Trending toward graduation

California’s high school graduation rate is edging upwards for most groups of students. The overall graduation rate for 2010-11 was 76.3 percent, or 1.5 percent above the prior year.

Tom Torlakson, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, acknowledged that while it’s not a surge, it’s still good news.

“It’s heading in the right direction; it’s certainly not where we want it to be,” said Torlakson during a telephone conference call with journalists on Wednesday. “The thing that I think is more noteworthy is the larger gains we’re seeing among Hispanics and African American students.”

The graduation rate for Hispanic students increased by 2.2 percent to 70.4 percent, and rose by 2.3 percent among African American students to reach 62.9 percent. At the same time, dropout rates for those groups of students fell by 3.1 percent and 2.1 percent respectively. English learners also showed progress, with a 3.8 percent increase in their graduation rates.

Torlakson said these improvements are especially striking because they’re happening “in the face of terrible budgets, a lot of turmoil and uncertainty in schools, more crowded classrooms, a shorter school year, summer school being eliminated,” and a shortage of textbooks, computers, and science lab equipment.

He credited the change to more focused interventions for low-income students at risk of dropping out, such as AVID and the Puente Project, that give them the support, encouragement, and college prep skills to put college within their grasp.

The CALPADS difference

This is the second year that the state has calculated graduation and dropout rates using CALPADS, the longitudinal student data system that uses unique student identifiers.

One year adjusted changes in state graduation and dropout rates. (Source:  California Dept. of Education). Click to enlarge
One year adjusted changes in state graduation and dropout rates. (Source: California Dept. of Education). Click to enlarge

With CALPADS, state education officials can track student progress from ninth grade to twelfth grade, accounting, for the most part, for students who transfer to other public schools in the state, earn GEDs, and even those who stay in high school for a fifth year to graduate.

“This is the first time we’ve been able to compare the rates from one year to the next, and for them to be used in the federal accountability system,” said Keric Ashley, director of the data management division at the state department of education.  Starting next year, Ashley said California will have enough data to calculate graduation and dropout rates for students starting in seventh grade.

Nearly all states now use a similar system required by the federal government for reporting under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  Before CALPADS, there was little consistency, and not always great accuracy, in how districts and the state computed these rates. One common approach was to take a head-count of students in ninth grade and subtract the number remaining at the end of twelfth grade.  Another method was to add up all the 17-year-olds reported to be in public and private schools and divide that by the total population of 17-year-olds.

Even CALPADS has limitations and some bugs to be worked out.  As the chart on the left shows, there are two columns for the class of 2009-10 – the first is 09-10 and the second is 09-10(A).  The “A” stands for adjusted.  Ashley explained that when CDE was reviewing the rates for the class of 2011, they noticed that some graduates had been in high school for more than four years so they were actually part of the previous year’s cohort and had to be switched.  There will be another adjustment in December, when school districts will have another opportunity to make corrections to their data.

CALPADS also doesn’t know if a student transfers to a private high school in California, switches to home schooling or leaves the state unless the original school gets documentation from the student’s family and sends it to the state department of education.  It also doesn’t track students who complete high school in different venues, such as an adult education program at a community college.

These are small gaps and won’t account for big changes in the numbers, but having more and better data can be meaningful, said Russell Rumberger, director of the California Dropout Research Project at UC Santa Barbara and author of the book Dropping Out:  Why students drop out of high school and what can be done about it.

“We’d like to know how many of our students eventually graduate and go on to college,” said Rumberger. ”As a state we’d like to know everybody who completes, however and whenever they do it.”

No Exit

Years of interventions designed to help students pass the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) have had little impact. A study released last night by the Public Policy Institute of California found that tutoring didn’t help students at all, while CAHSEE prep classes and continued support after twelfth grade had only modest success.

“The glass is a quarter full,” said UC San Diego economics professor Julian Betts, a co-author of the study. “There’s modest success here and we should take some pride in that.”

The report, titled Passing the California High School Exit Exam: Have recent policies improved student performance?, found that that the assistance programs helped somewhere between 1.5 and 3 percent of students who failed the exam in their sophomore year to eventually pass the test.

“In other words, the interventions unfortunately do not help the vast majority of those failing the CAHSEE in grade 10 to pass the test in a later grade,” wrote the authors.

CAHSEE trends in 10th grade pass rates. (Source:  HumRRO). Click to enlarge
CAHSEE trends in 10th grade pass rates. (Source: HumRRO). Click to enlarge

Starting with the class of 2006, California seniors have had to pass the exit exam in order to earn a high school diploma. The test is divided into two parts: math and English language arts. Students who pass one part and not the other only have to retake the section they failed. According to the PPIC study, about 1 in 16 students fails to pass both sections by the end of twelfth grade.

The researchers studied San Diego Unified School District, which has implemented many of the support programs. Back in 2005, at the urging of former State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell, who carried the bill to create the CAHSEE, state lawmakers approved AB 128, which provides districts with $20 million to offer additional instruction – including private and small group assistance, improved teacher training, and extra teachers.

Two years later, the Legislature approved two additional bills aimed at improving the pass rate. AB 347 requires districts to provide up to two years of additional support services for students who failed to pass by the end of their senior year. AB 1802 increased the number of counselors in middle and high schools, and required those new counselors to identify students who failed or were at risk of failing the exit exam.

Grade 2 differences are better predictors of 10th grade pass rates than 12th grade. (Source:  PPIC) Click to enlarge.
Grade 2 differences are better predictors of 10th grade pass rates than 12th grade. (Source: PPIC) Click to enlarge.

PPIC researchers studied the impact of the interventions in these three bills.

Too little, too late

One of the main barriers to success, said Betts, is that the interventions are starting too late.  Instead of waiting for high school, students ought to be targeted for assistance in middle school, or even earlier.  In a 2008 report by Betts, he said there are already ways of predicting who’s likely to fail the exam.

“Academic grade point average (GPA) is the strongest predictor of eventual outcomes on the CAHSEE,” wrote Betts and his co-author.  “However, some nonacademic characteristics such as absences and classroom behavior…are also signficiantly related to CAHSEE.”

Example of "early warning" system to determine students at risk of failing CAHSEE. (Source:  PPIC). Click to enlarge.
Example of "early warning" system to determine students at risk of failing CAHSEE. (Source: PPIC). Click to enlarge.

