Smart policy decisions can only result from involving teachers

As someone who engages in education policy advocacy and development for a living, it’s good to know opportunities abound for me and fellow policymakers to hear the voices of America’s teachers and to apply their perspective in crafting policy solutions to educational challenges. Apart from the traditional participation of teachers unions (American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association), a number of national and state-based initiatives (Accomplished California Teachers, Teach Plus, VIVA Project) have launched to inject the voices of teachers into education policy discussions.

But is anyone listening?

Policymakers attending the annual summit of the State Consortium on Educator Effectiveness (SCEE) last month were listening. While there, I was reminded of the power and wisdom of teachers while hearing 2011 National Teacher of the Year Michelle Shearer deliver the keynote address. She offered four key insights that add depth and complexity to the current policy conversation about effective teaching.

I believe every policymaker focused on education should hear what she had to say.

First, Shearer reminded us that, like students, educators are on a developmental continuum – always getting better. This matches our belief at New Teacher Center that teachers are learners and great teachers are made, not born.

Second, Shearer contended that much of what we want from great teaching – like compassion, caring, and relationships with students – cannot be measured or observed. Such dispositions are critically important but may be in danger of being lost within data-driven evaluation systems.

Third, Shearer shared that while teaching is competitive at times, it also must involve collaboration for the greater good. A group of successful public school teachers in Florida echoed this in What turned our teachers into our favorites?,” an article about some of the common traits that great teachers share.

Lastly, Shearer told participants that effective teachers empower students to hold each other accountable for learning and for the use of classroom time. A teacher might do this by instructing the entire class to work as a group toward a common goal. To an extent, the use of such an instructional strategy is contingent upon a school leader who creates a school environment where teachers have opportunities to share decision-making and the freedom to teach outside the box.

This view of teaching is largely antithetical to the behavior-focused accountability systems created by federal and state policies that assume and penalize underperformance. Shearer’s conception involves a teacher-driven spirit of collective responsibility built around a shared vision for learning. Effective teaching grows from cooperation rather than top-down control.

So how can we think systemically and unleash the power and wisdom of teacher leaders as we develop policy initiatives aimed at improving teaching and learning?

* Consider the implications of proposed education reforms on the complexities of teaching, including the work of Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson’s Educator Excellence Task Force. Teachers should be given a seat at the table to develop and implement policy. The Task Force has done this.

* Create an environment that empowers teachers and enables great teaching. The heads of eight influential policy organizations (U.S. Department of Education, American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association, Council of Chief State School Officers, American Association of School Administrators, National School Boards Association, Council of Great City Schools, and the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Services) took a step in the right direction on this recently by signing a shared vision for the future of the teaching profession. They set common goals and agreed on what it will take to meet them, including “Conditions for Successful Teaching and Learning.” The statement rightly acknowledges that “high-functioning systems can amplify the accomplishments of their educators, but a dysfunctional school or district can undermine the impact of even the best teachers.” We are working with a number of state partners to build such district and school climates.

* Establish a policy framework that provides for individualized professional development for beginning and veteran educators and regular opportunities for teachers to collaborate, reflect, and learn. The state of Colorado’s comprehensive effort deserves attention. According to the state’s website, “the promise of educator effectiveness requires much more than evaluation.” Colorado employs five strategies for optimizing educator effectiveness: (1) hiring excellent candidates, (2) boosting teaching effectiveness through evaluation and targeted professional development, (3) retaining and leveraging top teaching talent, (4) prioritizing effective educators for high-need students, and (5) improving or dismissing less effective educators.

* Involve teachers in key decisions around the development and selection of frameworks, curricula, and instructional tools associated with Common Core State Standards implementation. Doing so would help teachers understand and embrace the new standards and would contribute to the desired impact on classroom instruction.

And, more simply, let’s listen to teachers.

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. Liam 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.

California’s first-class Dreamers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Never quite at ease

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

California students’ improvement on AP exams deserves more attention

There is some good news in California student achievement trends. High performers, as measured by passage of the Advanced Placement exam, are increasing, and rank very high in interstate comparisons.

AP is college level work in high school, and indicates that students attending California’s most selective colleges are better prepared than ever. This positive trend is obscured by national studies, like the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), that do not focus on the highest achieving students when making interstate and racial/ethnic comparisons. In California, Hispanic growth in both taking and passing the AP exam is especially impressive.

According to the the Eighth Annual AP Report to the Nation, 23.4 percent of California’s 2011 public school graduates were successful on one or more AP exams – seventh highest in the nation. Overall, 19 states’ graduates exceeded the national average by scoring 3 or higher, out of 5, on one or more exams during their high school careers. Maryland was number one, with 27.9 percent. The U.S. average is 18.1 percent. This high national ranking for California does not receive the public attention that it deserves in a sea of negative reports on state education.

California ranked second to New Mexico on the College Board Hispanic Index for Equity and Excellence on AP. This calculation combines percent of successful AP exam takers in the graduating class with the percent of Hispanics in the graduating class. About 27 percent of California students take the AP Spanish exam, and almost 80 percent of those score 3 or higher. This compares favorably to Texas, where only 17 percent of the students take the AP Spanish exam and 60 percent score 3 or higher.

In California, 136,787 students, from the graduating class of 2011, took an AP exam during their high school career.  From that number, 90,409, or 66 percent, achieved at least one AP exam score of 3 or higher – scores that are predictive of enhanced college success, according to the College Board, the not-for-profit membership organization that administers the AP Program. In 2010, the most current data available, California’s 12th grade student population numbered 405,087.

In California, the AP performance gap between Hispanic and African American graduates compared with Asian and white graduates continues to exist. For example, 61 percent of Hispanic graduates and 39 percent of African American graduates score 3 or higher on AP exams, compared with 71 percent of Asian graduates  and 74 percent of white graduates. All of these scores represent an increase in AP performance over the previous five years, but if California is truly going to close the AP equity gap, educators and students alike will need to continue to find ways to increase AP  participation and improve performance on these exams.

