Community schools recognize the vital role of full-service partnerships

Using their ingenuity and creativity during these tough fiscal times, educators across California are finding new ways to improve educational outcomes for all students. School district leaders are embracing a strategy that blends a focus on instruction with a partnership approach that engages the entire community in creating the opportunities and support that students need to be ready for college, career, and citizenship.

Leaders in many different institutions – school districts, cities and counties, United Ways, higher education, community and faith-based organizations, and business and civic groups – are working together to make this happen. They have a vision of schools as centers of community, what many now call community schools.

These leaders want to ensure that every young person in California has more learning opportunities, more support, and more connections. They know that poverty, health, family issues, and other non-school factors cannot be ignored for our children and our state to thrive. Michael Kirst, president of the State Board of Education, said, “It is encouraging that local schools in California recognize the potential of community schools, and are winning competitive national funds to explore ways of implementing new approaches.”

Oakland, San Francisco, Lake County, and Redwood City, among others, have district-wide strategies to grow community schools. Parts of Los Angeles and Fresno, as well as smaller districts, are moving in this direction. The California School Boards Association has issued a policy brief about community schools.

At the heart of community schools work is a willingness on the part of local stakeholders to rethink how they can use existing resources more effectively and efficiently. Whether the dollars come from federal, state, or local sources; are intended to serve children, youth, or families; or are focused on health or mental health, after-school enrichment, mentoring, family engagement, or any other particular service, they are all being aligned through partnership to achieve a set of results of concern to all: more readiness for school, higher achievement, better attendance, enhanced social and emotional development, reduced violence, and deeper civic engagement.

Using this local partnership strategy, California has recently captured competitive federal grant funds. California won a $52 million Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grant and will direct the majority of these funds to regional consortia that bring together all the local entities in a given area that provide early education and care to young children.

California communities have also won federal funding from the Obama administration’s high-profile Promise Neighborhood Grant competition. The Promise Neighborhood program recognizes the interconnected nature of the academic, social, emotional, physical, and civic development of young people in the communities in which they live, and utilizes community-based organizations or higher education institutions to engage schools and numerous other community partners.

In 2011, five out of 20 Promise Neighborhood Grantees were California-based, each using a. community school approach. The California State University East Bay Foundation, Inc., for example, won a Promise Neighborhood planning grant in 2010, and captured an implementation grant in 2011. Its application says, “The key and organizing element of our continuum of solutions is transforming the Jackson Triangle schools into Full Service Community Schools to ensure that students have both the academic rigor and the holistic support services necessary to combat the adverse impact of poverty, unsafe streets, and lack of access to health, nutrition, and youth development assets.”

Finally, California-based organizations received five of 21 federal Full Service Community School grants, which they are using to grow the community school strategy.

The community school strategy can be a key element of California’s education reforms. In his Blueprint for Great Schools, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson calls for addressing both academic and non-academic factors to enhance students’ academic achievement and personal development and to encourage the development of community school approaches. Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing far greater flexibility and decision-making at the local level, an approach that will facilitate locally driven efforts like community schools.

California school reform efforts focused on school-community connections reflect a larger community school reform strategy growing around the country. This development demonstrates a recognition by school and community leaders that every individual and organization in every community has a role to play in the education of our children.

Martin J. Blank is the president of the Institute for Educational Leadership in Washington, D.C. He leads the Institute’s efforts to build the capacity of people, organizations, and communities to work together to attain better results for children and youth. He also serves as the director of the Coalition for Community Schools, which is staffed by the Institute. The Coalition brings together leaders and organizations in education, human services, youth development, early childhood, community development, government, and philanthropy to advocate for community schools. To learn more about community schools, attend the Coalition for Community Schools National Forum in San Francisco, May 9-12, 2012.

Weighted formula’s impact

In six years, when Gov. Brown’s proposed new funding system is fully phased in, the average statewide funding per student is expected to be $9,200. At that time, the per-pupil funding for Los Angeles Unified would be $1,250 higher per student – $10,460; Coachella Valley Unified, a 17,000-student district in Riverside County, would receive $12,162 per student.

At the opposite end, Pleasanton Unified, in Contra Costa County, would receive about $5,000 less per child than Coachella Valley – $7,198, or a little more than 1 percent above the $7,073 it’s scheduled to receive in Prop 98 funding next year. Berkeley Unified would get $8,212, only $515 more per child after six years of phasing in the new finance system.

The numbers, released last week by the Department of Finance, show  the fundamental realignment in funding that would unfold under Brown’s weighted student funding formula. (Click here for the full statewide district-by-district breakdown. See the far right column for the additional dollars each district will get in 2017-18 compared with the proposed 2012-13 district per-student amounts in column 5. If you’re confused, hold tight; I’ll explain how to read the chart, using Alameda County, in a moment.)

