EQI may replace API in rankings

California’s Academic Performance Index (API) was never supposed to be based on a single test. When it was created as part of the Public Schools Accountability Act of 1999, the legislation was clear on that point.

“This bill would require the Superintendent of Public Instruction, with approval of the State Board of Education, by July 1, 1999, to develop the Academic Performance Index (API), consisting of a variety of indicators, to be used to measure performance of schools, especially the academic performance of pupils.”

In the dozen years since, the only variety has been in the changing high-stakes tests used to determine the school rankings. That would change under a set of bills approved yesterday by the Assembly education committee. SB 547, 611 and 612, by Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), would reduce the emphasis on the California Standards Test by limiting the exams to no more than 40 percent of a high school’s overall ranking, and a minimum of 40 percent for middle and elementary schools.

The new measurement system would also replace the API with a new system known as the Education Quality Index, or EQI, which would be based on multiple measures developed by a committee headed by State Superintendent Tom Torlakson. For starters, however, SB 547 calls for including graduation rates and how well schools prepare students for college and career success. And the bill allows more measures to be added down the road.

Free throws aren’t everything

Years ago, when I wrote about critics who said the API measure was too narrow, Jay Rosner, executive director of the Princeton Review Foundation, used a sports metaphor to illustrate. If Shaquille O’Neal were judged only on his free throws, he’d never have made it to the pros, said Rosner; that wasn’t his strength. Steinberg and California school superintendent Tom Torlakson reached into the wide world of sports to make a similar point in an OpEd that appeared in Wednesday’s Sacramento Bee.

“No one would judge Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum’s performance based on one inning,” they wrote, “why should parents and the public judge a school based on one set of tests?”

They warn that too much emphasis on standardized tests narrows the curriculum to the subjects being tested and ignores other important aspects of education.

“Are students staying in school or dropping out? Are they ready to continue their education? Do they have the training and skills to start a career? A test score alone won’t answer those questions.”

Ready for change

Just a year after California enacted the Public Schools Accountability Act, Congress approved No Child Left Behind, which added even more significance to high-stakes tests. Now it looks like history may repeat itself in reverse. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has already announced (and we reported here) that unless Congress takes up reauthorization in the next few weeks, the Department of Education will start granting waivers to give states some flexibility from the severe consequences if every student doesn’t score at the proficient level or better on their state exams.

Duncan warned that without a relaxation of those provisions, more than 80 percent of the nation’s schools may be mislabeled as failing.

Susanna Cooper, a consultant to Sen. Steinberg, says the frustration that’s been building among educators and state policy makers over the testing may account for the lack of opposition at yesterday’s committee hearing. In the long queue of people waiting to comment on the bills, not one spoke against them. Some said their organizations hadn’t taken a stand yet, but added that they generally support the measure.

“I think the amount of support for the bill is striking because it (the bill) represents significant change, but I think that’s a reflection of the current limitations of the accountability system,” said Cooper. “I think people are just ready to do something else. We’re at a point where the system is ready to embrace change.”

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

Steinberg’s SB 547 broadens accountability beyond test obsession

I have a good friend who taught at a high school, while his wife taught first graders. He provided an important observation by explaining that his wife’s elementary grade students would do anything to please Mrs. Smith, whereas Mr. Smith had to figure out a way to please his secondary students.

This transition of instructional approaches reflects the natural development and aspirations of youth. What may have worked to inspire a first grader would fall flat with a rebel-without-a-cause adolescent. A grade-school student rarely asks “Why do I have to learn such-and-such? I’ll never use it in life.” Yet that is the most common refrain of a secondary student struggling with a challenging subject. Effectively engaging teenagers by connecting their formal education with their life aspirations is the key instructional ingredient for high school students.

Policymakers should heed this insight into the adolescent mind, since they determine what schools will be held accountable for and how they’ll be measured. We should not be subjecting secondary students – and their schools – to the same narrow performance indicators as elementary schools. And, yet, under the current accountability system in California – led by the “Holy Grail” of K-12 measurements, the API – that is exactly what we are doing.

