Should districts be handed full control over spending?

To mitigate the impact of substantially cutting spending for K-12 schools, the Legislature agreed to temporarily let school districts decide how to spend money that had been earmarked for dozens of special programs, from adult education to teacher training. Now, as part of his plan to reform how education is funded, Gov. Brown is proposing to go a big step further and give local districts total and permanent flexibility over nearly all of the remaining categorical programs. He also wants to drop two dozen mandated programs, leaving districts the option of continuing to fund them without state reimbursement. Is spending flexibility over billions of dollars, ending state control over what the Legislature deemed important priorities, wise policy? Can districts be trusted to do right by children? And suppose they don’t – what then?

To explore this issue, we asked four leaders with different perspectives: Jill Wynns, president of the California School Boards Association; John Affeldt, managing partner of the nonprofit law firm Public Advocates; Bob Wells, executive director of the Association of California  School Administrators; and Erin Gabel, Director of Government Affairs for State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson. What do you think? Please share your views.

Jill Wynns: Local boards better prepared for tough decisions

Jill Wynns
Jill Wynns

When local school board members are faced with the agonizing necessity of cutting programs because of the severe funding cuts in recent years, they begin by discussing the priorities of the community. That’s a nice way of saying people yelling at us from the podium, labor organizations and board members debating bad choices and worse choices. We have increased class size, laid off teachers and school employees, ended programs, and even shortened the school year, denying our students the instruction and support that they need.

Ever since Proposition 13 transferred taxing authority to Sacramento, the Legislature maintained state control during healthy economic times when there’s money to start new programs they can put their names on, and advocated for local control when it’s time to cut. Of course it is hard to make destructive cuts that deny jobs to constituents and services to children. However, that is what school board members often face, lately too often. That is the reality for California school boards in a post-Prop 13 world. Sacramento will spend every penny when there is money, but when it is time to cut, that is our job.

How do we deal with the slashing of funds for K-12 education? One of the few tools available is the new categorical flexibility to spend money that used to be designated for specific purposes and programs. Most school districts have transferred this money into their general funds to minimize the impact of cuts on the classroom. Some have urged  that the flexibility be made permanent. Inevitably, there is growing advocacy for various programs to be reinstated and protected. The target of these efforts is the Legislature; the goal is the recategorizing of this funding.

After more than 30 years, why do we find it hard to trust local elected school board members to make thoughtful decisions? Who is better prepared to handle the tough choices that need to be made? Who knows the priorities of the local community better than those who spend their time talking to local parents, students, teachers, advocates, and citizens?

Organizations like the California and National School Boards Associations provide professional training for board members. Letting local boards make budget decisions will make it harder for advocates to influence the budget. Instead of making their case to a handful of legislators in a committee room in the Capitol, they will have to go to the affected  communities. Because the school boards are elected by the citizens in those communities, we can trust them to make the tough decisions that are best for their schools. That is our job, and we do it, no matter how difficult.

Jill Wynns is the president of the California School Boards Association. She has been on the San Francisco Board of Education since 1993, longer than any other school board member in San Francisco history. Her areas of expertise include California school finance, urban education and governance, charter schools, school health programs, healthy school nutrition programs, and labor-management cooperation.

John Affeldt: Give districts targeted – not total – flexibility

John Affeldt
John Affeldt

The governor’s bold weighted-student funding proposal is an idea that the Legislature needs to take on this year to correct the indefensible inequities and irrationalities in our school finance system. But, in line with a key “local control” component of the governor’s plan, is California really ready to turn over to districts total flexibility in how they spend all their dollars? I think not. Not only would it be wise to transition more cautiously, but directing districts to employ a targeted flexibility to help the neediest students and their schools actually has the potential to increase the very local control the governor hopes to spur.

Public Advocates and the many community groups with whom we work are willing to embrace a historic shift away from the constraints of categorical spending designed (initially, at least) to protect the neediest students from local neglect. The flexibility that districts gain, however, should apply to which programs and strategies to pursue, not to which students to help. Modifying the funding system to focus more explicitly on directing gap-closing resources and attention to the neediest students makes sense – but obviously only if those students are actually guaranteed they will benefit from the new resources. Targeted flexibility to the neediest schools, not total flexibility, is the way to ensure that.

Sacramento has the constitutional and moral obligation to ensure that our neediest students receive equal access to a high-quality education, especially when local adult priorities may head in other directions.  Especially when money becomes tight, funding in California seems naturally to flow away from low-income students and English learners. As well, on more than one occasion a largely white school board in a heavily Latino district has favored the majority white schools; other times, the issue has been a superintendent with an agenda focused elsewhere, such as on maximizing support to high performers; or a local union prioritizing salary increases across the district over serving the neediest schools; or an influential set of parents whose children are not among the neediest.

There are ways to target funds to the neediest schools without over-complexifying the system. A few modifications to how districts currently account for funds and report expenditures down to the site level, together with public hearing requirements when districts choose to deviate from spending weighted funds at the schools that “earned” them, would go a long way toward both ensuring weighted funds are spent on the neediest students and involving local communities in those decisions. Maintaining school site councils to oversee how weighted funds are spent at the school and incentivizing robust site-based budgeting as Twin Rivers employs could extend the governor’s notion of a new local control to every school site.

Now that would really be a profound democratic shift. Rather than only having local boards approve annual budgets, parents and students could engage in real ways on how public funds are best spent at their school and in their community.

John Affeldt is managing attorney at Public Advocates Inc., a nonprofit law firm and advocacy organization that challenges the systemic causes of poverty and racial discrimination by strengthening community voices in public policy. He is a leading voice on educational equity issues and has been recognized by California Lawyer Magazine as a California Attorney of the Year, The Recorder as an Attorney of the Year, and a Leading Plaintiff Lawyer in America by Lawdragon Magazine.

Bob Wells: State should recognize its role, then get out of the way

Bob Wells
Bob Wells

Our association, the Association of California School Administrators, has long argued that those closest to students – teachers, principals, parents, local school superintendents, and school boards – know best how to allocate resources to meet local students’ needs. The state’s role is to set the academic standards, adopt the assessment to measure how well students and schools are meeting the standards, provide the necessary funding, and then step out of the way so educators and students can focus on academic achievement.

It’s quite clear that aligning instruction with the new Common Core standards and streamlining academic assessment systems are high priorities for educators in this state. But the current lack of adequate funding and the threat of additional trigger cuts create massive uncertainties for local school districts.

While we won’t know for a few weeks what the governor’s May Revision budget proposal will hold for schools, we are certain about the following:

  • Additional funding for education is necessary in order to prevent deeper cuts to the educational program;
  • There are far too many categorical programs, created at the state level, dictating how school dollars should be allocated at the local level;
  • Unfunded and unnecessary state and federal mandates on school district spending must be eliminated.

Gov. Brown is a proponent of ensuring that local districts, teachers, principals, superintendents, and school boards have broad flexibility in determining how to allocate funding for their schools and students. He wants to eliminate categorical programs and abolish unnecessary mandates. We agree with his assertion that local school districts know best how to determine where resources should be allocated to improve learning.

The current school system has successfully served millions of students, but it also has failed millions, especially poor children and children of color. The time is long overdue for a broad discussion about measures necessary for equitable distribution of resources to meet all of our students’ needs.

Policy discussions about school funding flexibility must allow for timely debate. Determining how to streamline categorical programs, eliminate mandates, and allocate new resources must focus on what’s best for all students. Moreover, funding flexibility must be coupled with a robust accountability system to ensure all students are beneficiaries of fiscal reform.

Bob Wells has been executive director of the Association of California School Administrators since 1998. He has strengthened ACSA’s role as a leader on issues related to leadership coaching and teaching and learning and has sharpened its ability to influence public policy. He has been honored for his leadership by such entities as the American Association of Society Executives, California Council for Adult Education, California Latino Superintendents and Administrators, and the PTA.

Erin Gabel: Grave concern about unintended consequences

Erin Gabel
Erin Gabel

Regardless of the fiscal climate, it makes sense to consider whether lifting policy and funding restrictions would result in better outcomes for California’s students.

However, the administration’s budget proposal to replace many current education mandates with complete program flexibility coupled with a weighted student formula requires thoughtful consideration about the state’s fundamental role in public education and the outcomes and access we expect for all our students.

While Superintendent Torlakson appreciates the proposal’s aim to focus and simplify school funding, we have some grave concerns about the potential for unintended consequences when mandates are replaced by complete flexibility in the context of a fiscal crisis and a narrow accountability system.

There are four principles to consider when weighing the worth of state education mandates and categorical programs:

  • The state should provide maximum flexibility at the local level, while holding local educational agencies accountable for results. It makes sense to re-visit some of the detailed, prescriptive requirements associated with some mandates and categoricals to see if the state interest can be served while providing local flexibility.
  • The state has a fundamental responsibility to ensure that the basics exist uniformly in all schools, and it should retain mandates necessary to ensure equity across the state and accountability to voters. The mandates in this category include student health and safety protections, access to education for underserved populations, academic standards and data collection on academic performance, and transparency to voters.
  • Mandates that are retained should be fully funded.
  • Finally, we must realize that the elimination of any current mandate now funded through the Commission on State Mandates process that is popular at the local level, in this fiscal environment, is a budget cut. Any school district that does opt into continuing a previously mandated program would be forced to either cut these services or others if the state decides not to provide funding.

Many successful and important state mandates and categoricals are at risk in the administration’s proposal, including our only system for tracking the childhood obesity epidemic, our state’s class size reduction program, the high school science graduation requirement, and our system of educational supports to help English language learners acquire English proficiency.

The current “flexibility” experiment in the state budget has devastated those categoricals allowed to be flexible. Adult education, gifted student education, and the arts at the local level have been eliminated or slashed due to hard choices in these hard economic times. Short of an adequate accountability system focused on student outcomes and a better economic climate, these budget proposals may mean more systemic losses at the state and local level under a mask of flexibility.

The administration’s budget proposal continues an important discussion on how to best streamline and simplify school funding, and the governor should be applauded for his leadership and for providing a starting place for a crucial and timely public debate. It is critical that any changes to mandated programs and categoricals be carefully considered in light of the state’s interests in student educational outcomes, health, safety, and accountability, and taken in context with the current fiscal climate.

Erin Gabel is the Director of Government Affairs for State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and the California Department of Education, and is responsible for the Superintendent’s and the Department’s involvement in state and federal budget and legislative processes. She previously was then-Assemblymember Torlakson’s Legislative Director, consulting on education and health policy and general legislation. Erin was one of the founding staff members of the Partnership for Children and Youth, as their first Children Nutrition Project Director, and now serves on their advisory board.

