First pass at school inspections

The State Board of Education on Wednesday waded into what’s expected to be a yearlong process of revising the state’s standardized-test-heavy school accountability system. First up: discussing whether to reshape an existing tool, the School Accountability Report Card, or SARC, an annual data dump that every school collects and is supposed to post online, and whether to consider adding a new dimension – school inspections.

Talk of changing the state’s accountability system has gained currency amid recognition that narrow measures under the state’s Academic Performance Index, combined with federal accountability requirements, have skewed priorities and undervalued much of what schools try to accomplish. Today, the State Board will vote on seeking a waiver from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan from some burdens and penalties of the No Child Left Behind Act in return for revising the state’s Academic Performance Index, the system of rating a school using a score of 200 to 1,000, based on student test results.

What should be in the API is an open question. When establishing it in 1999, legislators said the API should be based a minimum of 60 percent on various combinations of standardized tests. Since lawmakers never decided what to do with the other 40 percent, the API has been 100 percent test-based.

Senate President pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg has reintroduced legislation (SB 1458) that would limit standardized tests to 40 percent of a high school’s API – and a minimum of 40 percent for elementary schools ­– leaving open the option of also including factors such as graduation and college acceptance rates, dropout rates, suspensions and other conduct measures, AP courses, apprenticeships and career preparation, and other gauges of student achievement. Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a similar bill that had widespread support, saying there’s been too much attention on quantitative measures and not enough on qualitative ones. That’s when  Brown first alluded to local school inspections to get a better sense of a school’s culture, values, and role in the community, its ability to inspire “good character or love of learning,” “student excitement and creativity.” Since his Delphic veto message, Brown hasn’t been more specific on school inspections, leaving it up to the State Board to figure out what purpose they’d serve, how they’d work, and who’d pay for them.

As the State Board learned through an overview from WestEd there are plenty of models: New York City has a Department of Education Quality Review modeled after the British school inspection service. Ohio has School Improvement Diagnostic Reviews for low-performing schools facing federal sanctions under No Child Left Behind. Closer to home, under Sacramento City Unified’s School Quality Review, begun three years ago, every school in the district undergoes an intensive inspection that’s supposed to help guide its improvement, though findings results are not publicized. There’s also the accreditation model used by WASC, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, a combination of self-evaluation and outside inspection; its president, David Brown, indicated that WASC could work with the state on creating a new type of inspection.

But first, the State Board has to decide the purpose of inspections and who’d do and pay for them. Would they be for the purpose of accountability or for school improvement? Would they be for every school and involve parents as well as students, would they look at school climate as well as curriculums, or would they initially be reserved for providing guidance and action plans for schools facing penalties for low performance – a possible starting point, said State Board President Michael Kirst.

In doing its homework, WestEd made several conclusions about inspection systems:

  • It is challenging to develop a set of measures in which reviewers can be trained in reliable ways.
  • Interviewees suggested that reviews alone don’t lead to school improvement; follow-up visits are important to check on progress.
  • Costs of inspections are difficult to calculate, but quality reviews require dedicated funding.

Challenge of spending flexibility

There’s another cause for urgency in broadening measures of accountability. As part of his finance reform, Brown wants to end state restrictions on how money for designated or categorical programs is spent and give districts near-total control over their budgets. First, there’s the legitimate worry that money previously earmarked for disadvantaged kids will no longer be spent on them. Second, if the API score remains weighted toward English and math tests, then schools will continue to devalue science, arts and other dimensions of learning.

Kirst is focusing on SARC as an underutilized resource that parents and the community can use to hold their local schools accountable. The problem isn’t a lack of information. SARCs include dozens of data elements, including student enrollment, class sizes, school climate survey findings, information on teachers and staff, curriculum descriptions, textbook availability, expenditure data, student performance results, professional development statistics and school completion information.

The challenge is to pick key information for all schools and present it in a uniform format; districts currently have the right to choose their own templates. Board member Patricia Rucker noted the dilemma that people have been requesting that more information be added to SARC at the same time that they want it more compact and easier to read.

CA may try for NCLB waiver

The State Board of Education will once again consider applying for a waiver from some of the more untenable requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, only this time the request is personal.

Instead of applying for the waiver package that Education Secretary Arne Duncan has offered to states, which requires a substantial quid pro quo, the Board next week will discuss seeking relief from some NCLB mandates under a separate waiver provision written into the law.

Secretary Duncan’s waiver package requires states to sign off on a lengthy, and potentially expensive, set of assurances that includes adopting a teacher and principal evaluation system in every school and accelerating implementation of Common Core standards.

41 states and the District of Columbia applied for Sec. Arne Duncan's NCLB waiver package. (Source:  U.S. Dept. of Education). Click to enlarge.
41 states and the District of Columbia applied for Sec. Arne Duncan's NCLB waiver package. (Source: U.S. Dept. of Education). Click to enlarge.

In February, the U.S. Department of Education granted first-round waivers to eleven states. Another 26 states and the District of Columbia applied for the second round, which will be announced this spring, and four more plus Puerto Rico stated their intention to apply for round three in September.