Since Academic Performance Index ratings are such a priority for homebuyers, every California real estate agent knows the exact numeric score of all of their neighborhood schools. But does anyone, including those in the media who faithfully publish with great fanfare these annual scores, have a clue what those three-digit numbers actually tell us about a school’s performance? Most would likely be shocked and a little disturbed to learn that the API is primarily based on only a narrow bandwidth of largely decontextualized, fill-in-the-bubble English and math test questions. The API says nothing about a school’s extracurricular and athletic programs; nil about a school’s commitment to inspire civic-mindedness; and zilch about its elective offerings. Nor does this singular accountability index of California schools include anything directly related to preparing students for life beyond K-12 education. This isn’t exactly the transparent accountability the public believes they are getting from API ratings.

SB 547, a measure introduced by the leader of the California State Senate, Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), acknowledges these deficiencies. This important legislation calls for additional performance indicators to be included in the API for our state’s high schools, including how well they are doing in preparing their students for postsecondary education opportunities and the real world of work. While every politician seems to be parroting the line that all high school graduates should be “college and career ready,” SB 547 actually does something to quantify this lofty goal. It does so by broadening API scoring for high schools by measuring specific performance standards related to college and career preparation. You can look at the long list of recommended, measurable criteria here, but some of the most notable ones include the number of students successfully completing college preparatory coursework and a sequence of career technical education classes; the academic and workforce performance of students a year following their high school graduation; and rates of students earning an occupation-specific license or certificate while enrolled in high school.

The exaggerated importance of the API cannot be overstated. In California, our elected representatives have codified an educational system in which we only value what is required, funded, and measured. These are the curricular drivers in K-12 education. Therefore, the primary courses being taught in our classrooms today are those subjects that are statutorily mandated, have dedicated funding streams, and are tested to gauge a school’s performance, regardless of that coursework’s relevance to students or the world beyond school. Many engaging subject-matter disciplines and course-sequenced programs that fall outside these drivers are being squeezed out of the instructional day, leaving far too many adolescents feeling disengaged. As a result, a third of high school students are voting with their feet and simply dropping out.

Given the fact that Career Technical Education (CTE) is not required for graduation or college admission, lacks a protected funding stream, and is not included in the state’s accountability system, we have seen an historic decrease in access to these engaging programs in our middle and secondary schools. In 1987, three-quarters of secondary students enrolled in these courses at their high school campus; last year, only 29 percent were able to do so. This unprecedented slide continues unabated, as shop classes continue to get shuttered, Business and Home Ec classrooms get converted to remediation centers, and career counselors go the way of the dodo bird.

The fundamental purpose of taxpayer-funded, compulsory education is to prepare every student to become a self-reliant, responsible citizen. Does anyone believe our state’s current tunnel vision into a school’s performance is a sufficient indicator of a school’s true value?

It is time California policymakers hold high schools accountable for practical outcomes that we all expect and should demand.  SB 547 is a critical means of doing just that

Fred Jones has nearly 20 years of policy experience in the State Capitol as both a legislative staffer and, since 2000, as a registered lobbyist and legal counsel to several education-related clients. His primary CTE-related client is the California Business Education Association, which is also a founding member of Get REAL California, a coalition of employers, labor groups, educators, and others concerned about CTE in California schools.

China and Finland are No. 1, and America has fallen like a stone, right? Not so fast

A report was released in February that did not receive nearly the amount of attention that I thought it deserved. CNN had a brief interview with Michelle Rhee and the CNN “education reporter” but the conversation focused less on the report and its contents, and more on the interviewees’ perception of  “school reform.”

I am referring to the 2010 Brown Center report on American Education: How Well are American Students Learning? The report set out to address three different questions, including Who’s Winning the Real Race to the Top? and NAEP and the Common Core Standards.

While those topics are definitely of interest, I want to comment here on the first part of the report,  International Tests, which sets out to analyze the results from the international tests referred to by many to emphasize the poor academic performance of students in the United States. When I first read the title, I assumed it was more of the same “U.S education is failing” comparisons. After all, who doesn’t already know that Finland and China rule in the world of international tests, and that the United States has lost its first-place edge over the last few years?

