No more dodging Algebra dilemma

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

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

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

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

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

A new Commission’s charge

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

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

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

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

Retreat from universal Algebra in eighth grade

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

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

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

Can it be fixed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heavy editing on publishers

It’s a sure sign that an issue has hit crisis mode when Republican and Democratic legislators are on the same page about what needs to happen. In this case, it’s a fraying page from a textbook industry that needs some help embracing change.

The Senate Education Committee yesterday handily approved two more bills aimed at lowering the cost of textbooks from elementary school through college and moving them more quickly into the e-book era. In all, seven bills dealing with textbooks are making their way through the Legislature.

Publishers would have to provide, in one place, information on the differences between editions, how much the books cost in all their forms from hardcover to paperback, and a list of other texts on the same subject and their prices.

“Today’s K-through-12 students have grown up immersed in digital technology,” Senator Mimi Walters (R-Laguna Niguel), author of SB 1154, told the committee. “However, California students are attending schools equipped with outdated, heavy, hardbound textbooks, some of which are at least ten years old.”

Walters’ measure has three parts.  1) Textbook publishers would have to provide instructional and supplemental materials in both print and digital formats; 2) publishers could not require schools to buy textbooks bundled with other materials – they’d have to make the items available à la carte; and 3) publishers will have to offer free digital versions of textbooks to schools that buy the hard copies and allow students to access the digital material through a secure, district-based online database.

The other bill approved by the committee yesterday, focuses on college textbooks. SB 1539, by San Leandro Democratic Senator Ellen Corbett, seeks to make it easier for faculty to compare prices and content. Publishers would have to provide, in one place, information on the differences between editions, the cost of books in all their various formats from hardcover to paperback, and a list of other texts on the same subject and their prices. Corbett said having access to this information would enable faculty to easily compare prices and content and save their students some money.

As anyone who has paid for college lately can attest, textbooks are a second serving of sticker shock after tuition. A report by State Auditor Elaine Howle found that “in the four-year period ending 2007-08, textbook prices rose at rates that significantly outpaced increases in the median household income in the United States.”

Annual Student Fees and Textbook Costs for Full‐Time Students Enrolled in the State’s Postsecondary Educational Systems Academic Year 2007–08.  (Source: California State Auditor). Click to enlarge.
Annual Student Fees and Textbook Costs for Full‐Time Students Enrolled in the State’s Postsecondary Educational Systems Academic Year 2007–08. (Source: California State Auditor). Click to enlarge.

At that time, Howle reported that textbooks accounted for 13 percent of the costs of attending the University of California, 23 percent at Cal State University, and 59 percent for community college students. Some of that is due to markups by college bookstores that ranged from 25 to 43 percent at the nine California campuses the auditor reviewed.

But publishers still take most of the heat for such practices as issuing updated editions that often do little more than switch the order of chapters, but in so doing make it impossible for students to sell back their books or buy them second-hand.

“From our perspective, we view textbook publishers as highly exploitative,” Justin Goss, a student senator at UC Davis, told members of the Senate Education Committee. “While I am sure that they are perfectly nice people, it continues to baffle me why a reordered table of contents and a shiny new binding warrants and additional $50, $60, or sometimes $100 on the price tag.”

For their part, publishers argue that some of the bills are redundant and could drive up costs more.  Most of the information required by the bills is already online, said Stephen Rhoads with Strategic Education Services, a consulting and lobbying firm that represents the Association of American Publishers.

There are already several federal and state laws governing textbooks.  Both the Higher Education Opportunity Act, passed by Congress in 2008, and California’s College Textbook Transparency Act, which took effect at the start of 2010, require publishers to provide nearly all the information contained in Corbett’s bill.  A third bill, SB 48, by Sen. Elaine Alquist (D-Santa Clara), gives college textbook publishers until 2020 to offer electronic versions.

Federal and State Textbook Laws. (Source:  Strategic Education Services). Click to enlarge.
Federal and State Textbook Laws. (Source: Strategic Education Services). Click to enlarge.

“We actually think the marketplace is working for books,” testified Rhoads yesterday.  He cited statistics compiled by the market research firm Student Monitor showing that prices have been dropping in recent years.  However, a closer look indicates that students have more options today to buy less expensive books or to rent them online.  What’s more, Student Monitor reported that more than 40 percent of students said they didn’t buy all the required books because they couldn’t afford them.

But publishers have other concerns about the bills that pose legal and ethical questions.  It’s one thing if school districts that buy the textbooks also receive a free digital copy for students to access, but publishers want to be sure it’s a secure platform that protects the work from copyright infringement.  If they have to develop that platform, then shouldn’t they be compensated?

Those issues are still being worked out said Everett Rice, a spokesman for Sen. Walters.  “The senator’s goal was never to essentially try to not allow the textbook companies to function,” said Rice.  “We’re just trying to create greater flexibility based on the changing technology and to give school districts more room for negotiation, and to only give them what they need.”

State Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg is pushing for greater change.  He and Sen. Alquist have two bills that go hand-in-hand.  SB 1052 creates the California Open Education Resources Council, charges it with developing a list of the 50 most widely used college textbooks for lower division college courses, and allows faculty, publishers and other experts to bid for funds to produce 50 high quality affordable, digital open source textbooks and related materials.

The companion bill, SB 1053, creates a digital open source library jointly run by the University of California, Cal State and California Community Colleges.  His goal is to have the first 25 books ready by the fall of 2013, with the second group of 25 coming a year later.

With students and parents struggling to pay for college, “our goal is to move fast, because there is great urgency,” Steinberg said at a December news conference announcing his bills. “The book publishers are used to a particular model; the world is changing.”

Buck up, California, and learn from Rhode Island’s big pension reforms

Rhode Island is a tiny state with just over one million people in one thousand square miles. California is 37 times more populous and many times that size. And yet, when it comes to public employee pension reform, the tiny state of Rhode Island is acting both bigger and bolder.

For years, Rhode Island lawmakers watched fearfully as the state’s required pension contributions, the second-fastest-growing line item in its budget, exploded, doubling from 2003 to 2010. Without significant reforms, the liability was on track to double again by 2013. Lawmakers knew that if the pension liability remained unchecked, it would severely limit funding for other budget priorities.

California finds itself on a similarly unsustainable path. Earlier this month, the California Teachers’ Retirement Board announced that the $152 billion pension fund faces a $64.5 billion shortfall over the next three decades, an increase of $8.5 billion from last year. To put this in perspective, California spent $64.4 billion on K-12 education during 2010-11. Unless California acts to make its pension system more sustainable, the K-12 education budget – along with other important government priorities – will likely be carved up to feed the ever-growing pension deficit.

In Rhode Island, despite the growing recognition of the pension problem, the political obstacles to fixing it were high: The state is heavily unionized, and Democrats have held the legislature since World War II. But faced with numbers that threatened to devour the rest of the state’s $8 billion budget, an unlikely alliance between Gov. Lincoln Chafee (elected as an Independent), State Treasurer Gina Raimondo, a Democrat, and legislative leaders who were getting pressure from their home-district unions to avoid making any significant changes to the pension system, proposed and pushed through historic pension reform, saving $4 billion.

While most states just patch over their pension problems by slashing new teacher pensions or trimming minor provisions, Rhode Island made painful but necessary changes to its whole system. The reform law raised the retirement age for most workers and created a hybrid plan that combines a 401(k)-style account with a smaller defined benefit. The law also suspended cost-of-living increases to retirees for five years; after that, retirees will receive increases only if the pension fund is healthy. These changes, crucially, apply to new, current, and retired employees. While the law likely faces a legal challenge, the lawmakers wrote the bill to deflect that. They ensured that the reforms reflected a critical financial situation, used a temporary adjustment, and sought to share the burden across current employees, retirees, and taxpayers – a formula that also worked for similar reform in Minnesota.

California should take Rhode Island’s example to heart. Last fall, Gov. Jerry Brown acknowledged California’s dire financial situation when he released a bold 12-point proposal for pension reform. The proposal includes fundamental fiscal reforms such as raising the retirement age for new employees from 55 to 67, enrolling new employees in a hybrid plan, and increasing employee contributions to one-half of total pension contributions. The Democratic-controlled Legislature, however, continues to punt on substantive reform, focusing instead on relatively insignificant measures like eliminating pensions for convicted felons.

But while the political will is lacking, public will is not. In a nonpartisan poll last December, 83 percent of Californians thought that public pension costs were a problem. Sixty-eight percent of adults and 64 percent of public employees favored switching to a 401(k)-style plan. And earlier this year, in a surprising piece of political one-upmanship, the Republicans in the Legislature announced a package of bills identical to Governor Brown’s proposal.

California’s Democrats are beginning to look dangerously out of touch with budget realities – and with their constituents. Bipartisan support is crucial for pension reform, if only because the bar for implementing the governor’s proposal is high. Since teachers’ pensions are not subject to local collective bargaining, it will take nothing short of an amendment to the state constitution – a high bar indeed.

While California should recognize the serious consequences of pension reform for state employees and retirees, the state must act to secure pensions and protect its budget. Rhode Island is small but played big. California is big, and it needs to stop playing small.

Sarah Rosenberg is a policy analyst at Education Sector. Her research interests include teacher quality, public employee pensions, school improvement, and rural education. Before graduating from Duke University with a master’s degree in public policy, she taught high school English in rural North Carolina as a Teach for America corps member.

College readiness test’s next phase

California’s Early Assessment Program and affiliated efforts to get students college-ready are viewed in national education circles as a rare achievement, a model of K-12 and higher ed collaboration.