Those indicators can be seen as early as elementary school, and are more prevalent among English learners, no matter what grade they’re in.  The 2008 study found that just by being an English learner in grade 9 meant a student was 15 percent less likely to pass CAHSEE.  The researchers recommended development of an “early warning” system to help teachers identify and begin working with at-risk students before they fail the exit exam.  Along with yesterday’s study, Betts and his co-authors released that system, known as the CAHSEE Early Warning Model, which is available for any district in the state to download and use.

“This dual policy of early warning and early intervention could provide a cost-effective way to save students from both the needless anxiety of failing the exit exam,” concluded Betts and his co-authors, “and worse, giving up one or two years of their lives after grade 12 to master basic competencies in order to receive a high school diploma.”

For more information:

Independent Evaluation of the California High School Exit Examination:  2011 Evaluation Report to the California Dept. of Education. HumRRO, November 2011

Predicting Success on the California High School Exit Exam, Public Policy Institute of California, June 2008 Aldactone

Some cuts, cash in budget deal

John Fensterwald co-authored Buy cialis pills this article.

Legislative leaders protected most student financial aid in the Cal Grants program and preserved status quo funding for charter schools in the budget deal announced yesterday between Democrats and Gov. Jerry Brown.

The agreement comes less than a week after legislators approved a $92 billion spending plan that eliminated some of the governor’s biggest education proposals, including his plan to switch the entire school finance system to a weighted student funding formula.

Few details were revealed from the agreement announced yesterday; Senate staff members said the specific language of the budget trailer bills would be written over the weekend and taken up in the budget committee on Monday. A floor vote could come as soon as Tuesday.

Staff confirmed that the bills would not raise the eligibility for Cal Grants, the $1.5 billion student aid program. Brown recommended raising the grade point average (GPA) required for the Cal Grant A program from 3.0 to 3.25, and increasing the GPA for Cal Grant B awards from 2.0 to 2.75.

Michele Siqueiros, executive director of the Campaign for College Opportunity and a board member on the California Student Aid Commission, said taking the GPA increases off the table is “absolutely a great thing for students,” because the proposal threatened to shift the core value of Cal Grants from a need-based scholarship into a merit-based program.

The Campaign for College Opportunity sent a letter to the governor last week opposing that and two other recommendations: reducing the Cal Grant award by 40 percent for new and continuing students attending independent nonprofit colleges in California, and linking Cal Grant eligibility to federal standards for the Pell Grant program. The budget deal reportedly contains neither of those proposals.

However, students attending private, for-profit colleges may want to check their schools’ graduation and loan default rates. The Legislature did accept Brown’s bid to crack down on so-called diploma mills, private for-profit institutions, by withholding Cal Grants from these schools for one year if their graduation rate falls below 30 percent or their student loan default rate is 15 percent or higher. That could affect more than 80 postsecondary institutions, according to an analysis conducted for the Student Aid Commission.

“It says to colleges, especially if they’re going to charge a lot of money, that students should be getting a lot of value for that money,” said Siqueiros, adding that means getting a job that pays enough to pay back the loan.

Brown has charter schools’ backs

Brown has persuaded legislative leaders to restore an unexpected $50 million cut to charter schools that they approved in passing the state budget last week. The cut would have been $100 to $112 per charter student and would have widened a funding gap between charters and district schools.

But charter leaders will be holding their breath until the agreement  is written into the language of a trailer bill and it becomes a done deal.

The money is for the block grant that charters get in lieu of small, restricted amounts of money for special purposes known as categorical programs. In his budget, Brown flat-funded the block program but included an additional $50 million to accommodate what the Department of Finance is projecting to be a 15.5 percent increase in charter school attendance next year, compared with less than 1 percent more in district schools.

The surge in enrollment reflects not only additional schools but also schools adding grades and more students per class to cope with budget cuts, said Jed Wallace, president and CEO of the California Charter Schools Association. Over the last four years, the average charter school has grown from 360 to 400 students.

Earlier this year, the Legislative Analyst’s Office calculated that charter schools received 7 percent or $395 per student less than district schools, including $150 per student less in categorical funding. That difference would have increased to $260 per student without the $50 million growth factor.

“Our members were very vocal about this,” Wallace said. “It looks as though funding will be restored, and we appreciate this.”

Brown, who was a creator of two charter schools while mayor of Oakland, has become a protector of charters as governor.

Next step for Student Success Act

Retiring Community College Chancellor Jack Scott watched his signature initiative move closer to becoming law. The Assembly Higher Education Committee yesterday unanimously passed SB 1456, the Student Success Act of 2012.

The bill would implement two of the 22 recommendations developed by the Student Success Task Force, a panel of educators, policymakers, students, and researchers that spent last year studying and taking testimony on ways to improve the completion rate at California’s community colleges.

“SB 1456 is about community college students and the tremendous fierce urgency of doing something now,” the bill’s author, Democratic Senator Alan Lowenthal of Long Beach, told the Assembly panel.

As TOPed previously reported, studies have found that after six years, only 30 percent of community college students earn a degree or certificate or transfer to a four-year college.

The first proposal puts the onus on community colleges to provide support services for every student. These include orientation, assessment and placement, counseling and education planning, and tutoring or other interventions to help students who are falling off the path. Colleges would also have to evaluate the effectiveness of those supports and report them to the Legislative Analyst.

The second recommendation establishes for the first time academic standards for receiving Board of Governors (BOG) fee waivers. In order to continue receiving a BOG waiver, students would have to maintain a “C” average for two semesters.

“Why did we put in there something about the BOG fee waiver?” asked Chancellor Scott, in anticipation of the question.  “Well, we wanted not only institutions to accept responsibility for student success, but we wanted students to accept responsibility.”

Community College Chancellor Jack Scott testifying on SB 1456, the Student Success Act.  (Source:  The California Channel).  Click to enlarge.
Community College Chancellor Jack Scott testifying on SB 1456, the Student Success Act. (Source: The California Channel). Click to enlarge.

Scott noted that this is also required for both the federal Pell Grant program and Cal Grants. “We just didn’t quite feel it was fair for somebody to continue for 8 or 10 semesters and never achieve a 2.0,” he said.