So what did the Brown Center Report conclude? First of all, the United States has never been number one on international tests of achievement. The assertion that the United States once led the world on international tests years ago, and that the fall to the bottom of the pack is relatively recent, appears to be a myth. According to the report, the United States has never been number one on math or science tests. In fact, the United States’ performance on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test has been flat to slightly up since its inception, and has improved on Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) since 1995.

The report also addresses the China and Finland phenomenon. The report points out that “China” is really “Shanghai” on the international comparisons, since China as a nation does not participate in international assessments. Shanghai is a city (albeit a large one with approximately 11 million inhabitants), but is certainly not the entire country of China (with a population of approximately 1.3 billion). The report also mentions that Shanghai is not representative of China as a whole, describing Shanghai as “the jewel of Chinese schooling.”

As for Finland, yes, it is a country, although with a population of approximately 5 million, not not even half the population of Shanghai. Furthermore, the idea that Finland is the top scoring nation in the world on international testing is not completely accurate. Finland is number one on PISA, which the report points out could possibly reflect a curriculum mirroring the content of the PISA, but has never been number one on TIMSS. As the report accurately points out, the content of a test – i.e., the alignment of what is taught and what is tested – matters, as anyone who has had experience with assessment knows very well knows.

This is not to say that we cannot learn from Finland or China and the international tests. We should, however, be cautious in how we interpret international test results.

Education has become a political football at times, with individuals and groups quoting specific research selectively. How many people have actually read the PISA and  TIMSS reports, rather than parroting inaccurate information from what they hear in the media? It would behoove us to read the Brown Center Report on American Education. People may learn something surprising. I did.

Manny Barbara, former Superintendent of the Oak Grove School District, is VP of Advocacy and Thought Leadership for SVEF. He has been selected four times as Administrator of the Year by the Association of California School Administrators, and as Educator of the Year in 2008 by 100 Black Men of Santa Clara County. During his 10 years as superintendent, performance increased for all district student subgroups, including the number of students successfully completing algebra and geometry by the end of 8th grade.

Inject critical thinking into state standards to think outside the bubble

For nearly a decade, California K-12 schools have been scrutinized based on multiple-choice tests primarily covering two subjects: Reading (Language Arts) and Math. That may explain why many schools, especially “lower performing” ones, have narrowed the curriculum to what’s tested. In many instances, subjects like history, science, world languages, the arts, and career technical education courses have been pared down, and in some cases eliminated, to make room for test-taking and study skills classes. Although some school and district leaders have attempted to maintain a broad curriculum, most have capitulated to the need to save their own hides and raise test scores.

All K-12 students need a breadth of knowledge as well as an understanding of how that content (and the world around them) is interconnected. Parents and community members need to stand up for supporting a full offering of courses for their children. History and science (including STEM), world languages, the arts, and engaging 21st century electives should be offered at every site. In K-6, students should have exposure to a balanced and relevant curriculum that appropriately integrates math and reading.

But effective K-12 education is more than just ensuring a broad array of subjects. Students need to transition from K-12 with skills that they can use and apply to succeed in college and careers. The ability to eliminate the wrong answers on a bubble does little for them other than getting a pizza party or other rewards. Business and higher education leaders lament that more and more students cannot write, communicate, work effectively in groups, and apply knowledge to real problems. They blame K-12 when K-12 has been shackled by the testing mandates of No Child Left Behind and the California High School Exit Exam.

Increasingly however, parents and particularly business and higher education leaders have become aware of the mismatch between K-12 accountability measures and what really needs to be taught.

Fortunately, something is being done.

Over the last several months, the California Coalition Partnership for 21st Century Education has deeply discussed and outlined an overarching purpose for public education that will inspire and unleash the collective potential of 6 million school children. This newly formed group consists of business leaders representing forward-thinking corporations such as Dell, Disney, Apple, and Verizon; educational leaders from the California State PTA, ACSA, school boards, CTA and CFT, the California Science Teachers Association, and the California Mathematics Council; and community organization leaders (see www.p21california.com for a full list).

