API has served its purpose

A court decision this week involving Los Angeles Unified has raised again the contentious issue of evaluating teachers using standardized test scores. But a recent report for the think tank Education Sector recommends adopting the same method developed by Los Angeles Unified to replace the Academic Performance Index as a statewide way of measuring schools’ progress.

Called Academic Growth over Time, AGT is a value-added model that compares students’ actual performance on state tests to their predicted performance based on demographic characteristics – family income, language, and ethnicity – as well as past test scores. The intent is to distinguish factors of learning that schools can control from those they can’t.

The use of AGT to evaluate individual teachers has sharply divided teachers in Los Angeles Unified. United Teachers Los Angeles opposes using AGT in any manner, while teachers affiliated with Teach Plus Los Angeles and Students Matter support using it as one of several measures, counting for no more than a third of an evaluation. But less controversial is the district’s use of AGT as a tool to evaluate schools, in part because it involves a larger number of student test scores and doesn’t call for high-stakes decisions affecting individual teachers’ careers. To the contrary, a schoolwide AGT can encourage collaboration and team-teaching

This is a page from the Academic Growth over Time report for Taft Senior High School in Los Angeles Unified, cited in the report for its underwhelming achievement. Scores in green indicate a performance that exceeded the district averge for the popularion of students served (Algebra II over three years); gray is close to the dsitrict average (geometry); yellow is below the predicted AGT (English language arts last year; and red (Algebra I last year) is far below the predicted AGT. Taft's overall API was 744 last year; for whites, who comprise 40 percent of the student body, it was the state's target of 800; Source: Los Angeles Unified
This is a page from the Academic Growth over Time scorecard for Taft Senior High School in Los Angeles Unified, cited in the Education Sector report for its underwhelming achievement. The score, on a 1 to 5 scale, in green indicates a performance that exceeded the district average for the population of students served (Algebra II over three years); gray is close to the district average (geometry); yellow is below the predicted AGT (English language arts last year); and red (Algebra I last year) is far below the predicted AGT. Taft's overall API was 744 last year; for whites, who comprise 40 percent of the student body, it was the state's target of 800; for Hispanics, it was 695. (Source: Los Angeles Unified)

Last fall, for the first time, Los Angeles Unified released AGT report cards for all schools, breaking down every subject or grade taught on a scale of one to five, with students’ actual scores compared with where they should have been, given student populations, for a one-year and a three-year average. The AGT’s advantage is that it can highlight improvements in high-minority, high-poverty schools that may flunk under the federal and state accountability criteria, while pointing to mediocre performances in high-wealth schools that can glide by the targets of No Child Left Behind and the state’s API.

Here is the AGT report card for Audubon Middle School for 2010-11. All of he subject and grade level scores are in green and blue, indicated progress that exceeded and far exceeded the district averages. Its API score remains relatively low at 733. (Source: Los Angeles Unified.)
Here is the AGT report card for Audubon Middle School for 2010-11. All of the subject and grade level scores are in green and blue, indicating progress that exceeded and far exceeded the district averages. Its API score remains relatively low at 733. (Source: Los Angeles Unified.)

The Education Sector report pointed to Audubon Middle School that, under a new principal and re-energized staff, had a 12 percent gain in the API score in one year. But it was still in the bottom 20 percent and failed to meet the proficiency target under NCLB for the 10th straight year.

The state’s three-digit API number, on a scale of 200 to 1,000, is “a crude proxy for student achievement and allowed schools to be ranked,” writes Richard Lee Colvin, former executive director of Education Sector and author of “Measures That Matter: Why California Should Scrap the Academic Performance Index.” “But it was not designed to give educators much help in analyzing school performance, and it told the public more about who attended each school than how well they were being taught.”

The API’s shortcomings have been known for a long time, and Colvin  lists them:

  • It’s an indicator of students’ wealth rather than of a school’s educational quality;
  • It places too much emphasis on math and reading scores, so that schools end up giving short shrift to science, social studies, and the arts ­– subjects that don’t factor much or at all in the API number;
  • More than 40 percent of schools are above the arbitrary target of 800 and so are no longer held accountable for helping students who are struggling academically;
  • It doesn’t track individual students’ academic growth over time; progress is measured by comparing  how students in a particular grade or subject do one year, compared with different  students the previous year.

Narrow measure of school success

The Legislature had intended that the API be a wider index when it created the index in 1999, but nothing has changed. Now, for the second year, Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg has proposed SB 1458 to broaden the API to include possible factors as graduation, dropout rates and college acceptances, and Advanced Placement scores, along with giving science and other subjects more weight. In a nod to Gov. Jerry Brown, who suggested the idea, Steinberg’s bill could include the results of school inspections measuring non-quantifiable but important factors like school climate and parent evaluations.

There’s no reason why a new index that emerges – whatever it’s called – couldn’t also incorporate AGT as a measure of student progress in combination with proficiency rates on state tests. Colvin said that the costs for districts to compute the AGT scores for its students need not be significant; Colorado has developed an open-source model that districts or the state could buy for $250,000.

State Board of Education President Michael Kirst said he was open to innovative accountability models, but that now is not time to switch to value-added method. The state will begin using Common Core assessments in 2014-15, and at least two or three years of new data would be needed, bringing the adoption of a new system to 2018-19 at the earliest. The State Board will be reviewing the state’s accountability methods over the next year. Colvin called for making a commitment to AGT now and preparing for a transition. The State Board could grant waivers from the use of API to districts like Los Angeles Unified in the meantime.

But Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy told me the district was interested in a federal waiver from No Child Left Behind, not a state waiver, so that it get out from federal sanctions for school failures as the feds defined it and also gain more control over federal Title I money. After months of delay, the state has requested an NCLB waiver, but not on terms requested by the Department of Education; getting the waiver would appear problematic.