Career- and college-ready: Are they synonymous or different?

Like cream and sugar, or ice cream and cake, college and career ready roll off the tongue together as any good platitude should. In adopting the Common Core standards, California and other states agreed students graduating high school should be prepared for college and careers. Educators have been arguing ever since what that means. If not the same, then how is career readiness different from college readiness, and how should it be measured? We’ve asked five experts with different perspectives to share their views: the husband-and-wife team of Robert Schwartz and Nancy Hoffman, he of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and she of a national nonprofit focusing on workplace and education for low-income individuals; Robert Balgenorth, a union leader in the construction trades; Barbara Nemko, Napa County superintendent of schools; Gary Hoachlander, president of ConnectEd, the California Center for College and Career; and Devin Blizzard, CEO of much-acclaimed CART, the Center for Advanced Research and Technology, an academic career technical school in the Central Valley. We encourage you to share your views as well.

Schwartz, Hoffman: Early career counseling, job shadowing for all

Robert Schwartz
Robert Schwartz

All young people graduating high school “college and career ready.” Sounds great, but what does it mean? In California, at least, college-ready means meeting a set of course requirements prescribed by the UC and CSU systems, even though those institutions serve, at best, only a quarter of an age cohort. But what do we mean by “career-ready?” Because there is no parallel attempt by California’s business and industry leaders to broaden academic requirements to demonstrate their application in the work world and to add 21st century skills and activities that develop career-readiness, the phrase turns out to be a

Nancy Hoffman
Nancy Hoffman

throwaway.

If we were serious about creating policies to serve all kids, we would put career planning and experience in a variety of workplaces at the center of this discussion, not at the margins. After all, only about half of young people who start a two- or four-year degree actually complete one, but all young people, we hope, are going to go to work.

Our education system should help all young people make informed decisions about the career paths they want to pursue, even if they may change careers later. Young people these days have little work experience and few opportunities to learn to work. Yet we behave as if preparation for college is the main purpose of high school, rather than explaining to young people that college is a pathway to a career, and that they need to take courses that equip them with skills and credentials with value in the labor market.

If we were serious about career readiness, we would bring together employers, post-secondary educators, and K-12 leaders to design pathways in grades 9-14 that have recognized currency in the labor market. We would invest in career information and counseling for all students beginning in the middle grades. We would require, as the French and German systems do, that all students have at least two weeks of job shadowing or other workplace exposure before they enter high school.

We have learned from the highly successful Early College High School movement, now serving 77,000 students in 28 states, that the best way to ensure “college readiness” is to enable students to start taking college classes while they are in a supportive high school environment. Analogously, the best way to ensure career readiness is to provide workplace experience in the context of 9-14 career pathways. California has some great models in Linked Learning and Partnership Academies, but they serve far too few students.

Nancy Hoffman is a vice president and senior advisor at Jobs for the Future, a national nonprofit in Boston focused on improving educational and workforce outcomes for low-income young people and adults. Her most recent book is Schooling in the Workplace: How Six of the World’s Best Vocational Education Systems Prepare Young People for Jobs and Life.

Robert Schwartz is the Francis Keppel Professor of Educational Policy and Administration at the Harvard Graduate School of Education where he co-leads the Pathways to Prosperity Project. He was an education advisor to the mayor of Boston and the governor of Massachusetts, and served as first president of Achieve.

Robert Balgenorth: Restore value to ‘the other 4-year degree’

Robert Balgenorth
Robert Balgenorth

For years now, the construction industry, the manufacturing sector, and even auto mechanics have been clamoring about the need for students to graduate high school ready to work in our industries. Contrary to popular belief, these are not low-skilled jobs. Rather, they require significant knowledge of mathematics, algebra, trigonometry, physics, and computer science.

Today’s plumbers, electricians, and sheet metal workers are learning to use Building Information Modeling, a highly specialized computer program that illustrates the location of every wall, pipe, and outlet before a building is even built. Ph.D. computer scientists aren’t the ones doing the modeling; this work requires journeyman sheet metal workers and pipefitters who have come up through the apprenticeship system.

The construction industry has been using apprenticeship programs to teach skills to young people for the last century. They work under the tutelage of journeymen for 3-5 years while going to school to learn the theory behind what they’re doing on the job. Each of the 15 building and construction craft and trade unions, working in partnership with union contractors, operate joint apprenticeship programs that have provided the United States with the best-trained construction workforce in the world. These programs are overseen by the California Division of Apprenticeship Standards.

Because so many school districts have dismantled their vocational training and industrial arts programs, students are no longer introduced to what might become their lifelong careers.

Studies show that many students drop out of school because their classes aren’t interesting, and don’t seem relevant to their lives. Apprenticeship programs routinely report a 50 percent failure rate among those taking their basic math entry exam. Those test-takers were inspired to enter a construction career path, but are lacking the educational basics. If math, English, and science could be applied toward specific career goals, students might be more motivated to stay in school, and more prepared to enter careers upon graduating. Career Technical Education can provide that spark for students.

Only 20-25 percent of students will attend a four-year college, and when they do, they will rack up tens of thousands of dollars of debt before even landing an entry-level job. Apprenticeship is free, and offers students an opportunity to learn a skill while earning a paycheck.

That’s why we call it “the other four-year degree.” We fully support CTE because we need students to be prepared to enter apprenticeship and learn skills for our construction industry when they graduate.

Robert Balgenorth is president of the State Building and Construction Trades Council, and Co-Chair of the GetREAL-California Coalition (Relevance in Education and Learning).

Barbara Nemko: Inform students on all post-high-school options

Barbara Nemko
Barbara Nemko

The terms “college and career readiness” are often seen as synonymous, but are they? It’s relatively easy to understand what “college-ready” means: academic skills sufficient for the rigors of college work. “Career-ready,” however, is often left undefined. At a time when “college for all” appears to equate to “student success,” it is important to explore what “career-ready” means.

Pathways to Prosperity,” a recent Harvard University report, argues that expecting all students to go to college is short-sighted. The report indicated that 63 percent of jobs do require some form of post-secondary education, but it also showed that many students who complete a post-secondary graduate program have given little thought or preparation to their career interest. How do we prepare high school graduates to be college- and careerready?

Career readiness includes three major areas: core academic skills, and the ability to apply those skills to real-world situations and in routine workplace activities; employability skills (critical thinking, problem solving, communicating, and responsibility) that are essential in any career/life area; and job-specific skills related to a specific career pathway.

Career readiness provides a foundation that all students need to make informed decisions about their post-high-school options. These include post-secondary education, entry-level employment, apprenticeships, or military service that will lead to self-sufficiency and the attainment of the student’s aspirations, career, and life goals.

In today’s world, every student in California must have the knowledge and skills to make appropriate choices and successfully manage their careers throughout their lifetime. Graduating from high school both college- and career-ready will make that possible.

We need to enact  changes to our accountability system to address more than just standardized test scores. Proposals like Sen. Darrell Steinbergs’s SB 1458, redefining the state’s accountability measures, hold the promise of expanding the scope of what we value and therefore measure in our schools – while creating incentives for districts to expand the programs and curriculums to help our students become career-ready. High School Accountability Report Cards (SARCs) should be required to include the percentage of students who are graduating career-ready, so that parents start to monitor whether or not schools are addressing this critical life skill.

The California State Plan for Career and Technical Education already has tools that can help districts and local school sites measure the status and effectiveness of their CTE programs. Existing quality criteria identified in the State Plan provide a great foundation on which to build a more comprehensive and responsive accountability system.

Policy leaders must pay attention to the need to strengthen the “career-ready” status of all of our students in meaningful and effective ways. We can no longer afford to ignore the reality that employability and career readiness do matter – for the economic growth of our citizens and our state.

Barbara Nemko has been the superintendent of schools for Napa County since April 1997. She served on the Transition Team for State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, and is currently a member of his Technology Task Force. In previous administrations she served on several state boards including the State Plan for Career and Technical Education and the Master Plan.

Gary Hoachlander: Talk about college, career readiness together

Gary Hoachlander
Gary Hoachlander

College- and career-ready: as we dig into the new rhetoric surrounding today’s high school graduates, I hope we will focus on the word “and.” By exploring the intersections and connections between college and career readiness, we have the opportunity to expand our thinking about effective learning in both the classroom and the workplace.

An example: At a Health Careers Academy in a southern California high school, seniors spend three mornings a week in a group internship at local medical facilities. One morning I observed student interns at Kaiser Permanente learning how to perform electrocardiograms. Collaborating with the students’ classroom teacher, a physician’s assistant walked the interns through how to attach electrodes to the body and how to read the electrocardiogram results.

That afternoon, back in medical sciences biology class, the students focused on the human cardiovascular system and the role electricity plays in regulating the heart. They learned how different forms of heart disease can interfere with this electrical system, and they dug deeper into electrocardiography and related technologies such as pacemakers and artificial hearts.

This strong connection between real-world learning at a working hospital and the related academics later that afternoon in biology class did not, of course, happen by accident. It took a thoughtful, skilled teacher to structure that engaging learning experience and help her students integrate their hands-on experience with a classroom lesson.

We call this kind of integration Linked Learning, an approach that transforms students’ high school experience by bringing together strong academics, demanding technical education, and real-world experience. We know that high-quality Linked Learning produces greater student engagement, improved achievement, and a higher likelihood of postsecondary enrollment and increased earnings.

Presently this kind of learning tends to happen in spite of the system rather than because of it. Making it an integral part of student learning will depend on broadening our current accountability measures beyond standardized test results in isolated academic subjects. In the long run, this will require new balanced assessment methods that gauge student performance on interdisciplinary projects and industry-generated design challenges.

In the short run, we can look at ways to expand California’s Academic Performance Index to recognize such things as a juried student project, an internship evaluated by industry professionals, or completion of a certified Linked Learning Pathway or an integrated program of study offered through California’s Partnership Academies, Regional Occupational Programs and Centers, or standards-based career and technical education career pathways.

By connecting college and career readiness, we can change teaching and learning in ways that help today’s young people leave high school prepared for lasting success in both postsecondary education and career – no longer just one or the other.

Gary Hoachlander is president of ConnectEd: The California Center for College and Career. He began his career as a brakeman for the Western Maryland Railroad and, since completing his doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley, has devoted his professional life to helping young people learn by doing – connecting education to the opportunities, challenges, and many different rewards to be found through work. To learn more, visit www.connectedcalifornia.org.