The recent naming of one of EAP’s key figures, California State University’s Beverly Young, to the Executive Committee of Smarter Balanced, the multistate group creating the Common Core assessment, is a sign that a new incarnation for EAP may be its ultimate triumph.

EAP is what high school juniors take, as a supplement to their state standardized tests in math and English language arts, to determine if they are college-ready. For those who aren’t, CSU has developed an expository reading and writing course and is developing a course in math for students to take as seniors. A number of states have adopted the reading and writing course for their own students.

“California’s EAP model is the best method currently available in the nation to assess and signal to students their preparedness for college-level coursework, providing them with
an opportunity to correct deficiencies before they enter college,” said a report, “California’s Early Assessment Program: Its Effectiveness and Obstacles to Successful Program Implementation,” which was released this week. It was produced by PACE (Policy Analysis for California Education) and written by Hilary McLean, former communications director for the state Department of Education.

California is a governing member of Smarter Balanced. CSU’s assistant vice chancellor of academic affairs, who’s been involved with EAP since its creation in 2004, will serve as one of two representatives of higher ed on the nine-member Executive Committee.

In announcing Young’s appointment, a Smarter Balanced press release reaffirmed the “goal of having the assessments be accepted indicators of college and career readiness.” Young this week said that she’ll be advocating that an EAP-type approach be incorporated into the 11th grade Common Core test. But she also acknowledged that, conceptual agreement aside, it will be a challenge to persuade colleges and universities from various states, all of which have their own standards for college readiness, to accept the test results. “College faculty will have to be brought in at the front end” of the test development, Young said this week. “Otherwise, they will not accept this.”

PARCC – the other Common Core assessment consortium – has explicitly said it wants to base its college-readiness system on EAP,  and has hired Allison Jones, a former CSU administrator in charge of EAP, to lead its effort.

Reputation exceeds impact

Even in California, EAP is not universally accepted. The University of California has steered clear of it, even though a quarter of its students systemwide need remediation classes in English (UCs don’t label their catch-up classes as remediation, but that’s what they are). And only about half of the state’s 112 community colleges accept EAP as a test for determining whether students are ready for credit-bearing courses.

CSU has invested a lot in EAP. On its dime, it developed the test and pays faculty to grade the 45-minute writing portion of it. It created the writing course and online math and English tutorials. It hired regional EAP coordinators to work with high schools and has trained more than 6,000 high school teachers to lead the writing course.

Still, respect for EAP probably exceeds its impact within California. It’s been a struggle to get students to understand what EAP is and to act on the results. Only 400 of the more than 1,000 high schools in the state offer the year-long expository writing and reading course, Young said.

Participation in EAP has steadily increased to more than 80 percent in English Language Arts. Source: California's Early Assessment Program (Click to enlarge).
Participation in EAP has steadily increased to more than 80 percent in English Language Arts. Source: California's Early Assessment Program (Click to enlarge).

Though voluntary, more than 80 percent of juniors now take the English piece, and nearly 40 percent take the math; fewer take the latter because they have to be enrolled in Algebra II as a junior, because CSU requires three years of math for admission. The test consists of 15 multiple-choice math and English questions, plus the writing piece.

If, as promised, Smarter Balanced’s assessment incorporates more complex short-answer questions and is computer-adaptive, posing questions based on the student’s previous answers, it could improve on EAP. EAP was not intended to be a diagnostic tool, but it could provide more information, particularly for community colleges, on gaps in students’ math knowledge. “The end game now is how to go beyond EAP with the Smarter Balanced assessment,” said PACE Executive Director David Plank.

CSU created EAP with the goal of reducing the number of students needing remediation to 10 percent of entering freshmen. That simply hasn’t happened. The percentage of juniors taking EAP deemed ready for college has edged up slightly to 15 percent in math and 21 percent in English. About two-thirds of entering CSU students still need remediation in either English or math, even though they have a 3.0 grade point average. Researchers estimate that EAP has cut the need for remediation by 6 percent in English and 4 percent in math.

The report listed some of the obstacles:

  • Students don’t understand the scores and what they mean; they assume, based on their grades, they are college-ready.
  • Since they’re part of the state standardized tests, EAP results don’t come back until August, which is late for scheduling the expository writing class;
  • Some high schools remain resistant to the CSU course, preferring to teach literature to seniors;
  • There’s a disconnect: Most high school teachers assume their students are college-ready; far fewer college instructors agree.

The picture may change soon. CSU campuses are adopting the policy that students must complete remediation courses before they arrive for school; that will encourage more to take expository writing and the new math course as high school seniors. Long Beach Unified, as part of its Long Beach Promise, requires students who don’t pass EAP to take the writing course. The year-long math course that Long Beach is piloting will go statewide this fall.

Starting this fall, Young said, students who test proficient on their standardized English language arts test and take the year-long expository writing course with a C or better will be designated college-ready in English.

