What the latest survey of Californians on higher education didn’t ask: a lot

The most interesting things about the latest survey of Californians’ views about the state’s system of higher education are the issues it didn’t address.

The survey, conducted by PPIC (the Public Policy Institute of California) and released last week, found – again – that a great majority of us believed that the state was underfunding its public colleges and universities. But – again, again – it also found that we weren’t willing to pay higher taxes or approve of higher tuition to make up for it. So what else is new?

Community college fees remain low

PPIC pollsters didn’t make clear to those it questioned that while all the attention was going to the rising tuition at the University of California and the California State University (CSU), fees at the state’s community colleges, though also rising, are still the lowest in the country and that low-income students get waivers for all fees. It made no distinction among the tuition and fees charged by the three segments.

If tuition at the two-year institutions were higher, a great many students would be eligible for federal grants or tax write-offs they can’t get now. In effect, the state’s low tuition policy is costing California many millions in federal money.

It didn’t ask whether Californians agreed with the protesting students and university employees at UC and CSU that university administrators were overpaid and over-perked. It didn’t ask whether in a time of fiscal crisis, professors at the University of California should be asked to carry heavier teaching loads than they do now. It didn’t address the dismally low student completion rate at the community colleges.

The survey asked whether respondents were “concerned” about the “overall quality” of education in each of the three segments of the state’s higher education system – they say they are – but gave no indication of whether that was just an expression of general grumpiness, like people’s views that the system was going in “the wrong direction,” or whether it pointed to anything specific.

Polls do disservice to a larger dialogue

There are a great many issues in higher education, as in many other things, which can’t be addressed in an opinion survey. But poll reports on a narrow range of questions, many of them getting predictable responses, also have the unfortunate effect of narrowing both media coverage and the general understanding of, and conversation about, difficult issues.

On higher education, the list of major issues, debates, and questions becomes increasingly crucial for people who seem to agree that, as one of them said, “the University’s funding from the state will not recover in the foreseeable future. UC will be lucky to hold on to the number of dollars that it now receives.”

So there’s increasing interest, among other things, in modifying the 50-year-old Master Plan, whose guarantee of low fees is already a dead letter, and perhaps scrapping it altogether.

Among the ideas: Decentralize UC, reducing the scope and functions of the central administration and devolving more authority and accountability to the campuses – possibly even abolishing the regents altogether and putting each campus under its own board of trustees. Although it’s a proposal that’s been kicking around for years, it creates the danger of  ten market-driven enterprises jockeying for student-customers and, abetted by local promoters and legislators, fiercely lobbying Sacramento for more regional pork. It’s already done now, but it could get worse.

Decentralize UC funding?

Some thoughtful people have also proposed that a much larger share of state funding go directly to students – and much less directly to the institutions – in the form of financial aid. That would obviously give the students-cum-clients more clout and force the institutions to be more responsive to their wishes. But it could easily also bring the marketing culture that already dominates much of higher education – the fancy gyms and student unions, the pandering to students who regard themselves as customers – to UC.

But the rigid Berkeley model for UC, endlessly trying to replicate Berkeley or UCLA in creating still more research universities and pinning each campus into the same institutional formula with roughly the same faculty pay and student tuition scales and academic programs, may be both financially unsustainable and educationally stultifying. High-quality education is available at countless colleges that are not research universities.

Equally important – and consistent with the proposals for decentralization – are growing calls for regional compacts among the local UC campus, two or the three CSU campuses, and as many as 10 or more community colleges: agreements to offer common courses in the first two years and give common academic credit wherever the student eventually chooses to go.

The ongoing unwillingness of some four-year universities, UC especially, to recognize community college courses with the same name and catalog description as their own courses and the general inconsistency in courses among the three segments is a frustrating impediment to countless students and an indefensible barrier to their ability to get a four-year degree. Creating common courses with all the resources that modern technology makes available would not just help overcome those barriers but lead to more efficient use of resources. It might even make for better courses.

Not all those issues can be addressed in opinion surveys. But there are all manner of other ways they can be raised and the public discussion broadened. This survey did just the opposite.

This column also appeared in today’s California Progress Report (californiaprogressreport.com). Peter Schrag is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of “Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future” and “California: America’s High Stakes Experiment.” His latest book is “Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America” (University of California Press). He is a frequent contributor to the California Progress Report, and is a member of the TOP-Ed advisory board.

Ignoring science in schools starts with ignorance of science by the electorate

Anyone looking for big news in the just released report on the teaching of science in California elementary schools may well file it under “dog bites man.”

In a word, elementary school science teaching is lame; it’s taught an average of a little over an hour a week, by teachers most of whom say they’re not well prepared to teach it and have few resources to work with. Some 77 percent of elementary principals say teaching science is essential, but only 44 percent say “that a student would receive high-quality science instruction in his/her school.” Is anyone surprised?

More pertinent, perhaps, is what the report, commissioned by the Center on the Future of Teaching and Learning, doesn’t discuss, and that’s the national environment of willful ignorance and proud denial of all intellectual discipline, science and economics particularly. Even the ablest teachers have a steep hill to climb.

We are witnessing a presidential campaign in which the leading candidates of one major party say that the theory of evolution hasn’t been verified and that they don’t believe there’s a link between human activity and global warming. Fewer than half of us believe in evolution; 40 percent are creationists. In some states the teaching of evolution even in high school is under constant attack.