Speakers heaped praise on Lowenthal for his willingness to work with key constituencies to find middle ground on some contentious issues.  The biggest concerns were over new restrictions on BOG fee waivers.  Lowenthal agreed to remove a provision eliminating eligibility for waivers for students with more than 110 units.  He also agreed to an appeals process and to phasing-in the changes over time.

As a result, the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges, the Student Senate, and MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund switched from opposing the bill to supporting it.

“I think that this is a stronger bill because all of the stakeholders have come to the table,” said Jessie Ryan with the Campaign for College Opportunity.  “We’ve done a great deal of work with social justice organizations across the state and student organizations to address their concerns, and I think we’re at a place where we can all acknowledge that completion matters and the Student Success Act puts us on that path.”

Well, not exactly.  The Community College Association (CCA), which is the higher education division of the California Teachers Association, argued that SB 1456 is more talk than walk.  Ron Norton Reel, a speech teacher at Mt. San Antonio College, testified that the bill contains no definition of success or strategy for measuring it, creates more inequalities among students and doesn’t provide any funding to hire the thousands of additional counselors that will be needed to help students establish educational goals and a plan to reach them.  Without that “then the intent is good, but the consequences are bad,” said Ron Norton Reel with the CCA.

Lowenthal countered by reading a section of the bill that clearly states that community colleges won’t be held accountable unless they receive funding to carry out the provisions.  “We all want additional funding,” Lowenthal said.  “The people who support this bill, more than even the opposition, want additional funding.”  Until that money comes, he said, colleges need to start preparing for the changes ahead.

Sunset, sunrise

Another of Chancellor Scott’s projects – which is about to expire – received a new lease on life by the Higher Education Committee.  SB 1070, introduced by Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, would strengthen and extend the Career Technical Education Pathways Initiative funded by Scott’s 2005 bill, SB 70.   These are typically academies within high school or middle schools where students learn many of their core subjects through the lens of a business or industry.  Some are in community colleges.

At Laguna Creek High School in Elk Grove Unified School District, students in the Green Technology Academy learn science and math through hands-on experimentation with alternative energy.  They build solar-powered vehicles, compare the effectiveness of different biofuels and study physics by making and launching small rockets and measuring their velocity and height.

“Every time I see one of these career pathways programs whether it be the partnership academies or linked learning or one of the other models, learning comes alive, and it comes alive without sacrificing rigor that prepares students for college and career,” Steinberg told the committee Tuesday afternoon.

Career academies should be tied to local business and industry needs.  (Source:  Career Academy Support Network). Click to enlarge.
Career academies should be tied to local business and industry needs. (Source: Career Academy Support Network). Click to enlarge.

SB 1070 would hold schools more accountable for success than its predecessor and require them to submit data about student outcomes.  Initial funding would come from the Quality Education Investment Act.  That’s the $3 billion program created to settle a lawsuit brought by the California Teachers Association against Gov. Schwarzenegger for failing to repay school districts and community colleges money borrowed from Proposition 98 in 2004-05 to help the state get through that year’s budget crisis.

The State Department of Education also funds the California Partnership Academy program.  They’re all competitive grants and together the various funding sources support about 700 academies in California schools, according to the Career Academy Support Network at the University of California, Berkeley.  Since 2005, the career tech academies have enrolled nearly 750,000 students, although they tend to be concentrated in about a quarter of the state’s 1,000 school districts.

The results are impressive. Attendance and graduation rates are higher in academies than in the comprehensive high schools where they’re located.  Test scores are a little better too, even though many of the students – 50 percent, by law, in the partnership academies – are considered at risk.

“Overall, in the career advancement projects, we’ve seen a 90 percent retention; that’s huge, we don’t see that in our other programs,” testified Carole Goldsmith, the Vice Chancellor for Educational Services and Workforce Development in West Hills Community College District.  The district runs a teacher pipeline with one of its career tech grants.  “I think all of us intrinsically know that when you link education to hands-on approach to what industry wants, you’re going to engage students.”

Leg erases Gov’s ed reforms

John Fensterwald co-authored this article.

The Legislature’s budget package is missing many of Gov. Brown’s controversial education initiatives. A joint Senate and Assembly plan outlined yesterday protects transitional kindergarten, the science mandate, and the AVID program, rejects the weighted student funding formula, and offers districts a choice in how they’re paid for state mandates.

“This budget protects and invests in public education this year, and increases Proposition 98 funding by $17 billion over the next four years,” said Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez during a press conference Wednesday morning with Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg.

The overall budget plan that lawmakers will vote on this Friday would erase California’s $20 billion structural deficit, balance the budget for each of the next three years, and create a $2 billion reserve by fiscal year 2015-16, according to Pérez and Steinberg.

Spending for K-12 education would be $53.6 billion for the 2012-13 fiscal year. That’s about $1 billion more than the governor had anticipated. Because the budget assumes more revenue for education through the passage of Brown’s tax initiative in November, the state is obligated under Proposition 98 to start paying off the “maintenance factor,” the IOUs given to schools during bad times. But if the tax increase fails, the Legislature and governor are in accord on the need for cuts of $5.5 billion for K-12 schools and community colleges. That would translate to a K-12 cut of $450 per student.

About $2.9 billion of that would come from lowering the Prop 98 guarantee due to a drop in state revenues. The rest would be made up through shifting two expenses into Prop 98 that are currently funded outside the guarantee. Those are repayment of general obligation bonds for school construction and the Early Start early education program. (Go here to read more about that in an earlier TOPed article.)

In addition, the legislative package would include trailer bill language allowing K-12 schools to cut 15 additional days from the next two school years.

Weighty issue

The governor’s biggest loss, for now, is the weighted student funding formula. Lawmakers’ refusal to include it in the budget isn’t an outright rejection of the concept of a simpler, fairer finance system that sends more money to districts with high proportions of English learners and indigent students. And Brown is expected to bring up the issue again this summer. But many lawmakers felt that the governor was jamming them to accept sweeping changes without justifying the basis for his formula, while legislators from suburban districts called for restoring all of the money lost to cuts over the past four years before redistributing new money.