In its broadest terms, the weighted student formula system gives extra dollars to districts with large numbers of English-learning students and those from families with low incomes – out of recognition that these children require extra resources to compensate for their disadvantages, and perhaps to attract and retain good teachers.

Those districts with very low percentages of these children not only would get relatively less, but, like Pleasanton, would not benefit, after years of facing substantial cuts in state funding, from what Finance officials are predicting will be substantial increases in Proposition 98 funding levels in the next half-dozen years.

Under the current system, districts get roughly the same basic per-student allotment (generally but not always within a 10 percent range), plus extra money from categorical programs for designated purposes – many of which do serve poor kids. Brown wants to throw most of the categorical money into a pot and redistribute it to the targeted children. Since some of the formulas for categoricals like Economic Impact Aid, home-to-school transportation, and Targeted Instructional Improvement Grants (desegregation funding favoring a handful of urban districts) are dated,  one can argue that the new system would be fairer and simpler. However, because Brown is not guaranteeing minimal increases in base-level funding, some districts – particularly high school districts and rural districts with a lot of bus money – that benefited under the current system would lose out under a weighted system unless the formula is changed.

How your district might fare

In analyzing the district-by-district breakdown , keep the following points in the back of your mind:

  • Brown builds in the assumption that his proposed temporary $6.8 billion tax initiative will pass in November. If it doesn’t, all bets are off.
  • The Department of Finance assumes that Proposition 98 funding will increase a healthy 40 percent between now and 2017-18 as the state’s economy recovers. That’s why Brown can claim that, with very few exceptions, districts will do better in 2017-18 than in 2012-13.
  • The weighted student system consists of a uniform base grant, comprising 68 percent of the Proposition 98 funding for the system, and the supplemental funding for disadvantaged students, making up the remaining 32 percent. The base grant will start out at $4,920 and grow to $6,660 in 2017-18.
  • The weighted student formula does not include about $3 billion in categorical funds that would continue to be protected. The largest is special education funding, along with after-school and school nutrition programs.
  • This is the first pass; Brown administration officials have indicated a willingness to change it, and, as you will see, there are reasons to do so.
  • Basic aid districts – the roughly 10 percent of districts that are funded with property taxes alone – are not included, though they would be affected through a loss of categorical money.
District per student funding, 2012-13 to 2017-18 with a weighted student funding (Source: Department of Finance). Click twice to enlarge.
District per-student funding for Alameda County, 2012-13 to 2017-18, with a weighted student funding formula. Click twice to make this chart large enough to read. (Source: Department of Finance)

Using Alameda County, above, to illustrate, the  most important columns in the chart are 5, 11, and 14.

  • Column 5: What each district will receive in per-student funding in 2012-13, pre-weighted student formula: $6,302 in the case of Alameda City Unified. No district will receive less than this. (HTS refers to home-to-school transportation, which will be protected next year only.)
  • Column 11: The per-student funding in 2017-18, after the full implementation of the weighted student formula ($7,981 for Alameda City Unified).
  • Column 14 (far right): The dollar difference between the 2012-13 and 2017-18 funding ($1,679 for Alameda City Unified).

As for the other columns:

  • Columns 6-13: Brown is proposing to phase in the formula over six years; the columns show the effect on per-student funding and net difference over that time. In 2012-13, only 5 percent of per-student funding will include the weighted formula; the rest will be the current system. Brown is proposing to hold all districts harmless, with no loss of money next year only (column 6). So in 2013-14, without that protection, some districts, including Berkeley and Pleasanton, will lose some funding per student with the formula based 15 percent on the formula, 85 percent based on the old system. Some small rural districts with big busing expenses will lose the most under the new system unless busing as a categorical is protected, as some rural superintendents are proposing.
  • Column 2: Number of students in the district
  • Columns 3 and 4: The percentages of students who are English learners and are from low-income households. Extra dollars are based on these figures. (Since about three-quarters of English learners are also low-income students, there is overlap. The formula, however, does not double count. To estimate the correct number of non-low-income English learners, the Department of Finance multiplied the EL percentage by one-quarter and then added this percentage to the low-income percentage. In the case of Alameda  City Unified, a quarter of 22.37 percent is about 6 percent EL, added to 32.5 percent low-income for a total population of disadvantaged of 38.5 percent.