Some 30 years ago, in “A Nation at Risk,” a presidential commission warned that “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.” If that wasn’t all hyperbole, the miseducated graduates of those mediocre schools are now our voters and political leaders. They sit on school boards, in state legislatures, even – as in Texas – in the governor’s office.

The new report, “High Hopes – Few Opportunities: The Status of Elementary Science Education in California,” was produced by researchers at the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California, Berkeley and SRI International. They found that teachers and principals at many schools put part of the onus for skimpy science teaching on the pressure of time, particularly the heavy emphasis in state and federal accountability programs in reading and math.

Though that, too, is hardly news, it’s undoubtedly correct, as the same thing would be correct, perhaps even more correct, for the teaching of art or music, and maybe even history or literature. But was science ever taught well, or given much time, even before the test-based accountability systems in reading and math were instituted in the past decade or two?

Consistent with their other findings, the researchers also found, in the words of a press announcement, that “the infrastructure support and resources needed for quality science education are scarce. Just one-fifth of school districts provide science related professional development for elementary teachers, and few school districts have science specialists or coordinators.

“More than 60 percent of all school districts have no district staff dedicated to science. Two-thirds of elementary teachers cite limited funds for equipment and supplies as a challenge to teaching science. More than half of teachers say they lack access to needed facilities.” And, as ever, it would be the schools serving poor and minority students that are most severely lacking. How often do we hear this?

But with the possible exception of a small number of classrooms, was it ever different? In 1957, when the Soviet Union beat us into space with Sputnik, there was a loud outcry about the nation’s inadequacies in the teaching of math, science, and engineering. If we didn’t shape up, the Russians would win the Cold War. Similar warnings came in “Nation at Risk.” Only in 1983, it was the Germans and the Japanese who were going to beat our economic brains out.

Neither happened in the way it was predicted – not yet, anyway. But this is a different world and the dangers are far greater. We no longer dominate the world’s economy as we did after Word War II. More and more nations are overtaking us in the percentage of their young men and women who complete college. In the countries that are beating our brains out in education, creationism is not an issue and energy efficiency and the control of global warming are high priorities.

Our historic anti-intellectualism and the ideologies, beliefs, and prejudices that mask it are as powerful as ever. Presumably smart men and women running for president pretend to be morons. In California, as in many other states, as growing numbers of Latinos, Asians, and other immigrants and their children reach school and college age, we seem to become increasingly unwilling to generously fund education at every level. Is that only coincidence?

As always, in such surveys, people say teaching of science should be a high priority in the schools, and that better resources and teacher training would help. So what else is new? Everything the new survey says is correct, but it’s not new and it’s only a fraction of the story.

Peter Schrag is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of “Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future” and “California: America’s High Stakes Experiment.” His latest book is “Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America” (University of California Press). He is a frequent contributor to the California Progress Report (californiaprogressreport.com) and is a member of the TOPed advisory board.

A much needed shift away from rating schools on test results alone

It probably could have been predicted a decade ago. The way the American political system judges schools – indeed the whole center of gravity of educational accountability – is shifting again. From a rigid reliance on test-based numbers, which was the fashion of the big state and federal education laws of the George W. Bush era, the pendulum is slowly swinging back toward breadth, flexibility, and moderation.

In California, the most recent example – and the most encouraging is Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg’s SB 547. The bill would replace API, the 12-year-old Academic Performance Index, which, in rating each school and district, narrowly focused on standardized tests in reading and math, with a much broader set of standards.

The criteria would still include the standardized tests – accounting for a minimum of 40 percent in elementary schools, a maximum of 40 percent in high schools – on a new Education Quality Index (EQI). But they would also comprise, in the upper schools, dropout and graduation rates, readiness for college and careers, and a set of other items yet to be determined (among the possibilities: a Pupil Growth Index, a Pupil Engagement Index, and an Innovation Index).

Given the generational swings in American education fashion, the shift, both at the national level and in California, was almost inevitable, but it’s still a major improvement over the current standards.

SB 547 is not a perfect bill – and can’t be. Can things like “pupil growth” or innovation or love of literature or citizenship ever be reliably reduced to numbers? Worse, perhaps, is that Americans’ ambivalence about what they want from their schools makes the standards by which they measure them ever-mutable, uncertain, and sometimes controversial. At any given time, half of us will be unhappy with “the schools.”

Conflicting, changing measures of achievement

As a nation of fact hunters, we want hard numbers by which to judge achievement and hold the schools accountable, but we want the system to be forgiving as well: meritocracy and democracy. No excuses, but give the child (the school, the teacher) a second chance, make allowances and provide special programs for special education students and English learners.

The Steinberg bill necessarily leaves a lot of the specific criteria-setting to state education officials and to a committee of informed citizens. Among those criteria, it might also have usefully included a measure of students’ cultural literacy. But the bill is a sign that the ice is breaking.

There’s belief in Sacramento that Gov. Jerry Brown, who now has SB 547 on his desk, will veto it and demand still more flexibility. A few months ago Brown, the Jesuit-humanist who seems leery of school policy that’s excessively numbers driven, vetoed CALTIDES, the California teacher data system, and not just because he’s beholden to the unions.

Still, it would be unfortunate if he blocked this bill as well. On all scores – the double meaning is intended – this bill could be the start of a sequence of major improvements over the narrow system we have now.

Americans have been tinkering with the schools and debating true beliefs about how children learn and what they should learn for more than a century and a half: progressive education vs. traditional schooling; phonics vs. so-called look-say or whole language; more homework vs. less homework or no homework; grade retention vs. social promotion; discovery learning vs. direct instruction; constructivist math vs. math facts…. The list runs to the horizon and beyond.