Devin Blizzard: Blend specific sector, broad interpersonal skills

Devin Blizzard
Devin Blizzard

True career readiness demands that an individual possess complex, vocationally tied individual assets. Having been a STEM and Career Technical educator since 1998, I can offer a perspective from workforce employers and young professionals.

Not surprisingly, work ethic and interpersonal skills remain relevant.  Employers increasingly demand employees who can contribute to productive teams. Learning aptitude, responsibility, passion, perseverance, organizational skills, and professional appearance continue to be held in high regard. Organizations are increasingly investing in employees who demonstrate problem solving and innovation skills.

Employers understand that substantial investments must be made in college graduates to develop them into valuable contributors. Employers are also expressing concern that potential workforce members frequently do not possess the specific skill sets to serve jobs in their regions. In the Central Valley, a skills mismatch exists between a workforce formerly heavily invested in construction and employers seeking skilled machinists, medical technicians, automotive technicians, and other specialized tradespeople.

Deciphering the functional meaning of true career readiness should be done career by career. Only then may we responsibly develop ways to measure competencies aligned with employee success in a specific field. There is a growing trend to develop policy and fund initiatives that support a general career readiness ideal.

Because the career readiness construct is such a general term, any endeavor to quantify it will be at best a generic approximation. These things said, attempts to develop an exam grounded in career readiness and a national set of Common Core standards hold promise to be much better than our present arsenal of standardized tests.

Traditionally, standardized tests have surveyed students for their breadth of knowledge. I believe improvements are on the horizon. The SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium is endeavoring to build a next generation of assessments aligned to English Language Arts and Mathematics. Their aim is to infuse real-world-aligned problem solving tasks and simulated project-based elements in an assessment that  can be administered economically online. It’s ambitious, and the new test’s architects admittedly don’t know how they’re going to do these things. But it’s promising to see test developers aspiring toward a better instrument.

We are moving strategically as a nation toward better assessments of global career readiness. Successful prototypes should inform instruction and learning. A score on a singular readiness assessment should never serve as the scorecard by which society determines who is invited to access college, career, or the global competitive economy.

A school administrator for two decades, Devin Blizzard is the  chief executive officer at the Center for Advanced Research and Technology (CART), an academic career technical education pathway school that is operated jointly by Clovis and Fresno Unified School Districts. He has served as the director of the Central Valley Robotics and FIRST senior mentor since founding CVR in 2002. He has presented at regional and national STEM, Career Technical, and Model Schools conferences.

Should California community colleges prioritize enrollment to help students graduate earlier?

By the end of this week, the Student Success Act of 2012 should be officially introduced in the Legislature, launching the debate on how to improve success rates at California’s community colleges.  The Act is necessary to implement some of the 22 recommendations of the Student Success Task Force, which spent the last year developing the proposals and soliciting feedback at dozens of public hearings across the state.

California’s community colleges enroll about 2.6 million students at 112 campuses and have a broad mission. But the completion rates for students seeking associate degrees, certificates, and transfer credits is disappointing. Less than 54 percent of degree-seeking students ever reach their goals, and the rates are much lower for African American and Latino students, and the vast majority of students who have to complete basic skills courses.

Although the Community College Board of Governors approved the task force recommendations, some of the proposals remain divisive, particularly the plans that give priority enrollment to students who move more quickly through community college and, conversely, push the other students to the end of the line.

We have four commentaries on this issue from people who have been closely involved in the process over the last year. Community College Board of Governors member Peter MacDougall served as chair of the Student Success Task Force. Michelle Pilati gave testimony at many of the hearings as president of the California Community Colleges Academic Senate, as did Michele Siqueiros, executive director of the Campaign for College Opportunity, and Emily Kinner, the president of the California Community College Association of Student Trustees. We welcome your thoughts on the issue.

Peter MacDougall: New enrollment priorities necessary and fair

Peter MacDougall
Peter MacDougall

The question that is posed is one that the Student Success Task Force studied in great detail as it developed recommendations designed to help California community college students succeed and achieve their educational goals on time.

It used to be that community colleges could serve almost anyone who wanted to enroll in a wide offering of courses – whether the goal was to get a degree or certificate, transfer to a four-year institution, or take enrichment courses. However, severe budget cuts have substantially reduced the number of courses colleges can offer. Yet enrollment policies remain in place throughout much of the system that allow hobbyists and students who have accumulated large numbers of units to register ahead of first-time students seeking certificates, associate degrees in career and technical fields, and transfer preparation.

This is not acceptable; hundreds of thousands of first-time students, recent graduates of California’s high schools, have been turned away because they could not register for a single course.

The task force, recognizing that financial constraints have forced colleges to limit their educational offerings, concluded that a new set of priorities is needed to guide enrollment. The proposed policies will give priority to students seeking courses that address the core mission of our colleges: career technical education, completing lower division transfer requirements, and basic skills and English as a second language. These students will also be expected to take a diagnostic assessment, participate in orientation, and develop an education plan.

All students will need to identify a program of study within three semesters or they will lose their registration priority. In addition, students who accumulate more than 100 units, not including English as a second language and basic skills courses, would lose their enrollment priority.

Research shows that students who develop an education plan and identify a course of study early in their academic careers are more likely to succeed. Students, of course, will be able to change their course of study should their interests and goals change.

Given the substantial increase in the expense of pursuing both a four-year degree and career and technical training programs, it is imperative that California ensure low-cost access to the high-quality educational opportunities provided by our community colleges.

Altering enrollment prioritization is an efficient way of encouraging successful student behaviors and ensuring that we intelligently ration classes. While these policy proposals may have been born at a time of financial crisis in our colleges, they are fair and sensible reforms that should be made regardless of budget considerations.

Peter MacDougall, Ph.D., is chair of the California Community Colleges Student Success Task Force and is a member of the California Community Colleges Board of Governors. He served as superintendent and president of the Santa Barbara Community College District from 1981 to 2002. Prior to that, Dr. MacDougall served as dean of students at Los Angeles Pierce College and director of educational services for the Los Angeles Community College District. From 1968 to 1975, he was associate dean of students and a professor of counseling psychology in the graduate school of education at Rutgers State University of New Jersey.

Michelle L. Pilati: Deciding who’s worthy conflicts with mission

Michelle Pilati
Michelle Pilati

Prioritization is not a simple “do we do it or not” option; it is a multidimensional tool that can be used in effective and ineffective ways. The notion of using prioritization as a means to “enable students to graduate earlier” is simplistic at its best and fundamentally flawed at its worst. In addition to the implication that “graduation” (i.e., degree completion) is our only mission, the factors that lead students to take “too long” are complex and, often, institutional. Unit accumulation need not reflect a student “wandering” or engaging in avocational pursuits. Students may accumulate “excess” units as they strive to identify their goals, enroll in classes that do not apply towards their goal due to an inability to get into needed classes, or find a particular faculty member is so engaging that they want to learn more from him or her.

Putting aside the idea that proper prioritization will force students to establish a goal and stick with it (college grads out there – how many times did you change your major?), could we use prioritization as a means of helping students to attain their goals? Of course we could, but how do we go about this in an equitable way? Who is more “worthy”: a veteran, a new student, a student with two classes left to complete a transfer degree, a student with four classes left to complete a certificate in automotive technology, or a new immigrant who wishes to learn English? While the focus of conversation about this topic has often been about who should not have priority, no one has considered the universe of students who have worthy educational needs but have goals that may not be consistent with the quantitative definitions of success that we are compelled to work with.

Ideally, students would have priority access to the courses that are consistent with their goals; the student who needs a given class in order to graduate would trump the one who is taking it for pleasure, and the English-language learner would have priority for those classes to help her attain her goal. The conversation about prioritization has yet to really begin.

Michelle L. Pilati, Ph.D., is the president of the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges (ASCCC) and a professor of psychology at Rio Hondo College, where she has been full-time faculty since 1999, and served as Distance Education Coordinator and Curriculum Chair. At the national level she has pursued her interest in online education, serving as an editor for MERLOT (Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching) and  co-editor of the MERLOT peer-reviewed journal, JOLT. Prior to her current position, she served as a visiting professor at UC Irvine, conducted postdoctoral research at UCLA’s Drug Abuse Research Center, and worked as an academic counselor in UCLA’s Department of Psychology. She completed her doctorate in psychology at UCLA.

Michele Siqueiros: Prioritizing fulfills promise of college opportunity

Michele Siqueiros
Michele Siqueiros

Students are taking longer and longer to graduate from community college, and that’s due to several factors, including devastating budget cuts that forced the system to eliminate thousands of courses and turn away an estimated 200,000 students last fall. For those who do get in, researchers in our 2010 Divided We Fail report found that after six years, only three in ten degree-seeking students obtained a vocational certificate, earned an associate degree, or transferred to a four-year university.

We must continue to demand adequate funding for higher education, but we can also be smarter with the resources available. Prioritizing course offerings is one way to do that. There are daily stories about community college students unable to get the classes they need for their major or program. In a year when more than 20,000 course sections were cut – including basic skills, transfer-level English and math, career pathway courses, and ESL – the following were still available: Playing the Ukulele for Older Adults; Ceramics: An Option for Friday Night; Latin for Lifelong Learners; Reminiscing; Reclaiming Joy: Meeting Your Inner Child; and Finding Buried Treasure: Organizing Your Clutter. You get the picture.

California no longer has the resources to subsidize students attending community college for recreational purposes. Prioritizing enrollment for students with a goal and a plan to complete it is smart. They will finish community college faster, freeing up spaces for the next class of high school graduates who can’t find a spot at a UC or Cal State campus, can’t afford the higher fees, or simply prefer the preparation, flexibility, and location of their local community college.

Under the current system, some students are forced to enroll in courses they do not need in order to keep their financial aid and/or their unit count high because the system rewards the accumulation of units with registration priority instead of prioritizing students who are trying to transfer, get a degree, or earn a vocational certificate.

The community college system has an opportunity to reengineer itself with the recent Student Success Task Force recommendations. The recommendations include prioritized enrollment and aligning course offerings. They move us toward  a core value many of us believe: that the promise of college opportunity is fulfilled only if students are successful at getting through college. Prioritizing our enrollment and course offerings is one way to start students off right and prepare them to cross the finish line.

Michele Siqueiros is the executive director of the Campaign for College Opportunity, a nonprofit organization that works to expand access and success in higher education for California students by promoting policy solutions with the support of a broad-based, bipartisan statewide coalition. She was recently appointed by Governor Jerry Brown to the California Student Aid Commission. She is a board member of the Institute for Higher Education Policy and the Alliance for a Better Community and serves on the core planning team for the Latino Student Success initiative led by Long Beach City College.