Following meetings with school districts, education advocacy groups, teachers unions, and state education officials, the State Board of Education wrote a nine-page draft letter to Michael Yudin, the Acting Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, explaining the financial and legal reasons why California is taking a different route. “California state law requires that the state reimburse local educational agencies for the cost of any state-mandated activities. Given California’s severe, ongoing fiscal challenges, it is impossible for the state or its districts to implement the requirements of the Secretary’s waiver package effectively and within the required timeline, and we are not willing to make promises that we are unable to carry out.”

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson contends that not only would the cost of the federal requirements be prohibitive, but also that the evaluation component is outside the bounds of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act – the once and current name of NCLB.

“NCLB/ESEA is about student academic performance; teacher evaluation is not part of ESEA,” said Christine Swenson, director of the improvement and accountability division in the State Department of Education. “This isn’t appropriate and in California’s view it doesn’t belong in an ESEA waiver.”

California’s offer

A waiver wasn’t any state’s first choice. They were banking on Congress fixing the problems when it reauthorized the law. That was supposed to have happened four years ago. The window has surely closed for now until after the November election.

Reauthorization would be the best path forward, said Sue Burr, Executive Director of the State Board of Education. “In the absence of that, we are asking the federal government to waive those parts of the law that they acknowledge aren’t working.”

Specifically, the state is seeking relief on these fronts:

  • Suspending the requirement that every student has to be proficient or above on state tests by 2014,
  • Eliminating requirements to identify schools and districts that fail to meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) as program improvement schools that have to take extra measures to improve achievement,
  • Allowing districts greater flexibility in how they use ESEA funds.

The last item ties in to what California would do in exchange for being granted a waiver. Under current law, Title I schools in program improvement for failing to meet AYP must set aside some of their Title I funds for professional development. The state wants to let those schools use the money where it would be “most effective for improving teaching and learning.”

California also wants to essentially do away with AYP and concentrate on its own accountability system with the Academic Performance Index. “The proposal seeks to move us back to a single accountability system that does a better job than NCLB of identifying which schools are truly low-achieving and not improving, so we can focus our efforts there,” said Burr.

California’s system is stronger, said the State Department of Education’s Swenson, because it allows schools to show improvement without being labeled. “API allows you to show growth, and we can make decisions about whether it’s enough growth,” she said. “In the current AYP system, you’re either all fine or all failing; AYP is all or nothing.”

Board of Ed draws QEIA line in sand

Administrators from Stockton Unified School District went home about $3 million poorer yesterday. They had traveled to Sacramento to appeal to the State Board of Education for waivers from the academic requirements of the Quality Education Investment Act (QEIA). All five of the district’s K-8 schools receiving QEIA funds had failed to meet their Academic Performance Index targets, and that meant being expelled from the program at the end of this school year.

The principals argued their cases, some more compelling than others. Monroe had undergone an entire change in leadership, Grunsky had two special day classes added after becoming a QEIA school, Roosevelt and Van Buren experienced high teacher turnover, and Nightingale, a new charter, needed more time to prove itself.

It didn’t take long for the State Board to decide the schools’ fate. Denied.  Not just for Stockton, but also for another five schools in other districts.

“We took a bullet today,” a school principal was overheard saying to a colleague as they left the meeting room.

This month’s meeting marked the second time QEIA schools that missed their API marks had come to the Board seeking relief; and it was the second time that Board members rebuffed them. The Board has been liberal in approving waivers for going a little over class size reduction and a little under the teacher experience index, but for academic achievement, well, it’s a bit like Tevye’s ethical choice in Fiddler on the Roof: “On the other hand… No… there is no other hand.”

“They accepted the money. This was a voluntary grant, which they accepted under clear and explicit conditions and, therefore, in following the intent of the law they need to meet those conditions,” said Board President Michael Kirst after the meeting.

The entire board appears to have arrived at a consensus on this issue.  “We seem to have drawn a collective line with regard to the API,” said board member Carl Cohn.  “Even though circumstances have changed dramatically, you still have to have some central tenet of a program like this and, for me, it is the API. ”

But Stockton school officials find the reasoning inconsistent.  If the goal is to raise student achievement, why take away the money that’s providing additional teachers, resources, counselors and professional development necessary to help students learn.  Van Buren principal Ione Ringen said without QEIA funds she’ll lose more than a quarter of her 32 teachers, boosting class size from 20 to 32.

“Losing this is going to negatively impact our students,” said Ringen.  “We come from high poverty areas with high numbers of second language learners, and having that opportunity to be in a smaller class has allowed them to have more individualized education.”

QEIA, for a quick refresher, was created to settle a lawsuit brought by the California Teachers Association against Gov. Schwarzenegger for failing to keep his promise to repay school districts and community colleges $2 billion “borrowed” from Proposition 98 in 2004-05 to help the state get through a budget crisis.

Under the agreement, schools in the lowest academic levels were eligible to apply for funds to improve achievement by maintaining class size reduction, hiring more counselors, providing more directed professional development, having more highly qualified teachers than the district average, and exceeding their API growth targets averaged over three years.