The current era began before the passage of No Child Left Behind, the paradigmatic education law of the early Bush years, but NCLB effectively represents it. By the year 2014 all children were to be “proficient” in reading and math. But it left the definition of “proficiency” to each state, many of which changed the definition in order to look successful. It skewed school curricula, brought about widespread cheating, and generated almost no improvement.

NCLB’s one great advantage was that by requiring each major subgroup to be assessed and make adequate progress, it pressed states and districts to pay attention to a lot of kids who had been ignored: special ed students, ethnic minorities, and those who came to school speaking little or no English.

But the effective target – universal proficiency, as defined by each state – was either impossible to achieve or fatally dumbed down. And the reformers’ favored remedies – starting charter schools, firing teachers and principals of failing schools or otherwise “reconstituting” those schools, throttling teachers unions – rarely work. There is no pedagogues’ cavalry out there ready to charge to the rescue.

So now, as the damage becomes obvious – as NCLB stigmatizes good schools for one perceived failure or another, or as the same school is declared exemplary by one set of criteria and condemned by another – the reexamination that should have taken place years ago begins, and the rollbacks with it. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is offering wholesale waivers to states that will accept some version of his standards in place of the Bush standards.

Duncan’s Race to the Top may turn out to be no better than and just as narrow as NCLB, but the waivers he is now proposing are a sign that things aren’t working. The vast majority of schools are still a long way from the broad, humanistic standards that the best practitioners, here and abroad, strive for. And no doubt Steinberg’s bill, if it ever becomes law, will need tweaking as its unintended consequences appear. But it’s still a promising step toward a more rational and intelligent way of judging our schools.

Peter Schrag is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of “Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future” and “California: America’s High Stakes Experiment.” His latest book is “Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America” (University of California Press). He is a frequent contributor to the California Progress Report, where today’s article also appeared,  and is a member of the TOP-Ed advisory board.

New dropout rates may be accurate but tell you little and could get worse

State-level school graduation and dropout statistics have always been squishy, and the most recent numbers, from California’s Department of Education, are not immune to some of the familiar problems.

While far more accurate and reliable than anything we’ve had before, they can’t capture all the uncertainties of student mobility or cut through all the fog of educational definitions. Nor do they tell anything about the quality of the education those students have gotten, another area where there’s lots of numbers and even more fog. And of course, they say nothing directly about the shabby support their schools have been getting from the state or the voters; they only reflect it dimly and indirectly.

The latest numbers, from CALPADS, the new California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System, are similar to what we’ve had before: Roughly 74 percent of students who started ninth grade in 2006 graduated four years later, in 2010; 18 percent dropped out. The balance – some 8 percent – is said to include students who are still in school, non-degree special-ed students and those who passed their GED, the General Educational Development tests.  Girls graduated at a higher rate than boys.

And of course, there’s no telling how many more of those listed as dropouts will get their GED or some other form of education or training, either here or elsewhere, that may never be recorded by the state’s data system.

Nonetheless, a lot of people are cheering that the new system is working. For years CALPADS, which is based on individual student identifiers and thus can track students from school to school, was beset by both technical problems and political resistance from two governors. That it’s now up and running is itself an achievement.

As was predictable, the new numbers show the familiar ethnic gaps. Blacks and Latinos graduate at significantly lower rates and drop out in greater proportions than non-Hispanic whites and Asians, who have the best numbers of any ethnic groups – 89 percent of Asians graduated with their class; only 8 percent dropped out. For whites, the comparable numbers are 83 percent and 12 percent.

Some 59 percent of African Americans and 68 percent of Latinos graduated within four years; among blacks 30 percent dropped out, and among Latinos it’s 23 percent. If English learners aren’t counted, the Latino graduation rate rises to 75 percent. But none of it is anything to cheer about – except maybe next year in hindsight, when we get the 2011 numbers, which may well be worse.

What may be most notable in these numbers, however, and certainly most significant, is that just one third of the graduates are non-Hispanic whites; Latinos make up over 41 percent, Asians another 10 percent. This is our economic future and the real challenge to our education system.

The remarks of state school superintendent Tom Torlakson were as predictable as the numbers. “Sadly,” said he in his department’s handout, “the graduation rates of these subgroups of students are too low and their dropout rates are too high.” He’s right, of course, but other than issuing pronouncements, there’s not much he can do.

On the other side of the fence, you can probably expect the voucher crowd, the charter school boosters and the other privatizers to seize on the numbers to show how the system isn’t serving what used to be called minorities, or maybe anybody.  The fact that, according to the state, some 17,000 eighth grade students (of some 470,000) , roughly 3.6 percent, dropped out in 2008-9 before they even got to ninth grade, doesn’t make the picture any brighter.

But the dropout numbers are tricky; while other states now have individual student tracking systems similar to CALPADS and thus should pick up interstate transfers, there’s often no way to track immigrant students who’ve moved back to their home countries.

In the past four years, a million illegal aliens have left the country, some because of tougher immigration law enforcement, some because of the recession. Unless their new schools – Mexican or Salvadoran or Honduran – ask for their American school records, no data system records what’s happened to the children they’ve taken back with them.

CALPADS also reports a 56 percent graduation rate for students classified as English learners, which on its face sounds impossible. How can someone classified as an English learner complete high school? The answer, according to state officials, is that an English learner is anyone who at some time in her high school career was so listed. Which is to say that the apparently low percentage may in fact reflect a great success.