“EAP has not proven a panacea,” said Plank. “Its primary value is the signal it sends to students to be ready for college. As the signal strengthens, impact on student outcomes will increase also.”

An overdue recognition that teachers must be partners in education reform

This much we know. Never before has there been so much attention focused on teachers and teaching. And, according to the latest MetLife Survey of the American Teacher report, teachers’ satisfaction with their profession is down. Way down. These findings are particularly worrying given that there is a need to recruit two million new teachers into the profession over the next 10 years, and attracting talented people to the teaching profession in sufficient numbers has become difficult in California.

Yet, I am more hopeful than ever before about the future of the teaching profession and the direction of education reform. Why such optimism?

I’ve seen a renewed focus on capturing the voices of educators and making sure their experience and expertise helps shape education policy and school improvement. And there is greater acknowledgment that teacher evaluation must be viewed as one facet of comprehensive talent management systems that need to also focus equally on hiring, supporting,  and advancing teachers.

Let me explain.

On Feb. 15, I was encouraged to hear U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan invite teachers and principals across the country into a national conversation focused not on one silver bullet solution but on fixing many systemic issues in education. In his remarks about the RESPECT Project (Recognizing Educational Success, Professional Excellence and Collaborative Teaching), Duncan said, “As we fight to strengthen our nation economically, as we fight for greater social justice through strong and genuine educational opportunity, the voice of teachers has never been more important.”

I couldn’t agree more. At New Teacher Center, we have surveyed more than one million educators about their perceptions of teaching and learning conditions in their schools and districts. This is part of our Teaching and Learning Conditions Initiative, which captures the voices of educators as a means to provide policymakers at the state, district, and school level with broad and detailed insight into teaching and learning conditions – as well as the data and tools for data-driven decisions on policy and practice. Education leaders in Massachusetts, North Carolina, Metro Nashville, Tennessee, New York, Rhode Island, Ohio, and Indiana are working with us this spring to launch six Teaching and Learning Conditions Initiative surveys to document and analyze the teaching and learning environments in schools, supporting the development of data-driven improvement plans aimed at advancing student learning.

Through this work, we learned that conditions for teaching and learning are key to increasing student achievement and creating a more stable teaching force, but that considerable gaps exist between the perceptions of teachers and administrators regarding whether key teaching conditions, like sufficient planning time and availability of resources, are present. Administrators are likely to view teaching and learning conditions in their schools more positively than the teachers in those same schools. It is critically important for policymakers and education leaders to actively seek teachers’ perspectives, and to initiate conversations that lead to meaningful change.

So I was thrilled when Duncan described a goal to engage directly with teachers and principals all across America to develop pioneering innovations in the way we recruit, select, prepare, credential, support, advance, and compensate teachers and school leaders. “We need mentor teachers, master teachers, and teacher leaders supporting younger colleagues, and driving school decisions around curriculum, scheduling, and staffing,” he said, making it clear that supporting new teachers is a critical piece of the RESPECT Project. I hope that, as we progress into a presidential election and explore reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), Congress and the president allocate funding to support this powerful idea.

Just a week after the RESPECT Project launched, Bill Gates had an op-ed in the New York Times that decried publishing teachers’ individual performance assessments and emphasized instead the use of evaluations as a means for teachers to get specific feedback or training to help them improve. He highlighted the need for collaboration and for school leaders and teachers to work together to get better. Two Massachusetts teachers made the same case earlier this year on the Impatient Optimist blog in a post entitled “Teachers Want to Learn, Too: Evaluations We Believe In.”

I was happy to see New Teacher Center’s partnership with Hillsborough County Public Schools (HCPS) to build a comprehensive talent management system (which was recently validated with funding from a federal SEED grant) referenced in this great Gates op-ed that concludes, “Developing a systematic way to help teachers get better is the most powerful idea in education today. Let’s focus on creating a personnel system that truly helps teachers improve.”

It is so encouraging to think we may finally have turned a corner and put behind us oversimplistic ideas on how to improve education. So many others are now advocating for what New Teacher Center – and so many teacher leaders across the country — have long held to be true: We must focus on developing effective teachers in addition to recruiting, hiring, and evaluating them.

What makes you optimistic about the future of education?


Ellen Moir is founder and chief executive officer of the New Teacher Center, a national nonprofit organization that she created in 1998 to improve student learning by accelerating the effectiveness of teachers and school leaders, especially in underserved areas. Today this organization has a staff of over 150 who work closely with educators and policymakers across the country to ensure that the nation’s low-income, minority, and English language learners – those students most often taught by inexperienced teachers – have the opportunity to receive an excellent education.