State Board of Ed action on QEIA waivers since January 2009. (Source:  California Dept. of Ed). Click to enlarge.
State Board of Ed action on QEIA waivers since January 2009. (Source: California Dept. of Ed). Click to enlarge.

Since QEIA began, the State Board has approved 86 waivers and rejected six on non-academic grounds, and denied 16 for not meeting API goals.  As of now, nearly 140 QEIA schools out of 474 have failed to meet at least one requirement.  [Click here for chart] .

Department of Education staff warned the board on Thursday to expect waiver requests to mount.  At least fifty more are on the docket for the July meeting propelled in part by the financial crisis that’s forced schools to lay off teachers and scale back class size reduction.

One waiver request expected to be reconsidered at the May board meeting could break the de facto API denial rule.  Over the past few years, thousands of Iraqi refugees have resettled in eastern San Diego County, within the boundaries of El Cajon Valley High School.

The school population swelled by more than 700 students, nearly all English learners.  El Cajon redirected some of its QEIA funds to organize community and social service organizations to help the students and their families adjust to life in America.  The school’s  API score dropped.

Department of Education staff recommended denial of the waiver, but the board postponed its vote until the next meeting, and asked the staff to try to peel off the refugees’ test scores to see how the school would have done without them.  Regardless of those results, most board members suggested that this could be one of those difficult and exceptional situations that has no precedent.

“It seems to me that that as a state we have an obligation to ensure that our districts welcome these youngsters and make sure that they’re we’ll supported,” said Cohn.  “This is markedly different from any other waiver request that’s been before us.”

Steinberg’s API alternative

Rebuffed by Gov. Jerry Brown last year, Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg is back with another academic accountability bill, this time giving the governor lots of latitude to help redefine how to measure schools’ performance. SB 1458 needs to be vague, because, at this point, no one but Brown professes to know what he has in mind.

Recognizing that the Academic Performance Index, based predominantly on English and math standardized test results, was too narrow a gauge, Steinberg last year proposed replacing the API with an Education Quality Index that would have included other indexes, such as dropout rates, the need for remediation in college, success with career technical education programs, and graduation rates. Standardized tests would have counted no more than 40 percent of the EQI in high school. Steinberg and key supporter Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson built an impressive coalition of supporters – business and civil rights groups, career and technical education groups, charter schools, the state PTA, and early childhood education advocates.

But in his veto message of SB547, Brown criticized the continued reliance on quantitative measures. “SB 547 would add more things to measure, but it is doubtful that it would actually improve our schools. Adding more speedometers to a broken car won’t turn it into a high-performance machine.”

In the new bill, Steinberg would retain the 40 percent maximum use of the API, and would instruct Torlakson to expand the use of science and history tests within it. As for the remaining 60 percent, SB 1458 would allow Torlakson and the State Board of Education to incorporate another idea that Brown mentioned in his veto message and State of the State message: school inspections or visitations to measure the quality of learning and instruction not measured by standardized tests. Brown has not clarified if he is talking about a corps of outside inspectors, as is used in England by the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) or a less formal system of intradistrict inspections.

The State Board, led by Brown advisor Michael Kirst, plans to make the adoption of new accountability measures a priority this year. At his instigation, the San Francisco-based nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization WestEd has surveyed other states’ accountability systems and analyzed all of the data that the state collects. Its report has not yet been released.

The timing is right for a new accountability system. Brown proposes to give near-total control over spending and budget decisions to local districts this year, as part of his school finance reforms. It will become imperative to  create better ways to measure whether schools are providing a rich environment for learning, spending dollars effectively on students who have been targeted for extra money, and preparing students well for post high school jobs and colleges.

Cutting it close to a quorum

State Board of Education President Michael Kirst had better hope that Caitlin Snell, the student representative on the Board, doesn’t have any big exams next week at Point Loma High in San Diego. With three openings now on the 11-member board, he may need her presence, if not her vote.

With four days before the Board takes up a big agenda, including whether to pursue a wavier from the No Child Left Behind law, Gov. Brown has yet to nominate anyone for the vacancies he has long known were coming. And his press office isn’t giving any signs when the nominations will be announced.

The Board needs a quorum of six to meet and six to pass any motions. There haven’t been any tight votes lately (Brown appointed all of the current members except for Caitlin), but you never know.

One spot has been open for a year, since Greg Jones resigned with a year left in his term. The terms of Yvonne Chan and Jim Aschwanden expired in January. The current eight members are Kirst, Trish Williams, Carl Cohn, Aida Molina, James Ramos, Patricia Ann Rucker, Ilene Straus, and Snell, 17, the student representative and full voting member.

It takes a two-thirds vote in the Senate to approve a State Board nominee, giving senators, especially Republicans, for now, one of their few points of leverage. But because of redistricting, it’s quite possible that Republicans will fall short of even a third after November –  if Brown chooses to wait that long.

No one is saying whether the governor has already run names of any potential nominees up the flagpole.

More gain, no pain NCLB waiver

Gov. Jerry Brown described his relationship with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as a “work in progress” after a face-to-face meeting last week in Washington. Californians will soon find out how much progress if the State Board of Education next week approves a very different request for a waiver from the No Child Left Behind law than the one Duncan will be expecting.