Emily Kinner: Plan could force out neediest students

Emily Kinner
Emily Kinner

The Student Success Act currently being drafted is of deep concern for many community college students. The legislation is modeled on the Student Success Task Force recommendations recently approved by the California Community Colleges Board of Governors.

While we believe many of the recommendations would bring positive changes, the California Community College Association of Student Trustees (CCCAST) has voted to oppose this package because, contrary to its stated focus on improving student success, we believe it will have the unintended consequence of pushing out students who are less likely to succeed, therefore superficially improving the success statistics of our system.

The proposed changes to the Board of Governors’ fee waivers are one example. In order to continue to qualify for a waiver, students would have to identify a degree, certificate, transfer, or career advancement goal; meet institutional satisfactory progress standards; and have no more than 110 units, not including basic skills and ESL courses. This could make community college unaffordable for our most underserved students, who may take longer to get through college because they have to take time out from school to work in order to support their families. These students end up taking classes they don’t need in order to keep their financial aid, but could wind up with more than 110 units as a result. Without the fee waivers, we are concerned that many of these students will drop out for good. At a recent hearing of the Joint Committee on Higher Education in Sacramento, Assemblymember Marty Block, a Democrat from San Diego, called the recommendation the “death penalty” for some of our neediest students.

During this time of fiscal crisis, with the toll it has taken on public education in the state of California, we appreciate the need for a reevaluation of how to better serve California Community College students. We also understand that there are greater problems with our government’s fiscal structures that can’t be addressed within the context of the Student Success Task Force.

We respect the efforts and dedication of the task force members during their yearlong deliberations regarding student success, as well as their attempts to remedy the fiscal problems of our community college system. We appreciate that our voices have been heard and have helped in the more positive changes since the first drafts. However, we feel more time is needed to consider proposals in order to make sure we protect our most vulnerable populations because, ultimately, student success will be achieved only when the goal is student access.

Emily Kinner serves as student trustee for the Foothill-De Anza Community College District and president of the California Community College Association of Student Trustees (CCCAST). She is a Rappaport intern at the De Anza Institute for Community and Civic Engagement. Since 2011, she has led the De Anza EcoPass Campaign for affordable transportation and served as coalitions coordinator for the “No on PROP 23” CALPIRG campaign. She is currently an organizer for the “Occupy for Education at De Anza” project, advocating for access, equity, and affordability in the California community college system.

Should we switch to weighted student funding and do it now?

In next year’s budget, Gov. Jerry Brown proposes to rearrange school funding based on a weighted student formula – a concept that State Board of Education President Michael Kirst fleshed out in a 2008 brief. Beyond a flat grant for all students, districts with large concentrations of English learners and low-income students would get a premium of potentially thousands of dollars more per student. Districts would decide how the money would be used. Under the initial plan, Brown would phase in the new system over five years but would not hold districts financially harmless; doing so would require new money or a  long timeline to implement. As a result,  there would  be district winners and losers. Proponents praise the transparency and equity of the new system. Skeptics have other concerns, as you will read. (See an earlier TOP-Ed post for details on how it would work.)

Four individuals who have given the issue much thought are Merrill Vargo, executive director of Pivot Learning Partners, which is involved in a weighted student formula demonstration project; Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution who has written extensively about school finance; John Affeldt, managing attorney of the nonprofit law firm Public Advocates and a leading voice on education equity; and Gary Ravani, a frequent TOPed contributor who is a retired middle school teacher and vice president of the California Federation of Teachers.

We welcome your comments as well.

Merrill Vargo: Why now is the hour for a weighted student formula

Merrill Vargo
Merrill Vargo

Most advocates of weighted student funding think that the reason to do it is that schools are over-regulated, while skeptics point out that schools already have substantial categorical program flexibility – flexibility that was granted, as it often is, as a sort of consolation prize when budgets were slashed.

This points to the first reason why now is the hour to move to a weighted student approach. Every veteran school administrator knows this drill: When budgets are cut, policymakers discover the value of flexibility and local leaders get to make the tough calls about what programs to eliminate; but when new money flows back in, it comes in the form of new programs. Without moving to a weighted student formula now, economic recovery will inevitably bring new money in the form of new programs, each with its own new regulations. This alone is sufficient reason to argue that now is the hour for a weighted student formula. But there is more.

Even critics of categorical programs rarely point out the economic costs of the way we currently fund our schools. Categorical programs are a recipe for inefficiency: Funding schools the way we do is like paying someone in gift cards rather than dollars. Fifty dollars at Target, $100 at Safeway, $75 at Macy’s…. Somebody might manage to spend money this way without waste, but at best it would be a lot of work. In our current budget crisis, we just can’t afford to make it harder for districts to use money efficiently. And the currently flexibility is only a partial – and temporary – fix. But there’s more yet.

As executive director of Pivot Learning Partners, I’ve had the chance to observe what two districts – LAUSD and Twin Rivers Unified, in north Sacramento – have actually done with the idea of a weighted student formula. Both LAUSD and Twin Rivers have made an important commitment that is implied by the reform put forward by the governor, but not actually included: They have committed to creating a system in which the “weights” dictate not only how much money flows from Sacramento to the school district, but also how much money flows to schools.

Surprisingly to those unfamiliar with education politics, this does not result from the current system of categorical programs; school districts tend to spend dollars intended for poor children on the schools they attend – but they balance this out by spending a disproportionate amount of unrestricted dollars on the schools without poor children. Local politics dictates that everybody gets the same amount, even when some students need more. The commitment by school districts to establish policies and processes to do something else is difficult in any circumstances, but it is far easier when people are arguing only about a principle. Once there is real money on the table, this discussion becomes far harder.

So that’s three reasons why today is the best possible time for a weighted student formula.

Merrill Vargo is both an experienced academic and a practical expert in the field of school reform. Before founding Pivot Learning Partners (then known as the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative, or BASRC) in 1995, Dr. Vargo spent nine years teaching English in a variety of settings, managed her own consulting firm, and served as executive director of the California Institute for School Improvement, a Sacramento-based nonprofit that provides staff development and policy analysis for educators. She also served as Director of Regional Programs and Special Projects for the California Department of Education.

Eric Hanushek: Liberals and conservatives are equally naïve

Eric Hanushek
Eric Hanushek

Weighted student funding has become a core idea of both liberals and conservatives. Liberals like the idea because, by their vision, it would push funding to schools that served more disadvantaged populations. These schools have traditionally engaged in less actual spending than more advantaged schools because they employ more rookie teachers, who come with lower salaries. Conservatives like the idea because, by their vision, it will push funding to charter schools that traditionally have received less than equal shares of the local funding for schools. Both groups see weighted school funding as providing more funds to the schools that they focus upon, and both see this as leading to improvements in achievement.

Both groups seem naïvely wrong. The liberals ignore the fact that local schools have no control over salaries of teachers or, for the most part, over the choice of teachers. Thus, the added funding does not allow them to make choices that improve the quality of teachers in a world where the quality of teachers is unrelated to the salary of individual teachers. The conservatives, focused on the funding from the state, ignore the fact that local funding would not necessarily flow with the child under a weighted student funding system, so that redirecting the state funding would not achieve the parity that they seek for charter schools.

Both positions also rely upon an untested view of politics that would lead to improved allocation of resources if only the actual flows of dollars were more apparent and more real. We have no reason to believe that their vision will occur.

The overall idea of weighted student funding – that some students require more resources than others because they require extra educational services – makes sense at the district level. But, hoping that this creates the right incentives if it is taken to the individual school seems naïve.

The thing that both liberals and conservatives really desire is improved achievement of all students. Thus, it is much more likely that rewarding success, rather than relying on a naïve model of political reaction, would work.

Here is the simple idea (developed in a book by Alfred Lindseth and me, Schoolhouses, Courthouses, and Statehouses) that changes incentives. Provide funding to districts that adjusts the base amount for each student – disadvantaged students, English language learners, or special education students. But, having provided funding that recognizes different needs to provide additional services, reward districts that promote more achievement of their students. And, don’t reward students who fail to attain higher achievement. In other words, provide incentives for greater achievement and do not reward failure.

Schools will not improve until there are greater incentives for improving student achievement.

Eric Hanushek is the Paul and Jean Hanna Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. He has been a leader in the development of economic analysis of educational issues. His most recent book, Schoolhouses, Courthouses, and Statehouses: Solving the Funding-Achievement Puzzle in America’s Public Schools, describes how improved school finance policies can be used to meet our achievement goals.

John Affeldt: Money must follow the student

John Affeldt
John Affeldt

Putting aside the key fact that the governor’s school finance reform plan fails to address the woeful underfunding of California public education, the governor’s plan should be applauded for proposing a more rational and equitable finance system than the one we currently have. The most alarming distributional shortcoming is its failure to make sure districts actually spend the weighted funds on the needy students who generate those dollars for their districts. Under the proposal, low-income students and English learners become a convenient mechanism for a district to receive more money to spend “flexibly” however it wants — including on students who are neither poor nor learning English. That is very troubling. The extra funds generated by these students need primarily to be directed to the schools where these students are.

Absent a requirement that the money follows the student, the proposal risks being worse than what we currently have. There are too many categoricals in California, it is true. But let us not forget that among the key reasons they originally came into being were to correct the fact that the neediest and often least politically powerful students were being overlooked by unfettered district “discretion.” More than one educator has privately conceded to me that absent rules requiring funds be spent in equal or greater measure on poor or EL students, districts will stray, pulled by pressures from adults — be they influential parents, effective local unions, or administrators with a different agenda.

This is doable. As Mike Kirst noted recently on KQED, Florida has implemented such a system. And, too, the concept is not all that different than requirements found with federal Title I, special education, and Economic Impact Aid dollars that they be spent on the needy students who generated them.

Like the proposed weighted funding itself, requiring that the money follow needy students to their schools can be phased in over time. This would allow districts to readjust their too often inequitable distribution of teacher quality dollars where typically the more experienced and expensive teachers teach the higher-performing students. If more expensive veterans do not want to move, at least the schools with concentrations of needy students will be able to purchase the extra staff that will provide for smaller classes and supplemental supports. In Oakland, which has been experimenting with site-based, weighted student funding, such measures have helped attract and retain young teachers where before they quickly moved on to the more affluent schools. Shoring up resource provision, including teacher quality, in low-income schools is the only way we will be able to begin to close the achievement gaps.  Only holding schools accountable on the back end — after the funds have been spent and gaps have not been addressed — will too often prove too little too late.