Weighted student formula is already working well in Twin Rivers Unified

Last Tuesday morning, I sat in the superintendent’s conference room at Twin Rivers Unified School District and listened to four principals tell their stories about how a need-based approach to budgeting – through a weighted student formula – has provided them flexibility to make better decisions for their schools, and has dramatically improved the way they plan, budget, and engage with their communities. At the same time and just a few miles away in downtown Sacramento, other California districts – not unlike Twin Rivers – spoke to a subcommittee of the Assembly Budget Committee about the potential risks and rewards of the governor’s school funding proposal. Their perception and the reality in Twin Rivers could not be more different.

As I read about the hearing the next morning, I was struck by the fixation on dollars and formulas – who will get more, who will get less. Right now, no one is getting enough in California, and I understand the fears of suburban and rural school districts – the potential for more cuts on top of already diminishing resources is scary. However, this debate needs to be about more than the formula and the dollars, neither of which has been decided upon yet. For me, it’s about what you can do differently by funding based on need, and how that can produce better results. A weighted student formula, distributed on a per-pupil basis to schools, is a powerful lever for improving district program planning and budgeting, school decision-making, and collaboration with school communities. There are tangible rewards for embracing a weighted student formula that hold true, even if you end up with a little less money overall. Twin Rivers is an excellent example.

Every Tuesday I have the pleasure of working alongside a devoted team of Twin Rivers staff as they make a weighted student formula a reality for their schools. When we started this project in 2009, Twin Rivers knew it would be challenging to make this switch in a time of diminishing resources. From their already limited funds, dollars would be redistributed to schools, with some getting more and some getting less. In order to account for the tight budget environment, Twin Rivers begins with the overall funding available and “targets” funds based on student need. They have been phasing in this new funding process, and by next year approximately 70 percent of categorical and 80 percent of unrestricted funds will flow directly to school budgets. Previously, district schools controlled only about 30 percent of categorical funds.

While both categorical and unrestricted funds are calculated and distributed based on student need, ultimately the district will have to “level off” unrestricted funds in order to hold schools harmless for changes in base staffing, which are governed by union contracts; this was a transparent, collaborative decision made by principals and district staff. Funding based on student need is just the beginning. In Twin Rivers the funding formula is part of a districtwide project in pursuit of equity, transparency, autonomy, and accountability, called Strategic School Funding for Results (SSFR), which is a joint project of Pivot Learning Partners and American Institutes for Research that also includes Los Angeles Unified School District.

Twin Rivers has chosen to embrace SSFR as an opportunity to reimagine their approach to school support and decision making within the district, allowing principals much more flexibility and control and embracing a customer service orientation at the central office to support that autonomy. With this flexibility, principals are able to make decisions that best meet the needs of their students. For example, Rio Tierra Junior High School used flexibility to provide extended day and year programming, with transportation – and not just for remediation. Their extended year program began as a summer school program in 2011, staffed entirely by the school’s own teachers, who had co-created the program. Over 200 students (one-third of the student population) chose to attend; the previous year, only 30 students had attended the district-sponsored summer program.

In another example, Madison Elementary is able to prioritize the needs of their English Learner population; they are choosing to hire retired teachers with expertise in literacy development, as needed, to provide one-on-one instruction for struggling EL students and midyear admits, in order to get them up to speed quickly. For me, these examples are equity and autonomy in action. As for accountability, these goals and plans are being measured in school site scorecards for the first time.

Community engagement

We have worked with district leaders to develop tools and strategies that leverage the weighted student formula to create opportunities for all schools, not just those receiving more money. At the heart of the strategy is a year-long cycle with redesigned school planning, budgeting, and engagement activities. This requires many adjustments at the district office, especially for Budget Services and Human Resources; they are tackling these with thoughtful urgency. Under the new integrated calendar, planning for the next school year begins in the previous fall – before budgets or dollars even enter the picture. With a longer timeline, schools and their communities can work together more effectively to address the specific needs of their students, with the knowledge that they are in control of the funds to enact the resulting plan.

Goals and strategies drive the budget development, instead of the other way around. For Principal Craig Murray at Grant Union High School, SSFR has changed the way he interacts with his School Site Council and develops his school plan. He notes that “the engagement level is entirely different and entirely more meaningful.” Grant Union High was also a school that experienced a reduction in categorical funding with the implementation of a weighted student formula. This is why designing for transparency in Twin Rivers has been critical. Principals need to know and understand the real costs and constraints, not just for their schools but for all schools within the district. It’s not each school out for themselves, but rather an ecosystem that they all support and benefit from.

The whole process is facilitated through an online tool called Planning, Budgeting and Allocating Resources, or PBAR. It guides schools through the entire planning and budgeting cycle and in the end produces simple reports. The accessibility and online interface helps school plans to become living documents, not snapshots in time that collect dust on a shelf. PBAR facilitates sharing of information and collaboration across school sites, which, when combined with data on results, help schools develop and share home-grown approaches to improving student achievement. Superintendent Frank Porter sees the shift in his district. “Never in my fourteen years (as a principal), did I ever look at anybody else’s school improvement plans. It just didn’t happen.” Using PBAR, principals can look at other plans and budgets in real time from anywhere with an Internet connection. With 2,100 entries in the last month alone, we can see how they are taking advantage of this opportunity.