Estimating Common Core costs

The adoption of the Common Core standards comes at tough time for districts that have cut teacher training days and textbook purchases to stave off further layoffs. But a new study for the Fordham Institute co-authored by a University of San Francisco political science professor concludes that the transition to the new standards in the next few years need not be onerous.

“The bottom line is that successful (Common Core) implementation does not have to be wildly expensive – and could also support changes that have a permanent and positive impact on the quality and effectiveness of teaching and learning,” says Putting a Price on the Common Core: How Much Does Smart Implementation Cost?

“Smart” is key. The researchers, who included Patrick Murphy of USF, did a state-by-state breakdown using three scenarios for one-time costs for buying new materials, training teachers in the new standards, and implementing the new assessments. For California, the cost ranged from $380 million (the El Cheapo model the authors don’t recommend) to $1.6 billion, the Business as Usual model. The latter assumes the state would proceed with the Common Core as it has with previous state standards adoptions, with full purchases of printed textbooks for every student and 80 hours of professional development for every math and English language arts teacher.

However, the authors argue that technology and national standards create a third, “balanced option” costing $681 million. Common Core offers opportunities for California to piggyback on curriculum development and lesson planning that other states and national educator groups are doing well already. California can and should tap into those resources. The balanced or middle way assumes that teachers would receive some of their training in webinars and on their own through online lessons and the rest though the “train the trainer” method, in which one or two staff members receive intensive training and then teach others. Instead of a paperbound textbook, they could supplement materials using open source or other digital content. The assessments could be computer administered. (California is part of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium of states, which is creating computer-adaptive online assessments for 2014-15.)

Here are the estimated costs of Common Core for California and the next four largest states under three scenarios. Column 5 is the amount the states now have to spend on teacher training and textbooks. Columns 6 through 8 are the net costs, after applying Column 5 to the costs in Columns 2 through 4. Source: Putting a Price Tag on Common Core (click to enlarge).
The estimated costs of Common Core for California and the next four largest states under three scenarios. Column 5 is the amount the states now have to spend on teacher training and textbooks. Columns 6 - 8 are the net costs, after applying Column 5 to the costs in Columns 2 - 4. Source: Putting a Price Tag on Common Core. (Click to enlarge)

How much net savings?

Those are the gross costs. However, since states are already spending money on teacher training and textbooks and materials, the study assumes that for the next few years this money would be channeled to Common Core, so the net cost of implementing the new standards would be substantially less. As the study notes, “… it’s hard to fathom why any state or district would not seek to repurpose much of its current budget for standards implementation at least relative to math and English language arts.”

The study puts California’s current annual expenditures at $533 million. Subtract that amount from each of the three options, and the net costs for California drop substantially – to $1.070 billion for business as usual and $148 million for the “balanced” approach. In theory, the cheap model would save the state $153 million from what it is paying now by going digital and cutting corners on training, but this figure is silly, for reasons I’ll get to (see chart).

The Fordham study’s net cost to California of $148 million contrasts with the estimate of the state Department of Education. The Department of Education projects the cost of converting to Common Core at between $1.36 billion and $1.56 billion, according to figures that Paul Hefner, communications director for the Department, passed on. This is very close to Fordham’s “Business as Usual” amount and approach. It assumes $500 million to $700 million for textbooks and materials, plus $871 million to train the state’s 287,000 teachers ($2,000 for each middle and high school teacher, who’d be trained in one subject for 80 hours, and $4,000 for elementary teachers, who’d be trained in math and English language arts). Proposition 98 spending next year will be around $50 billion.

There’s no way of knowing now who’s closer to being right, Fordham’s middle way or the state, because the state’s charter schools and 1,000 school districts will be fending for themselves, some making the most of collaboration and new technology, some sitting around waiting for the state to tell them what to do.

Assembly, batteries are extra

But there are additional factors to consider:

  • Many districts have cut back on training and materials over the past several years, so the $535 million that the study estimates is being spent now on those items is high. The Legislature removed restrictions on materials purchases and professional development spending. A survey this year from the Legislative Analyst found that nearly 80 percent of districts had cut back on training, and more than 60 percent reported spending less on materials. That’s why it’s fatuous to say that the state could save $152 million under the cheapest option. It can’t save on what it’s not now spending.
  • The study doesn’t include the cost of technology needed to administer Common Core tests and achieve savings in the implementation – a major omission. In a Fordham webinar last week, Murphy cited two reasons: States and districts are all over the map in their use of and capacity for computers and bandwidth, and states should be investing in technology for its benefits to education that go beyond Common Core adoption. (Districts are in the midst of taking a survey that will reveal how well equipped they are for administering the SMARTER Balanced assessment in 2015.)
  • The Common Core cost estimates are for one-time expenses, but districts can spread them out over several years.
  • California shifted some of the Common Core standards in math to lower grades and added a few standards in English language arts. The study doesn’t factor in extra assessment and training costs from California’s deviations, and the State Board and Department of Education  haven’t dealt with the issue either.

One of Common Core’s sharpest critics in California, Ze’ev Wurman, believes that the Fordham study’s implementation estimates are way low. The technology costs will be substantial; the new computer-administered tests, in which teachers will grade essays and questions, will be permanently more expensive; and the teacher training needs will far exceed 80 hours, Wurman said last week during a webcast forum sponsored by Fordham. “Professional development will take hundreds of hours over many years,” he said. The needs will be in content, not pedagogy; Common Core requires teaching elements of geometry in middle schools, a more extensive knowledge of fractions, plus close reading to texts in English language arts. (He is not alone in believing that Common Core will expose  weaknesses in math  knowledge of many elementary teachers.)

“Eighty hours will not solve anything,” Wurman said.

In a foreword to the study, Fordham Institute President Chester “Checker” Finn and Ambler Winkler acknowledged the difficulty of implementing Common Core in a few years. “Let’s not kid ourselves. Of course it is going to be a challenge to implement the Common Core standards well. School leaders will be charged with advancing new teaching and learning paradigms, teachers with conveying more demanding material, and students with learning tougher content and skills.”