Three quick observations:

  • There are at least a couple of ways of comparing how your district would fare under a weighted student formula.  One is to add 40 percent to the district’s 2012-13 per student funding to see how the district would do in 2017-18 under the current system, then compare that with 2017-18 funding under a weighted student funding. Another way is to compare the 2017-18 per student funding with $9,200, the statewide per student funding that year. (There clearly are some errors in the Department of Finance chart, Cambrian District in Santa Clara County the most obvious.)
  • The funding of East Side Union High School District in San Jose, the state’s second largest high school district, illustrates the need for two potential changes to the formula.

One would be to continue the current funding system’s awarding of  extra dollars to high school districts and, to a lesser degree, to unified districts, out of recognition that older students incur higher expenses. East Side Union would get $7,257 per student next year under the current system, nearly $1,000 above the state average. In 2017-18, it would get $8,155, more than $1,000 below the state average. For a district struggling to prepare students for college and the job market, that will be tough.

East Side Union may also be hurt by the use of free and reduced lunch eligibility as the criterion for the low-income weight. Signing up for lunches is voluntary, and fewer students do so in high school than in elementary school. East Side Union’s feeder districts are roughly 60 percent low-income. East Side Union is 40 percent. The drop will translate into a lot fewer dollars under the weighted formula. Using a district’s Title I numbers, which are based on census data, may be a more accurate measure.

  • The formula gives bonus money to districts with high concentrations of disadvantaged students, starting when they comprise 60 percent of a student body. A district with 80 percent disadvantaged students w0uld get nearly $3,000 per student more than a district with 50 percent. The Legislature  may want to examine the research justifying such a difference.

Thanks to Bob Blattner of  Blattner and Associates of Sacramento and Nick Schweizer of the Department of Finance for walking me through the numbers. Blame me, not them, if there are any mistakes in translation.

Opportune time to rethink accountability and factor in improvement

California is apparently passing up the opportunity to request a waiver from the No Child Left Behind law, setting up another round of schools and districts to be labeled as failing. Interestingly, state leaders say they are opting to keep in place a set of requirements that no one seems to support as a protest against the imposition of a new set of requirements, even though states are being invited to help craft the new requirements.

Let’s be clear: The central issue with regard to the NCLB waiver is not cost, it is accountability. The primary cost of a waiver is the cost of implementation of the Common Core standards. The primary cost of Common Core is associated with new instructional materials and associated training and support for teachers. But we are facing these costs, waiver or no waiver, since our current books are wearing out. There are also costs – though much smaller ones – associated with a longitudinal data system. But despite disagreements about the design and management of such a system, California certainly has a data system in its future.

The real issue with regard to the waiver is accountability. For more than a decade, public education has been focused on accountability. The architects of this approach held that by increasing levels of accountability, outcomes for students would improve. Today, after more than a decade of work, outcomes have improved somewhat; but despite a lot of work, the system has not been transformed. Meanwhile, unintended consequences have included a narrowing of the curriculum, the elimination of enrichment opportunities, and gaming of the system or even cheating.

Opinions differ on what to do now. Some argue that the testing-and-accountability strategy has not been disproven; we just need better standards, new tests, and a different set of targets. Others argue that the real problem is that NCLB got the unit of change wrong and that we need to hold teachers, not schools or districts, accountable. The Obama administration has opted for a “both/and” strategy.

But what does California want to be accountable for? Is our answer really “nothing” or “as little as possible”? Surely we can do better than that. Surely we can agree that accountability is part – but only a part – of this nation’s approach to school improvement. Of course, schools should be accountable. But to whom and for what?

What can we learn by looking at other fields? Decades of experience in arenas like health care tell us that accountability data is rarely or never useful to drive an improvement process, and that trying to create a blended data system that serves both purposes usually leads to a system that is not very useful for either one. This makes good sense in health care; hospitals need to keep track of who died and why, but to improve mortality rates they may need to start counting how many times doctors wash their hands. Yet nobody thinks hand washing belongs in the accountability system; hospitals need to keep two different kinds of data and use them for different purposes.

Schools do, too. For example, “wait time” – the length of the pause between a teacher asking a question and her next sentence – might be worth measuring since it, like hand washing, is part of improvement. But no one thinks it should be part of an accountability system. Our problem is partly that limited resources means required data trumps optional data. But the other half of the problem is that we’re not trying; in education, when someone says “data,” listeners usually hear “test scores.” Period.

If we try to rethink accountability in ways that leave room for data on improvement, we run up against another complicating factor: The fundamental accountability relationships in public education are between teacher and student, school and family, and district and community. Our current approach to accountability, which holds schools accountable to goals that communities haven’t created and largely don’t understand, has eroded, rather than strengthened, these fundamental accountability relationships, and that is a major cause of the woeful state of school funding and of the appetite among parents for charter schools – even for ones that are no better than the regular schools they left.