Source:  College Board California State Integrated Summary Report for Public Schools, 2010-11
Source: College Board California State Integrated Summary Report for Public Schools, 2010-11

California’s Hispanic students are the fastest growing population and the largest individual group taking AP exams in public schools and the second largest group including public and private schools. Their  AP participation and performance rates show a five-year increase in the number of Hispanic students taking AP exams, from 57,700 (2006-07 school year) to 85,638 (2010-11 school year) – a 47 percent increase.  The number of Hispanic students receiving an AP score of 3 or higher – 29,664 (2006-07 school year) to 43,650 (2010-11 school year) – also represents a 47 percent increase.

The five-year AP data trends for California’s Hispanic public and private school students shows the same pattern of increases in participation, from 62,135 (2006-07) to 91,452 (2010-11), for a 47 percent increase. The AP performance trend over the same period shows increases from 32,720 to 47,515, an increase of 45 percent.

Nationally, students who find success on AP exams lessen their chances of being required to take remedial college courses and increase their chances of graduating from college on time. These remedial courses cost taxpayers an estimated $1 billion each year. Educators in California and throughout our nation must continue to target the divide between high school graduation standards and the skills needed for all students to be successful in college. Finally, we must examine and address equity and access issues that hinder academic excellence for all California students.

Michael Kirst is a Professor Emeritus of Education at Stanford University, where he has been on the faculty since 1969, and president of the California State Board of Education. He thanks Don Mitchell of the College Board and Russ Rumberger of the University of California Office of the President for data help and advice on this article.


Sources for this article:

* The 8th Annual AP Report to the Nation California State Supplement, February 8, 2012. The College Board.

* California State Integrated Summary Report, 2010-11. The College Board.

* California Department of Education Statewide Graduation Rates, 2009-2010.

* “Preparing Students for Success in College,” Policy Matters (2005), American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

* Chrys Dougherty, Lynn Mellor, and Shuling Jian, “The Relationship Between Advanced Placement and College Graduation” (2005), National Center for Educational Accountability.

* The College Completion Agenda 2011 Progress Report (New York: The College Board, 2011).

API has served its purpose

A court decision this week involving Los Angeles Unified has raised again the contentious issue of evaluating teachers using standardized test scores. But a recent report for the think tank Education Sector recommends adopting the same method developed by Los Angeles Unified to replace the Academic Performance Index as a statewide way of measuring schools’ progress.

Called Academic Growth over Time, AGT is a value-added model that compares students’ actual performance on state tests to their predicted performance based on demographic characteristics – family income, language, and ethnicity – as well as past test scores. The intent is to distinguish factors of learning that schools can control from those they can’t.

The use of AGT to evaluate individual teachers has sharply divided teachers in Los Angeles Unified. United Teachers Los Angeles opposes using AGT in any manner, while teachers affiliated with Teach Plus Los Angeles and Students Matter support using it as one of several measures, counting for no more than a third of an evaluation. But less controversial is the district’s use of AGT as a tool to evaluate schools, in part because it involves a larger number of student test scores and doesn’t call for high-stakes decisions affecting individual teachers’ careers. To the contrary, a schoolwide AGT can encourage collaboration and team-teaching

This is a page from the Academic Growth over Time report for Taft Senior High School in Los Angeles Unified, cited in the report for its underwhelming achievement. Scores in green indicate a performance that exceeded the district averge for the popularion of students served (Algebra II over three years); gray is close to the dsitrict average (geometry); yellow is below the predicted AGT (English language arts last year; and red (Algebra I last year) is far below the predicted AGT. Taft's overall API was 744 last year; for whites, who comprise 40 percent of the student body, it was the state's target of 800; Source: Los Angeles Unified
This is a page from the Academic Growth over Time scorecard for Taft Senior High School in Los Angeles Unified, cited in the Education Sector report for its underwhelming achievement. The score, on a 1 to 5 scale, in green indicates a performance that exceeded the district average for the population of students served (Algebra II over three years); gray is close to the district average (geometry); yellow is below the predicted AGT (English language arts last year); and red (Algebra I last year) is far below the predicted AGT. Taft's overall API was 744 last year; for whites, who comprise 40 percent of the student body, it was the state's target of 800; for Hispanics, it was 695. (Source: Los Angeles Unified)

Last fall, for the first time, Los Angeles Unified released AGT report cards for all schools, breaking down every subject or grade taught on a scale of one to five, with students’ actual scores compared with where they should have been, given student populations, for a one-year and a three-year average. The AGT’s advantage is that it can highlight improvements in high-minority, high-poverty schools that may flunk under the federal and state accountability criteria, while pointing to mediocre performances in high-wealth schools that can glide by the targets of No Child Left Behind and the state’s API.

Here is the AGT report card for Audubon Middle School for 2010-11. All of he subject and grade level scores are in green and blue, indicated progress that exceeded and far exceeded the district averages. Its API score remains relatively low at 733. (Source: Los Angeles Unified.)
Here is the AGT report card for Audubon Middle School for 2010-11. All of the subject and grade level scores are in green and blue, indicating progress that exceeded and far exceeded the district averages. Its API score remains relatively low at 733. (Source: Los Angeles Unified.)

The Education Sector report pointed to Audubon Middle School that, under a new principal and re-energized staff, had a 12 percent gain in the API score in one year. But it was still in the bottom 20 percent and failed to meet the proficiency target under NCLB for the 10th straight year.

The state’s three-digit API number, on a scale of 200 to 1,000, is “a crude proxy for student achievement and allowed schools to be ranked,” writes Richard Lee Colvin, former executive director of Education Sector and author of “Measures That Matter: Why California Should Scrap the Academic Performance Index.” “But it was not designed to give educators much help in analyzing school performance, and it told the public more about who attended each school than how well they were being taught.”