John Affeldt is managing attorney at Public Advocates Inc., a nonprofit law firm and advocacy organization that challenges the systemic causes of poverty and racial discrimination by strengthening community voices in public policy. He is a leading voice on educational equity issues and has been recognized by California Lawyer Magazine as a California Attorney of the Year, The Recorder as an Attorney of the Year, and a Leading Plaintiff Lawyer in America by Lawdragon Magazine.

Gary Ravani: Rearranging spreadsheets  on a sinking budget

Gary Ravani
Gary Ravani

The governor’s plan for weighted student funding, sending more education dollars to districts that have more “needy” (based on English learners and low-income populations) students is intriguing. Obviously, students of greater need require more educational supports to have a greater chance of playing on a level academic field.

As noted in a recent TOP-Ed  piece by Kathryn Baron on the Quality Counts report by Ed Week, compared to most states, California already does a pretty good job in this area: “The state’s … average means that poorer districts receive more funding than wealthy ones on a weighted per-pupil basis.” This does not mean that there are not some significant differences in school funding under California’s “revenue limit income” funding program that favor wealthier areas. If one takes into account the per-pupil funding available to “basic aid” districts, the disparities are even greater.

The problem is that California is relatively equitable in how it underfunds the majority of its students. The Quality Counts report places this state at 47th of the 50 states in per-pupil spending, some $3,000 below the national average in “adjusted” dollars. The RAND Corp., as well as others, cite California’s “unadjusted” dollars expenditure per pupil sinking below the national average in the mid-1980s and sinking lower ever since.

However admirable the governor’s weighted funding plan might be (and it is admirable in principle), this does not seem to be the appropriate time to consider it. Being 47th in per-pupil spending may well be the high point for some time. Even if the governor’s proposed tax initiative passes, it is not likely to improve the immediate school funding situation.

The new funding plan proposes to set a base of $6,000 per student with enhancements based on the number of English learners and economically disadvantaged students. This new variable, and possible cut in funding, is to be calculated by districts already being asked to budget for further cuts next year on top of the cuts from the last few years. The weighted plan does allow for implementation over time, but what are the prospects for improved funding “over time”?  Where are there signs, other than the proposed Millionaire’s Tax Initiative that will plug some holes in the eviscerated education budget, that the state is ready to live up to its obligations to its public schools and children?

The equitable and responsible action, before embarking on reorganizing student funding, would be for California to commit itself, publicly and legislatively, to bringing its education spending up to the top tier in the nation, reflecting its international ranking as the ninth largest economy in the world and the nation’s wealthiest state. Only then can all  school districts be “held harmless,” and real improvements to educational programs as well as improved student achievement take place. Without the fundamentals of an adequate educational revenue stream in place, funding “reform” that potentially pits one stressed school district against another stressed school district is all just a matter of rearranging the fiscal spreadsheets on the sinking education budget.

Gary Ravani taught middle school for more than 30 years in Petaluma. He served for 19 years as president of the Petaluma Federation of Teachers, is currently president of the California Federation of Teachers’ Early Childhood/K-12 Council, and is a vice president of the CFT. He chairs the CFT’s Education Issues Committee.

Should California have second thoughts on Common Core?

With new assessments scheduled for 2014-15, many districts and state education planners are becoming immersed in preparing for the Common Core State Standards in math and English language arts. California is one of 46 states to adopt them and has a lead role in one of two state consortia creating the new tests. Faced with potentially steep adoption costs and a conservative backlash to national standards, a few states may back out. California legislators, the State Board, and Gov. Brown have shown no intent of reversing course. Nonetheless, we thought we’d take the pulse again: Is moving ahead with Common Core adoption a wise move?

Advocating for the Common Core are David Plank, executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), and Jonathan Raymond, superintendent of the Sacramento City Unified School District. Arguing against are Eric Premack, founder and director of the Charter Schools Development Center in Sacramento, and Ze’ev Wurman, a software engineer who served on the state commission that reviewed the Common Core standards in 2010.

What do you think?

David Plank: Once-in-a-generation opportunity

David Plank
David Plank

Implementation of the Common Core State Standards is a big step forward for California’s education system, for three main reasons:

The Common Core are better standards. They are comparable in rigor to California’s current standards, but they emphasize academic content and skills that were previously neglected. Where California’s standards were superior to the Common Core, the State Board of Education added California standards to them. The Common Core standards focus explicitly on ensuring that students leave high school ready for college, and grade-by-grade standards are organized systematically to support students’ progress toward that goal. This “vertical alignment” makes it possible to track students’ progress over time, measuring how much students have learned, as opposed to how much they know at a certain moment in time. Grade-level assessments aligned to the Common Core can provide early warnings if students begin to fall short of expectations.

  • The Common Core support better assessments. Adoption was a necessary condition for California to take advantage of new multi-state assessments aligned to the new standards. The computer-adaptive assessments that California will implement in 2014-15 will include complex performance tasks in addition to multiple-choice items, and will provide much fuller and more accurate information on how students are progressing than we get from our current assessments.
  • The Common Core create economies of scale, and open the way to the digital future. The Common Core have been adopted by 46 states, which makes it possible for California to benefit from curricular resources and instructional materials and tools developed anywhere across the country. Many of these are “open source” and essentially free to teachers and schools.  Adopting  the Common Core will save the state money in the short run, but it will become even more valuable as the role of digital technologies in education inexorably grows. The producers of digital materials and tools can align them to the  Common Core rather than to 50 different sets of standards, which will greatly accelerate the development of these resources and reduce their cost.

What will it cost to implement the Common Core? Some big numbers have been suggested, but these only make sense if we suppose that the alternative to Common Core implementation is spending – and doing – nothing. In fact, however, much of the spending associated with implementation – for the adoption and purchase of new materials, for the development of new and better assessments, and for the professional development of teachers – would be necessary whether California adopted new standards or kept those already in place. The benefits of adopting Common Core will surely exceed the marginal cost of change.

Implementation of the Common Core presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity for California educators to do things differently and better. Taking advantage of this opportunity is neither simple nor cheap, but the chance will not come again soon, and the state is wise to move forward.

David N. Plank is executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE). Before joining PACE in January 2007, he was a Professor at Michigan State University, where he founded and directed the Education Policy Center. He was previously on the faculties at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Texas at Dallas, where he taught courses and conducted research in the areas of educational finance and policy. He has published widely in a number of different fields; his current interests include the role of the state in education, and the relationship between academic research and public policy.

Eric Premack: Path to another ill-fated systemic reform

Eric Premack
Eric Premack

Nearly 15 years after adopting state academic content standards, aligned curriculum, and a standards-based high-stakes assessment system, California has precious little to show for its massive investments in “systemic” education reform. Yes, Academic Performance Index scores and proficiency rates are up, suggesting many students have acquired additional basic academic proficiency. At first blush, this sounds like progress.

Sobering data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests, however, suggest stalled progress. Though NAEP tests aren’t tightly aligned with California’s state standards, they reflect a loose national consensus and, for the past several years, are nearly flat. These results strongly suggest the apparent increases in student achievement on California’s state-specific tests stem from teaching to the test and narrowing of the curriculum rather than real increases in learning.

The price of standards-based reform is very high, including costly textbook and material adoptions, massive investments in staff development, testing, and often-disruptive interventions. Off-budget costs are much higher, including lost instructional flexibility, decimation of career/tech-prep instruction, millions of hours of lost instruction, and turning the teaching profession into a mechanized, assembly-line job (and we wonder why “smart” kids don’t join the teaching profession). Worst of all, a half-generation of students who aren’t engaged by the mile-wide, inch-deep, textbook-driven modes of instruction are lost.

Despite this track record, California is bellying up to drink a second pitcher of systemic reform Kool-Aid. It adopted new Common Core standards in a hasty, unsuccessful bid for federal Race to the Top funding and is now signing on to implement costly curriculum, testing, and other changes.

California is heading down this costly and ineffective path when it simply cannot afford to do so. Even if the systemic reform track record suggested success, ongoing implementation should be subject to cost-benefit analysis relative to other reforms and options. The State Board of Education and Legislature should hit the “pause” button and reconsider California’s commitment to a second round of standards-based reform. They might retain arguably essential elementary grades reading, arithmetic, and science standards, but should make state standards optional in upper grades to create options for high-demand career/tech-prep programs as well as other alternative programs such as multiple foreign languages, the arts, and in-depth critical thinking and analysis. The benefit may be large in terms of a richer range of programmatic options, student and teacher engagement, and a more comprehensive range of achievement measures – at little or no cost.

Eric Premack is the founder and executive director of the Charter Schools Development Center, the nation’s first charter school resource center and a leading provider of policy expertise, leadership training, advocacy, and technical assistance to charter schools, charter-granting agencies, and policy makers. Before founding CSDC, Premack provided consulting services to hundreds of California school districts at School Services of California, Inc., and was a nonpartisan education policy and finance analyst for California’s Office of the Legislative Analyst.

Jonathan Raymond: Strategic start for school transformation

Jonathan Raymond
Jonathan Raymond

To be globally competitive in the 21st century, our students must be equipped with the knowledge, skills, and behaviors that will poise them for success beyond our K-12 system. Long gone are the days when a high school diploma and a factory job were the paths to attaining middle-class status. Yet according to a report by the Public Policy Institute of California, only 56 percent of California students enroll in a post-secondary institution after high school. This rate fails to address the projected workforce demand for a million new, highly educated employees by 2025.

What does this trend mean for California? Simply that the current approach to educating our children is not working. Transforming our educational system must lead the way. Although there are no simple solutions to this challenge, improving the career- and college-readiness of our high school graduates is a strategic starting place. To that end, the Common Core State Standards are the right place to begin this journey. Standards influence essential components of our educational system, such as curriculum design, curricular resources, assessments, and teaching practice. The adoption and implementation of the Common Core is a vehicle to transform teaching and learning. These standards are clearer and fewer, giving students and teachers the time to master them. They are also more rigorous and aligned vertically across all grades.

Inherent in the Common Core are skills our young people will need to be successful in work and life: critical thinking, problem solving, communication, teamwork, and technological literacy. These vital skills and deeper content will transform our teachers as well as our students. No teacher’s manual or pre-packaged curriculum will suffice. Our teachers must themselves engage in collaborative critical thinking and problem solving to develop assignments, performance tasks, and assessments for students to master.

