Trending toward graduation

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

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

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

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

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

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

The CALPADS difference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

California’s first-class Dreamers

Beatriz, the daughter of  house cleaners, and Chava, the son of tamale and ice cream makers from San Jose, will enroll this fall in the University of California at Merced – an event they viewed as unattainable until two months ago. They did aspire to a four-year degree. But as undocumented immigrants from Mexico whose parents moved them to America before they were in middle school, they were realists, too. Community college would be all they could afford, if that.

Beatriz and Chava are the new California Dreamers, among the first to receive college aid under California’s   Dream Act, which Jerry Brown signed into law last year on its fifth trip to the governor’s desk.

Chava, at his graduation from Downtown College Prep in San Jose, would be the first of five children to attend college. Click to enlarge. (Photo by Fensterwald)
Chava, at his graduation from Downtown College Prep in San Jose, would be the first of five children to attend college. Click to enlarge. (Photo by John Fensterwald)

Starting in  2013, Cal Grants will be available to undocumented immigrants and other income-eligible nonresident Californians who graduated from a California high school after attending at least three years. But Beatriz’ and Chava’s counselor at Downtown College Prep, a charter high school in San Jose, had heard that UC campuses were planning to award Dream Act money through private scholarships under their control sooner than that under AB 130, a separate part of the Dream Act. So each student hurriedly filled out a financial application this spring, and, sure enough, soon after their UC Merced acceptance letter came, offers to each for $22,000 – a little more two-thirds of the estimated cost of fees and room and board at a UC campus for next year. Now, with their fathers’ encouragement and mothers’ ambivalent mixture of pride and trepidation, and with additional scholarships from DCP and money the families and students have saved, they’ll be heading away from home to college.

The state Department of Finance estimated last year that 2,500 students will qualify for Cal Grants under the Dream Act. That’s about 1 percent of the total recipients, but less than one third of those will be undocumented students. The rest will be California high school graduates who want to return to the Golden State for college.

Finance estimated the state cost of Cal Grants for Dream Act recipients at $14.5 million per year. Opponents of the law argue it will attract more illegal immigrants and siphon money that could be used for citizens. Proponents, like Gov. Brown, respond that the state should encourage and reward all students for their hard work; the state will need more college grads, and a Cal Grant is a pittance compared with the nearly $100,000 the state paid for their K-12 education.

Though they lack a U.S. birth certificate, Beatriz and Chava are American success stories, embodying “ganas,” that intense desire that teachers and students celebrate at Downtown College Prep. Beatriz’ family moved from the state of Oaxaca when she was 11, and the future social worker knew not a word of English. Soon she was interpreting for her parents as they went door to door in Fremont, drumming up business for the family. One of five children and the first to go to college,  Chava, a future entrepreneur, and his family left Tijuana when he was eight or nine.

“Both students have tremendous amount of grit,” says Prisilla Lerza, the college financial manager at DCP. “At different moments, they have dealt with their immigration status but given their all. All of our teachers would describe them as top students.”

At DCP, which targets low-performing middle school students from low-income Hispanic families, about 20 percent of students are undocumented immigrants. This year it was 11 of 49 graduates. During junior year, when it’s time to get serious about college applications, immigration status has become a demarcation, and sometimes a difficult subject to broach.

“Some students don’t know they are undocumented until they apply to college, and others are taught to be in the closet – that something bad can happen to them,” said Lerza. “The emotional part catches up at some point and for some can subtly manifest in despair. We see that in not meeting deadlines for applying or in terms of what schools they apply to; they pursue community college as their only option.”

This year, Cal Grants for high school graduates with a grade point average of 3.0 or higher provided tuition and fees of up to $12,192 at a UC campus and up to $5,472 at a CSU campus. For students with only a 2.0 GPA, the income ceilings are much lower – $42,100 for a family of four – and the first year aid of $1,551 is a lot lower. With state aid for eligible undocumented students still a year away, the Dream Act was cruelly illusive for many of Beatriz’ and Chava’s friends at DCP. Beatriz, with a 3.8 average, and Chava, with a 3.4, took their chances anyway, and applied to CSUs and UCs on the chance of private scholarships.

Never quite at ease

But California is not an island, and the debate over immigration roils the nation. The federal Dream Act, providing Pell grants and loans to undocumented students, along with a path to citizenship, remains tied up in Congress, and worry over getting inadvertently ensnared in raids by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement tempers these students’ optimism.

Beatriz is not her name, and Chava is only his nickname. Their reluctance to identify themselves – Chava did permit his family graduation photo to be published after talking it over with his parents – reflects the eerie twilight they live in: What the state may giveth in scholarships, the feds may taketh away in opportunity to find work and live without fear after they graduate.

“My teachers say, ‘Things will change.’ When I talk to teachers, I am an optimist. But my uncles and aunts tell me, ‘You won’t be able to find work when you get out,’” Beatriz said.

I spoke with Beatriz and Chava the day before President Obama announced his historic executive decision to halt deportations of 800,000 federal Dream Act eligible students like them and to grant two-year renewable work permits. Reached yesterday, Chava said he would apply for a permit so that he can work while studying for extra money. But he is only partly encouraged by Obama’s action.

“A two-year work permit is not that much, and I’m not sure how long the process will take,” he said. “You can’t tell what will happen – whether Obama will be re-elected.”