The API’s shortcomings have been known for a long time, and Colvin  lists them:

  • It’s an indicator of students’ wealth rather than of a school’s educational quality;
  • It places too much emphasis on math and reading scores, so that schools end up giving short shrift to science, social studies, and the arts ­– subjects that don’t factor much or at all in the API number;
  • More than 40 percent of schools are above the arbitrary target of 800 and so are no longer held accountable for helping students who are struggling academically;
  • It doesn’t track individual students’ academic growth over time; progress is measured by comparing  how students in a particular grade or subject do one year, compared with different  students the previous year.

Narrow measure of school success

The Legislature had intended that the API be a wider index when it created the index in 1999, but nothing has changed. Now, for the second year, Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg has proposed SB 1458 to broaden the API to include possible factors as graduation, dropout rates and college acceptances, and Advanced Placement scores, along with giving science and other subjects more weight. In a nod to Gov. Jerry Brown, who suggested the idea, Steinberg’s bill could include the results of school inspections measuring non-quantifiable but important factors like school climate and parent evaluations.

There’s no reason why a new index that emerges – whatever it’s called – couldn’t also incorporate AGT as a measure of student progress in combination with proficiency rates on state tests. Colvin said that the costs for districts to compute the AGT scores for its students need not be significant; Colorado has developed an open-source model that districts or the state could buy for $250,000.

State Board of Education President Michael Kirst said he was open to innovative accountability models, but that now is not time to switch to value-added method. The state will begin using Common Core assessments in 2014-15, and at least two or three years of new data would be needed, bringing the adoption of a new system to 2018-19 at the earliest. The State Board will be reviewing the state’s accountability methods over the next year. Colvin called for making a commitment to AGT now and preparing for a transition. The State Board could grant waivers from the use of API to districts like Los Angeles Unified in the meantime.

But Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy told me the district was interested in a federal waiver from No Child Left Behind, not a state waiver, so that it get out from federal sanctions for school failures as the feds defined it and also gain more control over federal Title I money. After months of delay, the state has requested an NCLB waiver, but not on terms requested by the Department of Education; getting the waiver would appear problematic.

Leg erases Gov’s ed reforms

John Fensterwald co-authored this article.

The Legislature’s budget package is missing many of Gov. Brown’s controversial education initiatives. A joint Senate and Assembly plan outlined yesterday protects transitional kindergarten, the science mandate, and the AVID program, rejects the weighted student funding formula, and offers districts a choice in how they’re paid for state mandates.

“This budget protects and invests in public education this year, and increases Proposition 98 funding by $17 billion over the next four years,” said Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez during a press conference Wednesday morning with Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg.

The overall budget plan that lawmakers will vote on this Friday would erase California’s $20 billion structural deficit, balance the budget for each of the next three years, and create a $2 billion reserve by fiscal year 2015-16, according to Pérez and Steinberg.

Spending for K-12 education would be $53.6 billion for the 2012-13 fiscal year. That’s about $1 billion more than the governor had anticipated. Because the budget assumes more revenue for education through the passage of Brown’s tax initiative in November, the state is obligated under Proposition 98 to start paying off the “maintenance factor,” the IOUs given to schools during bad times. But if the tax increase fails, the Legislature and governor are in accord on the need for cuts of $5.5 billion for K-12 schools and community colleges. That would translate to a K-12 cut of $450 per student.

About $2.9 billion of that would come from lowering the Prop 98 guarantee due to a drop in state revenues. The rest would be made up through shifting two expenses into Prop 98 that are currently funded outside the guarantee. Those are repayment of general obligation bonds for school construction and the Early Start early education program. (Go here to read more about that in an earlier TOPed article.)

In addition, the legislative package would include trailer bill language allowing K-12 schools to cut 15 additional days from the next two school years.

Weighty issue

The governor’s biggest loss, for now, is the weighted student funding formula. Lawmakers’ refusal to include it in the budget isn’t an outright rejection of the concept of a simpler, fairer finance system that sends more money to districts with high proportions of English learners and indigent students. And Brown is expected to bring up the issue again this summer. But many lawmakers felt that the governor was jamming them to accept sweeping changes without justifying the basis for his formula, while legislators from suburban districts called for restoring all of the money lost to cuts over the past four years before redistributing new money.

Rick Simpson, the deputy chief of staff for Speaker Pérez, said that lawmakers wanted more assurances that the money under a weighted formula would actually reach targeted students. As part of his reform,  Brown proposed giving districts total flexibility in deciding how the dollars would be spent. “If you’re going to deregulate the entire school finance system,” Simpson said, “and if you’re not going to regulate inputs, you ought to have an accountability system to make sure you get those positive outcomes. We have lots of disparate pieces that we refer to as accountability, but it’s not a system.”

High school science intact

Brown had proposed eliminating the mandate for more than two dozen K-12 programs, including (the most expensive) requiring schools to offer a second year of high school science. Dropping a mandate would mean that districts could continue offering a program by finding money in their existing budgets. Brown also proposed reimbursing districts a flat $28 per student for the remaining mandated programs.

Science teachers and the business community protested that the state shouldn’t retreat from its commitment to science education (see commentary on this page), and the Legislature agreed, keeping it and all of the current mandates intact. However, lawmakers didn’t increase the reimbursement rate either, so districts can expect to continue accumulating a big IOU for meeting the science mandate. The state has also gone to court, arguing that the $250 million cost on the books for offering a second year of science is way too high, based on a false assumption that high schools had to add a period to the day to accommodate it, according to Paul Golaszewski, an analyst with the Legislative Analyst’s Office.

Applying for a straight $28 per student would be the easiest, quickest way for districts to be reimbursed for mandated costs. However, the Legislature also would continue to allow districts to submit bills detailing the cost of complying with mandates – and hope that the state accepts the claims.

