California seeks to dump AYP

Three months ago, California’s proposal for a waiver from parts of the No Child Left Behind law was considered so weak that critics said it wouldn’t pass the federal government’s giggle test. Yesterday, the State Board of Education approved sending a more robust waiver request to Washington, although not through the same channels as most other states.

At issue is the part of NCLB (now commonly referred to by its original title, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA) that requires every student to be proficient in math and English Language Arts by the end of the 2013-14 school year. Last fall, Education Secretary Arne Duncan publicly acknowledged what teachers and administrators have known for years: There’s no chance of reaching that goal.

The U.S. Department of Education offered states flexibility on meeting some of the toughest targets of ESEA on the condition that they implement a teacher and principal evaluation system, among other things. So far 38 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have applied for one of Sec. Duncan’s waivers. California has been a holdout, not because state officials don’t want the waiver, but because they believe the teacher and principal evaluation system would be too expensive, and isn’t required under the law.

Instead, the State Board approved submitting a “state-defined waiver” through the general waiver provision written into ESEA that allows the Secretary to approve waivers if states show that they will:

  1. Increase the quality of instruction for students, and
  2. improve the academic achievement of students.

California proposes to achieve those goals primarily by dumping No Child Left Behind’s Adequate Yearly Progress assessment system in favor of a single system using the state’s Academic Performance Index (API), and sharpening the focus of the API to concentrate on improving instruction in schools with the absolute lowest scores and largest achievement gaps.

“It’s time to leave behind No Child Left Behind,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson in a written statement. “This request capitalizes on our strengths – our well-established accountability system. It also provides school districts an opportunity to get the relief they deserve now, and the flexibility they need to direct limited funds where they will do the most good.”

If Sec. Duncan approves the waiver, California schools that don’t meet the proficiency targets of AYP would no longer be labeled as failing schools and put into program improvement status.  PI schools are required to use some of their federal Title I funds on things like paying private companies to provide after-school academic programming for students, without requiring them to prove that they’re successful.  According to the State Department of Education, 63 percent of Title I schools are in program improvement.

The State Board wants to let low-performing schools use the money to examine data and use it to improve instruction, provide tutoring and give teachers time to collaborate.

“I don’t think this is at all at odds with what the Administration wants,” said State Board of Education President Mike Kirst following the vote.  “We want relief from the parts of the federal law that aren’t working, but that doesn’t mean we’re retreating from accountability,” he added in a written statement later in the day.  “Our system is better than NCLB at identifying which schools need help.”

The current proposal, while more detailed than the earlier one that was a subject of ridicule, is still short on specifics.  What measures will be used to identify the lowest performing schools?  How will the API be changed to provide deeper information that’s more useful to teachers?  Should the API target be raised from 800 to 875 to provide a more accurate measure of proficiency?  What sort of interventions will be available for schools at the bottom?

“The details matter when it comes to kids,” said Bill Lucia, President and CEO of Edvoice, a nonprofit that works to close the achievement gap.  He described the plan as “a starting point for a conversation.”

Arun Ramanathan is far less convinced of the state’s sincerity.  The Executive Director of EdTrust-West reviewed waiver applications for the U.S. Department of Education.  He said the guidelines require specific plans describing how the state intends to close achievement gaps between subgroups, and California’s letter doesn’t meet that standard.  “As a reviewer of state waiver applications, the letter is actually insulting to those 37 states that did the hard work in al three areas – common core, teacher evaluation and accountability systems.

Federal education officials haven’t indicated publicly which way they’re leaning on California’s application.  Gov. Brown discussed it with Sec. Duncan on a trip to Washington, D.C., a few weeks ago.  Observers suspect there may be some back and forth behind the scenes over the summer, but don’t expect a decision before September, when the third round of applications under Sec. Duncan’s waiver process are due.

Whichever way that goes, Sherry Skelly Griffith, a legislative advocate for the Association of California School Administrators, said she’s encouraged because this issue has brought stakeholders and policy makers together at the same table to start talking about how to strengthen the state’s accountability system and evolve the API.  She’s all for giving the proposal as much time as necessary to ensure that, in the end, it’s a well thought out plan and transparent plan.  “I think this dialogue has gotten us started on the right path to do the right thing for California; it’s a catalyst.”

SoCal district up for Broad Prize

John Fensterwald co-wrote this article. It has been updated to include a comment from the president of the district’s teachers union.