Rick Simpson, the deputy chief of staff for Speaker Pérez, said that lawmakers wanted more assurances that the money under a weighted formula would actually reach targeted students. As part of his reform,  Brown proposed giving districts total flexibility in deciding how the dollars would be spent. “If you’re going to deregulate the entire school finance system,” Simpson said, “and if you’re not going to regulate inputs, you ought to have an accountability system to make sure you get those positive outcomes. We have lots of disparate pieces that we refer to as accountability, but it’s not a system.”

High school science intact

Brown had proposed eliminating the mandate for more than two dozen K-12 programs, including (the most expensive) requiring schools to offer a second year of high school science. Dropping a mandate would mean that districts could continue offering a program by finding money in their existing budgets. Brown also proposed reimbursing districts a flat $28 per student for the remaining mandated programs.

Science teachers and the business community protested that the state shouldn’t retreat from its commitment to science education (see commentary on this page), and the Legislature agreed, keeping it and all of the current mandates intact. However, lawmakers didn’t increase the reimbursement rate either, so districts can expect to continue accumulating a big IOU for meeting the science mandate. The state has also gone to court, arguing that the $250 million cost on the books for offering a second year of science is way too high, based on a false assumption that high schools had to add a period to the day to accommodate it, according to Paul Golaszewski, an analyst with the Legislative Analyst’s Office.

Applying for a straight $28 per student would be the easiest, quickest way for districts to be reimbursed for mandated costs. However, the Legislature also would continue to allow districts to submit bills detailing the cost of complying with mandates – and hope that the state accepts the claims.

Starting early

The joint budget proposal allowed the early childhood education community to exhale a bit, by denying a number of significant cuts that the governor was seeking. He wanted to cut the reimbursement to preschool providers by 10 percent, raise the financial eligibility requirement, place a two-year cap on families receiving childcare services while attending a school or a job-training program, and eliminate full-day preschool starting next year.

“The Legislature has really stood up for young children,” said Scott Moore, Senior Policy Advisor at Preschool California. No one got away unscathed, however, and childcare will be taking a $50 million cut and losing 6,000 spaces for children in full-day state preschool, the childcare voucher program, and the infant-toddler child development program.  That’s on top of a billion dollar reduction and 100,000 spaces lost since 2008. Still, said Moore, “it’s significantly less that we were fearing would be cut.”

Adult education’s existential crisis

This is the second of a two-part series on adult education in California.  Click here to read part 1.

Adult education in California is nearly as old as the state itself. Today, the program that has helped millions of people learn English, earn a GED, and receive job training for 156 years is facing extinction. A new report released today by EdSource concludes that these schools, which provide second chances for the state’s most needy adults, “are as much at-risk as many of the people they serve.”

The report, aptly titled At Risk: Adult Schools in California, surveyed the state’s 30 largest school districts and found that 23 had made significant cuts to their adult education programs. In many cases, they lost at least half their funding. One of them, Anaheim Union High School District, shuttered its 73-year-old adult school.

“The important thing to remember is that these adult school programs are serving a population that really falls through the cracks,” said Louis Freedberg, Executive Director of EdSource. “This is a population that needs basic education in basic skills, that needs help with English as a Second Language, and for whom there is really no other place to go to get these basic services.”

Adult ed cuts in 30 largest districts.  (Source:  EdSource)  Click to enlarge.
Adult ed cuts in 30 largest districts. (Source: EdSource) Click to enlarge.

These draconian cuts have taken place in just the past three years. Until 2009, adult education funding was protected as a categorical program, meaning districts could not use the money for any other purpose. But that February, faced with a massive budget shortfall, the Legislature and Gov. Brown removed 39 programs – including adult ed – from this restriction and gave school districts flexibility to use the funds wherever they were most needed.

A survey of several hundred school districts conducted by the adult education program in Montebello Unified School District found that about 40 have closed or are planning to shut their adult education programs, and estimated that, statewide, districts have redirected about 60 percent of the $773 million in adult education funds to the K-12 system. At the same time, enrollment dropped from 1.2 million students to about 700,000.

“We were actually growing before the cuts started,” said Pam Garramone, principal of Sonoma Valley Adult School, which closes at the end of this month. Garramone said there were six adult school agencies in Sonoma County before flex started; now there’s only one, Petaluma, and it doesn’t have the capacity to accommodate the 10,000 people who have been shut out.

Farewell message on Sonoma Valley Adult School site. (click to enlarge).
Farewell message on Sonoma Valley Adult School site. (click to enlarge).

Garramone said her district has always been very supportive of adult education, but was placed in an untenable position. “Our budget situation was just so drastic that every single thing that was on the list to be cut was painful for them, and they’re looking at even more cuts next year, so the decision to finally close adult education they just felt had to be made,” she said. “And I really don’t blame them; I didn’t necessarily agree with it, but I certainly don’t blame them for the decision.”

She blames the Legislature. Adult education should never have been flexed, said Garramone. Even though categorical flex is supposed to end on June 30, 2015, few people expect to see the money again. Indeed, Gov. Brown’s proposal for a weighted student funding formula would make categorical flexibility permanent.

Paul Hay, the superintendent of San Jose’s Metropolitan Education District (MetroED), told EdSource if weighted student funding is approved, “adult education is dead, gone, over, and will never come back in the state.”

MetroED’s enrollment plunged from 10,000 to 2,000 after it closed more than 50 programs, two major campuses, and all its community outreach centers except for a program for disabled adults.

Societal impact

The adult education program in Oakland Unified School District was among the hardest hit without being closed.  It has been cut by more than 90 percent since the start of flex, losing $11 million of a $12 million budget which necessitated shutting two campuses and canceling English as a second language courses as well as its high school credit recovery program.  The GED classes are still thriving, however, and graduated 95 students last year.

“When we were cut our numbers were at the highest they’ve been, this would have been our best year ever,” said Chris Nelson, director of the district’s adult education programs and president of the California Council for Adult Education.  “It’s ironic now that the economy is so bad because it’s during times of high unemployment that people seek education programs.”

Donita McKay standing outside the Oakland adult ed computer literacy RV. (Click to enlarge).
Donita McKay standing outside the Oakland adult ed computer literacy RV. (Click to enlarge).

Donita McKay is studying for her GED and taking a computer literacy course through Oakland’s adult education school.  McKay is 49 years old, a single mom with four children, and a ninth-grade drop out.   She said being back in school has opened her mind and given her a different outlook on life.