Starting early

The joint budget proposal allowed the early childhood education community to exhale a bit, by denying a number of significant cuts that the governor was seeking. He wanted to cut the reimbursement to preschool providers by 10 percent, raise the financial eligibility requirement, place a two-year cap on families receiving childcare services while attending a school or a job-training program, and eliminate full-day preschool starting next year.

“The Legislature has really stood up for young children,” said Scott Moore, Senior Policy Advisor at Preschool California. No one got away unscathed, however, and childcare will be taking a $50 million cut and losing 6,000 spaces for children in full-day state preschool, the childcare voucher program, and the infant-toddler child development program.  That’s on top of a billion dollar reduction and 100,000 spaces lost since 2008. Still, said Moore, “it’s significantly less that we were fearing would be cut.”

Eliminating second-year science mandate is fast fix with long-term damage

Governor Brown, what are you thinking? Your proposal, to end the mandate that requires a second year of science for high school graduation, as a way to fix a dysfunctional budget process, makes absolutely no sense.

Since 1986 every student who graduated from high school in California has been required to take and pass one year of life science and one year of physical science. The second year of science requirement was added when it became obvious that a literate citizenry needed to know more about the science and technology that drives their everyday world than a one-year general science class could provide.

What has changed? Is it less important now, in 2012, for citizens of California to have the minimum amount of science necessary for access to careers or colleges after high school? The economy of California is heavily dependent on the technology that results from the work of scientists and researchers, and California citizens, the consumers of that technology, must have a solid understanding of its origins, is applications, and its limitations to make sound decisions for the future. Decreasing the number of years of science required in high school for graduation is a step in the wrong direction.

Throughout all of the rhetoric surrounding this proposal, your office and the Department of Finance have argued that removal of the mandate will not affect the quality of education our students receive. They argue that the California State University and the University of California will still require two years of lab science as a minimum requirement for admission. This is likely true, but this fact does not address the large number of students who don’t see four-year colleges in their future plans. For those students, a reduction in the number of years of required science could mean a workforce that is even less prepared than they are now. Removal of the mandate could easily result in an underprepared workforce for California. In a time when employers argue that it is difficult to find qualified workers, anything that reduces worker preparation should be avoided.

Don’t trust the predictions

Supporters of your proposal argue that graduation requirements are still the responsibility of the local school districts and that districts would never reduce graduation requirements. I would caution that as schools face declining budgets and continued pressure to perform on standardized tests, districts may find themselves forced to make decisions that seem unconscionable today.

Teaching science is not cheap. The Department of Finance estimates that the cost of the second year of science requirement is $250 million per year. If we accept this amount, it should not be a stretch to see that a district that has to cut millions of dollars from its annual budget will see elimination of a non-mandated cost as an easy way to maintain solvency. This possibility is further compounded by the realization that school districts have not been reimbursed at this level for years. Essentially, they are fulfilling this mandate from their general funding, since no additional support has been provided by the state.

Furthermore, districts that are struggling to meet their measures of Annual Yearly Progress (AYP), as called for in the No Child Left Behind law, will see this as an opportunity to place more emphasis on the subject areas that contribute the most to scores – mathematics and language arts – and eliminate a year of science. Evidence of schools’ willingness to do this can be seen every day in elementary schools throughout California. If a subject is not tested, it is often not taught.

The  proposed elimination of the second year of science as a graduation requirement is a quick answer to a much bigger problem. Schools have, in good faith, met this two-year mandate for 26 years with little or no compensation from the state. Schools are owed almost $2.5 billion for doing a job that is required of them that has not been supported.

Yes, eliminating the mandate will stop the continued accumulation of the debt owed to the schools, but it will not fix the dysfunctional budgeting process. It will result in a further eroding of the quality of the workforce that is so critical to the financial recovery of California. It sends the message that science, as a core curriculum area, is not valued. It is the first step down a slippery slope that will result in fewer students entering college with aspirations in the fields of science and technology, and in an underprepared workforce. It will lead to a wider gap of college admission rates between students who traditionally attend a four-year college and students in underserved populations.

Governor Brown, I ask that you drop this proposal and  find other ways to fix the budget problem. This problem was not created by the students or the schools in California, and you should not place the burden of fixing it on them.

Rick Pomeroy is science education lecturer/supervisor in the School of Education, University of California, Davis and is president of the California Science Teachers Association.

Adult education’s existential crisis

This is the second of a two-part series on adult education in California.  Click here to read part 1.

Adult education in California is nearly as old as the state itself. Today, the program that has helped millions of people learn English, earn a GED, and receive job training for 156 years is facing extinction. A new report released today by EdSource concludes that these schools, which provide second chances for the state’s most needy adults, “are as much at-risk as many of the people they serve.”

The report, aptly titled At Risk: Adult Schools in California, surveyed the state’s 30 largest school districts and found that 23 had made significant cuts to their adult education programs. In many cases, they lost at least half their funding. One of them, Anaheim Union High School District, shuttered its 73-year-old adult school.

“The important thing to remember is that these adult school programs are serving a population that really falls through the cracks,” said Louis Freedberg, Executive Director of EdSource. “This is a population that needs basic education in basic skills, that needs help with English as a Second Language, and for whom there is really no other place to go to get these basic services.”

Adult ed cuts in 30 largest districts.  (Source:  EdSource)  Click to enlarge.
Adult ed cuts in 30 largest districts. (Source: EdSource) Click to enlarge.

These draconian cuts have taken place in just the past three years. Until 2009, adult education funding was protected as a categorical program, meaning districts could not use the money for any other purpose. But that February, faced with a massive budget shortfall, the Legislature and Gov. Brown removed 39 programs – including adult ed – from this restriction and gave school districts flexibility to use the funds wherever they were most needed.

A survey of several hundred school districts conducted by the adult education program in Montebello Unified School District found that about 40 have closed or are planning to shut their adult education programs, and estimated that, statewide, districts have redirected about 60 percent of the $773 million in adult education funds to the K-12 system. At the same time, enrollment dropped from 1.2 million students to about 700,000.