If this is true, then state leaders have a dual challenge as we rethink accountability, a challenge that stretches far beyond the technical task of creating better tests and targets. We need an accountability system that creates the conditions for districts to collect improvement data – the education version of hand washing – and that repairs the broken bond between schools and communities. Could the current policy vacuum, in which NCLB is rapidly fading away without a replacement on the horizon, present an important opportunity to work on a system that meets these dual goals? Maybe. But only if we replace the “just say no” approach with some new thinking.

Merrill Vargo is an experienced academic and a practical expert in the field of school reform. Before founding Pivot Learning Partners (then known as the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative) in 1995, Dr. Vargo spent nine years teaching English in a variety of settings and served as Director of Regional Programs and Special Projects for the California Department of Education, where she was responsible for major initiatives including School Restructuring, Charter Schools, Goals 2000, and the ground-breaking high school reform report Second to None. Pivot Learning Partners is an entrepreneurial nonprofit organization providing support to more than 60 school districts.

Happy Presidents’ Day

American Education Week, 1961

Proclamation 3422, by President John F. Kennedy

Whereas wide knowledge and the free interchange of thought are essential to the growth and vitality of our Nation; and

Whereas our political and social institutions depend for their perpetuation and strength upon an informed, responsible, and confident people; and

Whereas we are at a time of growth in our country which gives us not only greater means for the satisfaction of our material needs but also more opportunities for the cultivation of learning and wisdom; and

Whereas it is appropriate that a special period be set aside each year to mark the importance of education and the continuing need to improve and strengthen it;

Now, Therefore, I, John F. Kennedy, President of the United States of America, do hereby designate the period from November 5 through November 11, 1961, as American Education Week.

I urge that all of us during that week take part, through school and community, in observances to focus attention upon the force for good which education has been and must continue to be in our national life; and that we honor our teachers and school officials for whom every week is education week.

The education of our people should be a lifelong process by which we continue to feed new vigor into the lifestream of the Nation through intelligent, reasoned decisions. Let us not think of education only in terms of its costs, but rather in terms of the infinite potential of the human mind that can be realized through education. Let us think of education as the means of developing our greatest abilities, because in each of us there is a private hope and dream which, fulfilled, can be translated into benefit for everyone and greater strength for our nation.

In Witness Whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

DONE at the City of Washington this twenty-fifth day of July in the year of our Lord nineteen hundred and sixty-one, and of the Independence of the United States of America the one hundred and eighty-sixth.

Bus money back for next year, too

Days after signing a bill restoring $248 million in school bus funding for the rest of this year, Gov. Brown has done an about-face and also agreed not to eliminate school bus funding in next year’s budget. Instead of cutting other parts of the K-12 budget to make room for $500 million in home-to-school transportation, Brown has chosen to commit some of the new taxes that he’s asking voters to approve in November for that purpose.

Brown had intended to use $2.5 billion in new revenue from temporarily raising the sales and income taxes to eliminate some of the state’s late payments to districts, IOUs known as deferrals. Instead, only $2 billion in deferrals will be paid off next year.

After next year, Brown wants to treat school transportation like any other categorical program; under the governor’s new move to flexibility, all of the categoricals will be lumped together, giving districts the option to spend the money as they choose.

Over the next six years, however, Brown is proposing to convert to a weighted student funding system; categorical money will be thrown in one big pot and redistributed to districts based on the number of low-income students and English learners they enroll. Districts with big bus and other categorical funds but few disadvantaged students will find that they will lose some money they’ve been getting.

In restoring bus money, Brown recognized the liability of asking voters to raise taxes for education while at the same time eliminating money for a vital service for many rural and some urban districts, like Los Angeles Unified. Now, Brown can say that at least districts won’t be losing funding next year.

The half-year, $248 million for transportation that SB 81 restores is a different story. As part of the current state budget they passed last year, Brown and legislators said they’d cut bus money if state revenue came up short by December. It did, so the half-year bus transportation cut was to be automatic. After strongly affected districts protested, the Legislature decided to make up for $248 million by deducting $42 per student from every district’s base funding instead. That cut equals 0.65 percent of districts’ revenue limit.

Building teachers to last

The biggest challenge facing legislators as they pursue rewriting the state’s teacher evaluation law this year is not how to weed out the worst teachers but how to retain the best. The key to the latter won’t be found in rubrics and value-added test scores but in deeper training for novice teachers and more career options for veteran teachers.

A baker’s dozen young and mid-career teachers make an articulate case for the latter in a new report, “Many Ways Up, No Reason To Move Out,” the product of the Bay Area New Millennium Initiative, a project affiliated with the North Carolina-based Center for Teaching Quality (go here to download it). The report serves as a reminder to lawmakers to keep in mind “To what end?” as they consider what elements should comprise a teacher evaluation.