Again assuming the role of the nonconformist state, California would ask Duncan for immediate relief from NCLB’s spending constraints and penalties without having to jump through the hoops that Duncan is demanding of other states. One of those is the adoption of a teacher and administrator evaluation system that would include student test scores  as a factor – a requirement that the California Teachers Association staunchly opposes.

“California state law and our current fiscal condition make it virtually impossible to implement all of the waiver requirements in every district and school in the state,” says a draft letter to U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary of Education Michael Yudin that would be signed by Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and State Board President Michael Kirst if the State Board approves. Unlike other states that have applied for a waiver, California would not try to negotiate a better deal. The state would argue that the waiver is warranted in its own right; districts want it, and student achievement would ultimately rise if California could be out from under much of NCLB.

The federal Department of Education thus far has granted waivers to 11 states; the next deadline, to which several dozen states may apply, is this week. A final deadline is Sept. 1, but it would be too late for a waiver for the 2012-13 school year. California would ask for an immediate two-year waiver.

Torlakson, who has called Duncan’s waiver requirements an overreaching swap of one set of burdens for another, is pushing the “state-devised” waiver idea. State Board Executive Director Sue Burr has followed its development and presumably informed Brown, another sharp critic of NCLB, the Race to the Top competition, and other Obama administration education reforms.

Brown probably has a better chance of trouncing Duncan one on one in basketball than California has in getting the waiver approved. But California would be making a point with its request: The waiver that the state is seeking is justifiable and permissible; it’s Duncan who is stretching his authority by demanding concessions for a waiver beyond what’s contained in NCLB.

California is not asking for all of the benefits from a waiver that Duncan is offering but it is seeking the primary ones: flexibility to use $353 million in Title I money now restricted to tutoring and transporting students to their districts of choice, and release from having to identify and prescribe turnaround programs for schools identified as failing under NCLB. In testimony before the State Board, superintendents have cited these benefits in calling for the state to pursue Duncan’s waiver option. 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.

In return, Duncan is requiring that states commit to:

  • Adopt and implement college- and career-ready standards. California has partly met this by adopting the Common Core standards, but the state Department of Education estimates that the state and districts would have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars over the next two years in training teachers and purchasing textbooks – money the state doesn’t have or, in the case of instructional materials, lacks the current authority to approve. Other states have negotiated the deadline.
  • Create a new school accountability system that identifies 15 percent of schools with the largest achievement gaps or the worst performance and create improvement plans for them. High-performing schools would be rewarded. State officials assert that Duncan is requiring adoption of a new state assessment system that tracks student growth from year to year, even though Common Core assessments would replace them in two years.
  • Pass a new evaluation system for teachers and administrators while providing value-added student test scores to math and English language arts teachers. State education officials point out that the state cannot promise that the Legislature will revise the current Stull Act and, if it did, that unions and school boards in the every school district would negotiate the adoption next year.

Paul Hefner, spokesman for Torlakson, said the Superintendent considers the state’s proposed waiver “a third way” – a reasonable solution to districts’ need for flexibility and consistent with the “spirit of the law’s waiver authority.”

LAO wants to redirect QEIA funds

Nearly 30 percent of California schools funded under the Quality Education Investment Act, or QEIA, may be expelled from the program at the end of this academic year for not meeting one or more of the requirements. That could leave up to $140 million in QEIA funds on the table – money the Legislative Analyst says the state should use to fill in the gaps in other educational programs.

There’s one barrier to the proposal: the QEIA law forbids it. SB 1133, introduced in 2006 by former state senator and current State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, requires that any funds left over when schools are removed from the program stay in the program. The money would be divided among the remaining schools for cost-of-living and enrollment increases.

Gov. Brown's plan to pay off QEIA and other temporary programs. (Source: LAO). Click to enlarge.
Gov. Brown's plan to pay off QEIA and other temporary programs. (Source: LAO). Click to enlarge.

The LAO acknowledges as much in its just released analysis of Gov. Brown’s 2012-13 education budget plan. The report recommends a statutory change to free up the money. It faces formidable opposition, and not just from Superintendent Torlakson, but possibly from higher up. Unlike much of the LAO’s report, which analyzes the governor’s budget proposals, this idea came directly from the legislative analyst.

“That is our recommendation,” said Edgar Cabral, one of the LAO’s education analysts. “The governor did not make that recommendation, and I doubt he would.”

State Board of Education president Michael Kirst said in an email that he wouldn’t support the plan either, and suggested that any changes “might also have to go back to the court as well as the Legislature.”

Stepping back

QEIA grew out of a lawsuit filed by the California Teachers Association against Gov. Schwarzenegger for reneging on a promise to repay school districts and community colleges $2 billion taken from Proposition 98 in 2004-05 in order to help get the state through a budget crisis. When state revenues increased that year, schools should have received an additional $1.8 billion under the Prop 98 guarantee. Instead, the governor based the 2005-06 school funding guarantee on the lower amount from the previous year.

QEIA funding by grade. (Source: County Supes Association-CCSESA). Click to enlarge.
QEIA funding by grade. (Source: County Supes Association-CCSESA). Click to enlarge.