“We were actually growing before the cuts started,” said Pam Garramone, principal of Sonoma Valley Adult School, which closes at the end of this month. Garramone said there were six adult school agencies in Sonoma County before flex started; now there’s only one, Petaluma, and it doesn’t have the capacity to accommodate the 10,000 people who have been shut out.

Farewell message on Sonoma Valley Adult School site. (click to enlarge).
Farewell message on Sonoma Valley Adult School site. (click to enlarge).

Garramone said her district has always been very supportive of adult education, but was placed in an untenable position. “Our budget situation was just so drastic that every single thing that was on the list to be cut was painful for them, and they’re looking at even more cuts next year, so the decision to finally close adult education they just felt had to be made,” she said. “And I really don’t blame them; I didn’t necessarily agree with it, but I certainly don’t blame them for the decision.”

She blames the Legislature. Adult education should never have been flexed, said Garramone. Even though categorical flex is supposed to end on June 30, 2015, few people expect to see the money again. Indeed, Gov. Brown’s proposal for a weighted student funding formula would make categorical flexibility permanent.

Paul Hay, the superintendent of San Jose’s Metropolitan Education District (MetroED), told EdSource if weighted student funding is approved, “adult education is dead, gone, over, and will never come back in the state.”

MetroED’s enrollment plunged from 10,000 to 2,000 after it closed more than 50 programs, two major campuses, and all its community outreach centers except for a program for disabled adults.

Societal impact

The adult education program in Oakland Unified School District was among the hardest hit without being closed.  It has been cut by more than 90 percent since the start of flex, losing $11 million of a $12 million budget which necessitated shutting two campuses and canceling English as a second language courses as well as its high school credit recovery program.  The GED classes are still thriving, however, and graduated 95 students last year.

“When we were cut our numbers were at the highest they’ve been, this would have been our best year ever,” said Chris Nelson, director of the district’s adult education programs and president of the California Council for Adult Education.  “It’s ironic now that the economy is so bad because it’s during times of high unemployment that people seek education programs.”

Donita McKay standing outside the Oakland adult ed computer literacy RV. (Click to enlarge).
Donita McKay standing outside the Oakland adult ed computer literacy RV. (Click to enlarge).

Donita McKay is studying for her GED and taking a computer literacy course through Oakland’s adult education school.  McKay is 49 years old, a single mom with four children, and a ninth-grade drop out.   She said being back in school has opened her mind and given her a different outlook on life.

“Education is important because when you don’t have it you’re so limited,” said McKay.  “I always tell my children, get your education, because I didn’t really get all mine, so and you see where I’m at.  They hear that from my mouth everyday.”

Sitting at small workstation in an RV retrofitted as mobile computer classroom, McKay said she’s considering becoming a teacher one day, “because I always like to give back and give what I learned, because it reminds me I used to be like that.”

Oakland has all the challenges of any big city.  English is not the first language for about 40 percent of the population and in some neighborhoods the high school dropout rate is a staggering 60 to 70 percent, said Mayor Jean Quan, who spent twelve years on the local school board.

Oakland Mayor Jean Quan (Click to enlarge).
Oakland Mayor Jean Quan (Click to enlarge).

“What I really worry about is California creating a permanent underclass,” said Quan.  “This is one of the ways out; this is one of the second chances that people have, and if people don’t have at least a high school degree it’s very hard to even get a good paying blue-collar job.”

Not dead yet

Gordon Jackson is head of the Adult Education Division of the California Department of Education.  He said the mission of adult education is to advance the “economic, workforce development and societal goals by preparing adult learners for college, career and civic responsibility.”

It’s a critical goal, but one that doesn’t have critical support.  Although adult education programs are run by both K-12 school districts and community colleges, it’s not the core mission of either.  So, it’s taken some time for advocates to organize, but they’ve started considering alternatives on a number of fronts.

Several proposals are being floated said EdSource’s Freedberg.  One idea is to combine resources and establish regional centers.  Another, put forth by the state’s Little Hoover Commission, recommends turning over responsibility for adult education to community college; even thought they

Gordon Jackson, Director of Adult Education Division, CA Dept. of Education. (Source:  CDE).
Gordon Jackson, Director of Adult Education Division, CA Dept. of Education. (Source: CDE).

are facing their own massive budget cuts.  And a third plan, already underway, is to lobby the Legislature to remove adult education from categorical flex and from the governor’s weighted student funding formula.

“There are times when I would like to sit next to somebody at Starbucks and moan and groan and say I cannot believe that there are adults in this world of ours at the legislative level and other places who don’t really understand what it means to demolish an infrastructure, what it means to do this to California’s future,” said Jackson.  “I can bemoan that and have a really intense pity party for a while, until I need to focus on what needs to happen.”

Consider a new equity meter to measure closing the achievement gap

So here’s a question: If the No Child Left Behind law really does go away, and if we really do adopt a whole new set of tests, are we still “closing the achievement gap”?

For years now, if someone said their goal was “equity,” it was a fair bet that their work was to close the gap on the California Standards Tests. Of course, there have been skeptics who argued that the test was too narrow and pointed out that the test is not sufficiently tied to the real-world goals of “college and career readiness.” But most of the equity work of the past decade has focused on strategies to boost the test scores of chronically low-performing students, increase enrollment and success in “gatekeeper” courses like algebra, and increase the number of students who are “college and career ready” – for example through policies about enrollment in “A-G” courses or the adoption of what are now called “Linked Learning” approaches.

All of these strategies seem important. All appear to yield gains on the specific metrics to which they are aligned. Yet after a decade or more of work, do we have a more equitable system of schools in this nation? I think most observers would say no.