Despite the worst education funding crisis in decades, a California school district boosted achievement enough to win a spot in the final four of the 2012 Broad Prize for Urban Education. The 53,000-student Corona-Norco Unified School District in Riverside County is in the running for $550,000 in college scholarships from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation.

The Broad Prize statue, comes with $550,000. (Source:  Broad Foundation website) Click to enlarge.
The Broad Prize statue, comes with $550,000. (Source: Broad Foundation website) Click to enlarge.

Since the Broad Foundation began awarding the prize ten years ago, two California districts have received top honors: Long Beach in 2003 and Garden Grove the following year. Both were also finalists several times (there is a three-year fallow period after winning), as was Florida’s Miami-Dade County Public Schools, which is one of the other three finalists this time around, along with nearby Palm Beach County and the Houston Independent School District. Runners-up each receive $150,000 in college scholarships.

California State Board of Education member Carl Cohn said he’s really excited about Corona-Norco being named a finalist because “there’s been a two-year drought where no California school district has been a Broad Prize finalist. I was starting to worry that the fiscal famine was taking a toll.”

Cohn spent seven years as a member of the Broad Prize review committee, and ten years as superintendent of Long Beach Unified, leaving the year before the district won the grand prize. To put the current fiscal climate in perspective, he said that during his tenure in Long Beach he cut the budget twice during the recession of the early nineties: $5 million one year and $9 million the next. “That’s absolute chump change compared to what districts are facing now, year after year.”

A data-rich decision

Districts can’t enter this competition or be nominated. They’re placed into a pool of 75 contenders that meet a specific set of criteria, including:

  • Serving at least 37,500 students
  • Having at least 40% of their students eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches
  • Having at least 40% of their students from minority groups
  • Being designated as an urban district

Those districts are then placed into a computer centrifuge of sorts, where they’re analyzed on a slew of criteria, such as how well students perform on state standardized tests; whether they’re closing the achievement gap by race, ethnicity, and family income; graduation rates; the number of students taking AP classes and passing the exams; participation rates and scores on the SAT and ACT college entrance exams; and student demographics by race, ethnicity, family income, English learners, and special education students.

The review panel gets a binderful of information on each district. “There’s an incredible amount of data that we see. The work that goes into this is really substantial,” said Christopher Cross, a member of the review committee and former Assistant Secretary of Education.

Cross is especially interested in making sure that a district’s improvements are sustainable. “It’s not a question of just having a good year, you have to have performance over time, ideally over four or five years,” he said.

In its press release announcing the finalists, the Broad Foundation cited several areas in which Corona-Norco stood out.  Last year, African-American students ranked in the top 10 percent in reading and math on the California Standards Tests.  Between 2008 and 2011, both participation rates and scores on college placement and Advanced Placement exams increased for Hispanic and African-American students.

EdTrust-West found similar improvements in its annual district report cards released last month.  Out of 147 unified districts measured, Corona-Norco ranked sixth overall, and stood out in particular on college readiness. Between 2010 and 2011, the number of African-American seniors who had completed the A-G courses needed for admission to Cal State and the University of California increased by 16 percentage points; for Latinos it was 10 percent higher.

For Superintendent Kent Bechler, 55, the Broad nomination is a great honor on his way out. Two weeks ago, he told Corona-Norco trustees that he plans to retire at the end of this year after five years leading the district.  He learned of the Broad Prize honor Wednesday as he was heading to New Zealand on vacation and so couldn’t be reached for comment.

Corona-Norco School Board President Bill Newberry and other top administrators credited Bechler for guiding academic improvement. “He’s a superior leader,” Newberry said. “Training, from school board members on down, is important to him.” Every Wednesday, every school has an hour of collaboration time either at the start or end of school – a practice Bechler instituted. In part due to a wave of retirements, Bechler has appointed new principals at the district’s five high schools, most of the middle schools and many elementary schools. “He made sure that the  leadership in the district office and in schools aligned with core values and expectations,” said  Assistant Superintendent Robert Taylor.

(Updated) Bechler’s leadership also gets high marks from Bill Fisher, the president of the Corona-Norco Teachers Association, who attributed much of the district’s success to Bechler’s  commitment to collaboration and problem solving. That has enabled the CNTA to become “more of an association and less of a union in working directly with the district” over budget cuts and scheduling. (The union has taken two straight years of 5 percent pay cuts to avoid layoffs.) And Bechler has brought in and promoted good leaders, Fisher said.