Chava said that one day he may open a restaurant for his parents, who are street vendors. He discovered his interest in business when he was chosen one of three DCP students to attend an expense-paid conference sponsored by Rotary at Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove. “This was a brand new experience, one of the highlights in my life,” he said. The conference taught him how to engage with other people, how can you become entrepreneur and start and maintain a business, he said. Chava plans to double major in business and engineering – “to take advantage of the opportunity.”

UC Merced will wait until January to announce how much in private scholarships it awarded this year to Dream Act students. Dream Act applications went online in April for action after Jan. 1. So far, 6,500 students have begun the process of filling out the application and 5,108 completed it, according to Ed Emerson of the California Student Aid Commission, which will administer the program. These will include students seeking fee waivers from community colleges.

Lawsuit over ‘nonsense’ EL program

In a special state Senate hearing last month, California’s system of classifying, reclassifying, and teaching English learners came under heavy criticism from educators and advocates, who cited inconsistent and ineffective policies and practices for teaching students who comprise one-quarter of the state’s schoolchildren. On Wednesday, parents and teachers in a small Central Valley town added an exclamation point to the criticism by filing suit against the state and their school district over a curriculum for English learners they say is damaging their children’s chances to learn to read and write.

The lawsuit, filed in Sacramento Superior Court by attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union in California, charges that 6,000-student Dinuba Unified and the state violated their children’s constitutional right to equal education opportunity and federal law mandating sound instruction for English learners. The district adopted, and the state rubber-stamped its approval of a curriculum that “contradicts everything we know about how children learn language,” ACLU attorney Mark Rosenbaum said in a statement. Teachers in the district who have taught Second Language Acquisition Development Instruction, or SLADI, concluded it was “nonsense,” the lawsuit said.

The ACLU is asking the court to order the district to stop using the program and the state to follow the law and thoroughly evaluate and monitor programs that districts adopt for English learners. Through the lawsuit, attorneys are prodding the state Department of Education and the State Board of Education, which is also a defendant, to begin to face up to flaws in the system for English learners. “As Dinuba goes, so goes the state of California in terms of English learners.”

More than half of elementary school English learners score below basic on the state’s English and math tests. Only 56 percent graduate from high school, and annually only one in ten English learners is redesignated as fluent in English and no longer needing extra help.

In naming Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson as a defendant, the ACLU also quoted from Torlakson’s Blueprint for Great Schools. English learners, it says on the CDE website, “fall further behind the longer they are in California schools, as do low-income students. The curriculum and teaching supports currently in place are not preparing these students for the higher-order skills expected in high school and beyond.”

In a short statement, the state Department of Education said it was reviewing the allegations, then added, “It is unfortunate that the parties chose to file suit rather than making a good-faith effort to meet with state officials to address their concerns.” Since Dinuba Unified has been a Program Improvement district for a half-dozen years for failing to make its standardized test targets under the No Child Left Behind law, the lawsuit notes that the district, through consultants, must approve the curriculums that the district uses for English learners and verify that teachers are trained in them. CDE spokesperson Paul Hefner said that he could not verify if the department sanctioned Dinuba’s use of SLADI.

Dinuba Unified declined comment as well on the allegations. In a statement, Superintendent Joe Hernandez said that he had a “productive conversation” on Wednesday with the plaintiffs, “and the parties have agreed to work together in good faith to avoid costly and excessive litigation.”

Dinuba is a city of 24,000 east of Route 99, midway between Fresno and Visalia. More than 90 percent of Dinuba Unified students are Hispanic and one third are English learners; 70 percent qualify for free or reduced lunches.

Syntax, not picture books, for SLADI kids

Adopted by the district in 2009, Second Language Acquisition Development Instruction is apparently an unorthodox and not a widely used curriculum for English learners. (ACLU’s Rosenbaum said he knew of no other district that uses it.)

SLADI takes a grammar- and spelling-intensive approach to learning English, starting with first and second graders, who learn parts of speech and sentence construction. What students don’t get is exposure to texts that are rich with vocabulary and picture books – fun stories that motivate children to want to learn to read, said Nona Rhea, a 23-year elementary teacher (15 of those years in Dinuba), who was trained in SLADI and has taught it for two years. She is also one of five teachers who signed on as plaintiffs, along with two children, their parents, and a resident of Dinuba worried about the district’s English language programs.

“It cost me sleep at night. I don’t want to see children separated from other kids where they don’t learn the state’s English language arts curriculum,” said Rhea. “I wouldn’t want it for my children or grandchildren.” It also has a scripted curriculum with diagrams of sentences and a K-6 vocabulary and an approach that is inappropriate for first and second graders, she said.

Rosenbaum called SLADI “a ‘Hunger Games’ approach to education whereby adults madly crush the futures of children. SLADI is the equivalent of attempting to teach children how to swim by having them memorize the chemical formula of water.” The district’s Q&A on its SLADI website says that two of the six principles of SLADI are: 5) “Language growth occurs in deliberately created states of productive discomfort. Students must be pushed to a level of discomfort; 6) Error correction is crucial for building language accuracy.”

Before the adoption of SLADI, English learners and English speakers were mixed in heterogeneous classes. Under SLADI, the least proficient English learners attend separate SLADI classes for 2-and-a-half hours daily for half a year, then return to regular classes in January. For more advanced students, as measured by CELDT, the California English Language Development Test, students are pulled out for 45 minutes daily.

The assumption was that students who went through SLADI could then be integrated back into the classroom. But these students have missed a half-year of the state curriculum, Rhea said, without extra help to catch up. “Students assume they are the problem, but they’re not.”