But Finn and Winkler also chided the rear-guard tactics by Common Core critics to overstate costs. “Having lost the adoption battle, Common Core opponents are now waging a budget battle, determined to paint the (Common Core standards) as a crazily costly mandate imposed upon the states. Though we loathe scare tactics, we do agree that states and districts had better go in with eyes wide open. After all, if they are to approach implementation seriously, they must have a solid estimate of its price tag.”

Race to the Top opens up to districts

California school districts will finally be able to seek Race to the Top money without interference and resistance from Gov. Jerry Brown and state officials.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on Tuesday announced much anticipated draft criteria for a $400 million competition open to individual districts or groups of districts nationwide. That’s enough money to fund a projected 20 proposals for grants of $15 million to $25 million, Duncan said.

For districts and qualifying schools in California, this will be the last opportunity to pursue innovative ideas and school models they have not been able to develop in cash-strapped times. The three previous Race to the Top rounds have been open only to states, and California has been shut, although it was one of nine finalists in the second cycle and was all but guaranteed at least $49 million in round three. However, Brown declined to sign the application on behalf of seven districts that put it together, because he believed it would have obligated the state to enact statewide reforms he opposed. As a result, Duncan rejected the state’s application out of hand.

That hasn’t discouraged John Deasy, superintendent for Los Angeles Unified, one of the lead districts in the aborted last round. Deasy said Tuesday that the nation’s second largest district certainly will be applying for $25 million. LAUSD’s pilot schools, its new teacher evaluation system, and experiments in other schools are the kinds of reforms that Race to the Top is encouraging, he said.

Applications will be due in July; the awards will be announced in October, and money for the grants disbursed in December.

LAUSD and the other six Race to the Top districts formed the California Office to Reform Education, or CORE, to continue their work implementing Common Core and teacher evaluation. They also have been encouraging federal education officials to open up Race to the Top to districts. Hilary McLean, director of communications for CORE, said that the superintendents remain intrigued at the possibility and will examine the criteria for applying either singly, as LAUSD intends to do, or collectively.

There will be a new twist. The top priority will be, Duncan said, “personalized student-focused learning” ­– approaches and programs directed to meeting individual student needs within and outside of the classroom. The Department of Education describes these on the Race to the Top website as “collaborative, data-based strategies and 21st century tools to deliver instruction and supports tailored to the needs and goals of each student, with the goal of enabling all students to graduate college- and career-ready.”

21st century technologies

One obvious applicant pool would be districts and charter schools with a widespread use of online and blended learning; the latter is a hybrid that combines classroom instruction and online learning. California has leaders in blended learning: Palo Alto-based Rocketship Education, along with districts (Los Altos School District) and charters (Summit Public Schools) working closely with Mountain View-based Khan Academy on technologies that track individual students’ progress and allow them to learn at their own pace.

Among large districts, Riverside Unified, with 43,000 students, is the farthest along in piloting online and blended learning. It also operates the Riverside Virtual School for 12,000 students in and outside the district. Principal David Haglund said that a Race to the Top grant would enable Riverside to take its individualized learning commitment to scale.

But Duncan said that new technologies are only one approach to break the “one size fits all mold.” Pointing to the Promise Neighborhoods model of community involvement in schools, Duncan said this could be done by bringing adult tutors into the schools and establishing partnerships with community groups, colleges, and health services to meet the academic, physical, and emotional needs of students. Oakland Unified’s ambitious Community Schools, Thriving Students initiative, which has established partnerships for school health clinics in some schools, with plans for a community STEM concentration in West Oakland, is one effort that could be taken to scale. Deasy said that pilot schools with home visitations and extended-day programs are examples of what the district might choose to expand with a grant. LAUSD hasn’t decided whether to target certain schools or concentrate on select grades.

Some of the proposed criteria and stipulations may disqualify some districts and give others pause:

  • District applications must serve at least 2,500 students (too large for some rural districts and charter school organizations but not in a consortia with others), with at least 40 percent of students eligible for free or reduced lunch subsidies;
  • Applicants must agree to priorities of previous rounds of Race to the Top. These include having a data system that links teachers to students and a commitment to employ a teacher evaluation system by 2014-15 that gives significant attention to growth in student achievement;
  • The superintendent, president of the school board, and head of the teachers union all must sign the application. In previous rounds, union leaders’ consent was not required but helped a state’s score.

United Teachers Los Angeles didn’t sign off on LAUSD’s previous applications. Deasy said he assumes that the union would not stand in the way of pursuing $25 million for the district.

Schools must repair their other damaged infrastructure: relationships

Infrastructure is not sexy. It sounds like pipes, highways, and wiring. In education, it is both people and organizations, and it takes both kinds of infrastructure to deliver – but also to improve – education.

The problem is that budget cuts seek to preserve the service delivery infrastructure at the expense of the improvement infrastructure. We cut professional developers and coaches and keep classroom teachers.

This isn’t necessarily wrong: Teaching children is our first priority. But as California enters the “awareness” stage of work on Common Core State Standards, one of the things we are becoming aware of is that we have decimated the improvement infrastructure that we will desperately need if California is to do anything useful about the Common Core.

"Three Doors to the Common Core" approach allows districts to choose a door (focus) - Curriculum or Instruction or 21st Century Skills, that is the best match for their specific needs. Each door leads to the same destination: a new vision and implementation of 21st Century Teaching and Learning in every classroom.
"Three Doors to the Common Core" approach allows districts to choose a door (focus) – Curriculum or Instruction or 21st Century Skills – that is the best match for their specific needs. (Click to enlarge)

What do I mean by improvement infrastructure? Inside schools and districts, it is structures like regularly scheduled collaboration time. It is also processes, which may range from lesson study to a protocol for visiting classrooms.