At Sacramento City Unified, we have begun to implement Common Core State Standards, albeit in a scaled fashion. We do not have the necessary resources to fully roll out the standards at this time, but it is important to start somewhere. For us the work has begun, with a cohort examining English language arts. To reduce expenses associated with planning and training, we are leveraging relationships with partners and seeking outside funding. Of course, all funds are at a premium in this economic climate.

Keeping the “gold” in California’s future is directly linked to the capacity of its educational system to meet the demands of this age and the anticipated rise of a new “creative class.” California can’t wait for other states to take the lead. We must begin transforming what our students are learning and how we are teaching them. The Common Core is an important step in this direction.

Jonathan Raymond has been superintendent of the Sacramento City Unified School District, California’s 11th largest school district with 47,000 students since 2009. Before his appointment, Raymond, a graduate of Tufts University, George Mason Law School, and the Broad Superintendents Academy, served as Chief Accountability Officer for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. His experience extends beyond education: He was president and CEO of the nonprofit, Boston-based Commonwealth Corporation; a deputy director in the Massachusetts Department of Labor and Workforce Development; and a private-practice attorney specializing in business and labor law.

Ze’ev Wurman: Wasting billions for weaker standards

Ze'ev Wurman
Ze'ev Wurman

The Common Core standards are mediocre: They are clearly better than those of about 30 states, as good as those of 15 about  states, and clearly worse than those of three states, California among them. Despite claims to the contrary, Common Core is not on par with international high achievers, nor will meeting Common Core qualify students for entry to either CSU or UC. In fact, California had to significantly supplement the standards just to close the gap between the Common Core and our current standards, which incidentally are based on those of high-achieving countries and will qualify students for CSU.

EdSource estimated the implementation cost of the Common Core for California to be $1.6 billion. That estimate does not include the massive technology infusion needed for the federally peddled national assessment, nor does it include the cost of restructuring the teacher preparation courses, the licensure examination, and principal training. Recently, the state Department of Education published its initial estimates of implementation costs. If we just take three basic numbers from them – $203 per student in new textbooks in K-8, $2,000 per each math and English teacher training, and $1,000 for English Learning training for almost every teacher – this comes to $850 million, $360 million, and $260 million respectively, close to EdSource’s original estimate.

Based on the number of existing classroom computers in the state, we need to spend $220 million to buy additional computers to bring their number to the minimal ratio of one computer to four tested students, and another $60 million to install and wire them, to provide bandwidth, and to train the staff. These sums amount to one-time spending over the next 2-3 years; afterward, we will need to spend an additional $35 million annually for assessment (at an optimistic $10 per student more than today) and $75 million more for computer support and amortization. All this just to … bring us back to a state worse than where we are today.

What is the logic behind adopting the Common Core, anyway? Do we really believe that a diverse country like ours needs some central planner in Washington, D.C., to tell us what to teach in our California schools? Canada and Australia don’t think so, yet they are high educational achievers. Are we really willing to sacrifice our independence just to satisfy Obama and Duncan in Washington? And for those who think so today, do they also look forward to the day when President Gingrich and his Secretary of Education will dictate our curriculum from Washington?

California should bail out and return to its own standards as soon as possible. Losing the Race to the Top was a blessing in disguise; we should now take advantage of it.

Ze’ev Wurman, a software engineer from Palo Alto, was a senior policy adviser in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development from 2007-09 and served on the California commission that reviewed the Common Core standards in 2010. He also serves on the panel that reviews mathematics test items for the California standards-based tests, and was a member of the California State mathematics curriculum framework committee.

How should we measure our schools if not by API?

Ever since California and the federal government placed the weight of a school’s success on standardized test scores with the Public Schools Accountability Act and No Child Left Behind, there’s been a backlash against overreliance on high-stakes testing.

The question of what else should be considered in rating schools is the topic of this week’s forum, “Yes, but….”

Our opinion and policy makers are Darrell Steinberg, President pro Tempore of the State Senate; David B. Cohen, a National Board-certified high school English teacher; education lobbyist and legal counsel Fred Jones; former California Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig; and Jeff Camp, chair of the Education Circle of the Full Circle Fund philanthropy organization.

We hope you’ll keep the conversation going with other readers, and use the comment section to ask questions of this week’s contributors.

Darrell Steinberg: Reflect a well-rounded education

Darrell Steinberg
Darrell Steinberg

The Academic Performance Index has served a worthy purpose over the past 11 years, but let’s face it: It is, at best, an incomplete indicator of student achievement and school performance.

Gov. Brown’s veto of Senate Bill 547 left in place a measurement tool that sends one signal, and one signal only, to our schools: Get your standardized test scores up. At the elementary level, the API is almost exclusively focused on scores in just two subjects, English language arts and mathematics. At the middle and high school levels, no credit is given for keeping students on track to graduation.

Striving for the perception of steady improvement under this narrow accountability regime, many of our schools have responded with a laser focus on bubble tests. Such focus comes at the expense of a whole range of offerings that parents, the business community, and students themselves value: college and career preparation at the high school level; science, history, arts, and music across the grades; physical education; and opportunities for leadership and community engagement.

We need an accountability system that reflects the elements of a well-rounded education, and that connects public education to the needs of the 21st Century economy. I sought to begin that work by replacing the API with a new Education Quality Index, balancing test results with other important measures of school success. I have invited the Govenor to join me in crafting a new approach for next year. At minimum, it should contain the following elements:

  • Rapid implementation of existing law, which already requires that the API include graduation rates. Their inclusion is critical to underscoring the importance of student engagement and support in both middle and high school;
  • Greater emphasis on student achievement in science and history, to temper the overemphasis on English language arts and math;
  • A shift away from the existing API decile system (ranking schools relative to one another from 1 to 10) in favor of a scoring system pegged to an absolute standard, which creates a more accurate representation of performance.

I have worked on few issues in my legislative career that garnered more support than this attempt to ensure the state sends more appropriate signals about what it wants schools to accomplish. Republicans and Democrats, business and labor, educators and parents, law enforcement and civil rights organizations have coalesced around the need for change. We need the Governor to work with us to connect our schools to the needs of the economy we hope to rebuild in California.

Darrell Steinberg has been President pro Tempore of the California State Senate since 2008, chosen by his colleagues to that leadership post two years after he was first elected as Senator for the Sixth District representing the Sacramento area. He earlier served three terms in the State Assembly. He’s a strong advocate for education reform, children and mental health issues, and received the “John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage” national award in 2010 for his leadership in resolving the state’s 2009 budget crisis.

David B. Cohen: Why rank schools?

David Cohen
David Cohen

Imagine for a moment that California used letter grades rather than the Academic Performance Index to rate schools. If I were a parent whose child attended a high school with a “D” on its state report card, I would be gravely concerned that this school would fail to provide my student with the skills to succeed in college, and a college education is vital to my child’s future. If I had a choice, I would certainly want to move my child to an “A” school. I know these report cards aren’t perfect, but there must be a world of difference between the “D” and the “A” rankings, right? And if the “A” school was also listed among Newsweek’s Best High Schools, so much the better, I’m sure.

Wrong. The “D” school is better.

Or to be more precise, the “D” school is better if the measure of quality is college preparation. Don’t believe me? Take a look at this study – “College- and Career-Ready: Using Outcomes Data to Hold High Schools Accountable for Student Success” – from Florida. Writer Chad Aldeman sums it up this way: “While [the “D” school] got dismal marks from state and federal accountability schemes, it was actually quite successful in a number of important ways. It graduated a higher percentage of its students than [the “A” school] and sent almost the same percentage of its graduates off to college. Once they arrived on college campuses, [the “D” school] graduates earned higher grades and fewer of them failed remedial, not-for-credit math and English courses than their [“A” school] peers.

In other words, D-rated [High School] was arguably doing a better job at achieving the ultimate goal of high school: preparing students to succeed in college and careers. But because Florida’s accountability systems didn’t measure college and career success in 2006, nobody knew.

The study concludes, as you might anticipate, with a call for more data going into accountability systems, and it’s hard to argue with that. But the catch is that any rating or ranking is going to miss something, and is going to create simplistic lists of winners and losers out of what should be a more complex view of school quality.

It is time to distinguish between having data and claiming to know what it means. If we were conducting chemical experiments, it might be different. With schools, we are “measuring” extended periods of highly complex interactions among hundreds or thousands of people (different combinations of people every year), operating under different combinations of influences, and we have yet to agree as a state or society about the outcomes that matter most in that complex setting.

Ultimately, I would argue that the state should be in the business of providing resources and guidelines, and leaving the final assessments of quality and success to professional and local agencies. These agencies must ensure transparency and protect the interests of all stakeholders. They should be comfortable examining widely varying types of data and appreciating the value of each. Their judgments and conclusions would be informed by data and observations, but expressed in words – reports that don’t hide behind the false certainty or pseudo-objectivity of final scores, points, grades, or gold stars.

California high schools already engage in an accreditation process similar to that description, carried out by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. Why not make it more meaningful, but less intensive, and expand the approach to other levels?

If our citizenry can’t handle that shift, then we have a goal for our educational system, not to produce citizens, media, and political leaders who would prefer to have a meaningless “A” or “D” slapped on a school, rather than understand and express the complex realities of school quality.

David B. Cohen is a National Board-certified teacher in Palo Alto, where he teaches high school English. He helps to direct Accomplished California Teachers and writes for the group’s blog, InterACT.

Fred Jones: Hold schools accountable for reality

Fred Jones
Fred Jones

For good or ill, California’s K-12 public education system is driven by what Sacramento – and to a growing extent D.C. – requires, funds, and measures. The “measure” driver has led to the axiom: If it isn’t tested, it isn’t taught.

But the current fixation on a narrow bandwidth of ELA and Math via fill-in-the-bubble standardized tests has not proven to be a meaningful gauge of a school’s overall performance. Moreover, it has led to the narrowing of curriculum that so many have railed against.

We should be expecting much more from schools as they strive to prepare their students for successful lives.

Many have chosen to jump on the “college for all” bandwagon, feeling this is a higher means of holding schools accountable. We have seen many districts require the UC ‘s A-G coursework of all of their secondary students.

But college should not be considered an end unto itself. In this era of dwindling public resources and exploding student debt, college should more appropriately be considered merely a means to an end: one that provides students – and the taxpayers who subsidies them – the disposition, skills, and knowledge to provide a return on the private and public investment.

There is a growing chorus of intellectuals, industry leaders, and loan-conscious parents who have begun to question the financial returns of college. Regardless of the merits of those arguments, the economy clearly does not demand that all workers have 4-year degrees.