Even Broad Prize finalists, however, can find themselves ensnared by the No Child Left Behind law. In 2010, Corona-Norco became a Program Improvement district because it missed seven of 42 targets, some by a few percentage points, some by  double-digits. Latino, African-American and low-income students for the most had made steady progress, but not enough to keep up with escalating targets in math and English-language arts. The screening jury considers failure to make Adequate Yearly Progress goals under  NCLB goals as one factor of many, said Broad Foundation spokeswoman Erica Lepping.

School districts don’t pay much attention to the criticisms. The prize elevates them to model status. Superintendents are asked to speak around the country; other districts send administrators and teachers to visit and learn how to replicate the successes. “I’ve heard of superintendents being hired who have told the committees, ‘You hire me and I’ll make you a Broad finalist or a Broad winner,'” said Cross.

That’s exactly what the Broad Foundation is hoping for.  They want the prize is to spur competition and provide incentives for districts to improve academic achievement of disadvantaged students and “restore the public’s confidence in our nation’s schools by highlighting successful urban districts.”

Over the next few months, Broad will send teams of researchers and educators to each of the four finalists districts for a week-long site visit where they’ll observe classes, conduct interviews and meet with parents and community leaders.  All that information goes to a different review panel, known as the selection jury, which decides who gets the top prize.

Juror Richard Riley, who served as President Clinton’s education secretary, called the process very fair and well-thought-out.  “It emphasizes progress, it emphasizes leadership and it emphasize governance,” said Riley.  “All those are aspects that make up a really high quality district.”

The winner will be announced on October 23 in New York City.

Students can’t get “passed” math

Every year about 220 students at De Anza College in Cupertino voluntarily sign up for a yearlong double dose of math classes. It’s not easy to get in; about 700 students at the community college apply for the program, known as Math Performance Success (MPS). The main requirement for admission – besides applying early – is having a bad history with math. These are students who have failed a math course once or twice, or who have dropped out of the class.

Over three consecutive quarters, the program takes students from basic skills, such as elementary algebra, through college-level statistics, which is one of the required courses for students planning to transfer to the University of California or California State University. Over nine years, from 2001 to 2010, pass rates for MPS students were 18 to 28 percent higher for each course than for students in the traditional sequence.

It’s a resource-heavy program. Students get tutoring, counseling, and extra-long classes. For faculty, there’s built-in collaboration among fellow teachers and with support staff. In most California community colleges, just 55 percent of students taking college-level math classes will pass them with a “C” or better; a new report from EdSource found that rate hasn’t really changed in 20 years.

There’s been a lot of research on the sorry rate of completing basic skills classes, but the EdSource study, Passing When it Counts, reveals that even students who are deemed ready for college

Passing rates of college-level math by race and ethnicity. (Source:  EdSource) Click to enlarge.
Passing rates of college-level math by race and ethnicity. (Source: EdSource) Click to enlarge.

math are struggling to pass. Those rates vary by race and ethnicity. African American students passed 41 percent of the time; Latino students had a 49 percent pass rate; it was 60 percent for white students and 65 percent for Asian students. But those figures only apply to students who remained in the courses; between 18 and 30 percent dropped them.

“You probably find the same thing in every state, because math is a huge stumbling block,” said Nancy Shulock, director of the Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy at Sacramento State University. “I don’t know when and why this country got into such a math phobia, but it’s a terrible problem.”

Her own research found that how well and how quickly students complete college-level math in community college turns out to be a strong predictor of success. Steps to Success, a 2009 report that Shulock co-authored, found that students who passed college-level math within two years after enrolling in a community college were nearly three times as likely to earn a certificate or degree or transfer to a four-year college as students who didn’t finish in that time frame.

Schools matter

In addition to the gap by race and ethnicity, EdSource also found a significant disparity among colleges themselves. At 21 of the state’s 112 community colleges, less that half the students who were enrolled in college-level math passed the classes. At 26 colleges, more than 60 percent passed. (Click here for an interactive map showing pass rates for each college.)

Variations in passing rates by community college. (Source: EdSource). Click to enlarge.
Variations in passing rates by community college. (Source: EdSource). Click to enlarge.

Although the study didn’t explore this inconsistency in detail, researcher Matthew Rosin writes that “possible reasons for this variation include students’ backgrounds and how long it has been since they last took a math course, the quality and ongoing evaluation of instruction, and how students are placed into these math classes.”