“Education is important because when you don’t have it you’re so limited,” said McKay.  “I always tell my children, get your education, because I didn’t really get all mine, so and you see where I’m at.  They hear that from my mouth everyday.”

Sitting at small workstation in an RV retrofitted as mobile computer classroom, McKay said she’s considering becoming a teacher one day, “because I always like to give back and give what I learned, because it reminds me I used to be like that.”

Oakland has all the challenges of any big city.  English is not the first language for about 40 percent of the population and in some neighborhoods the high school dropout rate is a staggering 60 to 70 percent, said Mayor Jean Quan, who spent twelve years on the local school board.

Oakland Mayor Jean Quan (Click to enlarge).
Oakland Mayor Jean Quan (Click to enlarge).

“What I really worry about is California creating a permanent underclass,” said Quan.  “This is one of the ways out; this is one of the second chances that people have, and if people don’t have at least a high school degree it’s very hard to even get a good paying blue-collar job.”

Not dead yet

Gordon Jackson is head of the Adult Education Division of the California Department of Education.  He said the mission of adult education is to advance the “economic, workforce development and societal goals by preparing adult learners for college, career and civic responsibility.”

It’s a critical goal, but one that doesn’t have critical support.  Although adult education programs are run by both K-12 school districts and community colleges, it’s not the core mission of either.  So, it’s taken some time for advocates to organize, but they’ve started considering alternatives on a number of fronts.

Several proposals are being floated said EdSource’s Freedberg.  One idea is to combine resources and establish regional centers.  Another, put forth by the state’s Little Hoover Commission, recommends turning over responsibility for adult education to community college; even thought they

Gordon Jackson, Director of Adult Education Division, CA Dept. of Education. (Source:  CDE).
Gordon Jackson, Director of Adult Education Division, CA Dept. of Education. (Source: CDE).

are facing their own massive budget cuts.  And a third plan, already underway, is to lobby the Legislature to remove adult education from categorical flex and from the governor’s weighted student funding formula.

“There are times when I would like to sit next to somebody at Starbucks and moan and groan and say I cannot believe that there are adults in this world of ours at the legislative level and other places who don’t really understand what it means to demolish an infrastructure, what it means to do this to California’s future,” said Jackson.  “I can bemoan that and have a really intense pity party for a while, until I need to focus on what needs to happen.”

Adult ed falls to flexibility

This is the first of two articles on the state of adult education in California. The second piece will run on Wednesday, June 13.

The sun was still melting through the gray morning sky as teacher Don Curtis rode his bicycle into a warehouse yard belonging to Oakland Unified School District, opened a large garage door, and backed his classroom into the parking lot.

The mobile classroom parked at West Oakland Middle School. (click to enlarge)
The mobile classroom parked at West Oakland Middle School. (click to enlarge)

“It has taken some getting used to driving this vehicle, trust me. The big thing is the back end; when you turn, the back end swings out quite a ways,” said Curtis. But after eight years, he’s had plenty of practice driving the district’s 35-foot-long RV retrofitted with 12 computer workstations and a large screen for projecting lessons.

The mobile classroom, run by the school district’s adult education program, fills several spaces on a busy street next to Oakland’s Urban Promise Academy Middle School. It’s also full on the inside, with nearly two dozen parents of Promise Academy students sitting snugly on chairs and stools in order to buddy up at the workstations, while Curtis teaches them the basics of computer literacy: setting up email, doing a simple web search, and navigating the parent information section of the district’s website.

On the sides and front of the RV, painted in multicolored letters, is a sign reading “Sharing English Together.” But that tag line is archaic. Despite the high-tech equipment inside, the RV is emblematic of a threatened species, a relic of Oakland’s once thriving adult education program.

Don Curtis teaches computer literacy and drives the classroom. (click to enlarge)
Don Curtis teaches computer literacy and drives the classroom. (click to enlarge)

The district’s program no longer offers English as a Second Language. It has also cancelled basic skills classes for adults who left school very young, often to work, and, at the other end, has dropped a high school diploma program for students who are a few credits shy of completion. A popular certified nursing assistant program is down to two sessions instead of seven, and two of the three schools have been closed.

“It’s been a year since the two campuses have closed. But we’re still getting calls asking if people can get their high school diploma,” said Chris Nelson, director of Oakland’s adult education program and president of the California Council for Adult Education (CCAE). “It’s heartbreaking to have to cut these classes knowing how much the community needs them.”

Flexibility breeds contretemps

Until 2009, adult education was protected as a categorical program in California, meaning the money couldn’t be used for any other purpose. In February of that year, state legislators gave school districts permission to use funds from 39 categorical programs – including adult education – wherever they were most needed, and cut the budget for those programs by 20 percent.

What districts did with categorical flex. (Source:  California Legislative Analyst) Click to enlarge.
What districts did with categorical flex. (Source: California Legislative Analyst) Click to enlarge.

Since then, local school boards have closed 32 adult education programs and cut at least half the funding for more than 40 others, according to a survey conducted a few months ago by the adult education administrators in Montebello Unified School District. Later this week, EdSource will be releasing a new report and survey of how this categorical flexibility, or “flex” as it’s described, threatens to dismantle the nation’s oldest adult education program.

Chris Nelson is director of adult ed in Oakland Unified School District and President of the California Council for Adult Education. (Click to enlarge)
Chris Nelson is director of Adult Ed in Oakland Unified School District and president of the California Council for Adult Education. (Click to enlarge)

Oakland’s program was among the hardest hit, losing 90 percent of its funding. In the past three years, it’s dropped from $11.4 million to $1 million. During that same period, said Nelson, enrollment fell from 25,000 to 1,000 students, and all but a handful of the 300 teachers and staff members were laid off.

Adult education in California started in 1856, when the San Francisco Board of Education sponsored evening classes in elementary and vocational education in the basement of St. Mary’s Cathedral, according to the 2005 book Meeting the Challenge: A History of Adult Education in California, published by the state Department of Education.

Adult Ed cuts and closures. (Source:  Montebello Unified School District, Adult Ed program) Click to enlarge.
Adult Ed cuts and closures. (Source: Montebello Unified School District, Adult Ed program) Click to enlarge.

Nelson is exasperated when he considers how far the program has come, only to now face being done in by a budget deficit. “Adult education has survived the Civil War, two world wars, and the Great Depression,” he said. “I believe that adult education can move forward; it should be able to.”