The teachers call for three-year apprenticeships for new teachers and a career ladder that offers accomplished teachers leadership opportunities to entice them to stay in the classroom – instead of quitting the profession, as more than half do by the fifth year of teaching in some districts, or pursuing a job as an administrator, in part to make more money.

“Basically it’s like this:  If you’re competent and ambitious, you have to leave your job. Right now the only way to move up is in administration,” Sherene Judeh, one of the co-authors of the report, said at a conference last month in Sacramento on Teaching Quality and California’s Future (go here for a summary of the conference by David B. Cohen, one of the organizaers).

Judeh, a fifth-year teacher, and co-presenter Anna Martin, a seventh-year middle school teacher, embody the challenges facing teachers and districts that don’t want to lose them. A ninth- and tenth-grade humanities teacher and grade-level leader at Lighthouse Community Charter High School in Oakland, Judeh has had multiple roles already, chairing the algebra readiness committee and working with novice teachers as a mentor. Martin is a hybrid teacher in the Alum Rock Union School District in San Jose, coaching teachers, making student placement and master scheduling decisions, mentoring students, and providing professional development for all staff members.

Under a different career ladder, there would be other opportunities for teacher leaders. Source: "Many Ways Up, No Reason To Move Out." (Click twice to enlarge.)
Under a different career ladder, there would be other opportunities for teacher leaders. Source: "Many Ways Up, No Reason To Move Out." (Click twice to enlarge.)

But most districts lack clearly delineated career paths to become master, mentor, hybrid, or specialization teachers, linked to objective standards and professional development fostering teachers’ aspirations. And they lack pay differentials recognizing those levels of achievement, so that a master teacher can one day earn as much as an administrator.

Judeh and Martin started through Teach for America, which makes their advocacy for a three-year apprenticeship all the more interesting. They had only a five-week summer training course before being placed in high-poverty urban schools, then got their teaching credential while teaching school the first year.

“No first-year medical resident is given a scalpel, an operating room, and multiple surgeries to perform on her first day,” the report says. “No law intern argues a case by himself at his first court appearance. No rookie is the starting pitcher on the first day of his team’s season. Yet we continue to throw our beginning teachers into challenging environments without a support system in place to coach them. And unfortunately, in the end, students are the ones who suffer the most as a result.”

In the first year of a three-year preparation program, the apprentice teacher would observe a mentor teacher, while helping to plan lessons, working with students in small groups and taking courses for a credential. In the second year, the apprentice teacher would teach two classes, with the mentor teacher observing and the apprentice meeting regularly with the cohort of apprentice teachers in the credentialing program. In the third year, the apprentice would teach a full load, with the mentor teacher  observing during several paid release days per month.

The apprenticeship is modeled after urban teacher residency programs in Boston and Chicago. San Francisco Unified and Aspire Public Schools have year-long versions, too, as do a number of teacher preparation programs at several California State University campuses. The teacher candidates bear the full cost of the program.

Carolyn Nelson, dean of the College of Education and Allied Studies at California State University, East Bay, said “a more gradual training model, like a medical residency, would be a wonderful way to go.” The issue would be funding, particularly paying for the equivalent of a full-time teaching salary the second year, with added support the third.

The expectation would be that better trained beginner teachers would feel more supported and confident and be less inclined to leave. Turnover has a big cost: Referring to  a study by the Alliance for Excellent Education, the report cited the cost of recruiting, hiring, and retraining replacement teachers nationally at  $7.34 billion annually, with high-poverty, high-minority districts bearing a disproportionate cost.

The report challenges the status quo – teacher tenure after only two years and a pay scale based on years on the job – that the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers defend. “Effectiveness,” the report says, “will no longer be marked simply by a set number of years in the field. Instead, a clearly delineated career continuum will be linked to objective teaching standards and benchmarks, not the traditional and outmoded ‘steps and columns’ system that still dominates American public education today.”

The recommendations are what may be needed to attract a new generation of teachers looking for more respect and more career opportunities backed by better pay.

Disapproving parents agree: Go back and fix your budget, governor

Parents from around the state have reviewed the governor’s proposed 2012-13 budget, and we would like to say, loud and clear, we are disappointed. We were hopeful that the Legislature and Gov. Brown would put together a budget that would ensure that schools, at the very minimum, would have stable funding for next year. We are still hopeful.

But the proposed budget doesn’t even come close. The main issues are 1) depending on an initiative passing after the school year has begun, and 2) moving the debt service into the school fund. There is a silver lining, however, in the form of the newly proposed weighted student formula. Such a system would be a huge improvement over the existing convoluted scheme, although there are many specifics as yet unresolved. Nevertheless, regardless of how the money is distributed, there simply isn’t enough, and our children in California lose.