It is also roles: professional developers, teacher coaches, teacher leaders, even assistant superintendents of curriculum and instruction.

It is tools: formative assessments, a data system that provides teachers with timely and actionable data reports, a communication system that makes it easy for teachers to reach out to parents and that includes space for online collaboration.

Finally, it is agreements: How often will the professional learning communities meet? How long will it take the data guy to run those reports? This kind of improvement infrastructure has been downsized almost everywhere. In many districts key parts of it are gone without a trace. And policymakers who talk easily about implementation of the Common Core should not underestimate the difficulty of generating either the political will or the resources at the local level that it will take to rebuild this infrastructure.

Of course, while the in-district improvement infrastructure is essential, external sources of professional development, tools, coaching, and consulting also matter, and these, too, have been decimated. Part of that is scarce resources, but for the most part the infrastructure that supported schools to work on improving teaching and learning was dismantled intentionally: the old subject matter projects were dismantled and a diverse ecology of nonprofit organizations, consultants, and university-based programs were replaced by a one-size-fits-all set of training programs that were intended to align professional development with state-adopted curriculum and tests.

That was a grand experiment, and while elements of it were wildly unpopular with teachers, it was not a failure. Scores rose, achievement gaps narrowed, and many underperforming systems were improved. Cultures also changed, with many more teachers embracing collaboration as a strategy and common practice as a worthy goal. The use of data and formative assessments to guide instruction became the norm rather than the exception.

Yet the failings of this approach are too obvious for it to be attractive to recreate it:  Not only teachers, but also parents rebelled against a one-size-fits-all curriculum, and many of these parents voted with their feet and opted for charters. There is more to say, but this is enough: In 2012, public education cannot afford a policy approach in which standards require standardization.

So what does this mean about improvement infrastructure for Common Core? We need one, and actually, the solution is simple enough:  If Governor Brown is serious, as it seems he is, about valuing local control and local decision-making, then the goal of state policy should be to foster a vibrant and locally-responsive set of service providers that can provide ongoing professional development, coaching, and support to schools and districts.

What it takes to do this is both simple and difficult; it takes two scarce ingredients: money and trust. California can implement the Common Core if policy provides districts with funding that is earmarked for improvement support and if Sacramento turns its back on the culture of distrust that says locals cannot be trusted to make good decisions about how to spend the money. Actually, the stakes in this decision are high: We cannot make an education system that supports kids to be thinkers and creators unless we’re willing to create a system in which adults, too, can be trusted to think for themselves.

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

No more dodging Algebra dilemma

For nearly two years, California’s unwieldy eighth grade math standards have lain untouched like an unexploded IED, a roadside bomb of the math wars. But with middle and high school math teachers clamoring for guidance and new assessments two-plus years away, the Legislature and State Board must soon answer the question, What about Algebra I in eighth grade?

Faced with political pressure from Gov. Schwarzenegger and bound by restrictions of the Legislature, the California State Academic Standards Commission and the State Board couldn’t resolve the issue in July and August 2010, when they adopted the Common Core standards in math and English language arts. A strong-willed minority of Schwarzenegger appointees to the Commission  who had a hand in designing the 1997 state math standards – Ze’ev Wurman, a Palo Alto engineer, and Hoover Institution scholar Bill Evers – wanted to make Algebra I the default curriculum in eighth grade. The majority supported Common Core’s eighth grade standards, which introduce elements of algebra and geometry with the goal of sending students to high school better prepared for Algebra I and higher math.

So the Commission, whose job it was to advise the State Board, adopted essentially two courses worth of standards, the 28 Common Core eighth grade math standards and an Algebra I course with an intimidating 72 standards – an amalgam of a few of the old California Algebra I standards and Common Core high school algebra standards on top of  Common Core eighth grade math. ***

The State Board, restricted by the Legislature to either adopt or reject – but not change – the package, adopted them intact on Aug. 1, 2010. That was the deadline for approval in order to get points for Race to the Top, which Schwarzenegger was pushing.

At that point, the Commission went out of business, leaving the State Board with no authority to modify the standards. Since then, eighth grade math has been a void. It’s not part of the Common Core interim materials adoption process, and there’s been confusion over how to create curriculum frameworks and teacher training for that grade.

A new Commission’s charge

Fast forward to this past Wednesday in the Senate Education Committee and the 7-2 passage of SB 1200, authored by Sen. Loni Hancock, an Oakland Democrat, on behalf of Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson. It would establish an 11-member standards review commission charged with making recommendations to the State Board for modifying eighth grade math standards by July 2013.

The Legislature and Torlakson will name seven of the 11 members, with Gov. Brown naming the other four. The Commission and ultimately the State Board must decide whether eighth grade Common Core or a new Algebra I will be the default course ­– and how California will assess any standards that are outside of the Common Core. But it’s clear, from the language of the bill, what the Legislature’s intent would be: Common Core, not Algebra I, in eighth grade for most students.

As the committee staff analysis of SB 1200 notes, the bill requires that the new commission’s recommendations and the State Board’s modifications ensure:

  • “The rigor of the state Common Core standards is maintained so that all high school graduates are prepared for college and careers, as specified in the Common Core standards.”
  • All of the Common Core standards are adopted.
  • Modifications total no more than 15 percent of the already adopted state Common Core standards. (That percentage was the same limit imposed to qualify for Race to the Top.)

Retreat from universal Algebra in eighth grade

Wurman said Thursday that passage of the bill would confirm what he had predicted after the adoption of Common Core standards: Within a few years, there will be a sharp decline in the number of students taking Algebra I in eighth grade, leading to fewer students taking Advanced Placement Calculus in high school. Only students who are tutored or go to private schools that ignore Common Core will take Algebra in eighth grade, he said. “Private school kids will have calculus. Public school students will be less competitive for select private universities.”