It may also be a factor of geography. In communities hit hard by the economic downturn, students may also be working full time and dealing with the stress of earning enough to pay the rent, feed their families, and pay for child care.

Sacramento State’s Nancy Shulock suggests something else at play: how math is being taught. De Anza’s program is one example of an innovative method. Nationally, there’s a movement toward contextualization, incorporating math into career programs and other subject areas. “Nationally, there’s a lot of effort going on about the ways to teach math,” said Shulock.  “The research is showing that students can engage more if there’s something that makes them see this is not just a math problem.”

LAUSD, feds reach rights accord

Los Angeles Unified School District agreed to vast improvements in the way it teaches English learners and African American students after a 19-month investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights found students were being denied equal educational opportunities.

Even after years in the district, many English learners were languishing in ESL classes, never becoming fluent in English and therefore being shut out of the core academic classes they needed to graduate and enroll in college or job-training programs. Nearly 30 percent of the district’s 678,000 students are classified as English learners.

“In education, too few public school students who are not native English speakers learn English well enough, or fast enough, to prepare them for other core academic coursework, or for life after the school age years,” said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a written statement.

Duncan and Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Russlynn Ali announced the voluntary agreement before the Los Angeles School Board Tuesday, calling it the first successful settlement of a civil rights enforcement action taken under the Obama administration.

Ali’s office launched the investigation in March 2010 as a compliance review to examine what was happening in the district, not in response to any complaints. It was expanded to include a look at resources and academic opportunities for African American students following complaints by local civil rights organizations and, reportedly, some Los Angeles area members of Congress.

Ali called the resolution “a model for the country” during a telephone call with reporters, and said it “will have an impact that exceeds the borders of Los Angeles and indeed California as a whole.”

Under the settlement, the district pledged to rewrite its Master Plan for English Learners describing how it will improve English language instruction and prepare English learners to take the academic subjects they need to be on track to graduate from high school ready for college.

The plan will also include coaching and professional development to improve the quality of teachers who work with English learners and African American students.

Resources for African American students

In a separate set of actions, the district agreed to implement eight plans targeted at providing equal academic resources for African American students.

  • Gifted and talented program: Develop a district-wide plan to address the disproportionate participation of black and Hispanic students in GATE.
  • Technology resources: Increase the student/computer ratio in each school and provide more technology-based instruction.
  • Library resources: Increase library collections and make sure all schools have an electronic database of library resources.
  • Community school pilot project: Develop a community school in the area serving Annalee and Leapwood Elementary Schools that includes health and social services, encourage community participation in improving student achievement, and build a sustainable and replicable model to close the achievement gap for African American students.
  • College preparedness and career readiness: Develop a program to provide college and career readiness by providing support and information to help African American students prepare for college academics.
  • Academic language proficiency: Included in the English Learners Master Plan, the district will address the language proficiency needs of African American students beginning in elementary school.
  • Equal access to effective teachers: Be accountable for learning and support by providing professional development and monitoring instruction. Also, develop a plan to increase attendance for students and staff to a minimum of 96 percent.
  • Discipline: Analyze disciplinary policies, practices, and data and use that information to modify policies, where statistics show disproportionate discipline against African American students.

Ali praised the school district for cooperating with the investigation and the remedies. LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy said that improving graduation rates and academic performance of English learners and African American students is the district’s greatest challenge.

But some civil rights advocates say the plan seems vague. “I can’t tell whether it’s simply that the district is going to develop a program regarding English learner students’ college preparedness,” said a former administration official. “It doesn’t say that they’re actually going to meet any goal or how they’re going to get there.”

They hit all the right areas, agreed John Affeldt, a civil rights attorney with Public Advocates who specializes in educational equity issues. “It’s pretty sweeping in scope what they’re promising to do, but it’s pretty short on benchmarks and enforcement details.”

There’s no immediate deadline for putting all the pieces in place. The Office for Civil Rights will monitor the agreement and won’t sign off until LAUSD is in full compliance with civil rights laws. In the meantime, said Ali, OCR officials may pop in to check the district’s progress.

Few bragging rights in test scores

California students did better than ever on the state’s achievement tests.  More of them scored at the proficient level or above in math and English than at any time since the testing program began in 2003.  But the pace of change may put a twist on the fabled lesson of slow and steady wins the race.