So what shall we hold schools accountable for delivering to every K-12 student? And how do we measure that?

In his veto of SB 547, Gov. Brown acknowledged the difference between quantitative data streams and qualitative considerations, and the difficulties in measuring the latter, often more meaningful outcomes.  Paradoxically, his veto actually undermined the effort to get a more relevant accountability system.

SB 547 was a good-faith effort to broaden the accountability matrix. It sought to include more than just standardized test scores, while attempting to keep the additional criteria objectively quantifiable.

Such additional criteria would have included a school’s performance in adequately preparing students for postsecondary education opportunities, access to career planning and training coursework, dropout rates, and other substantive and serious considerations. Einstein’s quip that “not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts” certainly applies. Schools must begin to report what needs to be counted to adequately measure true success.

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.

Bill Honig: Provide information for school improvement

Bill Honig
Bill Honig

The first crucial question to be answered is what is the purpose and context of the measurement. Is the emphasis primarily on using test-based results for state accountability and intervention for low performance? Or is measurement primarily used as part of a broader strategy to provide useful information to schools and districts to help continuously improve teaching and learning while still supplying information to the public about school success? This second strategy requires a shift in emphasis from penalties and interventions to building a sophisticated local and state infrastructure to support school-site team building, coaching, and professional development.

The former “test with consequences” strategy rests on the assumption that setting standards, testing results, and penalizing low-performing schools, by itself, will cause major improvements. This approach does produce some beneficial results, but by neglecting the investment in building the capacity for growth, the overall effect has been found to be limited.[1] This strategy also engenders significant negative side effects such as narrowing the curriculum, lowering morale, and encouraging staffs to game the system. All the international world-class performers, as well as U.S. states such as Massachusetts and highly successful California districts such as Long Beach, Sanger, and the charter school network Aspire, have pursued the latter, more powerful, capacity building strategy.

Gov. Brown has warned of the danger of over-relying on narrow high-stakes testing in his quest to broaden measurement and the way it is used. We should explore his suggestion that the state develop local peer review as one method of feeding back useful information to guide continuous improvement.[2]

The second key question is what kind of measurements help drive the system in the right direction? Relying too heavily on reading and math or low-level multiple-choice tests has been problematical. It has motivated legislative leaders such as Sen. Steinberg to pursue legislation to broaden California’s Academic Performance Index both for accountability and instructional feedback. The API is a useful measure, but I agree that it should be broadened and deepened:

  • API does test a broad array of subjects at the high school level and some at middle grades, but needs to cover history, science, civics, and art in a more profound way, especially at the elementary and middle-grade level. This can be done in several ways. The weighting given to these subjects should be examined. Currently at the elementary level reading and math are weighted at 94%, science at 6%, and history at 0%. At middle grades it’s not much better – 85% reading and math, 7% history, and 7% science. These weights directly contribute to a narrow curriculum.
  • The state needs to add history, art, and more science to the elementary level tests, or at least embed those subjects in the language arts and math sections of existing tests, and add civic understanding assessments to the high school level.
  • While the new tests for California being developed by the SMARTER Balanced group will move away from over-relying on multiple choice for reading and math, I would also add matrix sampling of those and other subjects to the individual tests so that a broader curriculum and deeper learning, such as the ability to write essays or develop a science project, can be assessed more efficiently.
  • At the high school level, one major change would be to explore how to hold schools accountable not only for the number of students meeting A-G requirements but also for how many students at least qualify for entering a tech-prep program at community colleges. The  API would apply to a broad range of students: dropout rates, 4-year college prep rates, tech-prep rates, and course performance. I would also add some measure for the advanced students such as the number of AP courses passed.

Bill Honig began his career in education as an elementary school teacher before becoming a California State Board of Education member and district superintendent. He was elected in 1982 to serve the first of three terms as California Superintendent of Public Instruction. He subsequently published “Teaching Our Children to Read” (Corwin Press) and founded the Consortium on Reading Excellence (www.corelearn.com), which helps  schools, districts, and states implement best practices in reading and math. He is a Bay Area native, father of four, and grandfather of five.

Jeff Camp: Schools must produce an economic return (broadly)

Jeff Camp
Jeff Camp

[NOTE: An article posted here earlier today was a draft and not intended for publication.  This is the correct article.  We apologize for error]. The success of schools must not be our primary concern. Schools, after all, are only a means to an end. The center of the proverbial target is simpler, but even more difficult: prepare EACH child for adulthood.

The effort to provide opportunity for each student is a costly undertaking, and public education is its biggest component. Spending on universal K-12 education in California adds up to about $65 billion annually when all the sources (state, local and federal) are counted. To put this number in human context, taxpayers in California invest on the order of $140,000 in each student’s thirteen years of K-12 education – roughly equivalent to paying about two dollars above minimum wage for every hour a student spends in class.

As with any big investment, success must be measured in terms of Return on Investment (ROI). Measuring success on these terms requires long-term data about each student’s long-term success, viewed broadly and over a time frame spanning decades, not just school years.

What is the long-term economic payback on that $140,000 investment for each student? Today, we don’t really know. Evaluating the return requires estimating both value produced and costs avoided. Education produces value by helping each student find his or her place in the world, including work that earns enough to pay taxes. Education avoids costs by helping students grow into self-supporting, resilient and law-abiding adults. Our system is set up to track neither.

For the last decade, the Academic Performance Index (API) has been the dominant tool for summarizing a school’s performance in California. This score, distilled annually from a changing assortment of annual tests, serves as a shorthand metric of academic achievement at the school and district levels by grade level. Unfortunately, the API only measures the academic success of those who show up. If every struggling student in a school were to drop out, the API score for that school would, perversely, rise.

The state’s system of measurement for education should be built online, in a manner that allows students to show what they know regardless of their nominal grade level. If this seems like whimsy, take a look at the coaching module of Khan Academy for an early example of what the future of measurement may look like, at least in math.

The public has grown accustomed to the idea that products and services should be evaluated, rather frequently, and that evaluation should lead to action. In order to sustain public support for investing in education, California needs to make a set of serious investments to systematically provide everyone involved with better, more personally useful information over a more meaningful arc of time. We rely too much on summary numbers partly because that is all we have at present. California should do better.

For starters, California should invest in modern data systems to track and support investments in human development including education. In the age of Facebook, it is no longer OK for California’s education system to operate with outmoded data systems.

California needs a platform that usefully connects parents, students and teachers, including accurate data to inform the work they do together. This is not an investment that each district can or should pursue on its own; it is far too difficult, much too important, and frankly its implications extend beyond education.

Jeff Camp chairs the Education Circle of Full Circle Fund, an engaged philanthropy organization cultivating the next generation of community leaders and driving lasting social change in the Bay Area and beyond. He is the primary author of Ed100.org, a primer on education reform options in California. Since leaving a career at Microsoft to work for education change, Jeff has served on multiple education reform committees including the Governor’s Committee on Education Excellence.

What should teachers unions do to remain effective and relevant?

Today we launch “Yes, but…”, an engaging conversation among California’s leading thinkers in education. We’ll feature a new topic regularly, if not weekly, and bring together policymakers, teachers, scholars, and advocates for a spirited dialogue.

We begin with thoughts on the future of teachers unions. Our sages are Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa; California Teachers Association President Dean Vogel; consultant and researcher Julia Koppich; special education teacher KC Walsh, who’s a board member of the CTA and the National Education Association; Stephen McMahon, president of the San José Teachers Association; and Los Angeles high school English teacher Lisa Alva Wood. We’re asking our contributors to check comments during the week to continue the discussion.

Our next topic, to be published next week, will address the topic, “How should we measure our schools, if not by current API scores?”

Antonio Villaraigosa: Unions should advance agenda for change

Antonio Villaraigosa
Antonio Villaraigosa

As a former teachers union organizer, I have seen firsthand the dedication and long hours that teachers put in to ensure their students’ success. Thanks to that hard work and commitment, we have seen a steady increase in student achievement in California – including recent gains here in Los Angeles.

But despite these gains, California’s education system still faces enormous challenges. Our eighth graders rank 46th in math on national assessments and California is ranked 46th in per-pupil funding. And here’s the figure that should keep us all up at night: 1,000,000. That is the number of additional college graduates we need by 2025 to keep our economy afloat.

Education is arguably the most important issue facing our state, and the relevancy of teachers and their union on this issue is without question. I appreciate this opportunity to weigh in with TOPed and its thoughtful community on this topic.

For real change to occur at our schools, teachers’ voices need to be heard loud and clear. Without teacher input, we will not be able to build the education system that will place California among the best in the world. Teachers know what works and what doesn’t. And it is through their unions that these teachers’ voices will be raised at the negotiating table, the legislative floor, and the ballot box.

California’s schools need more funding to restore and expand early education, arts, music, and physical education and to bring modern technology to our classrooms. To successfully run these programs, we need not only to restore the teaching positions we’ve  lost – we need to take the lead in offering competitive salaries that will help attract top talent from around the country and keep quality teachers in the classroom.

But we won’t improve our schools with money alone. Funds must be linked to progressive efforts such as robust data systems, Common Core standards, and aligned assessments. They also must be linked to a multiple-measure evaluation system that ensures accountability, compensation, professional development, and career opportunities for teachers. Lastly, California needs a more transparent funding system where money follows the student and where allocations are weighted, so we are putting our dollars where they are needed most.

As a mayor, and as a parent, it is my hope that unions will advance an agenda such as this to improve our schools by working with leaders in Sacramento, parents, and local school administrators. If they do, teachers and their unions will not only stay relevant, they will lead California to a state of education excellence.

Since becoming mayor of Los Angeles in 2005, Antonio Villaraigosa has made education a priority.  Working to  elect and re-elect pro-reform candidates for Los Angeles Unified  School Board,  he helped to advance Public School Choice.  In 2007, he founded The Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a school turnaround project serving more than 20,000 students across 22 schools. Its goal is to transform LA’s lowest-performing schools and create a model for district-wide change.

Dean E. Vogel: Fight for future of neighborhood schools

Dean Vogel
Dean Vogel

Teachers believe in opportunity for all children, not just a few. And we believe quality public education is essential to building better communities and a better future for America. This is the mission and work of the California Teachers Association (CTA).

Founded in 1863, today’s 325,000-member CTA is one of the strongest advocates for educators in the country.