California is one of the few states that adopted a policy of universal Algebra in eighth grade, and by some measures, it has been a marked success. Last year, two-thirds of eighth graders took either Algebra or Geometry – compared with only a third in 2003. Despite that doubling, the proportion of students who tested proficient rose from 39 percent in 2003 to 47 percent in 2011.

But consider the majority who aren’t proficient on the standardized test and even some who are, said Scott Farrand, a math professor at California State University, Sacramento, and leader of those on the Academic Standards Commission who favored Common Core math. “Tens of thousands of students now in Algebra I cannot add fractions,” he said. “The push for Algebra I is failing lots and lots of students.” Many of those forced to repeat Algebra I in ninth grade get frustrated and develop a dislike of math, he said. Common Core, with a more logical sequence and focus on understanding concepts starting in lower grades, will better prepare most students to succeed in  Algebra and beyond, he said. “We want to build a system that allows them to move forward.” That’s why he disputes Wurman’s contention that fewer students, including minority students, will pursue majors in STEM – science, technology, engineering, and math – in college.

Can it be fixed?

Wurman and Farrand agree that the 72-standard Algebra I course that the Academic Standards Commission created is unmanageable, but they disagree as to how it came to be that way and whether it’s fixable..

Wurman and Evers argued for pushing down a number of Common Core standards to lower grades, from eighth grade to seventh and seventh to sixth, in order to prepare students for Algebra. But, with a handful of exceptions, the Commission refused, because members said, they didn’t want to tamper with Common Core’s order and sequence. (What to do with these non-conforming, acceleration standards will be the job of a separate group reporting to the State Board, the Instructional Quality Commission. It will create detailed grade by grade curriculum frameworks.)

By creating no on-ramp to Algebra, Wurman said, “we ended up with a fake algebra option that is infeasible.” At this point, the intellectually honest thing for the State Board to say is, “Our expectations of 8th graders have dropped. We screwed up and do not offer Algebra as an option.” The Algebra I course that the Academic Standards Commission designed would be taught in ninth grade.

Farrand said that the Algebra I course was voluminous because the Commission believed it had the authority only to add to Common Core standards, not eliminate them. A manageable Algebra I course for eighth grade can be created, he said, by pulling out some less related and duplicative standards, including probability and statistics. There should be an option for those students in a position to accelerate, he said. How it might be assessed is another issue for the new commission. Under the No Child Left Behind law, the federal government insisted on one test administered to all eighth graders. But that policy could change, because it’s not in anyone’s interest to discourage students from taking Algebra early.

Farrand and Wurman agree that the next Commission won’t be as contentious as the last one. For starters, neither Wurman nor Evers will be appointed. “I’m hoping the Commission will do something other than put on armor and fight,” Farrand said.

“No serious changes will be made to the standards. There won’t be anyone willing to go to the barricades” to defend rigorous California standards, Wurman said.

*** Here are the Common Core Standards as adopted in California. Start on page 34 for eighth grade. For the new Algebra I course, see page 36.  Common Core high school standards are in yellow. Common Core eighth grade math standards are in green. California Algebra standards that have been included in the new Algebra I are in purple.

In & out of step with top ed systems

Updated at 2:45 pm, April 2

Andreas Schleicher looks the part of a diplomat. Tall and slim, with thick gray hair, and impeccable English spoken with a European accent. He is also the consummate diplomat when it comes to assessing the United States’ standing in education. In most countries, low results on the Programme for International Student Assessment, known as the PISA exam, led to contemplation and action. In the United States, not so much; at least not initially.

“I don’t think there was really much of an impact in the year 2000 when the results came first,” said Schleicher, who oversees PISA for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD. That year the United States ranked 15th in literacy, retrieving information, and interpreting texts; and 11th in reflecting on texts. The U.S. was behind what have come to be the usual suspects, including Finland, Canada, Korea and Japan, as well as some nations that give the U.S. a collective wince, such as Iceland, Ireland and, mon Dieu, France.

U.S. score on 2000 PISA in Reading. (Source:  PISA) Click to enlarge.
U.S. score on 2000 PISA in Reading. (Source: PISA) Click to enlarge.

Schleicher said the big impact came after the 2006 results. That’s when U.S. 15-year-olds scored 21st in the world in science literacy, 19th in identifying scientific issues, 23rd in explaining phenomena scientifically, and 22nd in using scientific evidence. That got the attention of politicians, which informed the development of Common Core standards and Race to the Top, the competitive $4.35 billion federal program to give states money to improve student achievement through innovative strategies.

“I think the Common Core standards hold a lot of promise. I wouldn’t underrate the potential impact they can have eventually on what happens in classrooms,” Schleicher said. “I think the challenge is to translate that into instructional practices.”

Schleicher discussed these optimistic notes and more during a video interview (click here for part 1 and here for part 2) with Thoughts on Public Education when he was in California for a conference at Stanford University on the Finnish educational system, which we wrote about here.

Valuing teachers

Some of the biggest differences between the United States and the better scoring nations on PISA is in the prestige of the teaching profession. “Pay in the United States is comparatively low,” said Schleicher. Although U.S. teachers may earn more money than those in other countries, the compensation is significantly lower than for other professions. That’s not the case in places like Singapore, where teachers are paid on par with other civil servants, including lawyers.

Salary is one aspect of teacher satisfaction, but it isn’t solely responsible for the high attrition rate among new teachers, which is 30% in the first five years, according to the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future.

In other countries, teachers are given time during the school day to collaborate with their colleagues and to observe master teachers, and they receive high-quality professional development. They also have a career ladder that isn’t just aimed at administration.

“If you tell a person who’s 25 years old, you are in school, you are going to be a math teacher, and 25 years from now you’re still going to be in that school as a math teacher, you’re telling young people that there is no future for them,” explained Schleicher. Other countries have professional progressions that could lead to the principal’s or superintendent’s office, but also include training other teachers, going into curriculum development, and other non-bureaucratic positions. “That way,” said Schleicher, “you’ll retain your best teachers in the profession.”