Relying on a ballot initiative in November

Many districts are being advised by School Services of California (consultants who make financial recommendations to school districts) that they should plan on a $370 decrease per student in the event the measure does not pass. By law, staffing decisions and teacher layoff notices need to be made by March 15. School district budgets are required to be balanced and approved by June 30. Our school districts are in a quandary. Do they base their budgets and staffing decisions on the worst-case scenario, or do they base them on a hopeful outcome that depends on the governor’s initiative passing, which could lead them into an even more precarious financial situation such as insolvency?

The proposed budget, which includes revenues from the ballot measure even though it may not pass, essentially maintains funding at its current level. If the ballot measure fails, there is likely to be an additional $4.8 billion (the equivalent of three weeks of school) cut from education. In order to offset this potential cut, schools are forced to plan to issue layoff notices (thus increasing class sizes), to cut programs (including libraries, art, and music, if they still have those programs), and to eliminate or reduce transportation, vice principals, counselors, and other staff. Should they simply hope for the best and risk putting their district in further financial jeopardy if the initiative does not pass?

Now let’s imagine our districts make the financially responsible decision and budget on real numbers – unlike Sacramento’s – eliminating thousands of teachers and programs. Come November – hooray! – the initiative passes! How will those school districts hire back all the teachers who have been laid off? Can they add days to a school year that has already been set, keeping in mind that each of the 1,000-plus districts will have to negotiate with their local unions in order to do so? How will parents adjust their schedules to deal with this uncertainty? Either way, one thing is for certain: This situation is a lose-lose for kids.

Shifting debt-service payments to Prop 98

In the current budget proposal, $2.6 billion in general obligation bond debt-service payments would be shifted to Proposition 98 in the event that the governor’s revenue measure fails. Let me explain in lay terms what this means. More than 20 years ago, in an effort to save education funding, the voters passed “Proposition 98,” a constitutional mandate for a minimum level of funding for our schools, roughly 40 percent of the General Fund. Because of dwindling resources and other priorities, the last four governors have amassed debt and have tried to work around Prop 98 to keep expenses down. It’s as if the state racked up a lot of charges on its credit card but can’t pay them off. Previously, the general obligation bond debt payments have been paid from the general fund, not the portion that is set aside by Prop 98 for education. However, if the governor’s initiative fails in November, he wants to make the payments for K-14 debt-service out of the Prop 98 funds. This reduces the amount of funds in Prop 98 that can be sent to districts to operate their schools. Not only is this debt-service payment proposal unprecedented, it was not part of the agreement when the bond was issued.

Even the Legislative Analyst’s Office has serious policy concerns with this, and notes that “the proposal would result in notably greater volatility for education programs.” It is unacceptable to burden our children with this debt, and the last thing we need is more volatility in education funding.

Previous generations knew the key to our state’s future was properly educating our future leaders. California was once known for its high-quality public education. However, recent leaders in California have used gimmicks to fund our schools and have allowed education funding per pupil to drop from 27th to 47th in the time since the passage of Proposition 98. Even if the governor’s proposed tax increase passes, we are still funding far less than what the voters demanded when they passed Proposition 98 more than two decades ago. The governor and the Legislature need to support education instead of finding loopholes. They need to be honest with the voters and walk the talk. The proposed budget does not allow our school districts to properly educate our youth and is unacceptable.

Good start on financing reform

Just so we do not leave you completely depressed, let us revisit that silver lining. The governor has proposed a major overhaul of the way money is distributed to schools. He has recommended a system known as a “weighted student formula.” (Click here for more information.) Rather than the current, convoluted system of more than dozens of education funding streams with restricted purposes, a weighted student formula gives districts money for each student based on his or her needs, and the money follows the student. So, if a student changes districts, the money moves with that student. Implemented properly, this will lead to less red tape and more equity. We thank the governor for recommending this long-overdue change. Empowering local school districts to determine their varying needs is an important step in the right direction. Since there isn’t much information released about his plan, it is hard to stand fully behind it, as it seems to have overlooked high school districts, but we remain pleased with the way it’s headed.

So what do parents want to see in the budget? It’s simple. Enough money and resources for all kids in California to have access to a high-quality education. There is no way to provide an excellent learning environment for kids if each year we are forced to lay off teachers, cut programs and staff, and budget on uncertainty. We are asking the governor, the Legislature, and our fellow citizens to think long and hard about what message this sends to the children of California and what the long-term consequences are of failing to adequately educate this generation.