Building on the energy generated by the California Coalition for P21, Assembly member Julia Brownley and State Sen. Lou Correa are sponsoring two bills (AB 250 and SB 402, respectively) that will give all stakeholders renewed purpose for K-12 education. Correa’s bill would require “each curriculum framework to describe how content can be delivered to intentionally build creativity, innovation, critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and communication into and across each content area, to the extent the description is deemed appropriate by the board.”

Currently, curriculum frameworks are written without regard to interconnection and interrelationships among content areas, and do not support application of content knowledge to real-world challenges.

If passed, SB 402 will begin to take pedagogy beyond teaching to the test. Imagine classes where students are asked to analyze, synthesize, evaluate, and create their own original thoughts through writing and speaking about real-world problems and issues. The Common Core standards will help further the emphasis on performance assessments, having students “show what they know” through writing and speaking (including collaboration), which stimulates critical thinking.

As nationally recognized writing teacher Kelly Gallagher, author of “Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading,” says, “Any teacher worth his or her salt knows that if you really want to measure the level of student thinking, you have to have students write. Answers to multiple-choice questions can often be faked; answers to essay questions cannot. As a staunch advocate for change integrating more thinking and writing, and a member of the California Coalition, Gallagher warns, “We end up with a school system that raises multiple-choice thinkers in an essay world.”

AB 250 attempts to reform several important areas calling for the update of frameworks (aligned with Correa’s bill), professional development, instructional materials, and assessments to align and support the new Common Core standards, which will be implemented in 2014.

Although there is so much at stake if the governor’s anticipated June ballot measure fails, it is discomforting to be forced to ask for voter support when there has been no clear goal other than meeting rigidly prescribed multiple-choice metrics. Those involved with the California Coalition P21 believe that the Brownley/Correa bills will give public education a refocused raison d’etre that can begin to propel our state back to greatness.

For more information about what you can do to change the course of K-12 education, please see www.p21california.com.

Michael Matsuda is coordinator for Quality Teacher Programs with the Anaheim Union High School District, and president of the North Orange County Community College District Board of Trustees.

Consistent leadership, steady improvement: the Massachusetts way

Much in the press has been made about how far American students are falling behind their peers in the rest of the world. So here’s a provocative dinner party question: “Where would Massachusetts and Minnesota fall on a results table for the TIMSS international assessments: Are they near the top of the table, the middle, the bottom?”

TIMSS is the acronym for Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. TIMSS mathematics and science assessments are administered to representative samples of 4th and 8th graders at the national or provincial (state) levels.

Every few years since 1995, upwards of 50 countries and a smattering of other jurisdictions have participated in the study. Few people, even of those reading this, know that Massachusetts and Minnesota participated in the 2007 TIMSS assessments. Thirty-six nations for 4th grade and 49 for 8th grade and seven jurisdictions for each grade comprised the 2007 samples. Among the participants were the five Asian nations that dominate the ranking tables in every international educational assessment: Singapore, Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei, South Korea, and Japan as well as some nations (England, Hungary) that have recently been touted as particularly successful in educating their students.

There are four comparisons in TIMSS – one each for 4th and 8th grade math and one each for 4th and 8th grade science. In three of the four comparisons, Massachusetts ranked in the top five countries and jurisdictions: 4th grade math (fourth), 4th grade science (second), and 8th grade science (third),  besting all but the Asian nations and exceeding two or three of them in each comparison. In 8th grade math, Massachusetts ranked sixth, behind the five Asian nations. Minnesota placed in the top 10 in each comparison. In math they were sixth in 4th grade and seventh in 8th grade, while in science they were fifth in 4th grade and tied for seventh in 8th grade.

How could this be? The critics of U.S. education see our nation as going to hell in a handbasket, especially in the STEM (mathematics and science) areas, and attribute this status to the education system, which requires drastic revision from top to bottom.