Under the settlement, schools in API deciles 1 and 2 were eligible to apply for QEIA funds, but there was only enough money for about 500 of the nearly 1,500 schools in the lowest rankings. The numbers have fluctuated some since the program began in 2007-08, and there are now 474 schools – and that number is falling – in the program.

The latest reporting from County Offices of Education to the State Department of Education (as yet unpublished) shows that 137 QEIA schools haven’t met at least one requirement of the program. They include:

  • Class size reduction: A maximum of 20 students in grades K to 3 and 25 students in grades 4 through 12,
  • School counselors: Must have a student-counselor ratio of no more than 300:1,
  • Highly qualified teachers: All teachers must meet the standards for highly qualified teachers in No Child Left Behind,
  • Professional development: Develop a coherent plan for professional development and track participation by teachers, administrators, and paraprofessionals,
  • Teacher experience index (TEI): Teachers at QEIA schools must have an average level of teaching experience at or above the average of the entire school district for the same type of school, and
  • API: The average API growth scores from 2008-09, 2009-10, and 2010-11 must exceed the school’s average API target for those same three years.

By law, these schools could be terminated from the program beginning next fall, but the State Board of Education has begun granting waivers from a few of the provisions. As of its meeting last month, the Board has approved 45 waiver requests and denied five from the class size reduction requirement, and approved three waivers from the teacher experience index and four under highly qualified teachers.

Board members drew the line, however, at waivers for not meeting API targets.  “This is the main goal of QEIA; I really have difficulty saying we can waive student achievement,” said board member Yvonne Chan at last month’s meeting, before a unanimous vote to deny five waiver requests for academic performance.  At last count, 70 QEIA schools have fallen short of their API targets.

The California Teachers Association, which led the charge for QEIA through its lawsuit, notes that even if every school that hasn’t met all the requirements is booted from the program, the overwhelming number of schools will remain.  Considering that California schools have absorbed about $20 billion in cuts in the past few year, “it’s very promising that so many QEIA school weathered that storm and are making progress,” said CTA spokesman Mike Myslinski.

That’s why the CTA will oppose any effort to take money that would otherwise provide those QEIA survivors with a little extra funding, said Myslinksi.   “For us, the law is very clear that any so-called excess money really needs to go back to the schools.”

Doubts over 8th grade algebra for all

When it comes to flip-flopping, forget the Republican primary and take a look at California’s vacillation on when students should learn algebra. Yesterday, a year and a half after the State Board of Education adopted new math standards, researchers, educators, and policymakers once again sparred over the wisdom of requiring Algebra I for most eighth graders.

When Phil Daro helped write California’s Common Core math standards, he was instructed to base them on evidence, not politics, and to take a close look at math education in the world’s top-performing countries. “What we saw, and what we learned, contradicts a lot of the assumptions on which California mathematics policy is built,” Daro told several hundred people attending Thursday’s Middle Grades Math conference at Stanford University.

The most elemental difference, said Daro, who co-directs UC Berkeley’s Tools for Change, is that even though Algebra I is considered the single most important mathematics subject, California rushes students through it when they’re still in middle school, while high-achieving countries spread it out over three years. “We’re saying let’s spend less time on Algebra I, the most important math; it doesn’t make sense,” Daro said.

8th grade students scoring proficient or better on Algebra I, by race. (Source:  SVEF) Click to enlarge
8th grade students scoring proficient or better on Algebra I, by race. (Source: SVEF) Click to enlarge

Seated at a table in the back of the meeting room, farthest away from the speakers, some of the heaviest hitters in California education glanced at each other and exchanged a quick whisper. Algebra I is a can of worms they’d like to see buried beneath a massive compost pile, preferably in a neighboring state.

It’s been dogging the state at least since the 1997 content standards, which included math standards only through seventh grade. Grades eight and up were organized around content tests, according to a 2011 report commissioned by the Silicon Valley Education Foundation.*   Citing an Education Week article, the report’s authors wrote that “the goal was to increase the number of students enrolled in Algebra I, not to mandate enrollment.”

More than a decade later, under pressure to comply with No Child Left Behind, the State Board of Education made Algebra I mandatory for eighth grade students. That led to a lawsuit, an injunction against the mandate, and flexibility for eighth graders to take Algebra I or an Algebra prep class. Then came Common Core, and California, in a preemptive move, adopted two sets of eighth grade math standards, pre-Algebra for the national standards, and Algebra I for the state.

So it’s understandable if Daro’s recommendation to go more slowly to make sure that students fully comprehend the material – sound policy or not – didn’t elicit any huzzahs from policymakers at the meeting.

The core reason for mandating Algebra I in eighth grade is equity and access for all to college prep courses. Supporters hoped it would stop the practice of tracking low-income and other underserved students away from the A-to-G classes required for admission to the University of California and California State University. But researchers at the meeting warned that the policy, as it’s being implemented, could backfire and make it harder for those students to be successful.

There’s no doubt that it has achieved that goal. According to the SVEF report, the number of students taking Algebra I in eighth grade jumped by 80 percent between 2003 and 2010, with the most dramatic increase among low-income, African American, and Latino students. As that number rises, so too does the number of students reaching proficiency on the Algebra I California Standards Test. Nearly two times as many eighth graders met that bar, according to Algebra Policy in California, published by EdSource.