If children and the future of our state are not our number one priority, what is? What is our request of the governor and the Legislature? Work together to build a budget that reflects our values as parents and as California citizens. We promise to have milk and cookies waiting for you when you get home.

Crystal Brown is the Board President and a co-founder of Educate Our State, a parent-led, statewide campaign to unite the voices of Californians in support of high-quality K-12 public education and demand real change. She is the parent of three children attending public school in San Francisco.

Focus on developing good teachers, not simply measuring them

Amid the current flurry of state policy reform activity around teaching, I’ve been thinking about what’s missing. My conclusion: A focus on teachers as learners.

Too many state policy efforts to strengthen educator effectiveness focus narrowly on identifying and removing poorly performing teachers. Where that gets us is largely dependent on who replaces them. But teachers feel under attack as a result of particular reform rhetoric and the “gotcha” focus of such policy changes.

Some advocates point to this too-narrow approach to measuring and sorting teachers as a silver-bullet solution to improving educator effectiveness. A recent high-profile study about the long-term impact of teachers finds that having an effective teacher matters – during school years and beyond. When offering conclusions and recommendations in this page one article from the New York Times, however, one of the authors promoted a singular method of identifying and removing poorly performing teachers (“fire people sooner rather than later”) – rather than suggesting a more comprehensive or nuanced solution.

Even the critical work of building educator evaluation systems sometimes appears to prioritize grading and ranking teachers over improving teaching performance. Let’s be clear. Designing and implementing evaluation must include two distinct components: (1) measuring teacher performance and (2) implementing systems to develop and, as needed, improve teacher performance.

Policymakers should make teacher development a more central focus of their current efforts. Teaching policy cannot become a set of solely accountability-focused or punitive measures. This is a point underscored in a recent Center for American Progress paper (Movin’ It and Improvin’ It!). Indeed, a comprehensive performance management system for teachers should not only measure performance, but also provide systemic opportunities for teachers to develop their practice and continuously learn and improve. Providing support and feedback to teachers only after they’ve failed an evaluation is shortsighted. But this is exactly how many state teacher evaluation systems are being designed.

New teachers, in particular, need special attention, both in schools and within state policy. Beginning educators have distinct needs and an initial learning curve. Research shows that comprehensive, high-quality teacher induction accelerates new teacher effectiveness, improves student learning, and reduces teacher attrition. That’s why, at New Teacher Center, we believe that every state should require all first- and second-year educators to receive the support they need to thrive in the classroom and improve student achievement.

California, historically, has been a beacon in terms of its state policies on new teacher induction and mentoring. The Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment (BTSA) program is one of the longest standing teacher induction programs in the nation, and California’s induction program standards are a national model. However, the state is in danger of sacrificing its historic position by eliminating dedicated state funding for induction and allowing districts to opt out of providing induction support by redirecting that funding toward “any educational purpose.”

Harmful state cutbacks

This is an unfortunate national trend. While states demand more accountability from educators, some are simultaneously reducing or zeroing out dedicated appropriations for teacher induction and suspending programs entirely. Most never provided such funding to begin with. As NTC’s Review of State Policies on Teacher Induction shows, most state policies lack a strong commitment to high-quality teacher induction and mentoring. Few envision teacher induction as a vehicle for instructional improvement, few have established quality induction program standards, few identify and train effective mentors, and almost none give local programs the needed resources to provide comprehensive support for new teachers.

For state teaching reforms to actually strengthen classroom effectiveness, they will need to attend to teachers as learners. To accomplish this, policy must chart a balanced and comprehensive course toward teaching excellence. Especially given that today the typical classroom teacher is a first-year teacher, state policy must include the provision of high-quality induction, on-the job professional development, and supportive teaching conditions to enable all educators to maximize their effectiveness.

If we don’t help all teachers to succeed, we will diminish their potential impact on student learning and likely make the teaching profession a less attractive option for the current and future generations.

Liam Goldrick is Director of Policy at New Teacher Center, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to improving student learning by accelerating the effectiveness of teachers and school leaders. Mr. Goldrick leads a range of initiatives designed to strengthen new educator induction and mentoring policies at the state and national levels. Most recently, he served as project lead on the NTC Review of State Policies on Teacher Induction, which includes a policy paper and individual policy summaries for all 50 states.

Doubts over 8th grade algebra for all

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Renewed call for pension reform

Someone watching State Sen. Joe Simitian’s annual education presentation in Palo Alto from an adjoining room last week passed along a comment. “I’m for more money for schools; I support the governor’s tax initiative,” the person wrote, “but I won’t vote for it unless the Legislature passes pension reform.”

How representative is this not-so-silent minority? Gov. Jerry Brown no doubt has been wondering, too, and increasingly calling on lawmakers to pass his 12-point pension reform plan.