Let’s focus on Massachusetts. From a distance it looks like every other state: a governor, chief state school officer, districts, unions, tenure, teachers, the same textbooks as other states, good but not dramatically different assessments, 180-day school years, no dominance of the intensive after-school tutoring that characterizes the five Asian competitors, substantial diversity.

Massachusetts also does very well on the U.S. National Assessment of Education Progress. What is it that makes it different? Some people will note that there is somewhat less poverty than in many other states, some major universities, and a higher percentage of educated citizens than other states. All of this is true to some extent.

My guess, however, is different. What I notice is a state that for the past 15-20 years has had consistent leadership at the state and district level that honored continuous improvement of its school system. Their 1993 reform law created a clear statewide framework/roadmap for reform, for which they developed robust standards, invested in high-quality assessments, and funded the state’s reform agenda for a decade. New governors did not run on platforms of closing or merging schools, eliminating unions, or creating new systems with a majority of charter schools – they ran in support of sustaining and improving the reforms they had. Stable leadership and a strong political coalition were in support of a comprehensive, well-funded reform framework.

The central idea here is that Massachusetts represents a proof point that suggests that other states do not need a radical makeover to become internationally competitive. They need to build a learning capacity, hold the course, and steadily improve. This is not easy. It is not sexy. It is not a magic bullet, so it will not attract those who want to simply write legislation or those who come as a superintendent or Secretary of Education for two years and then leave while claiming serious change. It is hard, serious, important work.

Marshall (Mike) Smith has been the Education program director for the Hewlett Foundation, the Dean and Professor of the School of Education at Stanford, a Professor and Director of a research center at University of Wisconsin at Madison, and an Associate Professor at Harvard. In between universities he served in high-level policy positions in the Carter, Clinton, and Obama administrations.

Low science scores should shock state at the center of technology universe

Remember the old song “The Sound of Silence” by Simon & Garfunkel from the ’60s? I thought about the song last week after the results of the NAEP science tests showed that California students were at or near the bottom in our nation in nearly every measure of performance in science. The lack of outrage from our leaders in Sacramento that greeted these depressing results made me “picture the sound of silence.”

Back when that song was topping the charts, you could still graduate from high school with the possibility of making a living for your family. Back then the wage difference between a college graduate and a high school graduate wasn’t so extreme. Even a high school dropout had the possibility of a decent life with a secure job and a house. Today, those pre-computer and cell phone days are as ancient history as the one-room schoolhouse. Today’s far more diverse California student population has to compete in a global economy that places a premium on math and science proficiency.

For the state that’s supposed to be the center of the technology universe, these results should be a shocking slap in the face. You’d think our state leaders would be calling for fundamental reformation of our education system. Yet, all you hear is the same old stuff we’ve been hearing for the past 30 years. “Just give us more money.”  “The kids and their parents are the problems and when we have more money, we can fix them.”

With all due respect, Sacramento leaders, don’t you think a state that pays its teachers the highest salaries in the nation should be getting some better results for all those dollars? For nearly $50 billion a year, shouldn’t we be able to satisfy the desire of the vast majority of our parents who want their kids to perform at grade level in English, math, and science based on the tests we give them? These are parents who aren’t worrying about “narrowing the curriculum and tying the hands  of teachers” but think it’s the job of schools to educate their kids well enough to get a great score on the SAT or ACT, graduate from high school, and not have to enroll in remedial math and English courses in college.

Thank you, Governor Brown, for recognizing in a recent speech that a quality education is the civil rights issue of our time. But what new strategies – beyond just increasing funding – will your administration support to ensure that every child has the right to quality education in California? In contrast, last week, I heard your fellow Democrat, the first African American President of the United States, Barack Obama, use clear language to define the education reform that taxpayers should expect for their hard earned dollars – from adding more math and science teachers to making fundamental changes in our teacher evaluation systems. He clearly talked about identifying and rewarding successful teachers and ensuring that no child has his or her civil right to a quality education violated by an ineffective teacher.