The lawsuit says that the two unnamed 8-year-old plaintiffs’ reading scores on CELDT regressed considerably after taking SLADI. One child was assigned the program in first and second grades. Both children’s parents say they’re worried their children have not learned how to read.

The lawsuit also says that test scores for English learners as a whole have declined as a result of SLADI. Last month the Dinuba Teachers Association took the position that the district should not have adopted a program that “defied accepted research and common sense,” the lawsuit said. The teachers added, “(F)or our K-2 students this is a backwards model that could prove detrimental to their futures. Teachers cannot reconcile this in their minds and hearts.”

Dilemma over English learners

English language learners currently get about 8 percent per student in extra funding, says the Legislative Analyst’s Office. That amount would more than quadruple in six years, to 37 percent, if the Legislature adopts Gov. Brown’s weighted student formula, phasing in substantially more money for every poor student and each English learner.

That potential bonanza has advocates for English learners ecstatic and anxious. They see it as a long-overdue opportunity to help struggling students. But many also agree that without better ways to measure English learners’ progress and to make sure districts actually spend the money on English learners, there will be incentives to label too many children as English learners and then to keep them in that status for too long – doing more harm than good.

“Just to give money based on characteristics of one type or to an ambiguous program with little or no program goals is to court disaster because (the money) will just go on and on and on forever,” Sen. Jean Fuller, a Republican who was a superintendent of the Bakersfield City School District, testified at a hearing on the potential impact on English learners of a weighted student formula. “And the kids lose. They don’t get the proficiency they need fast enough.”

There appears to be a consensus that some English learners are already stuck in the system, although there’s disagreement as to why. Nearly one in four students in the state are English learners, with 70 percent in elementary school. In some districts, like Santa Ana, more than 80 percent of English learners were born in the United States. If parents, filling out a four-question survey, responded that they most often speak to their children in a language other than English, their children were required to take the California English Language Development Test, or CELDT, often as kindergartners.

In a study issued last year, the Center for Latino Policy Research at UC Berkeley concluded that CELDT is prone to misidentification, with only 6 percent of kindergarten students taking it in 2009-10 being classified as English language proficient. Since CELDT has never been administered to English-only kindergartners for comparison, it’s hard to know if the test is an accurate language measure or is a proxy for poverty and other deficits at home.  The language survey is not able to distinguish students who are truly bilingual, says Associate Professor Lisa Garcia Bedolla, co-chairwoman of the Center for Latino Policy Research.

Inconsistent approaches to redesignation

But once identified as an English learner, a student is likely to stay an EL for years; an average of only 11 percent  are redesignated annually as fluent in English and no longer needing extra help, which can include pulling a child from regular class for extra English support.

Robert Linquanti, project director for English Learner Evaluation and Accountability Support and senior researcher for the California Comprehensive Center at WestEd, said that a reasonable target for reclassification should be about 20 percent each year, or one in five.

The state auditor a few years back concluded that there were financial incentives for retaining students as English learners, but Linquanti said that districts with low reclassification rates tend to have poor procedures for monitoring, and administrators don’t make reclassification a priority.

State Sen. Alex Padilla agrees. “There’s no smoking gun memorandum” that he’s seen discouraging teachers to reclassify English learners as proficient. The problem, he says, is that every district has its own redesignation criteria; they’re all over the map. That’s why Padilla, a Democrat from Los Angeles, is sponsoring two bills dealing with English learners, both of which passed the Senate Education Committee last week.

SB 1109 is a broad bill; it would establish a master plan for English learners, looking at issues of initial classification, best practices and techniques for instruction, parent involvement, and the long-term learning needs of English learners.

SB 1108 deals with redesignation specifically. It would require districts and county offices to report the redesignation criteria they use to the state Department of Education, which would analyze them and report back to the Legislature which methods are the most effective for determining fluency in English.

“There needs to be uniformity and consistency,” Padilla said in an interview. The Legislature would determine whether the criteria would be mandatory for local districts after it sees the results, he said.

The State Board of Education guidelines recommend using a combination of factors for determining redesignation: English proficiency scores on CELDT; scores on the California Standardized Tests, which students take in English; grades; teacher evaluations; and parental views. Students are considered proficient in English if they score early advanced or advanced on CELDT, but only 38 percent of students who test that high are actually redesignated. Districts come up with their own weights and throw in grades in science and math and district benchmark tests. Some teachers, it’s been said, consider absenteeism and other subjective factors.

Financial incentives can cut both ways, said  Chuck Weis, Santa Clara County superintendent, in testifying  at the  hearing, organized by Padilla,  on a weighted student formula and English learners. Middle schools and high schools tend to push English learners through the pipeline too soon, he said, because they don’t have enough bilingual teachers, and the amount of state aid isn’t enough  to cover needs of English learners in upper grades.

Funding beyond redesignation

Assemblymember Chris Norby, a Republican from Northern Orange County, sides with those who believe too many children are classified as English learners (he cites his own daughter as one) and then become “stuck in English language learning and cannot get out.” His bill, AB 1767, would consider scoring proficient or advanced on California Standardized Tests and a B average “prima facie evidence” for redesignation. Those students – only a few thousand per year by one estimate –  clearly have academic fluency to succeed in regular English classes, he said.

Norby’s bill so far has failed to get out of the Assembly Education Committee, but it includes an idea that Linquanti and other experts in English learners like: It would extend funding for English learners two years after they were reclassified as fully English proficient. This is critical, advocates say, because redesignation is a minimal standard; it doesn’t prepare students for rigorous academic English found in middle and high school courses. The money could also be used for monitoring students’ progress after redesignation– something that’s not done now.