Factoring for diversity

When asked what three steps the United States should take to propel itself back onto the top of the charts, Schleicher was quick with an answer.

  • Common Core standards:  The U.S. has already begun this process of developing a set of clear goals detailing what good performance looks like.
  • Building capacity for delivering Common Core:  Attracting the best people into the teaching profession and providing the resources, support and professional develop to retain them.
  • Developing an equitable system:  This takes the second step even farther by attracting the best teachers and principals to work in the most challenging classrooms and schools, and ensuring that the money gets where it can make the biggest difference.

Critics of the PISA rankings cite the vast differences between the United States and some of the countries at the top of the list as significant challenges to employing some of these measures.  Singapore and China have powerful central governments.  Finland lacks racial and ethnic diversity, and the entire population of the country could fit into California’s public schools with a million seats left over.

Schleicher said that PISA does consider the environment in comparing countries, including diversity in wealth, language, ethnic background, and religion.  The United States isn’t alone in dealing with diversity, “there are a lot of countries that are a lot more successful than the United States in moderating socio-economic diversity,”  he said. “The context of an education system is a challenge, but the test of truth for an education system is how it moderates that context.”

Bringing order to Common Core

Classroom teachers, school administrators, a former state superintendent of public instruction, and two legislators will comprise the new Instructional Quality Commission, which will be the eyes and ears for the State Board of Education on the Common Core standards and will help guide the daunting effort to implement them over the next three-plus years.

As its name implies, the Commission’s mission will be broader than the body it has replaced, the Curriculum Development and Supplemental Materials Commission, which had a more orderly, sequential role in the process of adopting state standards, curriculum frameworks and the teacher training and textbooks that followed.

By contract, California faces a truncated, potentially messy process of making the transition to Common Core. The State Board adopted the standards, which all but five states have now approved, in August 2010. Common Core assessments in math and English language arts, now being developed by a consortium of states, are scheduled to be given in the spring of 2015. The Commission’s main charge is to create and recommend curriculum frameworks, translating broad standards into more specific guides for grade-by-grade curriculums, to the State Board over the next two years: math in November 2013 and English language arts in May 2014. Meanwhile, districts shouldn’t be waiting around – and many aren’t – to start training teachers in Common Core and searching for materials to use.

“It’s like parallel processing. People are doing things, and they need stuff now,” said Bill Honig, former state Superintendent of Public Instruction from 1983-1993, who is one of the 13 Commission members that the State Board approved earlier this month, out of 128 people who applied.* State Board President Michael Kirst has asked Honig, president of the Berkeley-based school consultancy CORE (not to be confused with the reform district collaborative by the same name), to organize the agenda and prepare commissioners for its first meeting in June.

The State Board and the state Department of Education will have a new and diminished role over Common Core, compared with adoption of state standards in the ’90s. Then it was a Sacramento-driven process, and the State Board could dictate the content of textbooks and materials. Now the standards are uniform, with a few important exceptions, and other states, especially the Race to the Top winners, are moving faster than California in creating curriculum guidelines. Teachers, through social networks, YouTube, online courses, and blogs (here’s just one), are sharing lessons and approaches to teacher training.

National standards could lead to the dominance of a few publishers or an explosion of free and cheap materials by software entrepreneurs. A formal textbook adoption process remains the law, but it will be a dinosaur by the time the State Board completes the 30-month review process years from now.

In its place will be a voluntary interim materials adoption process in which publishers will submit Common Core aligned materials for review later this year. Districts technically will be limited to using state lottery proceeds and discretionary money to buy the materials, but district administrators with budgeting finesse will figure out how to spend what’s left of the textbook account on whatever they want.

Honig says the Commission will be on the lookout for what other states and local districts are doing well; that will inform the frameworks process.

The state’s role will be clearinghouse,” he said. “Common Core will not be a state-run effort. There are not enough people to do that.” (For more information on Common Core, including the state’s 265-page plan for implementing Common Core, go here.)

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson has estimated implementing Common Core will cost hundreds of millions of dollars, between new textbooks and professional development – money the state and districts don’t have. But Honig, a strong Common Core supporter, says there is a “very strong consensus” in California on what needs to be done – even if some districts are waiting for the state for guidance.

Still, there will be areas of contention, particularly on the subject of eighth grade math. In adopting Common Core, the state could supplement national standards up an additional, vaguely defined, 15 percent. Particularly in math, the State Board shifted some standards to lower grades and added California’s full set of algebra standards to Common Core’s eighth grade standards, creating a jumble that first the Commission and eventually the State Board must sort out. The Commission also must figure how the frameworks will incorporate California’s supplemental standards,  how materials will address them, and how the state will then test them. (If they’re not assessed, then teachers won’t teach them.)

This summer the State Board, on the advice of the Commission, will appoint experts in math and English language arts to the Curriculum Framework and Evaluation Criteria Committee. It will do the detailed work on the frameworks for the Commission, which will in turn begin a six-month review process before the State Board adoption.