I heard a similar speech not so long ago from another Democrat, Antonio Villaraigosa – the mayor of our largest and most diverse city, Los Angeles. And recently, I heard another Mayor – Kevin Johnson, of the very city where you now make your home, talk about education reform in the same terms as our President.

As I listen to these leaders, I have hope for California. But I also know that California’s students cannot afford long-term hope. They need a Governor and legislative leadership who can stand side by side with our President on his education reform agenda. The danger of silence is irrelevancy – both nationally in upcoming debates on ESEA and locally for the millions of California students and their parents who want to hear how our leadership will fulfill the promise of an education system that actually prepares each student to succeed in college and career.

Arun Ramanathan is executive director of  The Education Trust—West, a statewide education advocacy organization. He has served as a district administrator, research director, teacher, paraprofessional and VISTA volunteer in California, New England and Appalachia. He has a doctorate in educational administration and policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His wife is a teacher and reading specialist and they have a child in preschool and another in a Spanish immersion elementary school in Oakland Unified.

Brown’s and Whitman’s platforms

Few voters, other than fighting-mad members of the CTA, will likely cast their ballots for governor based on Meg Whitman’s or Jerry Brown’s views on K-12 education.

Education has been mostly a campaign sideshow – even though districts are struggling amid crippling budget cuts. California ranks abysmally low in national tests, and the state serves larger numbers of high-needs students with very low per student funding.

From the eagle’s nest, there are some similarities in Republican Whitman’s and Democrat Brown’s positions: Both support charter schools – she unequivocally, he, with caveats; both favor shifting more money to K-12 education – she  from “welfare,” he from prisons. And both want to give districts more control over earmarked spending, the 62 specially designated programs known as categoricals.

But there are fundamental differences, in tone and in substance, between their plans.

Brown’s is nuanced and more comprehensive, reflecting who he is – a veteran politician who dealt with complex policy issues as governor, became scarred as a mayor who tried to insert himself into Oakland Unified, and gained some firsthand knowledge of how difficult school reform is as a founder and funder of two charter schools in Oakland. His conclusion: Reforming schools is hard work: “I approach this task with some humility, and a realization that there is no silver bullet that will fix everything.”

Whitman has boiled her platform down to a handful of ideas that would put her in conflict not only with the teachers union but probably with the rest of the education coalition of the school boards and administrators associations. She fashions herself as a school reformer from the outside, but her ideas aren’t presented in depth; they’re more like slogans: cut waste, adopt merit pay, give schools a letter grade from A-F.

EdSource, which juxtaposed the candidates’ positions on education, offers the best visual comparison. In four of the topics – school safety, instruction in the classroom, innovative schools, and assessments – the Whitman campaign had no position. In another area, how to better recruit, evaluate, and retain effective teachers, Whitman offers two proposals; Brown suggests nine.

Neither directly deals with the continuing K-12 funding crisis that’s expected to lead to another plunge in revenue for  districts and charter schools next year. Implying there is massive bureaucratic waste and inefficiency – an assertion I have previously questioned – Whitman calls for directing more money to classroom teachers.

Brown doesn’t call for more spending; but there are seeds of reform – and echoes of a recommendation of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Committee on Education Excellence. Brown calls for partially funding students based on need, with extra money for English learners and low-income children – an idea detailed two years ago by Stanford  education professor emeritus Michael Kirst, former state education secretary Alan Bersin, and Goodwin Liu, a law professor whom President Obama has nominated as a federal appeals judge. The money initially would come from combining categorical grants into one pot.