California Standards Test results for all students in English and math between 2003 and 2011 (California Dept. of Education) click to enlarge
California Standards Test results for all students in English and math between 2003 and 2011 (California Dept. of Education) click to enlarge

Of about 4.7 million students in grades 2 through 11 who took the California Standards Tests (CST) last spring, 54 percent were proficient or better in English language arts (ELA) and 50 percent scored proficient or higher in math – an increase of 19 percentage points in ELA and 15 percentage points in math over nine years.

In announcing the results on Monday, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson credited the increases to the “heroic efforts of teachers” and “valiant work of administrators, classified school employees, and parents” despite the billions in cuts to education in recent years, and wondered aloud how well students might do if schools were funded at a decent level.

Slow and steady progress not enough

Here’s the part, however, where the seemingly large increases of 19 and 15 points begin to shrink. On a yearly basis, that amounts to barely 2 percentage points.

“You have to ask yourself is that enough?” said Ron Dietel, with the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, & Student Testing (CRESST) at UCLA. “They wouldn’t cause me to jump up and down and say it’s anything more than teaching the curriculum.”

What’s more, said Dietel, if you look at the state’s scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a standardized test taken by a large sample of fourth and eighth grade students across the country, California students score below the national average of proficient or better in math and English for both grades.

While NAEP isn’t aligned to California’s standards, Dietel said it’s still the “closest thing to having an outside barometer in terms of how states are performing.”

Two percent a year also doesn’t impress James Lanich, director of policy and research for California Business for Education Excellence, who says he’s not surprised by the results. “We basically have no functional accountability system,” said Lanich, explaining why there are no incentives for schools to try harder.

“I have a litmus test; I ask the question, ‘What happens to a school or a school district that is not doing its job?’ And the answer is ‘absolutely nothing.’ And I’ll ask the reverse question; ‘What happens to a school that’s doing an extraordinary job?’ And the answer is ‘absolutely nothing.'”

Minding the gap

Still, Lanich sees many examples of the “valiant” efforts that Torlakson described, particularly when it comes to closing the achievement gap.

English language arts scores by subgroup (California Dept. of Education) click to enlarge
English language arts scores by subgroup (California Dept. of Education) click to enlarge

Statewide, the gap has been with us for so long it seems immutable. While 76 percent of Asian students and 71 percent of white students score at proficient or above in ELA, just 41 percent of African American students and 42 percent of Hispanic students reach those levels.  Corresponding results in math are lower for every subgroup, with the exception of Asian students.

But some districts are making progress in bringing everyone closer together. Hispanic students in Santa Clara County reduced the achievement gap with white students from 43 percentage points to 38 in ELA, and from 39 to 30 in math for students in second through seventh grades.

“The important point to make,” said Charles Weis, Superintendent of the County Office of Education, is that “it didn’t happen because top performers came down; every group continued to go up this year and the Hispanic group grew even faster.”

Statewide, students showing the greatest one-year gains are those receiving special education services.  While the number scoring proficient or above in math fell within the statistically expected 3 percentage points, in English language arts they jumped by five points from 2010 to 2011.

But even that may not be what it appears.  As John Fensterwald reports today in the Educated Guess, the increase may have more to do with who isn’t taking the CST than who is taking it.

There are also signs the state is coming to terms with another gap of sorts: the subject gap. Ever since high stakes testing began, critics have worried that anything not math or English was getting short shrift. It’s not just a California thing. On the most recent NAEP history exam, 17 percent of eighth grade students performed at or above proficient, meaning more than 80 percent couldn’t explain changes in colonial slave practices or identify the rights protected by the first amendment.

So it seems noteworthy that more California students are taking the standardized tests in science and history and they’re scores are improving, albeit as slowly as in math and English.

Despite all the “buts,” it’s understandable that superintendents and principals are pleased – or at least relieved – by the results.  They show success in efforts to keep budget cuts as far away from the classroom as possible.  But – there’s that nagging word again – that margin of protection may not hold if districts are hit with mid-year cuts.

“That really is the big question right now,” said Santa Clara County Superintendent Charles Weis.  “If we keep starving the system it’s inevitable that we’re going to see a dip, and I’m just very pleased that we didn’t see it this year.”

New way of counting dropouts

There’s not much new in the latest graduation and drop-out rates released yesterday by the California Department of Education (CDE), except for the way they were computed.

For the first time since the student data system, known as CALPADS, went online, California has been able to track each student who entered ninth grade in the 2006-07 school year throughout high school using individual identifiers assigned to each child on the first day of kindergarten.