But more probably, the numbers really tell very little. If the English learners who didn’t graduate only arrived in this country a year or two earlier, you wouldn’t expect them to graduate – would be shocked if many of them did.

The Department of Education warns that because both the graduation and dropout numbers were computed differently from any in the past, no comparisons with prior years can be made. They will, however, be useful for future comparisons.

Yet given California’s rapidly declining school funding – the curtailed school calendar in many districts, the bigger classes, the shrinking number of counselors and reading specialists – and the voters’ apparent indifference in the face of it, and given the shrinking opportunities in the state’s higher education system, we may soon look back on this year’s numbers, poor as they are, with longing.

Peter Schrag is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of “Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future” and “California: America’s High Stakes Experiment.” His latest book is “Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America” (University of California Press). He is a frequent contributor to the California Progress Report, in which this column also appeared, and is a member of the TOP-Ed advisory board.

.

A sneak preview of GOP contenders’ brag sheets on education

The year ahead will see no end of blather about the education records and policies of the major presidential contenders, but few assessments are likely to be as much of a curiosity as “The 2012 Republican Candidates (So Far)” in the next issue of the magazine Education Next.

Education Next calls itself a “scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution that is committed to looking at hard facts about school reform.” With a few exceptions, its editorial board is dominated by voucherites and other conservatives – Paul Peterson, Chester Finn, Bill Evers, John Chubb, Terry Moe, Caroline Hoxby, and Jay Greene – and it has always squinted hard, if politely, to the right.

In this article, by Allison Sherry, the Washington bureau chief of the Denver Post, the squinting becomes more like a stare. It’s not scholarly and omits too much. Sometimes it’s just plain wrong. But its wrongness tells a lot about what you’re likely to hear from Republicans in the campaign next year – and not likely to hear.

The main theme of the piece is that while some of these candidates – Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry, if he runs – have sometimes done policy flips in their careers, three of them –Perry, now governor of Texas, Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, and Pawlenty, ditto for Minnesota  – have impressive education records.

Education Next even provides a convenient set of bar graphs headed “Governors Have a Right to Brag.” Fourth and eighth graders in every state headed by one of the three governors, the piece says, correctly, scored higher than the national average in math and reading on NAEP, the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Romney, it says “is widely credited for raising test scores.” He “proposed education reform measures that lifted the state cap on charter schools and gave principals more power to get rid of ineffective teachers.”

What is doesn’t tell you is that the kids in those states scored nearly as high, and in a couple of cases, higher, before these candidates became governors. Minnesota fourth graders got an average raw score of 225 in math in 2002 (pre-Pawlenty) and 223 in 2009. In 2002, their average was eight points higher than the national average; in 2009, it was three points higher. In reading, Minnesota fourth graders scored 225 in 2002 and 223 in 2009.

The same was true in eighth-grade reading in Texas, where the average score in 2002 was 262 in 2002 and 260 in 2009. And contrary to the implications of the piece, Texas’s reading score was lower than those in 32 other states and jurisdictions. Massachusetts, which had the nation’s highest scores under Romney in 2009, also ranked among the nation’s highest-scoring states in both reading and math before Romney.

In fact, the NAEP scores in the brag chart don’t mean as much as a lot of people seem to think. They’re not aligned with school curricula – and can’t be. The protocols for who gets tested and which English learners and special education students get left out of the testing program, moreover, vary widely. In Texas, 9 percent of all students were exempt from the 2009 reading test; nationally it was 5 percent; in California it was 3 percent.

Also, since the tests have no consequences for students, those picked to take them have no particular reason to make an effort to do well.  NAEP’s own technical reports warn about making state-to-state comparisons based on the tests, but NAEP’s press people blithely ignore those warnings in their handouts.

The piece in Education Next doesn’t allude to that caution either. Instead it lauds Perry and his education commissioner for “pulling up the quality of Texas tests…to a level respected among education reformers.” But the up-pulling seems to have produced little in gains.

The phrase “education reformers”, incidentally, should be read with a touch of caution. In the world of Education Next and other ed-policy conservatives, it’s a euphemism for people demanding “choice” – vouchers, charters, privatization –  “accountability” for teachers as measured by student achievement, and suspicion of, if not outright hostility toward, collective bargaining. It doesn’t mean centrists, much less people who oppose the use of standardized tests in evaluating teachers or individual students.

And, as always, there’s the phony sentimentality about the good old days in the little red schoolhouse.  Education Next quotes Michele Bachmann saying she entered politics “because I want to give my children the incredible educational experience I received from public schools as a student.”

But having been born in 1956, she finished high school less than a decade before publication of A Nation at Risk, which warned in no uncertain terms that America’s schools were going to hell. Maybe that would explain why Bachmann never learned that the American Revolution began not in New Hampshire but in Massachusetts or that the nation’s founding fathers didn’t work all that tirelessly to end slavery as she seems to believe. As Will Rogers was supposed to have said (but probably never did), “The schools were never as good as they used to be.”

And wouldn’t it have been useful for the piece to mention that Bachmann, a creationist, favors the teaching of intelligent design in the public schools? “There are hundreds and hundreds of scientists, many of them holding Nobel Prizes,” she said in a campaign debate, “who believe in intelligent design.” That surely says more about a would-be president than a few test scores.

Peter Schrag is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of “Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future” and “California: America’s High Stakes Experiment.” His latest book is “Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America” (University of California Press). He is a frequent contributor to the California Progress Report (californiaprogressreport.com) and is a member of the TOP-Ed advisory board.