We have some schools and even more classrooms that are more equitable; a few of these dramatically so. This is progress and worth celebrating, especially since this work is an uphill battle in a society in which the distribution of income and opportunity is becoming less and less equitable. But despite hard work by many people, we do not yet have a dramatically more equitable system of schools, and such a system is badly needed. And it is only by creating a far more equitable system of schools that the public education system can be what this nation needs it to be: not just the engine of our economy but also the backbone of our democracy and the route for individuals to achieve their own American dream.

What would we accept as evidence that education systems were becoming more equitable? This is actually an important practical question as California embarks on the task of revising the Public Schools Accountability Act, which established the API. If we imagine a new-and-improved accountability system for California, test scores still matter, as do leading indicators of student learning like student attendance and engagement. But a narrow focus on these seems to have led us to pockets of excellence but not to a more equitable system of schools. Where else might we look? Once we start looking, we find achievement gaps – or perhaps we should call them equity gaps – in all sorts of places. If we were to build an “equity meter” that would be very sensitive to equity trends in an education system, what might we include? Here are some possibilities:

  • Resource allocation: Do poor students and students learning English receive more resources than others? Do struggling students, struggling teachers, and struggling schools receive extra support?
  • Community engagement: Do parents and community members feel connected to and engaged with the schools that serve them? Are schools able to respond to parent needs and concerns? Are parents living in poverty, parents with limited English, and parents of color equally engaged?
  • Social capital for students: Are students supported by the kind of web or network of supportive adults that will help keep them in school and make them resilient in the face of life’s challenges? Are students living in poverty, students learning English, and students of color equally supported? Are they engaged in school?
  • Professional community for adults: Do all the adults in the system feel a sense of personal and professional efficacy, that they can bring their whole selves – hearts and minds – to work every day? Do adults feel accountable to students and parents, including those who don’t look like them? Do they feel accountable for educational outcomes for all of their students and for helping to build a more equitable school system?
  • Customer satisfaction and system responsiveness: Do parents and students feel satisfied with their schools?

It is easy to argue that these things might be important, but they aren’t easily measurable. That’s a problem. But if in the past we’ve settled for accurate measures of some of the wrong things, should we experiment with some less accurate measures of things that matter more, or at least that matter differently? As we move into a world in which the simple definition of equity as “closing the achievement gap” on a test no longer seems sufficient, we need to think differently about the goal of equity work: a far more equitable system of public schools in this nation.

Merrill Vargo is both 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, or BASRC) in 1995, Dr. Vargo spent nine years teaching English in a variety of settings, managed her own consulting firm, and served as executive director of the California Institute for School Improvement, a Sacramento-based nonprofit that provides staff development and policy analysis for educators. She served as Director of Regional Programs and Special Projects for the California Department of Education. She is also a member of Full Circle Fund.

Student scores in evaluations

In a decision with statewide implications, a Superior Court judge ruled that Los Angeles Unified must include measures of student progress, including scores on state standardized tests, when evaluating teachers and principals.

But Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge James Chalfant will leave it to the district, in negotiations with its teachers union and administrators union, to determine what other measures of student performance might also be included, how much weight to give them in an evaluation, and how exactly test scores and other measures should be used.

Chalfant’s decision would appear to strengthen Superintendent John Deasy’s push to move forward with a complex value-added system of measuring individual students’ progress on state standardized tests, called Academic Growth over Time. Deasy wants to introduce AGT on a test basis in a pilot evaluation program next year. But the unions remain adamantly opposed to AGT; Chalfant said the use of AGT as a measure of student progress is not his call to make; and today, hours before Chalfant is to meet again with parties in the lawsuit over evaluations, Los Angeles Unified school board member Steve Zimmer will propose barring AGT from staff evaluations. The school board will vote on his motion later this month.

Chalfant released his tentative decision on Monday. (Update: On Tuesday, after a hearing with all parties, he made the ruling final.) But the carefully crafted, 25-page ruling is not likely to change much, if at all, and may become final today, after the school district and unions get a final chance to make their case at a hearing.

The ruling is a victory for Sacramento-based EdVoice, which filed suit on behalf of a half-dozen unnamed Los Angeles Unified students and their parents and guardians. EdVoice’s lawsuit claimed that the Stull Act, the 40-year-old state law laying out procedures for teacher and administrator evaluations, requires school districts to factor in student progress on district standards, however they decide to measure it, as well as scores on the California Standards Tests (CST) in evaluations and that Los Angeles Unified was ignoring the requirement – as do most school districts.

Chalfant agreed and, in his decision, quoted Deasy, who, in testimony, acknowledged the district doesn’t look at how students do academically when evaluating teachers.  On Monday, Deasy praised the tentative decision, and called for  the district, his employer, to move quickly to act on it. “The district has waited far too long to comply with the law,” Deasy said. “This is why LAUSD has created its own evaluation system, and has begun to use it. The system was developed with the input of teachers and administrators.”

Next step: negotiating compliance

Chalfant’s tentative ruling proposed that attorneys for EdVoice and the parents propose a plan for compliance and that they and the district try to negotiate specifics over the next month. Whatever they agree to would still likely have to be negotiated with United Teachers Los Angeles and Associated Administrators Los Angeles.

Bill Lucia, president and CEO of EdVoice, praised Chalfant’s decision. While acknowledging that the emphasis given to student progress could become a sticking point in negotiations between the district and teachers, he said the ruling makes clear “there is no status quo going forward.”

“It won’t be OK to sit on their hands,” Lucia said. “The district must come up with something different that passes the laugh test and makes a sincere effort to honor the statute requiring that evaluations look at whether kids are learning.”

EdVoice took no position on whether the AGT should be the tool by which to measure student performance in Los Angeles. But, Lucia said, the district must consider other measures ­– whether student portfolios or other district tests ­ – in the evaluations of teachers of courses in which CSTs aren’t given, such as first grade, art and seventh grade science.