Nearly three-quarters of the class of 2010 graduated – 74.4 percent to be precise – and 18.2 percent dropped out.  (We’ll get to the missing 7.4 percent shortly).

According to the CDE, the graduation rate is about four points higher than the 2009-10 academic year, but the Department also cautions not to make comparisons because of the change in calculations.

This year also marks a first for including dropout rates for middle school students, and state officials don’t like what they see. Nearly 4,200 students dropped out during eighth grade and another 13,067 left school after graduating from middle school. These are 14- and 15-year-olds. A 2007 law requires districts to incorporate those numbers into the 2011 base API to be released next spring.

“Our research shows that chronic absence from school even as early as kindergarten is a strong indicator of whether a child will drop out of school later,” said State Superintendent Tom Torlakson in a written statement. “Clearly we need to invest more in programs designed to keep elementary and middle school students in school.”

Little movement on closing the gap

The numbers are also bleak for Hispanic and African American students. More than 30 percent of African American students dropped out of high school and 59 percent graduated. There was an increase in the graduation rate for Hispanics, with about 4,700 more graduates last year than the year before, but the total is still just 67.7 percent. Compare that with Asians, 89.4 percent, and white students, 83.4 percent, and the gap is significant.

Some individual districts, however, are models of success for raising graduation rates. In Long Beach Unified School District, the third

Graduation and drop-out rates by race and ethnicity for Long Beach Unified School District. (California Department of Education). Click to enlarge.
Graduation and dropout rates by race and ethnicity for Long Beach Unified School District (California Department of Education). Click to enlarge.

largest district in the state, nearly 75 percent of Hispanic students graduated last year, along with more than 73 percent of African American students. The dropout rate for African Americans there is about 40 percent below the state average.

The district has been a leader in using test data to provide differentiated instruction to students, has strong career technical programs integrated into academics, and will open a credit recovery high school next year to try to keep students who need just a few more credits from giving up.

“We know we can do more and we have a number of plans,” said district spokesman Chris Eftychiou.  “So we’re not complacent about these results, as encouraging as they are for Long Beach.”

Missing information could be more interesting

No one may have been waiting for this new data more than U.C. Santa Barbara Education Professor Russell Rumberger, who founded the California Dropout Research Project.

“I would characterize this as a good first step in better information about graduates and dropouts, but there are still some additional questions we’d like to get answered,” said Rumberger.

He’s particularly interested in knowing how many students were excluded from the statistics and why. Districts can remove students who fall into one of ten categories, including transferring to a private school, moving out of state or out of the country, dying, enrolling in an adult education program, and being home schooled. These students aren’t included as dropouts or graduates; they’re pulled from the cohort.

Some alternative programs also aren’t included. GEDs are listed separately in the state data, as are special education students who earn a certificate of completion.

With all the high school alternatives today, Rumberger said it would be helpful to know how many of the excluded students went into one of those programs and earned a diploma. Conversely, he wants to know how many students included in the data transferred into a California public school after the initial ninth grade cohort was identified.

The answers that Rumberger is seeking are available in CALPADS, but weren’t released. Karl Scheff, administrator of the educational demographics office, said he didn’t think anyone wanted that information.

Scheff says he also is not sure if the CDE will add a fifth and sixth year to the cohort to follow up on students who needed more than four years to graduate. Those 34,086 students make up most of that 7.4 percent difference between graduation and dropout rates.

To Rumberger, who has focused so much of his research on getting to the root causes of the dropout crisis in order to inform public policy, those details are essential.

“We don’t want to underestimate graduation even if it doesn’t happen in the traditional system.”

Summer School keeps gap at bay

A couple hundred middle school students will set up their camcorders and interview state legislators at the Capitol tomorrow, asking about their fondest summer memories. The recordings will be uploaded to a website called “Summer Matters to You.” It’s not simply a higher tech version of “What I did on my Summer Vacation” – there’s a slight ulterior motive. The students are part of  National Summer Learning Day, and the recordings are also meant to promote summer school by showing the academic, cultural, and financial schism that separates kids when summer starts. Many public officials aren’t aware of it.

While middle-income kids may go to camp or on family vacations or even spend time over the summer reading, that’s not how it is for many low-income kids, said Jennifer Peck, executive director of the Oakland-based Partnership for Children and Youth, which is coordinating tomorrow’s program at the Capitol. They often have no structured time and almost never have the opportunity to apply the lessons of the school year at museums and national parks or through travel. So events are taking place around the country Tuesday to highlight a growing body of research pointing to summer as the time when the academic achievement gap grows wider and more formidable.