Seventeen of the Commission’s 18 members have been named; only the governor’s appointment is still vacant. Along with Honig, the members are:

  • Angel Barrett, Principal, Plummer Elementary School, Los Angeles Unified;
  • Krystn Bennett, 1st grade Classroom Teacher, Santa Paula Elementary School District;
  • Jose Dorado, Instructional Coach in math, Los Angeles Unified;
  • Edward D’Souza, Senior Director, Professional Development and Induction, Rialto Unified;
  • Angienette Estonina, English Language Support Services Teacher on Special Assignment and Co-director of the Literature Project at University of California, Berkeley;
  • Lori Freiermuth, High School Math Teacher, Sweetwater Union High School Distirct;
  • Marlene Galvan, English Language Arts District Coach, Dinuba Unified;
  • Michelle Herczog, Consultant in History-Social Science, Los Angeles County Office of Education;
  • Martha Hernandez, Director, Curriculum, Instruction & Continuous Improvement, Ventura County Office of Education;
  • Jo Ann Isken, Assistant Superintendent of Instruction for Lennox School District;
  • Nancy McTygue, Executive Director, California History-Social Science Project at UC Davis;
  • Socorro Shiels, Assistant Superintendent for Educational Services, Morgan Hill Unified;
  • Julie Spykerman, Math Curriculum Specialist, Anaheim Union High School District;
  • Lauryn Wild, Secondary Education Specialist for English Language Arts, Social Studies and CAHSEE for the San Bernardino City Unified School District;
  • Assemblymember Wilmer Amina Carter, D-Rialto;
  • Senator Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach

* Honig is a member of the Top-Ed Advisory Board.

No action yet on NCLB waiver

An unconvinced State Board of Education took no action Wednesday on a request for a wavier from the No Child Left Behind law being pushed by Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson.

Torlakson’s staff at the California Department of Education will now have another two months, until the State Board’s May meeting, to strengthen its waiver application in what in the end could prove a quixotic effort to persuade U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to make an exception for California.

Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia have responded to demands that Duncan has set for two-year relief from NCLB’s biggest burdens and sanctions. The conditions include implementing the Common Core national standards, adopting a statewide evaluation system for teachers and principals that uses student achievement as a factor, and creating improvement plans for turning around 15 percent of schools that either are the lowest achieving or have the biggest achievement gaps.

Torlakson’s view is that California has the legal right, as do other states, to a waiver but that California cannot afford some of the conditions – spending hundreds of millions of dollars in teacher training and materials for NCLB – while the timeline for other conditions, such as changing teacher evaluations this year, is too compressed or would be too contentious.

There’s no clear consensus on which route to take. Advocacy groups that include Education Trust-West and Children Now, plus the seven districts that led the state’s Race to the Top application, want to apply now for Duncan’s waiver, which includes some flexibility in Title I spending for low-income children. But the state PTA, the California Federation of Teachers, and most of two dozen district representatives who attended an information meeting last week on Torlakson’s and CDE’s general waiver concept indicated support for it, according to Fred Tempes, director of the Comprehensive School Assistance Program for WestEd, who conducted the meeting.

What all agree on is the need for immediate relief from the sanctions of NCLB, including its unattainable requirement that all students be proficient in math and English language arts by 2014. Nearly all of the state’s schools could be designated as failures – with letters to parents notifying them of that – within two years.

“One hundred percent proficiency leaves every child behind,” Elliott Duchon, superintendent of Jurupa Unified in Riverside County, told the State Board. While he said he supported a general waiver, if that doesn’t work he urged  “keeping the door open to the Duncan waiver.”

Christine Swenson, head of  CDE’s Improvement & Accountability Division, acknowledged that the state has no idea whether federal officials would respond quickly enough to grant relief in 2012-13 if the state were to apply for a general waiver in May. The state could turn around and apply in September for a waiver under Duncan’s conditions, but that wouldn’t take effect until 2013-14.

Until last Friday’s meeting of invited representatives, CDE hadn’t presented its idea for a general waiver. In a summary of the meeting, Tempes wrote that there was agreement that the “CDE’s proposal was not bold enough in describing California’s position” and didn’t point out actions that California was already engaging in to prepare for Common Core.

As reported earlier this week, the Association of California School Administrators has offered specific ways it says could make a general waiver more palatable to Duncan, including a commitment to halve the number of students who aren’t proficient in math and English language arts in six years.

EdVoice, whose president, Bill Lucia, was at last Friday’s meeting, called for enforcing the long-ignored requirement under the current law on teacher and principal evaluations that results on standardized tests be a factor. (EdVoice  is suing Los Angeles Unified on this issue.) Others say that a general waiver offers California the opportunity to present a new accountability system that builds in student growth toward proficiency on tests (as opposed to 100 percent proficiency by a certain date) but also incorporates other metrics, including Gov. Brown’s suggestion in his State of the State address for school inspections.

“No Child Left Behind has done more to create unity about what is wrong with federal involvement in education,” said Board member Patricia Rucker. “But a waiver application needs to be strong and bold not just to get out from under NCLB” but also to present priorities for filling gaps in policy that the state has already acknowledged.

Such a big cost, so little benefit: Why, Governor, persist with Common Core?

Somehow in preparing to run against Republican Meg Whitman, California Gov. Jerry Brown managed to shed his old persona of Shaman/Management Theorist, an easy target of ridicule and one that Whitman would surely have relished had she been able to resurrect it. This showed impressive image control, but I’m looking for the old Jerry Brown – the spiritualist, the philosopher – because that’s the Jerry Brown I want to address my question to.

Here is my question, complete with background:

In your recent negotiations with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan regarding waivers from the more impossible requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, you have sought extra time for the trickier of the waiver’s own requirements, like reaching labor agreements on use of student test scores in teacher evaluation (or using them without labor agreements), and maybe that is wise of you. The $353 million in Title I funds that you ask the DOE to permit California to use as a down payment on the new national standards is not the liquid capital it would take to buy the political muscle for challenging the California Teachers Association anyway, so I support your efforts to give us the time we need for this important task.

On the other hand, you can hardly consider yourself to be engaged in tough negotiations with Duncan. The projected cost in California of the Common Core standards, agreed to (though not in contractual form that has ever been reported) by the Schwarzenegger-appointed State Board of Education, is $2 billion and change (per the March, 2012 agenda before the State Board of Education). Such a deal you’re getting us! California  transfers $353 million in Title I funds from education to the Textbook Publishers’ Bailout, the benefit to us being a partial payment on the Common Core $2 billion, leaving us in debt to the tune of a billion plus. How is this tough negotiating?