Gov. Schwarzenegger’s Committee on Education Excellence anticipated possible perverse incentives with extra funding for English learners. The committee suggested gradually cutting back funding over time, and then eliminating it for an English learner after seven or so years.

Some of the concern about the disincentive to redesignate may be overstated, because the Department of Finance estimates that 74 percent of English learners also come from low-income households. Even if these students are redesignated as fully English proficient, without extra funding,  they would receive an extra 37 percent for poverty – same dollars, different label.

Flexibility without accountability?

Brown is proposing to fund the weighted student formula by ending nearly all categorical programs, the specially protected programs for restricted purposes. Districts would have near total flexibility to spend money as they see fit. The governor is calling for full flexibility immediately, with weighted student funding phased in over six years. That worries advocates for English learners, because Economic Impact Aid, the biggest source of state aid for English learners, would be one of the eliminated categoricals. Thus, there’d be no guarantee that districts would continue to spend the extra money on English learners – now or when the weighted formula is ratcheted up.

Padilla agrees that is a problem and says he will present accountability requirements if Brown doesn’t include them in the budget revision next month. “I want to ensure that gaining flexibility in how to use funds does not relieve districts of the obligation to improve on English language instruction and to demonstrate progress in moving students toward proficiency.”

The debate over funding and classification coincides with other major changes. By summer’s end, the State Department of Education will finish recommendations for a new set of standards for English learners that aligns with the Common Core standards. New standards, in turn, will require a new assessment to replace CELDT. California must decide whether to join with other states in creating the test or go it alone.

These are a lot of moving parts, not all of them in sync. All the more important, Padilla argues, to create a master plan for dealing with changes and to include uniform standards for tracking English learners’ progress.

Weighted formula’s heavy load

Some of the “losers” under Gov. Jerry Brown’s school finance proposal said their piece in testimony Tuesday before a subcommittee of the Assembly Budget Committee.

A half-dozen superintendents from suburban and rural districts detailed how Brown’s weighted student formula, favoring districts with large numbers of English learners and low-income children, would harm them. Their plight made it clear why the Education Coalition is opposing Brown’s plan, and why, save for massive revisions, the governor’s major education initiative will likely go nowhere this year. None of the superintendents invited to testify were from districts that would greatly benefit from the plan.

“We agree with the governor that complexities (of the current system) should be simplified,” said Gary Stevens, assistant superintendent of Roseville Union Joint High School District. But “shortchanging suburban high school students makes no sense. Reform is needed but it must be effective or our students will be losers.”

Brown’s finance reform also had plenty of supporters at the hearing, but they were primarily a score of high school students from Oakland and San Jose, organized by Public Advocates, who had about 30 seconds each in public testimony for making the case that their schools lack the resources of schools in wealthier districts. They argued that the Legislature must require that districts getting extra money for disadvantaged students spend the dollars on those students.

It’s an important point – one that Brown has not dealt with directly. But it’s also a step ahead of the debate. There’s no consensus yet on how many dollars should be redistributed or on which needy students should get them – and how soon.

Brown wants to simplify the current funding system by ending categorical programs and redistributing the money to students of need. Every English learner or low-income student would get 37 percent more funding, and those districts with concentrations of disadvantaged students would get increasingly larger bonus percentages. A district with 90 percent disadvantaged students would get a 66 percent bonus per student, compared with a 15 percent per-student bonus for a district with 40 percent disadvantaged students. (See explanation of the plan.)

Brown’s formula is based on a plan proposed four years ago by State Board of Education President Michael Kirst and others, but with key differences. Brown’s base level of per-pupil spending is much lower; the poverty and EL supplements are higher; Kirst’s formula awarded more per-student aid to high school districts, as does the current system; and the administration’s formula, unlike Kirst’s, does not hold districts harmless, except for the first year of a six-year phase-in.

The result would be disastrous for Conejo Valley Unified, said Superintendent Jeffrey Baarstad. If it were fully implemented this year (which Brown is not proposing), the district would lose $18 million out of a $155 million budget. By 2017-18, the cut would grow to $36 million. That’s because Brown is proposing an initial base of $4,920, equivalent to the 2002 level of spending for the district, Baarstad said. And, with a student body that is 29 percent English learners or low-income, the weighted supplement would amount to only an additional 11 percent extra per student or $528 initially, compared with $3,276 per student in a district with 90 percent disadvantaged students.

There’s too much weight given to the concentration factor, Baarstad said. If additional Proposition 98 revenue over the next six years only goes to redistributing money and not restoring funding that all districts have lost in the past four years, “we will find ourselves among the poorest districts in the United States.”

Brown’s formula assumes a growth in funding of $16 billion or nearly 40 percent in six years, starting with voter approval of a tax increase in November. But if that fails, Brown is proposing an additional $450 per student cut. And if the Department of Finance’s revenue projections fall short, Baarstad and the other superintendents want to know how that would affect implementing the weighted student formula.

Backwards approach to reform

The chief problem with Brown’s formula, says Sacramento school consultant Bob Blattner, is that it is “reductive” instead of “additive.” ­Instead of first determining an adequate level of base funding for students and adding to it a supplemental amount for disadvantaged students, then calculating how much  new money would be needed, the administration’s proposal, Blattner wrote in an analysis, “rolled out in precisely the reverse order.” First it determined the available funding, which coincides with historically low levels, then it deducted the supplemental funding needed for targeted students. What was left was a base funding amount “far less than any reasonable estimation of what a base funding amount should be.”

