Party in this process has been the focus of massive attention from the press and the political system. Longtime elected officials in other states lost their jobs to challenges from political novices channeling the anger of their constituents. Yet, the “change” promoted by Tea Party and other insurgent candidates has been more of a reaction to the “change” of the last two years. The same electorate that put Barack Obama in the White House to change Washington apparently has now turned its attention to rolling back that “change.”

In California, the call for “change” has had a nearly opposite impact. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was the original Tea Party-like candidate. The recall campaign against Gray Davis was the original Tea Party-like insurrection. It was mounted by two talk show hosts who energized voters by playing on their desire to eliminate the infamous “car tax” and arrived on the heels of a major California recession. Schwarzenegger played up his image as a non-traditional Sacramento outsider who would blow up the Sacramento boxes and bring fundamental change to the state.

Yet, once installed in Sacramento, Schwarzenegger and his staff did little to distinguish themselves from long-time Sacramento insiders. This was particularly true when it came to the over 40 percent of the budget devoted to education. In good times, the Administration spent the extra dollars like drunken sailors, creating new grant programs to satisfy the parochial priorities of education special interests, including the governor’s own preferences for physical education equipment and band instruments. Does anyone remember the infamous P.E. and Music block grants? In bad times, they constructed, in collaboration with the Legislature, a series of budgets that did little in the way of systemic reform and simply passed debts and obligations to future generations.

As a result, when it comes to the 2010 governor’s race, Californians seem to be far less interested in “outsiders” than we used to be. Based on recent polling, the gubernatorial candidate who has held more statewide and local elected offices than anyone else in California apparently has pulled away with a double-digit lead over his non-traditional opponent. Californians appear to be pining for insiders instead of outsiders. Once Americans get a real sense of what the Tea Party means, the same thing might happen nationally – especially when they realize how quickly the outsiders turn into insiders.

In the end, that’s the problem in California. Insider or outsider, elected officials quickly get trapped in the Sacramento quicksand. Last week, I was at a meeting of statewide education reform advocates from 20 other states. The progress many of those states have made in the areas of teacher evaluation,  evaluation, tenure and pension reform, and school turnarounds was amazing. The contrast with California couldn’t have been starker.

Sacramento insiders like to paint the California electorate as the problem. And, certainly, we have clotted up our state budget process with too much initiative-driven spending. But I would argue that our state’s real problem isn’t its citizenry but the longtime Sacramento insiders and their institutional culture. Part of the issue is a candidate selection and primary process that gives us politicians who reflect the extremes of their parties rather than the great mass of voters in the middle. Recent initiatives creating the open primary and non-partisan redistricting may result in a more moderate set of politicians from both parties.

It’s possible that these politicians will be less beholden to the public employee unions on the left and the taxpayer associations on the right, and that this independence will give them the room to make decisions based on the long-term needs of all Californians rather than personal, short-term political objectives or the desires of special interests. But without an end to, or minimally an extension of term limits, it is still likely that even our most forward-thinking elected officials will become overly dependent on the institutional knowledge of the longtime Sacramento insiders — the unelected lobbyists and staffers who really run things and want to maintain the system they’ve built.

In order for change to stick, our newly elected officials must commit to bringing some new voices and faces into Sacramento. We need to tap the wellspring of talent from different parts of California and other states, including different sectors from business to philanthropy, and bring some of that new thinking into our Capitol.

In looking for educational leadership, we should be looking outside of the traditional education blob and their old boys and girls networks. Looking to great district and local leaders who not only acknowledge the existence of our broken college and career pipeline, but are doing something to fix it, is a good place to start. We also need to bring in the reform voices and leadership of California’s new “majority minority” demographic and collaboratively commit ourselves to real change on behalf of all of our state’s children.

Otherwise, the change we experience will be in name only.