The Rand Corporation and The Wallace Foundation released the newest report last week  Making Summer Count: How summer programs can boost children’s learning.” Researchers Jennifer Sloan McCombs and Catherine Augustine analyzed studies and costs, and conducted phone interviews and site visits. What they found shouldn’t really be surprising, but it still shocks.

Summer losses compound

“By the end of summer, students perform, on average, one month behind where they left off in the spring,” they wrote. “Of course, not all students experience ‘average’ losses. Summer learning loss disproportionately affects low-income students.”

But that’s not the worst of it, said Catherine Augustine when we spoke about the research. She said the most disturbing finding is that this learning loss is cumulative. “So each summer kids fall further and further behind.”

Their report calls out the work of Johns Hopkins sociology professor Karl Alexander, who describes the summer learning loss as a problem of  “monumental proportions.” His research shows that while low- and middle-income kids learn at about the same pace during the school year, they go in opposite directions over the summer.  He estimates that a full two-thirds of the achievement gap that appears in ninth grade can be attributed to summer learning loss.

“This is pretty definitive what’s going on here for kids, and summer needs to be front and center piece of the puzzle when we’re addressing the achievement gap,” said Jennifer Peck of Partnership for Children and Youth.

Low income students lose more knowledge than middle class peers over the summer (courtesy Partnership for Children and Youth, click to enlarge)
Low-income students lose more knowledge than middle-class peers over the summer (courtesy Partnership for Children and Youth; click to enlarge)

She emailed over a graph she described as the best illustration of what happens to kids during the summer, especially low-income kids. On it, the red line representing middle-income and higher-wealth students is making a steady increase, while the blue line below it, depicting low-income children, is zigging and zagging, but trending downward overall.

Summer school statistics hard to come by

The cultural and financial fissures that are less important during the school year become profound in the summer, when some kids go on family vacations to museums, historic sites, and parks, while others have very little scheduled time.

In 2008-09, the National Summer Learning Association commissioned a cursory scan of six California school districts to get a sense of what was happening with summer school.  Of the cities they looked at, said Peck, only 27 percent of the students were enrolled in some kind of summer learning program. “The majority were in what we call ‘self-care.’”

Statewide, nobody knows much about the prevalence of summer school or the quality. The California Department of Education has all sorts of data on the achievement gap. They know how students in every school in the state score on the California Standards Test.  They can compare those figures by race, gender, ethnicity, income, disabilities, and English language proficiency. Yet, no one collects information on how many districts run summer school or how many students attend.

The look of high quality

There may not be good figures, but everyone involved in the field believes the number of programs has been falling in recent years as schools use money that had been put into summer school to pay for basic necessities during the regular academic year.

The Packard Foundation stepped in to try to fill that vacuum. Packard is funding some California districts to improve their summer offerings. It tapped districts that were already running strong after-school programs, had a coordinator and some community partners in place, and were putting some of their supplemental instructional funds into summer programs.

They selected eight districts: Oakland, Los Angeles, Santa Ana, San Francisco, Sacramento, Gilroy, Whittier, and Fresno – a mix of urban and rural districts. Fresno was one of the first, and its program with Packard has been under way for three years. Alix Frazer, director of after-school programs with the Fresno County Office of Education, says they do pre- and post-summer-school tests and preliminary results show some gains. “We are getting indications that it is helping the kids as they return to school,” said Frazer.

What makes the Fresno program work is that it goes beyond the traditional summer school of three hours a day of math and English. It’s a full-day program with enrichment activities so the kids get some summertime. There’s a robotics program focused on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM), and subjects such as sewing and designing clothes, fishing, canoeing, ropes courses, even college tours. Quite a bit of it is offered through collaboration with local community organizations.

The idea is to make the program enticing enough that students will want to spend six hours a day for five or six weeks of their summer in school. But districts shouldn’t go overboard on the sizzle.

Last summer in Baltimore, more than 16,500 middle school students willingly and enthusiastically showed up for summer school to work on math, a jump of several thousand more students from the previous summer. It wasn’t a love of variables that lured them away from riveting hours spent on video games, music, and hanging out; it was Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps. The world record holder for gold medals, who runs a swim school in Baltimore, partnered with the city school district to provide swimming lessons for summer school students.

“It was mobbed,” said Augustine, “but they weren’t coming for the math.”