Signal to other districts

Chalfant’s ruling would apply only to Los Angeles Unified, although other Superior Courts could cite the ruling. Nonetheless, Lucia said that the message to other districts is that “a district cannot omit the progress of kids in job performance of adults.” The goal, he said, “should be a better determination of effectiveness that allows limited resources to be targeted to those teachers needing the most improvement.”

Attorneys for UTLA and the district could not be reached for comment on Monday.

UTLA argued in its brief that a dispute over requirements in the Stull Act belonged before the Public Employee Relations Board, not a court, and that any requirement for the use of test scores or other measures must be negotiated.  But Chalfant wrote that first and foremost, the district must comply with state law, regardless of the contract it reached with the unions.

The position of the district, on behalf of the school board, was confusing. Last year, in defending the  pilot program using AGT, the district  said it had the authority to impose the terms of evaluations without union negotiations. Even though Deasy testified that test scores and student progress weren’t part of staff evaluations, the district fought the EdVoice lawsuit.

In its brief, the district asserted that the use of AGT in the pilot satisfied the law’s requirement to use state standardized test scores – even though they have yet to be applied, with consequences, to any teacher. The district also asserted that it uses results on district and state tests and other student measures to set goals for teacher instruction and measure improvements in the classroom.

But Chalfant ruled that that’s not sufficient. “There must be a nexus between pupil progress and the evaluations. No such nexus currently exists.”

“This does not mean that there must be a box on a form which directly addresses pupil progress,” he wrote. “It does mean that pupil progress must be reflected in some factor on a written teacher evaluation.”

Whether pupil progress – AGT alone or in combination with other student growth measures ­ – counts 20 percent or 30 percent of an evaluation, as Deasy has advocated, must be decided through negotiations, unless the district asserts a right to impose AGT unilaterally.

Villaraigosa’s Stull Act amendment

In 1999, when he was state Assembly speaker, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa sponsored an amendment updating the Stull Act  to require the use of CST scores in teacher evaluations. Villaraigosa submitted a brief supporting this position.

Chalfant incorporated some of Villaraigosa’s points in explaining the rationale for his decision. In 2009-10, 99.3 percent of teachers evaluated received the highest evaluation rating, with 79 percent meeting all 27 measures of performance. This despite that the district “has one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the State, and an even lower percentage of students are college ready.”

“These failures cannot be laid solely at the feet of the District’s teachers,” Chalfant cointinued. “Students must want to learn in order to do so, and some students can never be motivated to learn. But the District has an obligation to look at any and all means available to help improve the dismal results of its student population. One means of improving student education is to evaluate teachers and administrators based on the overall progress of their students.”

Adult ed falls to flexibility

This is the first of two articles on the state of adult education in California. The second piece will run on Wednesday, June 13.

The sun was still melting through the gray morning sky as teacher Don Curtis rode his bicycle into a warehouse yard belonging to Oakland Unified School District, opened a large garage door, and backed his classroom into the parking lot.

The mobile classroom parked at West Oakland Middle School. (click to enlarge)
The mobile classroom parked at West Oakland Middle School. (click to enlarge)

“It has taken some getting used to driving this vehicle, trust me. The big thing is the back end; when you turn, the back end swings out quite a ways,” said Curtis. But after eight years, he’s had plenty of practice driving the district’s 35-foot-long RV retrofitted with 12 computer workstations and a large screen for projecting lessons.

The mobile classroom, run by the school district’s adult education program, fills several spaces on a busy street next to Oakland’s Urban Promise Academy Middle School. It’s also full on the inside, with nearly two dozen parents of Promise Academy students sitting snugly on chairs and stools in order to buddy up at the workstations, while Curtis teaches them the basics of computer literacy: setting up email, doing a simple web search, and navigating the parent information section of the district’s website.

On the sides and front of the RV, painted in multicolored letters, is a sign reading “Sharing English Together.” But that tag line is archaic. Despite the high-tech equipment inside, the RV is emblematic of a threatened species, a relic of Oakland’s once thriving adult education program.

Don Curtis teaches computer literacy and drives the classroom. (click to enlarge)
Don Curtis teaches computer literacy and drives the classroom. (click to enlarge)

The district’s program no longer offers English as a Second Language. It has also cancelled basic skills classes for adults who left school very young, often to work, and, at the other end, has dropped a high school diploma program for students who are a few credits shy of completion. A popular certified nursing assistant program is down to two sessions instead of seven, and two of the three schools have been closed.

“It’s been a year since the two campuses have closed. But we’re still getting calls asking if people can get their high school diploma,” said Chris Nelson, director of Oakland’s adult education program and president of the California Council for Adult Education (CCAE). “It’s heartbreaking to have to cut these classes knowing how much the community needs them.”

Flexibility breeds contretemps

Until 2009, adult education was protected as a categorical program in California, meaning the money couldn’t be used for any other purpose. In February of that year, state legislators gave school districts permission to use funds from 39 categorical programs – including adult education – wherever they were most needed, and cut the budget for those programs by 20 percent.

What districts did with categorical flex. (Source:  California Legislative Analyst) Click to enlarge.
What districts did with categorical flex. (Source: California Legislative Analyst) Click to enlarge.

Since then, local school boards have closed 32 adult education programs and cut at least half the funding for more than 40 others, according to a survey conducted a few months ago by the adult education administrators in Montebello Unified School District. Later this week, EdSource will be releasing a new report and survey of how this categorical flexibility, or “flex” as it’s described, threatens to dismantle the nation’s oldest adult education program.

Chris Nelson is director of adult ed in Oakland Unified School District and President of the California Council for Adult Education. (Click to enlarge)
Chris Nelson is director of Adult Ed in Oakland Unified School District and president of the California Council for Adult Education. (Click to enlarge)

Oakland’s program was among the hardest hit, losing 90 percent of its funding. In the past three years, it’s dropped from $11.4 million to $1 million. During that same period, said Nelson, enrollment fell from 25,000 to 1,000 students, and all but a handful of the 300 teachers and staff members were laid off.