Arun Ramanathan is executive director of The Education Trust-West, a statewide education advocacy organization. He has served as a district administrator, research director, teacher, paraprofessional and VISTA volunteer in California, New England and  Appalachia. He has a doctorate in educational administration and policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His wife is a teacher and reading specialist and they have a child in preschool and another in a Spanish immersion elementary school in Oakland Unified.

Orwellian moments in state education

In George Orwell’s masterpiece, Animal Farm, a group of farm animals led by pigs take over their farm from an abusive owner and decide to run it as a collective. They begin by writing a new set of laws, starting with “All animals are equal.” Later in the book, the pigs take over the farm, enslaving the other animals. One day, the other animals notice that the first rule has been changed to read, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

Orwell was making a point about the power of language and the ability of the powerful to twist language to turn night into day and black into white in order to maintain their power.

Here, in California, this approach has been perfected by those who have long run our education system and written its rules. A few months ago, one of those long-time Sacramento powerbrokers, a “consultant” to one of the largest state teachers unions, showed me the data that he had constructed to show that the state’s achievement gaps for black and Latino students had nearly disappeared. It was truly an Orwellian moment.

I’ve been having a lot of Orwellian moments lately. I especially love it when California’s achievement test results are released, and there’s a chorus of backslapping and handclapping about student performance levels and gains that should be a source of profound embarrassment.  Moments after the scores are released, the education establishment crows, “Almost half of our students are performing at grade level in math and English! Two percent more are proficient than last year! The achievement gap between Latino and white students in mathematics is down to 30 points! Let’s celebrate!”

Then, there is the recent backlash against the impending release by the Los Angeles Times of data linking over 6,000 Los Angeles Unified elementary school teachers to the English and math performance of their students. The data reveals the effectiveness of each individual teacher at improving the overall English and math performance of their students in comparison to other teachers in the district.

Now, the last time I checked, it is the job of elementary school teachers to improve the performance of their students in English and Math. The only way to assess that improvement is by testing them in English and Math. And knowing how effective you are at your job relative to your peers is both professionally relevant and fundamental to your performance evaluation. Of course, you might not believe that any more after you listened to the critics of the Times.

When the scores were released, they argued, “A teacher’s performance should not be judged based on the math and English performance results of their students. The tests were not designed to assess teachers. Everyone knows what a good teacher looks like! They have the right things on their walls, and their students are engaged. Teachers should be judged on how hard they are teaching instead of the results of their teaching.”

Wow. If only our state’s students and our high school graduates could benefit from the same Orwellian logic when getting the results of their SATs or hearing back from employers about job applications.

But then, according to the powerful interests that control Sacramento on the anti-tax right and public employee union left, the problem really isn’t our education system but our “much too diverse” students and their parents. This has produced a whole new set of Orwellian laws written in stone in the corridors of power around the state.  Some of my favorites are “Those children do not want to learn.” “Those parents are not invested in their children’s education.” “We must prepare those children for the lives we expect them to live instead of the lives they aspire to lead.” And for those who enter our schools speaking a different language: “One language is better than two!”

Children do not want to learn? Parents do not want the best education for their children? In our current politically polarized state, language of this sort serves both sides in their fights over resources. If the problem is the students and their parents, the answer for the public employee unions and their friends in the education establishment is paying people more money and lessening their burden at work in order to compensate them for having to teach those kids and deal with those parents. If the problem is the students and the parents, the answer for the taxpayer associations and business interests is starving the education system of money because those kids and their parents aren’t worth it, and besides we need cheap undereducated labor to keep costs down.

Either way, our state’s 6 million students – half of them poor, three quarters of them students of color – and their parents are caught in crossfire between two fundamentally “corporate” entities. The public employee unions and the taxpayers associations are locked in a zero sum game over maintaining resources for their longest tenured members and paying handsome salaries to Sacramento lobbyists to prevent any change, especially the long-term systemic change that our state’s children and their parents need. So much for the generational obligation of leaving our state and nation better off than you found it.

Of course, in Sacramento and school districts around California, some animals are more equal than others.