Blattner and others are also questioning the assumptions and components of the weighted formula:

  • Justification for the 37 percent weight for needy students;
  • Whether a non-low-income English learner should get the same supplement as a low-income child;
  • Research behind the concentration factor and why the add-on should start at 50 percent, then rise sharply  so that a district with a 90 percent poverty/English learner population gets twice the supplement as a district with a 50 percent targeted population. The latter district may have two high schools with a heavy concentration of low-income students yet get less funding than a small district with only low-income students.

One could also argue that a district with a smattering of disadvantaged students needs more money per student to meet their needs.

The concentration factor should be based on data, Blattner said, should not be arbitrary – a “Laffer curve on the back of a napkin in the Capitol cafeteria,” referring to the offhand drawing that became the basis for Ronald Reagan’s supply-side ec0n0mics.

The criticisms of the specific plan don’t rebut the need for a weighted formula and additional money for English learners and poor children. But they do point to what’s been missing: a policy debate over how the formula should be designed and phased in.

What’s needed, said Julia Brownley, chair of the Assembly Education Committee, is a balance between restored funding and equitable funding.

For more than a year, Brownley has been looking at finance reform through AB 18. It would also channel extra money to English learners and poor children, but through a block grant approach. It would require up-front accountability for spending the money on those students.

Brownley hasn’t settled on a weight or a timeline for phasing it in, but she says she plans to continue working on the bill. Brown’s proposal has served as “a bucket of cold water,” waking up people to the importance of finance reform, she said yesterday. That, in turn, could spur action on AB 18 this year, or turn off legislators to trying.

Senators: Don’t jam us on formula

Senators on the Budget and Fiscal Review Committee generally praised the rationale and framework of Gov. Brown’s proposal to overhaul school funding in a four-hour hearing Thursday but questioned the details, timing, and the disparate financial impacts on school districts. One message came across clearly: They won’t be rushed into adopting Brown’s weighted student formula.

“These are worthwhile approaches, but I am troubled we are moving quickly without knowing the full impact,” said Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach. He and others called for turning the governor’s budget item into a full-blown policy bill – code for a two-year process. Brown wants the changes adopted now, so they can begin to be incorporated in next year’s budget.

Brown proposes a six-year transition, in which districts would receive a base amount per student, with substantial extra dollars for every English learning and low-income student. He would abolish nearly all categorical programs – funded programs for designated purposes, like class-size reduction and career technical education – and let districts spend all of the dollars however they see fit. (Go here to see how the formula would work.)

Districts with few disadvantaged students would receive little supplemental money, but the Brown administration is projecting that the base would rise over six years from $4,920 to about $7,000 as additional revenue from a revived economy flows into Proposition 98. Districts with large numbers of targeted kids could get $3,000 to $5,000 per student in addition to the base.

Extra funding for disadvantaged students is “the right, just, and morally responsible approach for the youth of California,” testified Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy, for it recognizes that program costs for English learners and low-income students are higher. And adding even more money to districts with concentrations of poverty is necessary, Deasy said, “to break the cycle of poverty.”’

Plan needs more work

But Deasy also had plenty of suggestions for changing the weighted student funding formula. His and others’ criticisms included the following areas:

What does “hold harmless” mean? Brown wants to start slowly, redistributing 5 percent of the weighted formula to poor districts next year. He’d guarantee that no district would get less money than they get now – but only for next year. Beyond that, when the formula really kicks in (15 percent in 2013-14, 40 percent in 2014-15), he’d count on new Prop 98 money to make the “loser” districts whole.

But, said Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, “we are struggling to get revenue  projections over the next six months, not to mention the next six years. Six years ago (budget estimates) were projecting growth of $1,000 per pupil. We are rather wide of that mark …” he said with understatement.

Brown is starting with a low base of $4,920, with no assurance that all districts would restore money lost since 2008 by the time the formula is fully phased in. But Nick Schweizer, budget manager for education with the Department of Finance, said that Prop 98 revenues should be enough to cover nearly all districts’ yearly COLAs. If revenues fell short, the administration would adjust the formula.

Formula adjustments: Elementary, unified, and high school districts currently receive different funding allocations per grade out of recognition that older students, who need to take labs, are more expensive to educate. Brown’s weighted formula doesn’t differentiate by grade, although Schweizer said the administration would consider a change.

Schweizer was less open to the idea of a regional cost adjustment, which Simitian and Committee Chairman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, pushed. A 2008 version of a weighted student formula, co-authored by current President of the State Board of Education Michael Kirst, did include a regional cost of living factor. Since 85 percent of a district’s budget goes to personnel, regional costs of living are a huge factor for districts in high-cost areas, Simitian said. Heather Rose, an associate professor at the University of California-Davis, and co-author of a 2008 study on California funding formulas, reinforced that, telling the Budget Committee that overall wages in Santa Clara County were 54 percent higher than in the North Coast and 32 percent higher for teachers, reflecting a need to compete in the local marketplace.

Schweizer said that low-cost rural regions have complicating factors, too, like high busing expenses; determining which factors affect regions is complicated. That prompted Leno to remark, “Just because you don’t know, you should not ignore, throw up your hands and say you cannot deal with the complexity.”

Busing students to school is currently a $500 million categorical program. Brown would preserve it one more year, then throw it into the mix, along with other categoricals. Districts without large numbers of poor students would lose most of the funding. Both Deasy, an urban superintendent, and Sen. Noreen Evans, who represents rural Northern California, oppose that idea. Busing is “fundamental to students’ civil rights and access to school,” Deasy said.