What will the reapplication of Title I funds in California mean? TOP-Ed writer John Fensterwald explains in his recent post: “Districts with Title I schools – about 60 percent of the state’s 10,000 schools – would still have to spend the money on low-income students, but could use it, say, for preparing teachers for Common Core standards or for their own school improvement plans outside of NCLB’s limited models.” So you can spend the money on low-income students as long as, instead of actually spending it on the low-income students, you funnel it to the Publisher’s Bailout. (See details in a waiver request that Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson’s staff at the state Department of Education is recommending.)

My question then, is, “Why do you think we need these standards?” “But wait!” you say, “If you’re asking Brown a policy question, why do you want him to assume his former role as shaman? Do you want a policy answer or a horoscope?”

Fair enough. Yes, I want a policy answer, but Brown, in his spiritual moods, is disarmingly honest. It’s a skill and it’s also a good thing. I’d like to see him channel that honesty in discussing his education policy.

So then, Governor, we already have world-class standards in Californian, for which we paid several billion a decade ago. Those standards, which were written and maintained by experts and people in the field (including yours truly), raised the bar for all children in California. Nevertheless, they did not do much to raise student achievement. And that’s because standards do not in themselves do much. The companies and consultants waiting for the Common Core gravy train are telling you that the standards didn’t work because they were faulty, and we need new standards. Governor, it’s not true. Standards are no panacea in the best of times, and they are really not very important at all right now. If you disagree, let’s hear why. Assume the lotus position if necessary.

Doug Lasken is a retired LA Unified teacher, consultant, and debate coach. Read his blog at http://laskenlog.blogspot.com/.

Outside evaluator must tell us how well prepared are we for Common Core

California, like many states, is embarking on an ambitious rewiring of its public school system. By the 2014-15 school year, it plans to implement new Common Core academic standards in English and math for all grades. The new standards were adopted by the State Board of Education only 18 months ago. Having all of our state’s teachers and schools on board with this shift in core content in just another two-and-a-half years would be an impressive feat of bureaucratic derring-do. The last time the state undertook a similar effort with the current academic content standards – under an even longer time frame and in better fiscal straits – we didn’t meet our lofty goals so well.

Because this undertaking is too important to implement poorly or unevenly, Public Advocates is calling for an independent study of how well California’s Common Core implementation is proceeding. Adopting the standards was the easy part. Now the state must simultaneously modify its teacher education programs so that all new teachers are prepared to teach the revised standards, adopt and disseminate curriculum materials integrating the new standards, ensure current teachers receive appropriate professional development in how to adapt their curriculum, and build new assessments to measure student progress in learning the new standards.

The Department of Education and the State Board are doing what they should be doing in developing an implementation plan. Still, only by examining how well we’re building this plane before take-off can the powers that be identify deficiencies and engage in the timely re-engineering needed to ensure no child’s exposure to the new Common Core  standards substantially lags behind others’.

Recent history reminds us that having an ambitious plan alone isn’t enough. When the state imposed a new high school exit exam in 1999 based on California’s then relatively new English Language Arts and Mathematics academic content standards, it wisely required that the implementation of the exam and students’ exposure to the ELA and math content be studied by an independent contractor. That contractor, known as HumRRO, has published a series of biennial reports, the most revealing of which occurred in the years leading up to the implementation of the exit exam’s diploma penalty. The State Board of Education delayed the diploma penalty for two years based on HumRRO’s reports of widespread unequal and insufficient access to math and ELA standards-based content prior to the initial exam implementation date of June 2004.

HumRRO’s later evidence showed that, even during the 2005-06 academic year when the diploma penalty took effect, many students still were not being exposed to the English and math standards covered by the test. Mind you, at that point, those content standards had been adopted fully eight years earlier and the standards-aligned exit exam requirement had been imposed six years prior. Nonetheless, at the start of the 2005-06 year, HumRRO found that fewer than half of high schools had fully aligned their curriculum to the material tested on the exit exam. One in seven at-risk students in the class of 2006 reported that they had not been taught most of the English topics tested; one in six such students made the same report for math. Of the schools that responded to HumRRO’s survey, 12 percent of English departments and 8 percent of math departments reported that that they were operating with more than 25 percent of their teachers lacking appropriate credentials, and less than a third of high school principals reported that nearly all of their teachers had received professional development on how to teach the content standards tested on the exam.

Whether through an NCLB waiver, under the impending reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or under the inevitable revisions to the state’s own Academic Performance Index, California in the not-too-distant future will be operating under an accountability system significantly based on Common Core assessment performance. Waiting until after we’ve imposed the new standards on all students and schools to see if we have effectively implemented them makes no sense. It is imperative that we examine now whether implementation is proceeding unevenly and if so, whether we are systematically underserving certain sub-populations like English learners or students with disabilities or certain sectors like low-income districts or low-performing schools. It is better to know where the weaknesses in Common Core implementation lie so that they can be addressed by policy makers that much sooner.

Some may feel that we simply cannot afford any additional expense in these tight fiscal times. Yet, even before exploring the possible ways in which federal or private foundation dollars might help support such a study, the state itself should acknowledge the value of the minor investment here. For a few hundred thousand dollars, the state will know if its $50 billion educational enterprise is on the right track or not. Seems like a no-brainer.

Fortunately, Assemblymember Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), who has worked tirelessly to ensure that every student has an equal opportunity to learn and be educated, will partner with Public Advocates and will carry a bill to institute a Common core implementation study.  We hope the entire education community will get behind this important measure, AB 2116.  Hopefully, this time we make sure our new standards are implemented fully and fairly.

John Affeldt is Managing Attorney at Public Advocates Inc. a nonprofit law firm and advocacy organization and a leading voice on educational equity issues. He has been recognized by California Lawyer Magazine as a California Attorney of the Year, The Recorder as an Attorney of the Year and a Leading Plaintiff Lawyer in America by Lawdragon Magazine.