Get on the bus

Edgar Melchor first saw the mobile classroom when he brought his son to school. He has two children in the district and works at Whole Foods, the high-end grocery chain. Melchor said even though most of his work involves computers, his skills weren’t very good. He has a computer at home that his children use, but as far as he was concerned it was just a decoration – until he enrolled in Curtis’ class. The class runs four days a week, it’s free, and there’s childcare in the middle school for parents with younger kids.

“It helps me communicate better with [my children], because kids know a language we don’t know, the language of computers, and now I understand it,” said Melchor. “I help them every day with homework now.” And when he’s stumped, he emails Curtis.

“That’s part of the beauty of family literacy, that the kids see that their parents are taking these classes,” said Curtis. “I think it’s a huge impact for children to see their parents studying; it’s like trickle down, I would liken it to.”

The class has also given Melchor the confidence to apply for a better position at work, and he plans to enroll in a GED course. So it troubles him that the program has been cut so drastically. Every day he sees parents trying to sign up for the class, but they’re turned away because it’s already packed. “We should do something, we should come up with some funds to support this,” said Melchor. “You can see that we don’t need that much. We are here in a trailer; I don’t think we need that much to learn.”

Creating lifelong learners

GED teacher Carolyn Chin (click to enlarge)
GED teacher Carolyn Chin (click to enlarge)

The district’s GED program is held in what’s known as a permanent portable classroom. It doesn’t travel, but on a spring morning it was shuddering as work crews pounded away at a nearby construction site. The noise didn’t seem to distract any of Carolyn Chin’s two dozen students as they practiced mathematical word problems.

Chin is fervent about her work. Last summer, when it wasn’t clear whether she’d have a job in the fall, she held the class anyway, arranging to use her regular classroom. “My students wanted to maintain their momentum, so I wanted to make that happen for them,” she explained modestly. Her students are so loyal, they can’t seem to stop coming, even when they’ve completed the class.

Florence Edwards already passed the GED exam, took the certified nursing assistant class, works full time, and has enrolled in a nursing program at Merritt College for the fall semester. None of that has kept the recently naturalized immigrant from Ghana from showing up regularly in Chin’s class. “I always come here on my break time, I come here to refresh my mind,” said Edwards.

Florence Edwards earned a GED and nursing assistant certificate and is pursuing a degree in nursing. (click to enlarge)
Florence Edwards earned a GED and nursing assistant certificate and is pursuing a degree in nursing. (click to enlarge)

Roberto Perez can’t stop smiling as he talks about graduating from the GED class later this month. “I couldn’t believe it,” he gushed. “When I first came here, I came to try, but I never think I’m going to make it and it was a big surprise when I got my scores and it said I passed; and I jumping and I still can’t believe it!”

Roberto Perez in Carolyn Chin's GED class. (Click to enlarge)
Roberto Perez in Carolyn Chin's GED class. (Click to enlarge)

Perez is a cook in an Italian restaurant in San Francisco and will study to become a chef next September at City College of San Francisco.  But his future was uncertain at the end of the last academic year when all the teachers were laid off  shortly after he started in Chin’s class.  His nightmare was that the district would stop offering GED courses.  “Now I’m going to say keep this open, the GED, because I think everybody deserves a second chance,” said Perez.

A lot of people in Oakland need second chances. About 30 percent of the adult population are considered functionally illiterate and 21 percent don’t have high school diplomas – higher in some neighborhoods. None of this is lost on the school district, but its primary mission is K-12 education and those schools have been cut so much that there was little question about appropriating the flex funds.

“These are tough decisions in terms of which programs need to be reduced, schools to close, so that we can actually function, deliver a quality program for all of the students and also be fiscally solvent,” explained Deputy Superintendent Maria Santos, who oversees adult education in Oakland Unified School District.

She acknowledged that those decisions aren’t made in a political vacuum.  “I think some of the critical considerations that come to mind are what we’re held accountable for,” said Santos. That means ensuring that students improve their scores on statewide achievement tests, that they meet academic standards and increase their graduation rates.

As Deputy Superintendent of Instruction, Maria Santos oversees Adult Ed in Oakland Unified. (Click to enlarge)
As Deputy Superintendent of Instruction, Maria Santos oversees Adult Ed in Oakland Unified. (Click to enlarge)

The district is hoping to offset some of the cuts to adult education by developing partnerships with local community organizations and community colleges, funding ESL classes through a different categorical account, and making sure that alternative programs like continuation schools are utilized to their fullest.

Santos was calm, even impassive while discussing the situation, as though she’d heard and said it all many times before. But at the end of the conversation, she stood up, rapped her knuckles on the conference table in her office, and conceded, “These are tough decisions; there are no good decisions when it comes to money.”

To learn more:

California Adult Education Administrators Association

California Council for Adult Education

ENDING California’s Public Adult Education Through Policy: Will you let it happen? California Federation of Teachers, April 13, 2012.

Linking Adults to Opportunity: Transformation of the California Department of Education Adult Education Program.  CDE’s Strategic Plan.  Nov. 2011.

Workforce Investment Act, Title II Adult Education and Family Literacy Act, California State Plan, 1999-2004, extended through 6/30/12.

CA millions of degrees short

Business and civic leaders weighed in on the condition of California’s university and college systems with an urgent warning that without a significant increase in graduation rates, the state will lose its prominence as an economic contender.

A new report released Thursday by the California Competes Council found that the state needs 5 ½ million new college degrees and technical certificates by the year 2025. But, without major changes, California will fall 2.3 million short.

(Source:  California Competes and U.S. Census Bureau, 2010 American Community Survey).  Click to enlarge.
(Source: California Competes and U.S. Census Bureau, 2010 American Community Survey). Click to enlarge.

“We need to provide our young people with the tools, not only to live a good life and be good participants in our state, but to also fuel our economic engine,” said Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster, chair of the Council, during a conference call with reporters.

The Council’s report, entitled The Road Ahead: Higher education, California’s promise, and our future economy, is the third in a confluence of reports focusing on improving success at the state’s community colleges this year, this time from the perspective of business and civic leaders. In January, the Community College Board of Governors approved a package of 22 recommendations developed after a year of meetings and public hearings by the Student Success Task Force.