Then the laws of physics kick in an there’s almost an equal and opposite reaction, with 1.5 times as many of the students scoring below or far below basic. Even though more eighth grade students are taking Algebra I, that doesn’t mean they’ve been equally prepared for it, said Neal Finkelstein, a senior research scientist at WestEd. “There are many patterns of students who are not succeeding early, and are continuing to not succeed later,” said Finkelstein.

Grade 8 algebra enrollment by race. (Source-SVEF) Click to enlarge.EdSource researcher Matt Rosin wanted to know what the chances were of a student who scored basic or below on the seventh grade California Standards test being put in Algebra I. When he analyzed algebra placements and test scores for nearly 70,000 eighth graders during the 2008-09 school year, he found that compared to middle class schools, more students at low-income schools were placed in Algebra I, and more of them scored basic or below on that state test.

“This is the achievement gap in action,” said Rosin. “Schools that have heard the call for greater access to Algebra I are answering the call, but they’re making decisions based on access, not on instruction and support.”

Others would disagree that standards alone are the issue. During a conversation with Daro after the conference, former State Board of Education president Ted Mitchell said teacher preparation is a problem, especially in elementary schools. He would bring in math specialists to help out.

Bruce Arnold seems to share that sentiment. He runs the Mathematics Diagnostic Testing Project at UC San Diego, where teachers learn to identify the specific reasons a student is having difficulty grasping a concept, and get ideas on how to teach that lesson differently.

If students misunderstand any of the prerequisite materials, that will stay with them and trip them up as they move to more advanced classes, explained Arnold. He falls somewhere in the middle when it comes to how much time to spend on the big concepts. Definitely not the three years that schools take in Singapore, however. “I would argue that students should take Algebra I as soon as they are ready,” said Arnold, “and that our goal should be to move students along as fast as they can be moved with success.”

* TOP-Ed is an editorially independent project of the Silicon Valley Education Foundation.

A case study for NCLB waiver

A couple hundred children sitting cross-legged covered the floor of the multipurpose room at Oak Ridge Elementary School in Sacramento. Behind them, parents, grandparents, and siblings filled rows of metal folding chairs, while teachers stood beside their students. The room was abuzz with excitement as principal Doug Huscher bounded onto the stage and led everyone in a cheer.

“When I say ‘Oak Ridge,’ you say ‘Feel the pride,'” shouted Huscher. Three times he called and they responded.

It was the warm-up to the school’s first-ever awards ceremony for student performance on the California Standards Test (CST). Teachers presented more than 200 Olympic-style medals to their students: bronze for moving up at least one level on the exam, silver for scoring in the proficient range, and gold for advanced.

It was also a celebration for the school itself. Two years ago, when it was in the bottom 5 percent in the state for academic achievement, Oak Ridge, along with five other low-performing schools in the Sacramento City Unified School District, applied for a piece of the $316 million in federal money allotted to California through the School Improvement Grant program. They lost.

So superintendent Jonathan Raymond launched his own reform, the Priority Schools program. He installed new principals and many new teachers in the six schools, gave them additional funds from Title I and the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, told them to come up with a school improvement plan, and held them accountable.

Raymond sees this as a prototype for education reform efforts and that’s why he’s pushing the State Board of Education to seek a waiver under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), in which the federal government would give districts and schools flexibility and not hold them to the rigid models of NCLB and other federally-funded reforms.  A waiver would also allow low-income schools that receive Title I funds to use that money as they see fit.  So far the State Board has not been persuaded to apply.  Raymond said if they did, it would also solve another cruel irony related to Oak Ridge; after all its work and achievement on California’s standards, it’s still considered a failing school under NCLB.

Academic and behavioral changes at Priority Schools. (Source:  Sac City Unified School District). Click to enlarge.
Academic and behavioral changes at Priority Schools. (Source: Sac City Unified School District). Click to enlarge.

After Huscher’s first year as principal of Oak Ridge, its ranking on California’s Academic Performance Index, or API, soared by 82 points, from 658 in 2009-10 to 740 last year. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson recognized the accomplishment last August, by holding his news conference to announce statewide API results at Oak Ridge.

Given those plaudits, Huscher was understandably frustrated when the school again failed to meet the federal benchmarks for Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) under No Child Left Behind. Out of 25 measurements, Oak Ridge fell short in one: Asian students who were English learners didn’t score high enough on the English language arts exam. Oak Ridge wound up in year five of program improvement, opening it to a number of severe penalties.

“After all this effort, you have this amazing increase in API, and the feds come in and say, ‘Guess what?  You didn’t make it,'” said Huscher.

The disconnect between state triumph and federal failure isn’t unusual in this era of No Child Left Behind. Of the 3,890 California schools in Program Improvement, 476 met their API targets. What’s different today is that the U.S. Department of Education realizes that NCLB is a flawed law, and is offering waivers to states to provide relief from sanctions, including those that are psychological.