Adult education in California started in 1856, when the San Francisco Board of Education sponsored evening classes in elementary and vocational education in the basement of St. Mary’s Cathedral, according to the 2005 book Meeting the Challenge: A History of Adult Education in California, published by the state Department of Education.

Adult Ed cuts and closures. (Source:  Montebello Unified School District, Adult Ed program) Click to enlarge.
Adult Ed cuts and closures. (Source: Montebello Unified School District, Adult Ed program) Click to enlarge.

Nelson is exasperated when he considers how far the program has come, only to now face being done in by a budget deficit. “Adult education has survived the Civil War, two world wars, and the Great Depression,” he said. “I believe that adult education can move forward; it should be able to.”

Get on the bus

Edgar Melchor first saw the mobile classroom when he brought his son to school. He has two children in the district and works at Whole Foods, the high-end grocery chain. Melchor said even though most of his work involves computers, his skills weren’t very good. He has a computer at home that his children use, but as far as he was concerned it was just a decoration – until he enrolled in Curtis’ class. The class runs four days a week, it’s free, and there’s childcare in the middle school for parents with younger kids.

“It helps me communicate better with [my children], because kids know a language we don’t know, the language of computers, and now I understand it,” said Melchor. “I help them every day with homework now.” And when he’s stumped, he emails Curtis.

“That’s part of the beauty of family literacy, that the kids see that their parents are taking these classes,” said Curtis. “I think it’s a huge impact for children to see their parents studying; it’s like trickle down, I would liken it to.”

The class has also given Melchor the confidence to apply for a better position at work, and he plans to enroll in a GED course. So it troubles him that the program has been cut so drastically. Every day he sees parents trying to sign up for the class, but they’re turned away because it’s already packed. “We should do something, we should come up with some funds to support this,” said Melchor. “You can see that we don’t need that much. We are here in a trailer; I don’t think we need that much to learn.”

Creating lifelong learners

GED teacher Carolyn Chin (click to enlarge)
GED teacher Carolyn Chin (click to enlarge)

The district’s GED program is held in what’s known as a permanent portable classroom. It doesn’t travel, but on a spring morning it was shuddering as work crews pounded away at a nearby construction site. The noise didn’t seem to distract any of Carolyn Chin’s two dozen students as they practiced mathematical word problems.

Chin is fervent about her work. Last summer, when it wasn’t clear whether she’d have a job in the fall, she held the class anyway, arranging to use her regular classroom. “My students wanted to maintain their momentum, so I wanted to make that happen for them,” she explained modestly. Her students are so loyal, they can’t seem to stop coming, even when they’ve completed the class.

Florence Edwards already passed the GED exam, took the certified nursing assistant class, works full time, and has enrolled in a nursing program at Merritt College for the fall semester. None of that has kept the recently naturalized immigrant from Ghana from showing up regularly in Chin’s class. “I always come here on my break time, I come here to refresh my mind,” said Edwards.

Florence Edwards earned a GED and nursing assistant certificate and is pursuing a degree in nursing. (click to enlarge)
Florence Edwards earned a GED and nursing assistant certificate and is pursuing a degree in nursing. (click to enlarge)

Roberto Perez can’t stop smiling as he talks about graduating from the GED class later this month. “I couldn’t believe it,” he gushed. “When I first came here, I came to try, but I never think I’m going to make it and it was a big surprise when I got my scores and it said I passed; and I jumping and I still can’t believe it!”

Roberto Perez in Carolyn Chin's GED class. (Click to enlarge)
Roberto Perez in Carolyn Chin's GED class. (Click to enlarge)

Perez is a cook in an Italian restaurant in San Francisco and will study to become a chef next September at City College of San Francisco.  But his future was uncertain at the end of the last academic year when all the teachers were laid off  shortly after he started in Chin’s class.  His nightmare was that the district would stop offering GED courses.  “Now I’m going to say keep this open, the GED, because I think everybody deserves a second chance,” said Perez.

A lot of people in Oakland need second chances. About 30 percent of the adult population are considered functionally illiterate and 21 percent don’t have high school diplomas – higher in some neighborhoods. None of this is lost on the school district, but its primary mission is K-12 education and those schools have been cut so much that there was little question about appropriating the flex funds.

“These are tough decisions in terms of which programs need to be reduced, schools to close, so that we can actually function, deliver a quality program for all of the students and also be fiscally solvent,” explained Deputy Superintendent Maria Santos, who oversees adult education in Oakland Unified School District.

She acknowledged that those decisions aren’t made in a political vacuum.  “I think some of the critical considerations that come to mind are what we’re held accountable for,” said Santos. That means ensuring that students improve their scores on statewide achievement tests, that they meet academic standards and increase their graduation rates.

As Deputy Superintendent of Instruction, Maria Santos oversees Adult Ed in Oakland Unified. (Click to enlarge)
As Deputy Superintendent of Instruction, Maria Santos oversees Adult Ed in Oakland Unified. (Click to enlarge)

The district is hoping to offset some of the cuts to adult education by developing partnerships with local community organizations and community colleges, funding ESL classes through a different categorical account, and making sure that alternative programs like continuation schools are utilized to their fullest.

Santos was calm, even impassive while discussing the situation, as though she’d heard and said it all many times before. But at the end of the conversation, she stood up, rapped her knuckles on the conference table in her office, and conceded, “These are tough decisions; there are no good decisions when it comes to money.”

To learn more:

California Adult Education Administrators Association

California Council for Adult Education

ENDING California’s Public Adult Education Through Policy: Will you let it happen? California Federation of Teachers, April 13, 2012.

Linking Adults to Opportunity: Transformation of the California Department of Education Adult Education Program.  CDE’s Strategic Plan.  Nov. 2011.

Workforce Investment Act, Title II Adult Education and Family Literacy Act, California State Plan, 1999-2004, extended through 6/30/12.