I can understand how the concept of a weighted student formula is daunting. As one Twin Rivers principal described the beginning of SSFR in their district, “any time you have something new, there’s anxiety, right?” But, this same principal will go on to tell you how as a district they have worked through this time of anxiety with collaboration and communication. For Twin Rivers, SSFR isn’t just a weighted student formula. It’s not just numbers on a page that tell them where money goes. It’s a model for planning, budgeting, and allocation of resources that validates the district’s commitment to students as their first priority. Because when you boil it down, this cannot happen without first agreeing that students are the priority.

We know that every student has unique needs that require different resources in order to elevate everyone to an agreed-upon standard. Equity does not mean “the same,” and that’s precisely what a weighted student formula illustrates.

Cristin Quealy is the Deputy Director of the District Redesign Workshop at Pivot Learning Partners. Her background includes teaching, school administration, fundraising, and, most recently, managing school operations for 83 schools in New York City.

Third time wasn’t a charm but now L.A. can win Race to the Top

Second chances don’t come around too often. Fourth chances? Almost never. But Los Angeles now has a remarkable opportunity to make up for California’s failures to win federal funds and to institute much-needed education reforms.

Three times in the last two years, California has competed in Race to the Top, the federal program that provides billions of dollars to states that promise to adopt bold education reforms. California has failed every round of the K-12 competition. Last year, the U.S. Department of Education dismissed the state’s proposal as incomplete because Gov. Jerry Brown refused to sign it.

As a result, the Los Angeles Unified School District has gotten zero dollars from this program and implemented few of the reforms urged by President Obama and his Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Meanwhile, only 43 percent of our students are proficient in math, and only 52 percent graduate from high school on time.

But this month, thanks in large part to Mayor Villaraigosa’s push for another approach, the White House gave L.A. another chance. Duncan announced that Los Angeles Unified, as well as other large school districts, soon will be able to apply directly for Race to the Top funding, rather than rely on their states’ applications. In other words, L.A. doesn’t have to get tangled up in the state’s mess when crafting its reform plan.

This is a precious opportunity. A winning application would accomplish two very important things. First, it would secure millions of dollars for a school district in the midst of a financial crisis so extreme that thousands of teachers may be laid off and essential programs and resources eliminated. Second, it would finally empower the district to implement desperately needed policy changes, particularly ones that ensure effective teaching.

L.A. Superintendent John Deasy has touted precisely the reforms that Race to the Top judges are looking for in reviewing applications. Last summer, shortly after becoming superintendent, Deasy wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles  Times detailing the changes he wants to bring to LAUSD. Now is the time for him to turn words into action.

Deasy called for a “robust and meaningful evaluation system” that provides teachers with the feedback they need to grow and excel. Such a system would consider “multiple measures,” including student test scores, classroom observations by trained evaluators, parent and student feedback, and teachers’ contributions to their school communities. In the current system, a teacher’s evaluation is based on a single observation by the school principal, and 97 percent of teachers are rated “satisfactory.”

Deasy also urged a more sensible approach to granting tenure. Though state law requires that a tenure decision be made after two years, the superintendent has insisted on using thorough data and feedback in order to assess and support teachers as they approach the tenure mark. A higher bar for tenure should be accompanied by “a significant salary increase,” Deasy stated.

The superintendent has also come out strongly in favor of pay raises for teachers who demonstrate excellence in the classroom, particularly those who improve student achievement in low-performing schools. A better compensation system, after all, would likely entice strong teachers to remain at the schools where they are most needed.

These are the reforms Los Angeles needs. Not coincidentally, they are also the reforms found in past winning Race to the Top applications from states such as Tennessee and Florida.

Anyone who has worked closely with Deasy, as I have both during my time on the school board and afterward, has no doubt that he is committed to making these changes a reality. He continues to work with teachers on a pilot evaluation system that could eventually spread throughout the district.

But Deasy can’t do it alone. The truth is that, given the history of Race to the Top winners, a successful application will almost definitely require solid agreement between the district and the teachers union.

That’s where United Teachers Los Angeles comes in. Historically, UTLA has been wary of, if not outright opposed to, any challenges to the status quo. However, in December union leaders hashed out a bold new agreement with Deasy and district officials. While that agreement left many urgent policy problems unresolved, it proves that the union and district leaders can work together to fix what is broken.

Now, with Duncan inviting L.A. to apply for federal funding, it’s time for both sides to pick up where last year’s agreement left off. This is a historic opportunity for the students of Los Angeles. It would be tragic if the adults squandered it.

Yolie Flores, the president and chief executive officer of Communities for Teaching Excellence, was a member of the Los Angeles Unified Board of Education from 2007 to 2011.