Our effectiveness as a democratic organization is a matter of record – from billions of dollars secured for renovating and building new schools, to the landmark passage of the 1988 minimum school funding law. These resources made things better for our students. CTA also backed innovative reform with the landmark Quality Education Investment Act (QEIA) of 2006, which provides $3 billion over eight years to at-risk schools for proven reforms like smaller class sizes, collaboration, and more counselors. These at-risk students are making good progress. When we improve the learning conditions for our students and the teaching conditions for educators we create sustainable progress. This is part of union work, and CTA is a vital part of the union movement.

But current economic conditions challenge our schools daily. A new report warns that California ranks 46th in per-pupil spending and dead last in teachers and librarians per student. That’s why our union work includes urgent community coalition discussions about a progressive ballot measure for next year to generate new revenues for schools and all essential public services.

We are also working more with coalitions to expose the billionaire reformers like Bill Gates and Eli Broad who seek to privatize public education. We are demanding that corporations pay their fair share of taxes. And we are asking Congress to rewrite the federal No Child Left Behind law based on CTA principles that would protect students and schools from being labeled by test scores.

CTA and its members are driven by learning, not by profit. We are the classroom experts and we know what works. Stopping those wealthy few who would silence our political voices will be key in the months and years ahead in the ability of public education unions to protect neighborhood schools, rebuild the middle class, and help provide a rebirth of the American Dream.

Dean E. Vogel is the president of the California Teachers Association, which is affiliated with the 3.2 million-member National Education Association.

Julia E. Koppich: Listen to voices of new teachers

Julia Koppich
Julia Koppich

Teachers unions are education’s favorite punching bag these days. Books and blog posts sound the theme: Teachers unions stand in the way of higher student achievement.

It makes good copy. But there’s not much empirical evidence to support it. Research shows that the evidentiary base for concluding that unions hinder (or for that matter, help) student achievement is thin.

Nevertheless, teachers unions’ influence is undeniable. Teachers are the most important in-school influence on student learning. State and federal education policy agendas focus on better teacher evaluation and new forms of pay – both negotiable – as central to ensuring teaching effectiveness. Union impact made manifest.

Yet change must come. Too often unions just say “no” when it comes to reform. This serves neither their members nor, more importantly, the students their members teach. What should unions do?

1) End the siege mentality. In the face of attacks, unions have hunkered down. Not surprising, perhaps. One reaction to attack is to head for the bunker. But the attack on unions is part of a broader attack on public education. In this fight, union and management are on the same side. They need to fight the forces arrayed against them, not each other.

2) Mind the demographics. The future of unions hinges on its members. Just a few years ago, the average teacher had taught for at least 15 years. Now it’s fewer than 10. This is a different population.

Research shows that these new teachers want a union (many say they worry about arbitrary district actions), but they want a different kind of union, one that helps them get better at their jobs. And these teachers like differentiated pay and more rigorous evaluations (though they’re not keen on using test scores for these purposes). Unions need to catch up to them.

3) Make improving teaching effectiveness the union agenda. We have examples of putting this precept into action in California. My colleague, Dan Humphrey of SRI, and I recently completed a study of Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) in Poway (San Diego County) and San Juan (near Sacramento). Skilled teachers provide intensive support to then evaluate the performance of colleagues. A joint union-management governing board oversees the program.

Unions are integral to PAR. They don’t shy away from tough decisions. PAR support is intense. But if support isn’t enough, the union has no qualms about recommending dismissal. These unions have taken labor-management collaboration to a new level. Union and management act as partners. Agreements center on high stakes issues. Improving teaching effectiveness to improve student learning is union work.

No magic bullet will cure what ails California’s schools. Problems are complex and multifaceted. Unions can be part of the solution by adopting new mental models, implementing new ways of acting, and being more open to new ideas, even – maybe especially – those that challenge long-held traditions and assumptions.

Julia E. Koppich is president of J. Koppich & Associates, a San Francisco-based education consulting firm. Her work focuses principally on teacher effectiveness and education labor-management relations. She recently completed (with Dan Humphrey of SRI) a study of peer assistance and review in California, serves as technical assistance lead for the federal Teacher Incentive Fund, and is working with the Memphis City Schools to redesign their teacher evaluation and tenure review systems. Dr. Koppich holds a Ph.D. in education policy analysis from the University of California Berkeley.

Lisa Alva Wood: Tone down rhetoric and reorganize

Lisa Alva Wood
Lisa Alva Wood

Earlier this year, in Los Angeles, teachers from various schools met with some representatives from the federal Department of Education. Two teacher-fellows and the facilitator shared the Dept. of Ed’s “vision” for the teaching profession. The main thrust was to “professionalize” teaching by having us work “professional” days, weeks, and hours (250 days vs. the 180 we work now) and to front-load the income-based rewards; newer teachers could earn up to $65,000 per year upon earning tenure, and master teachers could earn up to $100,000 per year for exemplary performance. So, the idea is that we save for our own retirements, saving the government millions of dollars in pension costs. Yes, but… what does that say about the perceived futures of our unions?

Younger teachers only know that the union has not protected them in time of pink slips; unions, in their minds, are the guardians of older teachers who coast through semesters on the cushions of sinecure. Mid-term teachers who have come halfway through their career spans see their unions as bastions of bombast, feeling alienated by the old-school fire-and-brimstone organizers who took cuts in pay and actually walked out on strikes. The senior teachers are frustrated by charter schools bleeding away membership – in Los Angeles this year our union membership numbers 30,000, down from 44,000 ten years ago. As troubling as this is, it’s not nearly as worrisome as the federal government seemingly planning for the demise of the teachers unions, as appears to be the case. What do they know that we don’t? (That was a naive question.)

Pundits and columnists are fond of saying that the Los Angeles teachers union is one of the largest, most powerful lobbies in the state, that together with the California Teachers Association, we control enough votes and influence to keep things exactly as we want them. Yes, but our own leadership in Los Angeles embarrassed us by terming out and then taking a principal’s position with “the enemy,” a charter school.

Some of us mid-career teachers have formed our own caucus to tone down the rhetoric. We are trying to convert more teachers to the cause, encouraging them to participate, build the faith and strength in our union that the future will require. Without a revival, we stand to fulfill the government’s prophecy: every man for himself. We cannot let this happen.

Lisa Alva Wood has been been teaching high school English  for 15 years, the last 10 at Roosevelt High School in East Los Angeles. She has been on the Board of Directors for the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools and spearheaded many school-based projects. She is a National Board Certified Teacher.

KC Walsh: Organize parents and fight for proven reforms

KC Walsh
KC Walsh

Educators and their unions have been subjected to an incredible amount of scapegoating lately – ranging from biased movies like Waiting for Superman to multimillion-dollar foundations that think they know how to teach children better than the educated professionals in our classrooms. California leads the nation in education cuts — slashing more than $20 billion from our public schools and colleges in the past three years.

Noted labor leader Pat Dolan says unionism begins with a moral imperative to provide a voice for those who don’t have one. Our students benefit when we use our collective teacher voices as a union to fight for the quality education they deserve. To remain effective at this, teachers unions must listen to and organize more colleagues, parents, and communities in this mission. And we must continue our fight for proven reforms, like smaller class sizes, which studies show actually work in our classrooms.

From my vantage point in Silicon Valley, one major difficulty is that educators are not being listened to, but are being handed unrealistic mandates from the federal government. We are speaking out to Congress about flawed efforts like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top that are handcuffing educators from preparing tomorrow’s creative workers with their single-minded focus on standardized testing, rather than fostering creativity and critical thinking.

The California Teachers Association and the National Education Association are leading voices in education reform. CTA led passage of legislation that focused $3 billion over eight years toward helping at-risk schools; the Quality Education Investment Act of 2006 is making a difference for those students as test scores have increased and achievement gaps have narrowed. California teachers are working with administrators and parents to focus curriculum and professional development to improve student learning. NEA is working in a similar fashion to assist schools across the country to implement best practices. CTA is developing teacher evaluation systems that will help educators improve.

Changes are needed in education, and teachers unions will continue to work with parents and others in the school community to ensure that kids come first in that debate. As the leading voices in this conversation, CTA and NEA will remain relevant – and vigilant about the battles ahead.

KC Walsh is a special education teacher on leave from Bernal Intermediate School in Oak Grove Unified in San Jose. She is also on the  board of directors for the California Teachers Association and the National Education Association.

Stephen McMahon: We’re leading the classroom transformation

Stephen McMahon
Stephen McMahon

As president of the San José Teachers Association (SJTA), I experience the whole spectrum of public education on a daily basis, from the breathtaking to the reprehensible. I constantly think about the role of teachers unions in all that is public education. I also constantly think about district offices, boards of education, county offices, county boards, state departments of education, the U.S. Department of Education, publishers, consultants, advisers, contractors, researchers,  and everything else that consumes the well over $500 billion annually invested in educating our nation’s primary and secondary students1.  Among those institutions, teachers unions are far and away the most critical for anyone who genuinely puts students first.

The justification for teachers unions is straightforward. The magic of education happens in the classroom. It is all about teachers and students. No citations, research, or position statements are necessary to confirm that teachers and the work they do in the classroom are paramount. Yet only 58% of California’s K-12 education expenditures make it to the classroom2. Teachers know that the bureaucracy does not educate children – teachers do. Teachers know that the system does not inspire children – teachers do. Teachers know that the more than 40% spent outside the classroom does not change lives – teachers do.

SJTA’s mission is to “empower teachers to educate, inspire, and change lives through public education.” We in San José Unified are leading the way on: implementing a transformational evaluation process, offering different methods for compensating teachers for the work they do, exploring nontraditional approaches to the student instructional day and year, delivering instruction to students in a manner that reflects the dynamic and innovative environment of Silicon Valley, and how we measure and validate the success and achievement of both our students and our workforce. We are also transforming what it means to have strategic stakeholder partnerships that support all students.

SJTA is the natural leader in all of these areas because the daily work of its members is teaching and learning. That unmatched knowledge base has the teachers of SJTA primed with ideas, solutions, and willingness. We are taking progressive actions because we are committed to ensuring that every student receives the finest educational opportunities and experiences. We are a beacon for what is possible when the collective voice of more than 1,700 teachers is valued and respected.

All of the institutions within public education have things to be proud of and each is responsible for changes that must be made. When student learning and achievement are at the forefront, nothing exceeds the classroom in importance. Teachers are the heart of the classroom. A teachers union is its teachers. That places working with teachers unions at the top of the list for anyone seeking to truly enhance public education.

Stephen McMahon is president of the San José Teachers Association. SJTA represents the more than 1,700 teachers in Santa Clara County’s largest school district.

1:  U.S. Department of Education
2:  An Analysis of K-12 Education Expenditures in California, Davenport Institute, Pepperdine University, July 2010