NCLB waivers may benefit state

California could benefit from Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s ultimatum to grant states waivers from controversial parts of No Child Left Behind if Congress doesn’t act on reauthorization before the next school year starts.

During a telephone call with reporters Monday afternoon, Duncan said the Department of Education is working on a package of reforms he calls “Plan B,” which would give states flexibility from some requirements of NCLB, principally the mandate that every student be proficient in English and math by 2014. (Read the Secretary’s statement here). In return, states would have to commit to key reforms similar to those emphasized in Race to the Top and the blueprint for reauthorization – teacher accountability, higher standards, and turning around the lowest performing schools .

“As it exists now, NCLB is creating a slow-motion train wreck for children, parents, teachers, and principals,” said Duncan. Unless the law’s changed, an overwhelming number of schools in the country may soon be mislabeled as failing. This will trigger impractical and ineffective sanctions.”

As of 2010-2011, nearly 1,300 California schools were in year 5 of program improvement (PI), according to a recent report by EdSource. Duncan has said that unless the 100 percent proficiency standard is eased, 82 percent of all schools in the country will be in PI status.

The waivers aren’t automatic, but California stands a decent chance of getting one, said Rick Miller, a principal in Capitol Impact, which runs training programs on education policy for legislative staff. “Even though the state didn’t win a Race to the Top grant, we were a finalist in round two. We were doing growth models before growth models were cool,” said Miller. “And given that we’ve adopted Common Core, given that we’re part of an assessment consortium (SMARTER Balanced), and given that we have said that we’re willing to use growth as part of an accountability model, I think that California should be in serious consideration for a waiver.”

NCLB was the cornerstone of President George W. Bush’s education policy when he signed it in 2002. It’s been up for reauthorization since 2007 without any success. President Obama wants it overhauled before the end of the current Congressional session, but the effort seems to have stalled. Sec. Duncan said he’s seen some movement in recent weeks and believes that reaching a bipartisan agreement “remains the best way to create a comprehensive solution to the problems created by NCLB.” Nevertheless, he said he’s not going to wait around to see what happens.

“If we start to move forward and then Congress revs up steam and builds momentum we can back off at any time,” said Duncan. “The only option I’m not comfortable with is doing nothing.”

New social network for minority students

Zoomz.net is a new social network for minority students interested in or currently enrolled in college to share their experiences.

You’re a senior in high school,  where there’s one guidance counselor for 2,000 students in your low-income school, and you don’t know who to talk  to about information about financial aid – or whether  to take AP history or what colleges you should shoot for.  Or you’re a freshman at Cal State, the first your Latino family to go to college, and you feel lost. Everyone but you seems to know what to do and how to study;  your self-confidence is ebbing.

Where to turn to? One place is Zoomz.net, a new social network for first-generation high school and college students to meet and interact with each other. A Facebook for the college-hungry minority students, Zoomz offers testimonials from “first generation heroes,”  blogs, advice corners, FAQs on applying to colleges and dealing with family issues, and discussions on college life, like “how to avoid the so-called freshmen 15” (as in pounds, not credits). And, like any good social network, it has member pages with photos and profiles. Zoomz is approaching 300 users.

Launched in August by ALean, a small education nonprofit based in Los Altos, Zoomz is just off the ground and waiting to go viral. Teachers and guidance counselors of minority students: It’s worth checking out and spreading the word.

SJ 2020: Will districts work together?

San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed and Santa Clara County Superintendent Chuck Weis are leading SJ2020, an ambitious initiative to end the achievement gap in the state’s third largest city by 2020. But will the city’s 19 school districts collaborate in ways they’re not accustomed to in order to make it happen?

Mayor Chuck Reed and Santa Clara County Superintendent Chuck Weis are betting that an appeal for collaboration,  a moral imperative and a hint of money will work where the iron fist of No Child Left Behind law hasn’t. Here’s hoping they’re right.

Weis and Reed are the instigators of SJ2020, an initiative to see that all students in San Jose are proficient at grade level by the end of the next decade. Last Thursday, a handful of superintendents, college presidents, charter school leaders and non-profit executives were among the 300 people at City Hall to pledge their efforts.

No Child Left Behind demands that all children be proficient in English language arts and math by 2014. There’s been incremental progress — but, with five years to go, at least 40,000 students — and probably closer to 60,000 or more than 40 percent of San Jose’s children — aren’t at grade level. Continue reading “SJ 2020: Will districts work together?”