Who influences education in America? Can anyone?

John Merrow, the respected reporter and producer of education pieces for the PBS NewsHour and other documentaries, recently “speculated [as he put it] about the most influential person in American education.”

At the top of his original list of influentials: Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America; Education Secretary Arne Duncan; former New York Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, the last at the very top “for his remarkable network of eleven protégés now influencing what happens in schools and classrooms around the nation;” and Big Bird.

Subsequently, in response to readers, he put Diane Ravitch at the top of his list as an outgunned “Five Star General in the ongoing education wars.”

Forget the quibble that one of the original four was not a person, and that three have never worked in a K-12 classroom.

Forget that Klein, who made his name as the head of the antitrust division of the Justice Department and the lead prosecutor in United States v. Microsoft, now heads the new education division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., one of the world’s biggest media conglomerates, and makes eight times what he was paid as chancellor of the New York City schools.

Forget that many of the claims of educational success that Klein made as chancellor, or were made on his behalf, were attacked (by Ravitch among others) as having been as inflated as his salary and bonuses from Murdoch.

Yet even without those quibbles, the redoubtable Merrow has volunteered for a thankless assignment. On the list of possible influences, how about Bill and Melinda Gates or Eli Broad and the foundations they created with their billions? What about former Washington superintendent Michelle Rhee, who was at least as determined to beat up on teacher unions as Klein? In his follow-up, he lists some of them as Ravitch’s adversaries.

Merrow acknowledged that he got heat about his original choices. Ravitch came up in response to his invitation to readers of his website to suggest other names.

But I’d bet dinner at the fanciest eatery in the lower 48 that a decade from now, maybe less, the Merrow candidates – all but maybe Big Bird –  won’t even make it into a trivia contest in American Teacher magazine.

How many of us can name, much less agree on, the most influential people in education in 2001 or 1991? George W. Bush, anyone? Rod Paige, Bill Bennett, Checker Finn? Lamar Alexander? Richard Riley? Linda Darling-Hammond? Arthur Levine? Paul Vallas?

Or, for that matter, name anyone in all of U.S. history, other than maybe Thomas Jefferson, Horace Mann, or John Dewey, who was a great national influence on education. Parson Weems? Milton Friedman maybe? Ellwood Cubberley? Robert Hutchins? Mark Hopkins?

The question is impossible to answer because American education policy and practice are ever-mutable, and because Americans are hopelessly ambivalent and often totally confused about what they want from their schools. Do we want a meritocracy with tough, unforgiving standards, or a democracy with endless second chances?

Do we want schools to prepare students to be effective economic competitors and reliable workers for employers, or to socialize kids and make them happy, well-adjusted individuals? Should they all be academically prepared for college? How many Americans want their kids to be intellectually engaged rather than popular with their peers?

What about daily prayers and Bible reading? In a democracy, when a majority of local voters want creation science to be taught, should their will prevail? What about the teaching of contraception in sex-ed classes? Should community wishes or professional judgment prevail in the choice – and exclusion – of library books?

Unlike most of the other places that we purport to envy for their academically successful education systems – currently Finland, Shanghai, and Korea – we don’t have, or apparently even want, a single system, not a unified national system anyway.

Even the object of our envy changes. A half century ago it was the Soviet Union; in the early 1980s it was Germany and Japan.  In a culture like ours how could any individual voice or set of ideas or practices remain dominant or widely influential for any length of time?

The hottest thing of a decade ago, No Child Left Behind, set goals from day one that a lot of people knew were impossible to achieve. Now we are only trying to figure out how we can gracefully abandon them. It’s a little like Afghanistan.

Peter Schrag is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of “Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future” and “California: America’s High Stakes Experiment.” His latest book is “Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America” (University of California Press). He is a frequent contributor to the California Progress Report (californiaprogressreport.com) and is a member of the TOP-Ed advisory board.

Complaining about civics illiteracy is as American as ignorance itself

“Ignorance of U.S. History Shown by College Freshmen,” the headline said. “Survey of 7,000 Students in 36 Institutions Discloses Vast Fund of Misinformation On Many Basic Facts.”

Sound familiar?

In fact, the headline, above a long story in the New York Times, appeared on April 4, 1943. Its main point was that colleges were not requiring American history despite the fact that their entering students, in the indignant words of Times Education Editor Benjamin Fine, “displayed a woeful ignorance” of their own heritage.

“They could not identify such names as Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson or Theodore Roosevelt,” the story said. Some thought Walt Whitman was a bandleader.

Less than half could name two of the powers granted Congress by the Constitution, “while only 45 percent could name four of the specific freedoms guaranteed in the Bill of Rights.” One said the Constitution granted Congress the “the power of voting on the appeasement of the president.”

The 1943 story came to mind with another New York Times story, this one published last week and headed “Failing Grades on Civics Exam Called a ‘Crisis.’” It was based on a new report from NAEP, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, of test scores of a sample of fourth-, eighth-, and twelfth-graders.

“Fewer than half of American eighth graders knew the purpose of the Bill of Rights,” the piece began, “and only one in 10 demonstrated acceptable knowledge of the checks and balances among the legislative, executive and judicial branches …

“At the same time, three-quarters of high school seniors who took the test … were unable to demonstrate skills identifying the effect of United States foreign policy on other nations or naming a power granted to Congress by the Constitution.”