Thumbs down for finance reform

The Education Coalition, the powerful alliance of groups representing school employees, districts, and parents, has panned Gov. Jerry Brown’s sweeping proposal for school finance reform and implied that he should abandon the push for it this year. Their disapproval makes it unlikely Brown will succeed if he persists.

“This is the worst possible time to ask school districts to consider changes to the school funding formula,” the Coalition said in a one-page statement issued last week.

The Education Coalition opposes Gov. Brown's weighted student formula for finanace reform. Click to enlarge.
The Education Coalition opposes Gov. Brown's weighted student formula for finance reform. Click to enlarge.

Brown wants to consolidate billions of dollars of special programs, known as categorical funds, then redistribute the money based on the numbers of English learners and low-income children in a school district. Districts with high concentrations of disadvantaged children would gain thousands of dollars per student as the program is phased in over the next six years. But revenues of districts without a lot of poor kids would remain static, locked into a low base of spending after four years of substantial Proposition 98 cuts. Average per-pupil spending is 10 percent below 2007-08 levels in actual dollars and 20 percent below what is statutorily promised.

“While the proposal is designed to achieve a number of laudable goals, it would essentially make permanent the $20 billion in cuts that schools have endured over the past four years,” the statement said. “Without additional revenues and a hold harmless provision, the consolidation proposal would result in some districts receiving additional funds at the expense of others, essentially ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul.’”

Any redistribution formula will create relative winners and losers; the Coalition’s message to the governor is: After the fiscal equivalent of Hurricane Katrina, everyone, not just the poor neighborhoods, needs money to rebuild. The unstated political message: Passing a tax increase should be your priority; don’t give middle-class voters in “loser” districts reason to vote no.

The nine groups approving the statement are the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA); California Association of School Business Officials (CASBO); California County Superintendents Educational Services Association (CCSESA); California Federation of Teachers (CFT); California School Boards Association (CSBA); California School Employees Association (CSEA), representing non-certified school employees; California State PTA; California Teachers Association (CTA); and Service Employees International Union (SEIU), representing other non-certified school workers.

The statement, a consensus document, does not criticize the details of Brown’s weighted student formula. Others have questioned the specific weights – or extra percentage of funds – for low-income children and English learners, the failure to give extra money to high school districts, and the rationale for substantial bonus funding for districts with high concentrations of disadvantaged students. Instead, the statement calls for a more detailed analysis on the impacts on individual districts, with or without the passage of Brown’s proposed tax increase. And it wants Brown’s proposal to be vetted fully as a policy change, with a public hearing (Brown had presented his plan as part of his 2012-13 budget).

Representatives of the groups declined to comment beyond the statement; they said they planned to request a meeting with Brown to discuss their objections. Even without formal opposition, Brown would be hard-pressed to gain passage of such a major proposal in just a few months.

A student’s plea: Schools need more money – but make sure it gets to us

M’Kala Payton, a junior at Fremont High in Oakland, has seen her teachers set rat traps in her school and throw away the corpses. Her football team plays on a field that is only 90 yards long. She is learning videography on an outdated camera that takes cassette tapes – and that’s at a so-called specialized “media academy.”

The obstacles M’Kala faces are all too common for low-income students of color. That’s why she joined Youth Together, an East Bay youth leadership organization that is among dozens of groups in the Campaign for Quality Education. And that’s how we met; I am one of the attorneys representing M’Kala and her peers in Campaign for Quality Education v. California, a suit challenging California’s inadequate and inequitable system of school finance as unconstitutional.

M’Kala and I had lunch together at the State Capitol last month. We were there for a Senate hearing on Gov. Jerry Brown’s education budget proposal, which includes a recommendation to switch to a new weighted student funding formula. Later that day, M’Kala and 13 other students and youth organizers bravely stepped up to a Senate hearing room microphone and addressed their legislators face to face, providing compelling testimony before the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee.

She did a great job, but she only had one minute to explain why she and six million other California students need the Legislature’s help – and need it now. I’m sharing our conversation so others can hear more of her story.

Question: What evidence have you seen that low-income schools like yours aren’t getting adequate or equitable funding?

M'Kala Payton
M'Kala Payton

M’Kala: We’re broke and other people aren’t. As part of Youth Together, I once got to compare our school, Fremont, to a school a few miles down the road, Piedmont High. We visited and the environment there was completely different. There was some care put into that school. They have music classes and we don’t, even though we have a whole bunch of rappers and singers at my school who would love to have music. Our creativity is not being utilized. I also saw garbage bins full of books at Piedmont. We don’t have enough books for everybody at my school, and the ones we do have are really old and beat up. Our school facility is garbage compared to theirs, our bathrooms are filthy. I realized that the conditions that are part of my every day are not normal.