A month later, the Little Hoover Commission, the state watchdog agency, released its recommendations for community colleges in Serving Students, Serving California.

All three reports share some ideas. They would give more independence to the Chancellor’s office, provide more support for new students, and call for greater accountability. The Council states up front that it supports the recommendations of the other two groups, but goes on to say that they “do not go far enough in addressing the lack of accountability in the system caused by dysfunctional governance.”

They call their report a blueprint for the governor and State Legislature and lay out steps the state must take “to restore California to national and international prominence as a producer of high-quality college graduates.”

More and better quality degrees

Producing 5.5 million new graduates by 2025 means increasing the number of degrees and certificates by a little over 4 percent a year. The Council says this could be accomplished by better research into the types of jobs and qualifications needed to fill them in different regions of the state. The report notes that “there are increasing numbers of good jobs across a range of industries that demand skills gained in credential programs of less than four years,” and that “the state should identify majors that are a priority.”

Community colleges are a key strategy in meeting the demand. With about 2.6 million students, they are the largest higher education system in the nation, but rank second to last in completion rates, according to the report. That combination makes community colleges the low-hanging fruit, as it were.

“Improving attainment rates for transfer, degrees, and certificates at community colleges could address a third to half of the 2.3 million graduate gap,” write the Council members.

The authors also caution against losing sight of quality. Doing things on the cheap, such as increasing class sizes, could backfire by producing graduates without the analytical and critical thinking skills they’ll need to be successful.

Create a Higher Education Investment Board

Remember CPEC, the California Postsecondary Education Commission? It didn’t work out so well and Gov. Brown disbanded it last year. The Higher Education Investment Board would be CPEC with teeth.

It wouldn’t be a governance body, said Robert Shireman, director of California Competes. Like CPEC, it would collect information and data from campuses about the number of degrees granted from each campus, how much it costs to educate students for different degrees, and what the workforce needs are for different regions of the state, and use that information to advise the governor and Legislature on policy.

Unlike CPEC, the Board would have authority to compel each campus to respond to its requests for data because it would also have control of student financial aid, like Cal Grants.

“Campuses did not have any incentive to respond to requests of CPEC because there weren’t any consequences,” said Shireman. “The scholarship program is a hook into institutions that they need to be responsive.

Streamline governance

“The statewide Board of Governors should amend its regulations to restore clear accountability to local boards of trustees and to the administrators who report to them.” – California Competes.

In a significant shift from the other two reports, the Council proposed reconfiguring the management structure of community colleges to give local Boards of Trustees more power over policy.

Currently, under AB 1725, passed in 1988, local community college districts must ensure that faculty, staff, and students are allowed to participate in governance. Two years later, the Board of Governors went further with regulations that call for “mutual agreement” between the local trustees and faculty senates on issues pertaining to curriculum and academic standards.

The Council, while acknowledging that faculty input is important, said that by giving academic senates equal authority, it’s nearly impossible to reach any agreements.

“We really debated on the governance question and came away with the feeling that the accountability structure of community colleges really needed to be strengthened in order to move forward and address this gap in degrees and certificates,” said California’s former legislative analyst and council member Elizabeth Hill.

As far as the statewide academic senate is concerned, the Council based that recommendation on a blatantly mistaken understanding of the regulation. “My jaw dropped when I read that section of the report,” said Michelle Pilati, president of the statewide Academic Senate and a professor at Rio Hondo College.   “It’s disappointing to see that the authors of the report did not adequately check their facts.” Except for the changes implemented by the Board of Governors in 1990, Pilati said local trustees can opt to reach a mutual agreement with their faculty senates, but are under no obligation to do so.

Members of the student senate took issue with the portrayal of faculty as the obstacle to change and cautioned against using divisive language. “It’s a mischaracterization and in line with all the other demonization of teachers that we’re seeing in K-12,” said Rich Copenhagen, a student senator from the College of Alameda. “Unfortunately I think this report falls into that, and I don’t think that’s a very healthy way of dealing with our problems.”

The Community College Chancellor’s office said it supports any effort to improve completion rates, but was noncommittal on the report’s recommendations and instead directed attention to the Student Success Task Force. Some key proposals from the task force are already making their way through the State Legislature in SB 1456, the Student Success Act of 2012.

Trends in California ed bills

Tomorrow is primary day, but last Friday also marked some significant yeas and nays. It was the final day for bills before the State Legislature to pass out of the house where they were introduced, also known as their house of origin.

One of the big trends in legislation this year is an effort to move the pendulum back from zero tolerance in schools to something more nuanced. Starting from the top, with State Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, lawmakers introduced nine bills.

As we reported in April, Senator Steinberg and other legislators were disturbed by a report called Suspended Education in California, which found that the harshest punishments were carried out with clear racial disparity.

Steinberg’s bill, SB 1235, requires schools with suspension rates above 25 percent, overall or for a specific racial or ethnic group, to implement a research-based alternative that holds the students accountable for their misbehavior but keeps them in school.

Sherry Griffith, a legislative advocate for the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA), finds some irony in the number of bills on the issue, and she urges caution.

“Last year we were in the zero tolerance for bullying, and this year it’s okay to keep them (disruptive and angry students) on campus unless it’s critical,” said Griffith.

ACSA has been fairly active this session in addressing the problem of misbehavior by teachers. The situation in Los Angeles Unified School District, in which a teacher accused of lewd acts on children was on the job for years before being removed from the classroom, has sparked numerous bills that would make it easier for school districts to take action against teachers accused of similar conduct. SB 1530, sponsored by Sen. Alex Padilla, adds “serious and egregious” conduct to the types of behavior that will get a teacher removed immediately.

“We support the Padilla bill. We can’t even imagine how anyone can’t support expediting the removal of a teacher in that situation,” said Griffith. “The funny thing is, schools are one of the safest places for kids to be, any time. And we have to keep that focus and not get lax about it.”

Building Student Success Task Force

After a year of meetings and public hearings, members of the Community College Student Success Task Force are watching to see what happens to SB 1456, carried by Sen. Alan Lowenthal. The Long Beach Democrat has introduced the Student Success Act, which begins to implement some of the recommendations in the Task Force report.