A lot of the complaints that the NAEP data prompted were perfectly justified. There is, as the executive director of the Center for Civic Education observed, too much emphasis “on developing the worker at the expense of developing the citizen.” In our current mania about jacking up scores on “the basics,” meaning reading and math, we’re almost certainly also neglecting a far broader set of liberal arts subjects and the critical and analytical skills to put that knowledge to effective use.

But similar complaints have been made by every generation since well before the one voiced by the Times nearly 70 years ago. They came with the response to the Soviet launching of Sputnik in 1957, when there were dire warnings that without great improvements in math and science training in U.S. schools, the Russians were going to beat our technological brains out and win the Cold War.

We heard it again in 1983 with the publication of “A Nation at Risk,” the report of the presidential commission warning that “We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament” and that if we didn’t shape up our schools, the Germans and the Japanese would beat our economic brains out. Ronald Reagan, who appointed the commission, believed the solution was in vouchers, school prayer, and the elimination of the Department of Education.

It seems to happen every generation or so, as the elders in each of those miseducated generations berate the schools about their failure to educate the next. In a talk at a community college last December, later echoed in his 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama even alluded to this era as “a Sputnik moment” requiring a new investment in education and science.

When Sputnik was launched, Obama said,We had no idea how we’d beat them to the moon. The science wasn’t there yet. NASA didn’t even exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn’t just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs.”

Did he have any idea of the irony?  The kids who started school after Sputnik were just finishing high school by the time of the moon landing in 1969. And if we shaped up our schools so well, how did they get to the terrible state described in “A Nation at Risk” in 1983?

Yes, our schools are often sadly inadequate and, yes, our students are often distressingly undereducated and uncurious – not only in science and civics but in literature, foreign languages, the arts, and countless other fields. In a globalized world, we are still too much tied to our historic provincialism.

But if our current political culture is any indication, the problem doesn’t begin in the schools. It lies in the prideful ignorance and denial running through our political debates and through much of the rest of our culture: would-be presidents who don’t know in what state Lexington and Concord are located or that slavery was written into the Constitution; the “correction” issued by the office of a U.S. Senator that his false statement about Planned Parenthood “was not meant to be factually correct”; the declaration by a White House aide in the Bush administration that they did not belong in the “reality based community” (that was so yesterday) – they created their “own reality.”

As we demand better science education, we still have states flirting with creationism in school biology curricula, writing discredited economic doctrines into their social science programs, and searching out witches and secular humanism in school libraries.

The schools need a lot of fixing, but it’s going to be hard to pull off until the world around them, beginning with our would-be leaders and the communities they’re supposed to serve, display a real commitment to learning and less to pretense, finger-pointing, humbuggery, and fabrication.

Peter Schrag is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of “Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future” and “California: America’s High Stakes Experiment.” His latest book is “Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America” (University of California Press). He is a frequent contributor to the California Progress Report (californiaprogressreport.com) and is a member of the TOP-Ed advisory board.

Even with all of its faults, I’m sticking with the union

Given the national wave of public sector union bashing, it’s not surprising that people like Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, is out making speeches about the virtues of collective bargaining in public education.

The case against teachers unions has been simmering for decades, with horror stories about the rubber room in New York (now gone); countless instances of union resistance to modification of rigid seniority rules in promotion and layoffs, and, often, general insensitivity to the needs of children and the concerns of parents.

It had to blow – and what more likely time than during a recession and the accompanying tight state and local budgets. Nor does it come only from the Republicans of Wisconsin and Ohio (and Washington, D.C.), but from national foundations and from fully certified liberals like Davis Guggenheim, whose film Waiting for Superman portrays Weingarten as a villain in the struggle of parents to get their children into decent schools. Even Barack Obama and his education secretary Arne Duncan don’t seem so sure.

But Weingarten’s effort – I heard her in the East Bay suburb of Lafayette last week – was but a frail dike against that wave. She told stories to illustrate how bottom-up input in collective bargaining from the people in the classroom helps make schools both more effective and fiscally more efficient.

Randi Weingarten, AFT president
Randi Weingarten, AFT president

She argued that her union has worked hard to make teacher evaluations – including dismissals of bad teachers – fairer and faster; that there should be more focus on improving teaching and less on testing; and, perhaps most tellingly, that debates about federal policy – most immediately revisions in the fraying No Child Left Behind law – are almost irrelevant when states and local districts are being ravaged by fiscal crises and laying off thousands of teachers.

She left out much on both sides of this complicated story. She said little about the long history of union intransigence, especially by the National Education Association, far and away the bigger of the two national unions, which brought us to this point. (Asked whether her stories about the leadership of her own organization in school reform applied to the rival NEA as well, she diplomatically allowed that there was a lot of diversity in the movement; slowly, she also seemed to suggest, the NEA was letting itself be dragged into the 21st Century.)

Defenders of public schools against privatization

But she didn’t say anything about – or maybe forgot  to mention – things that may have been all too obvious: It’s been the teachers unions, for all their intransigence, that have been the most effective defenders of the common schools through three decades of increasingly virulent attacks from the voices of privatization. It’s the common schools that promise, even if too often they fail to deliver, the acculturation and social integration on which citizenship rests.

Even as she was speaking, the Republican-dominated Indiana legislature was passing HB 1003, the most sweeping voucher law in the country. It will provide a private school voucher to any child from a family with an annual income of under $60,000 who’s currently enrolled in a public school.

Proponents of the plan argue that since the voucher, which would come out of the budget of the transferring student’s school and vary according to the student’s family income, is never worth more than 90 percent of a school’s public funding (and often much less), the schools would in fact gain from the program.