“The punitive elements of NCLB – this public labeling of schools that are working hard to improve learning – are damaging and destructive,” said Raymond. A waiver, he added, “would go a long way in helping to remove stigma and repair the reputations of many schools.”

But State Superintendent Torlakson has so far convinced the State Board of Education not to apply, warning that the requirements in exchange for a waiver are too costly. California is one of ten states that haven’t submitted either formal requests for waivers or letters stating they intend to apply.

Oak Ridge an example of waiver flexibility

Under pressure from local superintendents, the State Board is going to reconsider the issue at its next meeting in March.

Sac City’s Raymond said schools like Oak Ridge are case studies of what’s possible when they’re given latitude to be creative and develop improvement plans based on their specific student populations instead of the prescriptive remedies and sanctions of federal education officials. “We had that, and it didn’t get us anywhere,” he said.

Through the Priority Schools program, Oak Ridge principal Huscher has been able to hire a training specialist who meets weekly with teachers from each grade to analyze data from student work, design interventions and lessons based on the data, model those lessons for the teachers, and work in their classrooms if necessary.

“The first year I was here it didn’t seem like there was very much collaboration between grade levels,” said third grade teacher Kelly Toomey, one of four teachers who remained on staff after it became a priority school. “I think the most important change that I’ve seen is that the focus and the culture of the school across the board with parents and students is academics.”

During a visit to her class earlier this year, Toomey had nearly every student engaged in a lesson on the difference between expository and narrative writing, using two books about penguins, one nonfiction and one fiction.

She broke into song when Tacky the penguin sang “how many toes does a fish have?” sending the kids into giggling fits; she paused after reading the word “odd” to make sure the students understood it; and she prodded them to think deeper.

“So what could we say about narratives?” Toomey asked one of her students. “It’s make believe,” he answered. “But was your personal narrative story you wrote make believe?” she prompted. “No,” he said, “it was very true.” “It was very true,” she agreed. “This is odd, like Tacky.”

Strengthening the home school connection

Teachers are required to make home visits, and Toomey said she’s noticed more parent involvement as a result. They ask questions about academics and homework, and they come to school more often.

Anthony Bookhamer’s grandmother said it was important for him to have his teacher see where he lives. Anthony won two gold medals at the awards ceremony, one for math and one for English language arts.  After returning to his spot on the floor, he looked through the door to his right, into the hallway where his grandmother, Lenna Tryon, watched from the seat of her walker. Anthony waved enthusiastically and raised the medallions off his chest to show her.

“The school’s so good for him,” said Tryon. “They know he’s got special things; he has to have water, he has to wear a hat, and he can’t play more than ten minutes or be out in the sun more than ten minutes…and they set him up in the front so he can see better; his eyesight is pretty bad. He’s done remarkable and just everything’s come back to him.”

About two years earlier, Anthony was in an apartment fire that killed his mother and left him with burns over 70 percent of his body. His hands, legs, back, and stomach are scarred, he lost several fingers, and he has a bald spot on the back of his head where the flames scorched him. Anthony spent five months in the hospital and went to live with his grandmother.

Before Huscher came to Oak Ridge, it was a different place, said Tryon. There were no awards for the kids, she never received any communication telling her what was going on, and she didn’t feel welcome at the school. Now they call her a few times a week to let her know how Anthony’s doing and what’s going on; they have family game nights and monthly parents’ meetings.

Sac City has been adding more schools to its Priority School program, and Raymond is looking for ways to keep it going and sustainable. A waiver would help in that as well. Relief from NCLB sanctions would free up millions of dollars that districts with program improvement schools are required to set aside for private tutoring companies that have no accountability.  It amounts to $2.4 million for Sac City.

“We sort of look back and we chuckle now because we didn’t get the [School Improvement] grant for perhaps a variety of reasons, none of which made sense to us,” said Raymond.  “But we said the heck with it, we’re going forward anyway, we’ve got a good plan, we believe in it.”

State Board, CDE at odds on charter

Unanimously voting to disregard the recommendation of Department of Education staff, the State Board of Education last week granted Rocketship Education a charter in San Francisco, Rocketship’s first school outside of Santa Clara County. The Board’s approval for its 33rd charter reflected a sharp disagreement not only over the Department’s conclusions on Rocketship but also how it went about  reaching them.

Rocketship appealed to the State Board after San Francisco Unified trustees voted 6-0 to deny charter approval for a K-5 school it would locate near low-performing elementary schools in the minority neighborhood of Bayview-Hunters Point. In a 31-page decision, the trustees ruled that Rocketship was offering “an unsound educational program” and that it would be unlikely to successfully implement what it was proposing (see Item 1 of the State Board’s Jan. 11 agenda for the San Francisco decision, the Rocketship application and the Department’s recommendations).

Department staff actually found no basis to justify San Francisco’s denial on academic grounds. Rocketship is a fast-expanding, innovative charter organization that operates five charter schools in San Jose with approval to open 25 more by 2017-18 in Santa Clara County. The three schools that have been open long enough to be tested had an average API score of 868, nearly 200 points above the average of the neighborhood schools it was targeting in San Francisco, according to its application.