The bill covers two major sections of the report: funding priorities that promote student success and support, and requirements for Board of Governors fee waivers. The first part centers on putting money into services critical to students’ success at the front end, such as orientation, academic assessment, and helping students develop an education plan. Community College Vice Chancellor for Government Relations Marlene Garcia says there’s abundant research showing that one of the “key factors in student success in college is having a goal and having a plan.”

The second part is a bit more controversial: It would tighten eligibility for Board of Governors fee waivers. If students fall below a 2.0 GPA for two consecutive terms, they lose their waiver. “For the first time we’re saying students need to meet satisfactory academic standards,” said Garcia.

Requests for waivers have been rising along with community college fees. About 62 percent of students receive the waivers, and that could rise to 70 percent within the next couple of years.

While she understands that this is a philosophical issue for some, especially low-income students, Garcia said the purpose isn’t to separate students from their Board of Governors waivers. “It’s to signal to students the kind of behavior that’s likely to lead them to success. A GPA below 2.0 is not putting you on a track toward success.”

Status of key education bills as of June 4, 2012

(The following is the first page of a multi-page chart. Click here for entire chart)


Middle class tuition break at UC, CSU

Four Republican legislators crossed party lines in the Assembly on Wednesday, providing the two-thirds vote needed to approve a bill that would create a middle class scholarship program for the state’s public college and university students.

AB 1501 is part of a two-bill package called the Middle Class Scholarship Act introduced by Assembly speaker John A. Pérez, a Los Angeles Democrat, that would reduce tuition by two-thirds for students attending the University of California and California State University whose families earn less than $150,000 a year.

In urging a yes vote, Pérez cited the enormous fee hikes at the state’s public colleges and universities, noting that in the past decade tuition has increased by 191 percent at Cal State, by 145 percent at the University of California, and by 300 percent at community colleges. Meanwhile, state support for UC and CSU has dropped by 21 percent and 26 percent respectively since 2005.

10 year history of changes in CSU tuition. (Source: California State University). Click to enlarge.
Ten-year history of changes in CSU tuition. (Source: California State University.) Click to enlarge.

“This means that for thousands of California families, higher education entails increasingly difficult tradeoffs,” said Pérez; tradeoffs that would either compel parents to make huge sacrifices, or force students to take on massive loan debt. “For many Californians those tradeoffs are too great, and they make the reluctant decision to forego a higher education altogether.”

Student loan debt now exceeds $1 trillion nationally, more than all U.S. credit card debt. Statewide, according to the California Student Aid Commission, there’s been a double-digit increase every year for the past three years in the number of students who qualify for loans and for the state’s Cal Grant awards.

Under AB 1501, eligible Cal State students would save $4,000 per year, or $16,000 over four years, while UC students would save about $8,200 per year, or nearly $33,000 over a four-year period. Students from families earning between $150,000 and $160,000 a year would be entitled to assistance at a lower level; their scholarships would be reduced by 10 percent for each $1,000 in family income over $150,000. California community colleges would receive $150 million to help students defray the cost of textbooks and offset other educational expenses.

Lack of investment “criminal”

Modesto Assemblymember Kristin Olsen, vice chair of the Higher Education Committee and one of the Republicans who broke ranks and supported the measure, defended her position during the floor debate as a vote for the state’s economic prosperity.

“We have slashed state investment in higher education, and that’s criminal,” Olsen said. “One of the only ways we’re going to grow a strong economy over the long term is by investing in our public universities to make sure that we are graduating educated employees who are prepared to compete in a global workforce.”

She noted that wealthy families can afford to pay tuition, and low-income families have various options for state and federal aid, but middle-income families are being hit hard by escalating tuition and the faltering economy.

But her colleague in the GOP caucus, Assemblymember Tim Donnelly from Twin Peaks, wasn’t moved, except to sarcasm. “I see these programs and they sound so nice – middle class scholarship fund – woo-hoo, hallelujah, Praise the Lord! I love it, sounds wonderful, why don’t we give one to everybody?” he quipped. “Oh yeah, there’s a slight little problem: we don’t have the money.”

Donnelly blamed union wage demands and injudicious spending decisions by UC and CSU for their financial problems, especially giving huge pay raises to new campus presidents while increasing student fees. Then he offered this sage advice: “I remember when I went to school. I went to the University of California at Irvine; I got three jobs to pay my way through. My idea of a middle class scholarship is a job.”

Half a loaf

While there is some disagreement among Republicans on AB 1501, they are united in their opposition to its companion bill, AB 1500. This is the half that pays for the Middle Class Scholarship Act.

Pérez wants to fund it by closing a loophole in the 2009 Corporation Tax Law that gave companies operating in both California and another state the option of computing their taxes using either the Single Sales Factor (SSF), which is based on their California sales, or another formula that gives the companies more flexibility on how much taxes they’ll pay. The policy was adopted in one of those never-well-thought-through budget deals reached in the middle of the night.

Requiring those companies to move to the SSF would increase the state’s general fund by about $1 billion in 2013-14, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office. In fact, the LAO recommended that the state take that action two years ago.

Gov. Brown tried to change the law last year, by getting bipartisan support for AB 40X. The bill would have mandated the SSF and returned the revenue to businesses in the form of job credits as an incentive for hiring Californians. Although it passed the Assembly, the bill did not garner any GOP support in the Senate and died.

One of the sponsors of AB 40X was Assembly Republican Cameron Smyth of Santa Clarita. He’s also one of the four Republicans who voted yesterday for AB 1501. But in a phone call Wednesday afternoon, Smyth said he will not be supporting AB 1500.

“It would be another funding obligation from the state,” said Smyth. “I still think the Single Sales Factor needs to be reexamined, but I do have concerns, because unlike last year, this bill is a tax increase and it creates a new entitlement.”

Kristin Olsen and the other two Republicans who voted for AB 1501 – Katcho Achadjian from San Luis Obispo and Jeff Gorell of Camarillo – have also said they will not support the companion bill, but are willing to work with Speaker Pérez on finding a different funding source, such as savings from the governor’s pension reform proposal.

Assemblymember Olsen said adequate funding for public higher education ought to be a top priority in the general fund if California is committed to maintaining a premier public university system. But she’s not optimistic. “The direction that California is headed today, quite honestly, makes me fearful,” said Olsen, “and makes me question whether I will be able to send my three kids to college.”