Accountability question: Brown would impose no requirements on how districts spent the extra dollars for disadvantaged students. He is proposing to hold districts accountable for results, and has charged the State Board of Education to come up with new measures, beyond state standardized test scores, within the next year. Schweizer said that districts that raise achievement and meet targets would get 2.5 percent funding rewards, starting in 2013-14.

But some senators and the Legislative Analyst’s Office were uncomfortable with adopting a formula without new accountability measures in place. “I’m not comfortable with the existing accountability system to know how we are doing. This makes me very nervous,” said Sen. Lois Wolk, a Democrat from Davis.

Rachel Ehlers, who analyzes education for the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst, testified that district progress is particularly difficult to measure with English learners, because higher performing English learners are reclassified, only to be replaced with new non-English-speaking immigrants. Tracking individuals with the use of CALPADS, the new statewide database, will help eventually. Meanwhile, “we have a ways to go on oversight before turning (total flexibility) over to districts.”

Hybrid model: Concerned that simply giving districts more dollars for disadvantaged children won’t ensure that they’ll be spent on them, the LAO recommends that the Legislature consider block grants, which allow discretion over money for broad purposes with audits and public hearings to ensure the intent is followed. Assemblymember Julia Brownley, who chairs the Assembly Education Committee, takes this approach, using different weights, in AB 18, a weighted formula bill she’s been working on for a year. Besides a basic all-purpose amount, the bill would have a block grant for teacher training and development and an equity fund, directing dollars to English learners and low-income children. Brownley would consider setting aside money for adult and career technical education.

At the hearing, a dozen Oakland high school students called for accountability for money that should be spent on them. Their escort, Katie Valenzuela, with Public Advocates, said enforcement should be in place before a weighted formula is enacted. “Needs-based funding does not make sense unless it meets students’ needs,” she said.

Gaming the system: Giving premiums for English language learners creates incentives to overclassify children, who already comprise a quarter of the state’s students, and then not strive to move them along quickly to fluency. “Will you be an English language learner forever?” asked Sen. Jean Fuller, a Republican from Bakersfield and former school superintendent. “The weakness of the model is that there is no real defined exit and incentive for exit.”

In a comment in yesterday’s post, Rob Manwaring, who was a consultant for Gov. Schwarzenegger’s Committee on Education Excellence, noted that the Committee “proposed phasing out the funding for English learners after four years of funding with a full phase-out after six years as an EL student. This type of approach would counter any incentive to not redesignate EL students.” Since three-quarters of English language learners (the latest figure, according to Schweizer) are also low-income, they’d be covered by the formula anyway.

A common thread in education bills

All three bills designed to put California on steady footing for the coming of Common Core standards are now in Gov. Brown’s hands. State lawmakers yesterday approved the last of those measures along with measures that would require a common placement exam at community colleges, provide smoother passage for foster youth at state colleges, and grant relief for schools misidentified as failing.

Preparing for the common era

Assembly member Julia Brownley’s (D-Santa Monica) bill, AB 250, gets the process rolling for California to develop curriculum frameworks and assessments that are aligned to the coming Common Core standards.

The State Board of Education adopted Common Core state standards in English language arts and math last year, but until now California hasn’t had a process in place to align the curriculum, instructional materials, and student testing with the new standards, said Brownley in a statement issued after the vote.

“The Common Core state standards establish clear goals for learning to provide students with 21st century skills they need for success, such as critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and creativity,” said Brownley. “Once we implement these standards we will be able to compare the academic achievements of California students with those of students across the country.”

As we reported here last week, Brownley’s bill also postpones the end of the state’s Standardized Testing and Reporting program, or STAR, by a year, until January 1, 2015, when it will be replaced by the new student assessments developed for Common Core.

The bill requires the State Superintendent of Public Instruction to work with the State Board of Education to develop model professional development training in the new frameworks and standards for teachers and principals.

Her bill also does something very uncommon in government; it simplifies a few things. Currently, the group that that recommends curriculum frameworks to the State Board of Education and develops criteria for evaluating those materials is called the Curriculum Development and Supplemental Materials Commission. AB 250 renames it the Instructional Quality Commission.

Under its new, lighter banner, the commission would recommend curriculum frameworks that are aligned to Common Core standards. The State Board would have until May 30, 2013 to adopt the frameworks in math, and until the following May for English language arts. Those frameworks would have to include strategies for teaching disabled students.

AB 124, by Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes (D-Sylmar), ensures that the standards extend to English learners. His bill requires the State Superintendent to convene a group of experts to revise the curriculum, materials, and assessments for Common Core so they’re appropriate for English learners.

Common testing at Community Colleges

One of the biggest disgraces in California’s goal to ensure all high school graduates are college ready is the number of students required to enroll in remedial classes in community college.  About 70 percent of incoming community college students aren’t prepared for college-level English.  Math is even worse; 85 percent place into remedial classes.

Numerous studies have shown that the more time a student has to spend in a remedial course, the less likely that student is to graduate.

But those numbers vary across the state’s 112 community colleges, for the most part because there are nearly as many placement exams as there are campuses.  One count, by The National Center for Public Policy in Higher Education, found more than 94 different exams, although researchers identified three placements tests that were used more than most.

It’s a frustrating situation for students who may qualify for college math in one school, then transfer and find themselves in remedial classes.

That assortment of assessments will shrink under AB 743.  The bill, introduced by Assemblyman Marty Block (D-Lemon Grove), who chairs the Higher Education committee, establishes a uniform placement exam.