But since schools can choose applicants according to their usual standards, it in effect makes the public schools, which have to take all comers, the default system for those rejected by the private schools – assuming any were accessible.

And since parents can supplement the voucher with their own funds, the program not only becomes a public subsidy for families who can afford private schools, but a subsidy for those schools. Eventually, if the statements of the law’s proponents are credible, the means test will be liberalized and children already in private schools will also become eligible. They’re playing with similar ideas next door in Ohio.

Unions modeled on industrial labor organizations were never a comfortable fit for teaching, which is not supposed to be assembly line work but a profession unrestrained by fixed working patterns and rules.

Moreover, they sit on top of a civil service system already providing tenure and promotion rules (themselves sometimes debatable) and exercise great political power in state legislatures, on school boards, and in the Democratic Party. That’s clout on top of security on top of yet more security.

But after all that’s said, public employee unions are not even remotely the cause of our present budgetary difficulties, they’re the fall guys in a fiscal system that – no secret to anyone – tilts heavily toward the rich and powerful and a public ethos that’s nearly forgotten the critical importance of community, equality, and public services in the maintenance of a good society.

For the 30 or 40 years after the mid-1930s, recalling what things had been like before, Americans celebrated and broadened public services provided by social democracy. In the past generation or two we’ve forgotten that past, or take it for granted. At this moment, for all their flaws, it’s the unions that are  the biggest defenders of adequate public services.  That history, too, is something that people like Weingarten – and a lot of others – should be talking about.

Peter Schrag is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of “Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future” and “California: America’s High Stakes Experiment.” His latest book is “Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America” (University of California Press). He is a frequent contributor to the California Progress Report (californiaprogressreport.com) and is a member of the TOP-Ed advisory board.

Nominating Honig to State Board of Education is risky but worthy

Jerry Brown had no sooner nominated former California Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig to the state Board of Education this week than the ugly part of the Honig story crept back into the news: In 1993, Honig, possibly the most influential school leader in California’s history, was convicted on a felony conflict of interest charge and forced to resign. Three years later the charge was reduced to a misdemeanor, which now again makes him eligible to hold public office. But it may again haunt him –and haunt Brown for naming him.

The details of the old charges are too long to lay out in detail in this piece. In essence the hard-driving Honig was accused of steering some school district consulting contracts for parent training to his wife Nancy’s nonprofit Quality Education Project, which was headquartered in their San Francisco home.

It was a reckless thing to do, as some of Honig’s friends told him even then, but Honig was so certain that the services the QEP provided were the best thing for the schools that got them that the warnings were ignored.

The felony charge always smacked of a political witch hunt. Honig, a Democrat, never made a cent from the deal, and neither did QEP, whose funding all came from foundations. No tax money was ever involved. But as superintendent for more than a decade he had made a broad array of enemies, from the two Republican governors he accused of shortchanging the schools to the then-still-powerful creationists he rebuffed in the writing of curricula and the choice of textbooks.

Instead of bringing felony charges, Dan Lungren, the Republican attorney general who prosecuted Honig, could have charged him with a misdemeanor from the start, which would not have required removal from office. As Honig’s lawyers argued, there was never any evidence that Honig intended to profit from the deal. Lungren, who ran for governor in 1998, and lost, is now a member of Congress from the Sacramento suburbs.

The judge at the trial, who had made some questionable evidentiary rulings against Honig  – Honig’s state of mind, he ruled, was not an issue –  had changed his party registration from Democrat to Republican and was himself seeking appointment to a higher court in a Republican administration. Ironically, the judge was also a Jerry Brown appointee.

Honig was also a key figure in the campaign in 1988 to pass Proposition 98, the minimum school funding formula that has vexed governors ever since. It came as a direct response to Gov. George Deukmejian’s decision in 1987 to refund $1 billion-plus to the taxpayers because, Deukmejian argued, the state had hit its legal spending limit. That refund hit the schools especially hard.

In 1991, after a series of ugly turf fights with Honig, the conservatives that Deukmejian and his successor Pete Wilson had put on the Board filed a lawsuit that eventually led to an appellate court decision trimming Honig’s policy-making and appointing authority.

The Board, which had the constitutional authority for state education policy, had almost certainly been neglected by Honig, but the decision did little to clear up the convoluted arrangement in which the independently elected superintendent is supposed to carry out the policies of a group of gubernatorial appointees.

But for all the battles Honig waged and the errors he made, some of which he himself later acknowledged, Honig may have done more to raise California’s education standards than any single individual since.

Honig, as a member of the State Board (to which Brown named him during his prior years as governor) and then as superintendent after his election in 1982, was among the first to sound the alarm about the flabbiness of California’s curricula and testing program – and did so well before school reform and the imposition of tougher standards became the national issues they’ve been for most of the past three decades.

Before his conviction and removal from office in 1993, some people thought he might make a strong candidate for governor. That was always a near-impossibility, though it might have worried a few Republicans at the time.  But Honig was a great national force for more rigorous academic standards and less fluff in school curricula.

Jerry Brown’s decision to appoint Honig again is obviously risky, both for him and for Honig – “something old, something new,” he said when he mentioned it in a private conversation on inauguration day. But in terms of experience, brains, and promise for better schools, he could hardly have picked a better person, old or new.

Peter Schrag is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of “Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future” and “California: America’s High Stakes Experiment.” His latest book is “Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America” (University of California Press). He is a frequent contributor to the California Progress Report and is a member of the TOP-Ed advisory board.