“Please take up the issue and do something real,” he told the Legislature in his annual State of the State address. And Brown has come back to the issue repeatedly during speeches and media appearances around the state.

“The numbers just don’t add up,” Brown told the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. “Benefits, contributions, and the age of retirement don’t reflect today’s realities, putting taxpayers on the hook for huge costs in the future. The cracks are showing and this dam will burst unless the Legislature gets serious and takes urgent and decisive action.”

Simitian, a Palo Alto Democrat who’s one of six legislators on a conference committee charged with coming up with a solution, didn’t offer much assurance. “It’s not clear to me what the Legislature or the conference committee is prepared to do,” he said.

Then, predicting that voters would take the issue into their own hands if lawmakers don’t act, he said, “We’d better find a common sense answer that is fair, affordable, and sustainable or this gets done for us by those not interested in those three (qualities).” Simitian compared pension reform with Proposition 13, in which “the state was slow to act,” and so voters did. It could happen again, with a result that “would not serve us well.”

That probably won’t happen this year. Two initiatives filed by Californians for Pension Reform haven’t attracted big donors. The proposals would go farther than Brown’s 12-point pension reform plan in cutting costs to taxpayers and shifting the burden to public employees. If the initiatives can’t draw enough signatures in the next two months to make the November ballot, some of the pressure will be off the Legislature to act this year. (I followed up with Simitian after the meeting, asking him why the Legislature might not act. See his answer in the accompanying video. )

But reports last week from the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS), the nation’s largest public pension plan, and the California State Teachers Retirement System (CalSTRS), number two behind CalPERS, should serve as a sober warning to legislators not to run from the issue. CalPERS reported a meager 1.1 percent return on investments in 2011, while CalSTRS reported a tad better at 2.3 percent – far below the 7.75 percent rate of return that both pension funds need to meet payouts to retirees. Though CalSTRS had a spectacular fiscal year that ended June 30, its investment portfolio then fell $7.9 billion in the six months ending Dec. 31, to $144.8 billion.

CalSTRS’ 10-year return was 5.4 percent, and, as writer Ed Mendel noted in his latest post in Calpensions, many financial analysts are predicting another decade of low returns. A failure to make the rate of return will add to both pension systems’ unfunded liability, which is the taxpayers’ burden.  For CalSTRS, currently only 71 percent funded, the unfunded liability is $56 billion. Lowering the expected rate of return in line with what experts are predicting would immediately result in higher contributions from the state and school districts, in the case of CalSTRS. Either way, districts and the state face laying out billions more per year in coming decades to keep CalSTRS solvent – money that will be diverted from the classroom. On Thursday, the CalSTRS board will consider a staff recommendation to drop the investment forecast 1/4 percent, to 7.5 percent; the impact would raise contributions by the state and districts by $500 million per year.

Higher retirement age, lower benefits

Brown’s plan would significantly decrease benefits for new public employees, and lower the risk for governments, by raising the retirement age from as early as 55 to 67 for all new public employees except safety workers. It would cap the amount of salary qualifying for a defined benefit, affecting mostly higher paid administrators in the case of CalSTRS, and it would end spiking, the practice of raising salaries and benefits in the last few years to jack up an employee’s pension.

In the biggest change, it would replace  a significant portion of a defined benefit plan for new employees with a defined contribution plan similar to a 401(k). At the last hearing of the conference committee this month, CalSTRS’ deputy chief executive officer, Ed Derman, offered a variation of the defined contribution plan that would offer security to employees, while reducing costs and risk for employers. Under a “cash balance plan,” workers would contribute a portion of their earnings, matched by the employer. CalSTRS, not the individual, would manage the investment, and would guarantee only the rate of return equal to a long-term Treasury note, plus the principal. If the rate of return by the time of retirement turns out to be greater, the employee wins. CalSTRS already offers this option as a retirement supplement to members.

A cash balance plan may be more palatable to employees than a straight 401(k), but unions are expected to resist the higher retirement age and switch to a defined benefit program. And this is an election year, when Brown is counting on union support to underwrite the campaign for his tax increase. So far, the conference committee has gotten little done, and three months after introducing his 12-point plan, Brown has yet to flesh out details. That’s expected to come this month.

Compounding the challenge, two-thirds of the Legislature must approve putting an initiative before voters, because it will amend the state Constitution. And, as Simitian noted in the video clip, five out of six members of the conference committee must agree on a package to present to the Legislature.

That’s a tall order for any proposal, and this one will require bipartisan support. Will voters withhold their support for a  tax increase for failure of action on  pension reform? Legislators may not want to put that question to a test.