The Community College Chancellor’s Office would select the test, which would be an off-the-shelf exam.  But the new test wouldn’t be mandatory.  Colleges could continue to use their own placement exams, said Paige Marlatt Dorr, a spokeswoman for the Chancellor’s office.

“This bill will be an important step forward in getting all of the colleges to use the same test,” said Marlatt Dorr, and they’ll have a financial incentive to do so.   She said the Chancellor’s office will get a volume discount with an unlimited use license.

But, even if schools opt in for the common assessment, the bill doesn’t establish a uniform passing score, so students would still face individual campus disparities.

A college boost for foster youth

Even the dismal college success rate for students in remedial education is better than the odds for foster youth.  Of the 75,000 foster youth in California, 70 percent say they want to attend college.  But only 20 percent enroll and barely 3 percent graduate.  Somewhere between 600 and 800 former foster youth attend UC, 1,200 are at CSU, and 6,500 are enrolled in community colleges.

Those numbers could drop as budget cut force the state’s public colleges and universities to reduce course sections making it more difficult for students to get into the classes they need to graduate.

While there’s no single reason for these disheartening statistics, AB 194 by Assemblyman Jim Beall of San Jose, hopes to remove at least one obstacle.  It would require California State University and community colleges to give current and former foster youth priority enrollment. The University of California, which sets its own policies, indicated its support in a letter to Beall.

If the Governor signs AB 194, it would sunset in 2017.

Fixing a flaw in the Open Enrollment Act

San Pedro Elementary School in Marin County boosted its Academic Performance Index (API) by 60 points between 2009 and 2010, but the school was labeled low-performing.

“Something is wrong with our open enrollment system when high performing schools get labeled as low performers and grouped together with schools that truly need to improve academic performance,” said Assemblyman Jared Huffman in a press release after the legislature sent his bill, AB 47, to Gov. Brown.

The measure would clear up some unintended consequences of the Open Enrollment Act, the 2010 law that California had to approve to be in the running for a Race to the Top grant. Not only didn’t the state get the money, but, Huffman says, the Act set up some high achieving schools to be labeled as low performing, a designation that lets parents move their children to higher-performing schools in any other district in the state.

AB 47 would change the method for identifying schools as low-achieving to exclude any school with an API of 700 or higher, or any school that’s increased its API score by 50 points of more from one year to the next.

Huffman’s bill also exempts County Office of Education schools for special education students, but adds charter schools to the mix.

Sherry Skelly Griffith, a legislative advocate for the Association of California School Administrators, says the Open Enrollment Act caused confusion and damaged morale at schools that were showing strong gains.  “Our Association believes that low performing schools should be held accountable,” said Griffith in a written statement, “and that can’t be accomplished if the wrong schools are labeled failing.”

STAR tests may end for youngest

Reading about SB 740, State Senator Loni Hancock’s (D-Oakland) bill to eliminate second grade STAR testing, took me back to my daughter’s initiation into standardized testing. She puked. “She almost made it out the classroom door,” her second-grade teacher told me with a laugh. Since she didn’t have a fever and nothing happened that night, I brought her back to school the next day. Her classmates applauded when she walked in. Was it stress? Perhaps. She’s in college now and says she still dislikes tests.

Hancock shares that aversion. She’s tried twice to pass similar legislation. Both bills died. SB 740 has made it to the Senate floor, where it will be voted on today. (See update below) “The second-grade test is something that has been of concern to her for a long time because of the recommendation of numerous groups that to do an assessment of second graders is not reliable,” said Rebecca Baumann, a legislative aide to the senator.

No high stakes for young children

The National PTA has taken the position that “Standardized multiple-choice tests and school readiness tests should never be used with preschool and early elementary children for any purpose.” The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) developed guidelines urging discretion in testing children 8 and under:

The use of formal standardized testing and norm referenced assessments of young children is limited to situations in which such measures are appropriate and potentially beneficial, such as identifying potential disabilities.

In place of the STAR exam, Hancock’s bill requires the State Department of Education to provide school districts with information on assessments in mathematics and English language arts that classroom teachers can use for purely diagnostic purposes – something that most teachers already do as a matter of course.

Baumann says diagnostic tests are more practical because they can be given several times during a school year to provide teachers with immediate feedback on how each student is doing. STAR test results aren’t released until the school year is over. Plus, diagnostic tests don’t take up as much class time. “It takes six to eight days to administer the [STAR] test,” says Baumann. “The amount of time taken away from instruction at the second grade level is substantial.”

740 is a blunt instrument

Despite its difficult past, the current bill has few opponents on record. The staff analysis lists only EdVoice, a nonprofit organization working for school reform in California. But it’s a vociferous critic. President and CEO Bill Lucia calls it “a blunt instrument approach to taking the second grade out of the API (Academic Performance Index).” Lucia isn’t against having a policy discussion of whether the second-grade test should be included in the API, but says that’s a whole different discussion.

His foremost concern is that waiting until third grade is too late to learn whether students are working below grade level. “We know the consequence of that can be extremely costly,” said Lucia, citing statistics that show a grim path, with students below grade level by the end of third grade being four times more likely to drop out of school, and dropouts being eight times more likely to wind up in prison.

The State Department of Education hasn’t yet taken a position on 740, but State Superintendent Tom Torlakson “is supportive of the concept,” said Erin Gabel, his director for legislative affairs. In fact the Department sponsored a bill by Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica) that, initially, also eliminated second-grade testing. But Brownley removed that provision from AB 250 in order to get it out of the appropriations committee. The bill passed the Assembly yesterday and is now headed for the Senate.