In history class, we talk about how there should be no second-class citizens. But at Fremont, we totally feel like second-class citizens. Why can’t we have what the kids at Piedmont have?

What do you think of Governor Jerry Brown’s budget proposal to fund schools according to a weighted student formula?

M’Kala: I have one big problem with it. I want to make sure that the money actually gets spent on us. The way the budget proposal is now, districts with more low-income students and English learners will get more funding – true – but there is nothing in there keeping the districts from using that money however they want. What if they get it, and then don’t end up using it to help the schools with low-income students and English learners? Accountability for how the districts spend the money needs to be in there somewhere, or we won’t make any progress. Low-income students and English language learners will still be at a disadvantage.

Overall, I do think it makes sense to give more to the students who need it most. At Fremont, there are huge numbers of students from low-income backgrounds or who are learning English who have more needs. Weighted student funding would help us catch up – but again, only if the districts actually use the extra money on us.

No matter what, our schools need more funding. We have one counselor for over 160 students. Students are behind on credits, but they are not able to take the classes they need to graduate or to get to college. Our librarian was fired because of the budget cuts.

That’s an interesting take on the governor’s proposal. We’ve heard him say that districts will be held accountable – but he is referring to measuring outcomes after the fact. Seeing if low-income students and English learners have improved on the back end isn’t the same as holding the districts accountable for how they spend the money on the front end. So if your school were to receive additional funding, what do you think it should be spent on?

M’Kala: Besides more counselors, I would spend it on a more rigorous curriculum. I’m a junior, and there’s only one AP course I can take.

Also, I think we should hire a school psychiatrist. The things we have to see and deal with every day are kind of crazy. I’ve had multiple classmates killed in the past two years in shootings and drive-bys. It’s hard to come in and focus on your classes after that.

I’d spend money on a whole new facility. When I come to school every day and it’s dirty and not well taken care of, it doesn’t feel like school. It feels like a jail cell, and I have the urge to walk out.

Why did you get involved with Youth Together?

M’Kala: I feel like some people believe education is a privilege, but it’s not. It’s a right. I shouldn’t have to fight for an education just because I go to Fremont, but I do it because otherwise things are never going to change.

My older sister got a 4.0 all through high school. But when she got to college, she found it difficult to keep up, because Fremont didn’t prepare her for the workload. I know, because I went to 7th grade in Fairfield. When I moved back to Oakland in 9th grade, I was learning the same things I learned in Fairfield. We’re two years behind kids in those places! How are we supposed to succeed?

What are your goals for the future?

M’Kala: I want to be an English teacher. I’ve only had one teacher who had any empathy for me. She taught ethnic studies, and made school feel relevant to me. She’s black like me, she grew up in Watts, and I call her my second mother.

I think that understanding is one of the most important things about being a teacher, and that’s something I want to pass along. In Youth Together, I get to be a part of solving the problem, and that’s something I want to keep doing.

Tara Kini is a staff attorney at Public Advocates Inc. and a former high school teacher. She is part of the team litigating Campaign for Quality Education v. California, a state constitutional challenge to California’s inadequate and inequitable school finance system. M’Kala Payton is a junior at Fremont High School’s Media Academy and a member of Youth Together.

CST results back in a jiffy

Next year, school districts will receive the students’ results on state standardized tests in two weeks, not two months – or longer.

Gov. Jerry Brown had called for the quicker turnaround in his State of the State address, and on Wednesday, the State Board of Education approved amendments to the contract with the test administrator, Educational Testing Service, to make that possible.

By getting scores back during the school year, instead of during the summer, districts will be better able to make decisions on summer school attendance and placement for courses in the fall. Teachers will be able to identify gaps in student knowledge and, with time left, address them, suggested Susan Swann, executive director of ETS’s K-12 Assessments in California.

Test results have been delayed until now because of the methodology ETS used in evaluating new questions that it introduced in the tests. For 2013, ETS will substitute tests from previous years instead of including new questions, which won’t require a lengthy post-exam vetting process. Another method is to accumulate a big bank of  previously vetted test questions, which the SMARTER Balanced state consortium preparing the assessment for Common Core standards will use.

What happens after 2013 is up in the air. ETS’s contract runs out next year, creating at least a one-year gap before states are scheduled to begin offering the new Common Core assessments. ETS will likely get its contract extended.

State Board President Michael Kirst and Executive Director Sue Burr negotiated the contract changes. Among them, ETS will resume two actions designed to bolster the security of the state’s standardized tests that had been suspended a few years ago to save money. ETS will do 135 random security audits to see if districts are complying with protocols in administering the tests. It will also do an electronic analysis of test results to identify instances where batches of answers  to questions have been  altered. The state could then follow up with an inquiry.

Investigations into allegations of widespread cheating on standardized tests in Atlanta and Washington, D.C., have heightened the need for more vigilance. The suspension of monitoring by ETS had created the possibility that cheating could go undetected.