What culprit-seeking ‘Superman’ lacks: complexity

Teachers union members last week leafleted outside the Oakland movie house where I saw Davis Guggenheim’s film Waiting for Superman. And no doubt there’ve been countless protests elsewhere. The film, “and its unprecedented hype (and) … misleading or factually incorrect claims,” said the leaflets, “risk leading us dangerously astray from real solutions to real problems.”

No surprise about that. The movie makes teachers unions the prime culprits standing in the way of decent schools for nice (mostly minority) kids and portrays charter schools as their greatest hope. But conservatives like New York Times columnist Ross Douthat who read between the lines of Guggenheim’s film can easily come to a more radical conclusion: The only real answer is vouchers.

The movie’s strongest complaint – the problems caused by rigid seniority-and-tenure provisions of the teacher contracts that are standard in many districts – is hard to dismiss. Disciplining, much less firing teachers is often so long and costly a process that administrators don’t even try.

But even here, its choice of American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten as the prime ogre misses the mark. Next to the far larger, more powerful, and more troglodytic National Education Association, today’s AFT is a model of accommodation in developing acceptable practices in evaluating, promoting and disciplining teachers.

But what’s most notable about the film is its blatant oversimplification of the problems that confront schools – hardly unusual when it comes to that topic – and its omission of the countless other factors that contribute to them.

It’s a long list. The film makes passing reference to “the blob,” shorthand for the overlay of bureaucrats, politicians, ed school professors, and consultants who sit on top of the system and serve as its designated fixers. But it says nothing about the thousands of harried or incompetent and sometimes biased vice principals and other administrators who are supposed to evaluate and, if necessary, counsel errant teachers.

It says nothing about the thousands of schools where the toilets don’t work, the roofs leak, the windows are broken, and where there aren’t enough textbooks, much less lab materials and computers to go around.

The film says nothing about the endemic politicization of the system – by ideologues on state or local school boards, as in Texas, or by self-appointed watchdog groups looking for heresy, perversion, or subversion in textbooks and curricula. It doesn’t mention the endemic uncertainty and uncompromising fights over the proper way to teach reading or math and the frequent changes of curricula they impose top-down on teachers. There is no discussion of testing – what to test, how to use tests, and how to weigh the scores. And there’s no mention of about a thousand other things that contribute to the problems faced by schools.

More important, the film lets you assume that all parents and guardians are like the dedicated, striving adults in the film. However, anyone involved in education can tell you that many and, in some places, most parents are not engaged in their children’s education, can’t be induced even to appear for parent conferences, provide no encouragement to their children to learn and no place for them to study, never read to them, and in too many cases rarely talk with them at all.

The film doesn’t say that in places like California more than one fourth of children come from homes where English is not the primary language and that another large percentage come with mental, physical or emotional handicaps requiring special programs and/or extra personnel.

It doesn’t tell you that most charter schools are no better than public schools with similar enrollments and that many are worse. It doesn’t tell you that the KIPP schools, which it justly celebrates, demand additional commitments in time and effort from both parents and students that many are not prepared to make.

It doesn’t tell you that Finland, its model of educational success, like many other high-scoring countries, has strong teachers unions and teacher tenure and, more important, provides a rich range of health and social services to children and their families that this country does not provide.

And in declaring that this country once had the world’s best educational system, it makes no mention of the century of school segregation, or of the fact that until the 1970s large numbers of kids, Southern black kids particularly, didn’t go to school at all between April and October, and that the nation’s prestigious colleges had virtually no Blacks enrolled, and rigid quotas for Jews.

It makes no reference to the nation’s historic anti-intellectualism or its current manifestations in creationism and resistance to the teaching of evolution, or the denial of the overwhelming scientific evidence for the human causes of global warming. It fails to mention the countless communities where winning the Friday night football game is still a more important criterion for the local high school than academic distinction.

The real mystery of Waiting for Superman is how, despite all its flaws, it’s gotten so much attention so fast, even on the left. In part, that may be the result of the reputation Guggenheim achieved with his  An Inconvenient Truth, the film he made with Al Gore about global warming. Because of it, Guggenheim came on as a fully-certified liberal (which, of course, is also why the film has been embraced so warmly by the Wall Street Journal and other voices on the right).

But in our recession-driven swing to the right, much of the nation, including the left, may also have become so focused on the power and apparent intransigence of the teachers unions that everything else got neglected and things needed only a small spark to blow. Weingarten made the strategic mistake, probably well-intentioned, of sitting still for Guggenheim’s cameras. The leaders of the NEA, who are far more deserving of a hit, didn’t make the same mistake.

Still, none of that explains why Guggenheim so oversimplified his story. Not one of his talking heads – not Bill Gates, not his hero Michelle Rhee, the hard-charging reformer of the Washington schools – suggested the larger complexity of the nation’s educational problems.

Nor does it explain why Guggenheim didn’t fully identify the long-time voucher advocates, Eric Hanushek of the Hoover Institution or Lance Izumi of the devotedly free-market Pacific Research Institute, who appeared in the film. Ultimately, the best explanation may be the oldest one: Complexity almost always makes for bad morality tales. Maybe Waiting for Superman will make more accommodations possible with the teachers unions. But it won’t solve the problems of American education.

Peter Schrag is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of “Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future” and “California: America’s High Stakes Experiment.” His latest book is “Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America” (University of California Press). He is a frequent contributor to the California Progress Report