The main thrust of 250 is to make sure the state is prepared for the Common Core assessments that are set to begin in 2014-15. California has put all curriculum framework, professional development, and instructional materials adoption on hold while waiting for the Common Core standards, but Gabel says that’s poor planning. “It’s imperative that we provide direction and support for classroom instruction. We’re on a tight timeline here.”

Conflicting opinions on NCLB and second grade

EdVoice’s Lucia also argues that Title III of No Child Left Behind requires all English language learners in kindergarten through 12th grade to be tested every year to assess their progress. He says California stands to lose millions in federal funding if second graders are exempt from the STAR test. But Gabel says that’s not so. If it were true, then the state would already be out of compliance because it doesn’t administer the tests in kindergarten and first grade. She said the state has been using the California English Language Development Test (CELDT), which assesses English proficiency, without any pushback from the federal government.

In fact, California is one of just a handful of states that has second graders take the exam. NCLB only requires standardized testing to begin in third grade, so the two panels developing tests for the Common Core standards are also starting with third grade. But just because it’s not mandated, says Lucia, doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile. Without second grade scores, he says, we’ll be losing “data to make better informed decisions on what’s working for kids.”

Update: Turns out that SB 740 passed the Senate last night on a vote of 21 to 13, and was sent to the Assembly

First pass at finance reform

Assembly Education Committee Chairwoman Julia Brownley has fleshed out the bill that she hopes will be the vehicle to overhaul the state’s school finance system, beginning in 2015-16. AB 18 will get its first public hearing in her committee on Wednesday.

The bill’s goals are to simplify convoluted funding formulas and to target more money to poor students and English learners. The bill clearly would do the former, by consolidating base-level funding and funding for dozens of specified programs known as categoricals into four basic areas. The bill would not explicitly increase spending for needy kids, but it would make a “Targeted Equity Pupil Grant” one of the four new categories with the intent that lawmakers give it proportionally more money than districts receive now through existing categorical programs. Click AB 18 Fact Sheet 4-27-revised, which Brownley expects will go through multiple revisions.

There is near universal agreement that school funding should be comprehensible, not just for legislators, but for parents and teachers, too. There’s also a consensus that giving districts more control over spending decisions is a good idea. But that won’t make the challenge of creating a new system any easier; defenders of categorical programs – including two of  the more popular ones, class size reduction and adult education – will argue that  districts shouldn’t have the flexibility to spend those dollars on other priorities. And Brownley proposes to hold districts harmless, guaranteeing that their funding won’t be cut initially; that also means that existing quirks in base revenue allocations and categorical funding will persist. The intent of the bill is to equalize funding to eliminate inequities within the four categories, but the bill at this point is silent on how.

Among those supportive of the bill is Jon Sonstelie, an economics professor at UC Santa Barbara, who has written extensively on reforming California’s school funding. “Overall, I think the bill is a huge step in the right direction,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Obviously, this is a work in progress, but I do like what I see so far.” He did express disappointment that the bill does not include a factor for cost differences among regions, out of recognition that it costs teachers more to live in the Bay Area and Los Angeles.

The four  categories in AB 18 would be:

  • The current revenue limit (base funding per student) plus about two dozen categoricals, such as instructional materials and adult ed; this would be the largest, about two-thirds of spending. Districts would control how this money would be spent.
  • Quality Instruction Grant:  This money, by combining a dozen categorical programs, could be used to reduce class sizes or for teacher and administrator training, mentoring, teacher recruitment programs, evaluation programs such as Peer Assistance and Review, or help for beginning teachers. There would be far more flexibility than now.
  • Targeted Pupil Equity Grant: This would include Economic Impact Aid, the largest source of money for poor children, plus other categorical spending aimed at low-income students and English learners. It would make up between 15 and 20 percent of funds initially, according to staff members.
  • Spending areas not covered by the other three categories, including career and technical education, special education, and county offices of education.

Others advocating finance reform, including State Board President Michael Kirst, have proposed a weighted student formula, giving poor students and English learners anywhere from 20 to 30 percent more per student. A weighted system is implied in the Target Pupil Equity Grant, but AB 18 is insisting that districts also spend money on professional development. Brownley’s bill takes more of a block grant approach to spending.

Brownley would also require districts to start to track spending by school – a significant step toward making spending more transparent. This feature would also reveal inequities in spending between low-income schools, where many novice teachers end up, and wealthier schools with a more veteran teaching force.

New immigrants, same old confounding issue

I’m fortunate to have Peter Schrag subbing for me today as an Educated Guest. Peter 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 new book,  just out, is “Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America.”

By Peter Schrag
Guest columnist

Last month’s report charging California schools with failing to educate English language learners is hardly the first such indictment. And given all the other crises confronting the schools and the state, it won’t get nearly the official attention it deserves.

But in its condemnation of the system for its fumbling, its lack of data, its inconsistency and confusion in pedagogical strategies and its outright neglect of immigrant children – and often the U.S.-born children of immigrants as well – it evokes eerie echoes of a long history of battles about the education of immigrants from colonial days to the current gubernatorial campaign of California Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner.

Does bilingual education work and if so, under what circumstances? Does English immersion? What other means are available? Are children from certain cultures or “races” simply less able to keep up? Or, as Poizner urged, and as a majority of Californians believed when they voted for Proposition 187 in 1994, should we just exclude illegal immigrants from the schools altogether? Continue reading “New immigrants, same old confounding issue”