Whitman’s ideas

  • Giving every school a grade, A through F, and allowing parents in failing schools either to transfer out or, by majority vote, to convert to a charter school. This idea is taken from Florida, where it began under Gov. Jeb Bush. Until this year, the grades were based strictly on standardized test results. Soon they will include other factors, such as SAT scores and numbers of students who take college-level courses. This year, 74 percent of elementary schools and 78 percent of middle schools in Florida got A’s and B’s. Parents in California currently pay attention to a school’s API score, a ranking from 200 to 800, which has the advantage of showing growth or decline in points every year.
  • Allowing students in “failing” schools to leave or create a charter would simplify and  speed up two reforms that the California Legislature passed this year: a parent trigger provision allowing parents in 75 low-performing schools to demand their school boards to do a charter conversion, and open enrollment, allowing families in the lowest performing 1,000 schools to choose a school in another district, assuming that school opens its doors.
  • Promoting charter schools: Whitman would remove the state’s cap on charter schools. So far the ceiling has not been an issue in discouraging the creation of charters.
  • Expanding the teacher pool: Whitman would encourage alternative credentialing pathways for more second-career professionals to become math and science teachers. She would use merit pay – bonuses to high-achieving teachers and administrators – to attract “high-quality professionals” into teaching.

Brown’s ideas

Several proposals would advance ideas that have long been discussed.

  • Revising state tests: Brown recognizes flaws with the $100 million state testing system, like its reliance on limited multiple-choice questions. With the adoption by California of national Common Core standards, new assessments are coming anyway. How the two testing systems would mesh isn’t clear.
  • Broadening the curriculum: Concerned about the narrowing of the curriculum under No Child Left Behind, Brown would encourage initiatives to expand the teaching of history, science, and the humanities, without, he says, reducing attention to English and math.
  • Returning control to the locals: As with other candidates before him, Brown pledges to pare back the voluminous state Education Code and cede more authority over student achievement to local districts, making them responsible for outcomes but not micromanaging the process. This would be easier said than done.
  • Attracting good teachers and principals: Brown pledges to raise public and private money for a leadership academy to train good principals. He would pay mentor teachers more to work with new teachers. He would encourage high school districts to become alternative certification providers by offering apprenticeships combining university courses and classroom experience. And he would work with public universities to lure the students ranked in the top third of their class to teaching. How this could be done without financial incentives isn’t clear.

  • Expanding magnet schools and partnership academies: Brown would continue a priority of the Legislature and Gov. Schwarzenegger: career academies that prepare students for college and careers in high technology, health professions and other industries.
  • Dealing with bad behavior: Parents and teachers continually complain that schools seem unable to control handfuls of disruptive students. Brown said he would consider changing state laws or practices to control behaviors that disrupt the learning of others.

Whitman has cast herself as a reformer and, in unremitting TV ads,  characterized Brown as a toady of the teachers union. But the CTA is spending millions of dollars independently not out of  love for Brown but out of dislike of her. Brown’s ideas reflect a detailed knowledge of the problems, needs and dynamics of  California’s diverse public schools. There’s no indication that Whitman has that level of understanding.

Note: For two contrasting views of the candidates’ views on education,  read retired San Jose high school principal Jim Russell on why he supports Whitman and UC-Davis education professor Thomas Timar on why he favors Brown.

Alternatives to exit exam for the disabled

The State Board of Education took the first step Wednesday toward establishing alternatives for students with disabilities who can’t pass the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) but have met other requirements for a high school diploma.

While more than 90 percent of students overall pass CAHSEE, only about 60 percent of students with disabilities manage to pass it after numerous tries starting in 10th grade. Since 2008, the Legislature has exempted those who haven’t passed – about 18,000 per year out of about 44,000 students with disabiltiies who make it through high school – from the sanctions of failing to pass the exit exam.

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Standardized tests’ Holy Grail

The much-maligned multiple-choice test, the crux of California’s and other states’ accountability exams, will be replaced partly, if not entirely, by more complex, lengthier and probably more costly, state tests. As part of its Race to the Top program, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has set aside $350 million to pay for the development of new standardized tests, plus high schools measures of career and college readiness, over the next four to five years.

Duncan and President Obama, who has derided “fill-in-a-bubble” standardized tests, are expecting that the new “performance assessments,” along with the common-core standards to which they’ll be aligned, will guide teachers’ instruction and improve student results. Skeptics – primarily defenders of current versions such as California’s STAR tests – are doubting whether the next generation tests can deliver what Duncan is demanding.

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