Among their reasons, the trustees criticized Rocketship’s English immersion approach and said its hybrid model, which integrates the use of computers in a Learning Lab  to supplement the work of classroom teachers, sounded like a “drill and kill” approach. (No trustees actually visited the school or heard a presentation by Rocketship.) Department staff pointed to Rocketship’s track record and said that,  as a charter school, it can choose different approaches to learning and curricula from the district. (Isn’t that a reason for a charter school?)

Instead, the Department staff pointed to four flaws in Rocketship’s financial plan, a combination of lack of clarity or missing information, that led it to doubt the proposal’s viability. In a clear departure from past practice, CDE staff and a consultant hired to do the review took the position that they were legally restricted from asking Rocketship any follow-up questions for answers could have met their concerns.

That approach confused members of the State Board as well as the Advisory Commission on Charter Schools, which recommended that the State Board grant the charter after listening to the Department’s reasons and hearing directly from Rocketship’s chief financial officer and CEO (watch the hearing).

“I sense frustration among commissioners because of the conservative interpretation of the process,” Commission Chairman Brian Bauer, principal of the Granada Hills Charter High School, said during a hearing in November.

Having been chastened when a new charter school in West Sacramento went bankrupt last fall, losing at least several million dollars in state grants, Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Deb Sigman acknowledged that the Department has resolved to look at all charters’ financials in more detail. “We have directed staff to be very deliberate and thoughtful and look at denials by district and county, but there might be a more deliberate look at fiscal issues,” she told the Commission.

How much discretion on an appeal?

Advisory commissioners and State Board members didn’t dispute the need for more scrutiny. They’ve been burned by charters led by teachers and parents without much of a clue about California’s complex and precarious funding system. But they were puzzled by the Department’s efforts to make an example of Rocketship, a sophisticated operation with a level of reserve that far exceeds the average school district’s.

“I appreciate the oversight and attention to detail. It’s critical,” said Commissioner Vicky Barber, superintendent of El Dorado County. “In the past, the Commission has had fiscal matters discussion (with those) without basic understanding of school finance. But I don’t see the lack of understanding” with Rocketship.

Among the items the Department raised:

  • Each Rocketship school and Rocketship Education are separate nonprofits. Staff was concerned that the San Francisco school would be stuck with debts if it closed. But Bauer and Barber pointed to a passage in the 300-plus page charter petition that made clear the parent nonprofit would bear all debts of its schools and not require any fundraising.
  • The proposal didn’t spell out how the 15 percent management fee covering personnel for Rocketship Education would be spent. Rocketship acknowledged that it could have given more details in a footnote.
  • Repayment schedule of two loans of three on the school’s books was not given. Rocketship said that was because they did not expect they would be drawn down.

All sides agree that the Department, on reviewing an appeal, cannot consider or seek substantive changes to a charter proposal. But Commissioners and all Board members except for Patricia Rucker agreed that staff could seek clarifying information, as it has done in the past, and that the objections raised about Rocketship were minor.

The alternative would have been to reject the petition and force Rocketship to start all over with San Francisco Unified on the basis of issues that the school district had not raised.

“Rocketship,” said Eric Premack, executive director of the Charter Schools Development Center in Sacramento and author of the financial disclosure regulations for charters, “risked being caught in the charter arms race where authorities keep upping the ante so that it broadens the target they can shoot at. Do you need to go into the financial minutiae of school closure?”

Rucker joined the other Board members in voting for the charter with the condition that parent Rocketship clearly state its responsibility  for any debts the new school may incur.

Statewide impact charters

Also last week, the Board approved  five-year extensions of the statewide benefit charters enabling  High Tech High and Aspire Public Schools to open charter schools throughout the state. The Board has granted only three of these (Magnolia Public Schools also has permission to open a limited number).  To receive a statewide benefit charter, a charter organization must have a track record of success and establish that it will provide a benefit that can’t be achieved through charters from individual school districts.

With 11 schools serving 4,600 students in K-12, much acclaimed High Tech High offers project-based learning targeted to areas with low-performing schools. It made the case that it needs a statewide charter to locate and better finance the construction of schools designed for of its approach. It also argued its High Tech High Graduate School of Education, offering Master’s in Education and a teacher credentialing program, helps the state meet its need for STEM teachers.

Aspire Public Schools has used the statewide benefit charter to open a half-dozen of its 34 schools. The benefit it provides, Aspire said, is increasing the number of minority, low-income students ready for college (all of its graduates last year were accepted to a four-year college); like High Tech High, it uses the statewide charter to reduce the cost of financing for school facilities and to  run a teacher residency program serving its schools. The California Schools Boards Assn., the California Teachers Assn. and the Assn. of California School Administrators sued the School Board over the statewide benefit charter for Aspire and won a victory in State Appeals Court in 2010. That decision forced the State Board to review its criteria for a statewide charter.

CTA lobbyist Ken Burt said last week the Board’s rationale “doesn’t meet the laugh test” and called on it to wait for a further ruling on the case, which is expected this spring. But Board members said that whatever decision is reached won’t end the litigation; postponing a renewal of the benefit charter would create uncertainly for Aspire parents who are now enrolling their children for next year.