In & out of step with top ed systems

Updated at 2:45 pm, April 2

Andreas Schleicher looks the part of a diplomat. Tall and slim, with thick gray hair, and impeccable English spoken with a European accent. He is also the consummate diplomat when it comes to assessing the United States’ standing in education. In most countries, low results on the Programme for International Student Assessment, known as the PISA exam, led to contemplation and action. In the United States, not so much; at least not initially.

“I don’t think there was really much of an impact in the year 2000 when the results came first,” said Schleicher, who oversees PISA for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD. That year the United States ranked 15th in literacy, retrieving information, and interpreting texts; and 11th in reflecting on texts. The U.S. was behind what have come to be the usual suspects, including Finland, Canada, Korea and Japan, as well as some nations that give the U.S. a collective wince, such as Iceland, Ireland and, mon Dieu, France.

U.S. score on 2000 PISA in Reading. (Source:  PISA) Click to enlarge.
U.S. score on 2000 PISA in Reading. (Source: PISA) Click to enlarge.

Schleicher said the big impact came after the 2006 results. That’s when U.S. 15-year-olds scored 21st in the world in science literacy, 19th in identifying scientific issues, 23rd in explaining phenomena scientifically, and 22nd in using scientific evidence. That got the attention of politicians, which informed the development of Common Core standards and Race to the Top, the competitive $4.35 billion federal program to give states money to improve student achievement through innovative strategies.

“I think the Common Core standards hold a lot of promise. I wouldn’t underrate the potential impact they can have eventually on what happens in classrooms,” Schleicher said. “I think the challenge is to translate that into instructional practices.”

Schleicher discussed these optimistic notes and more during a video interview (click here for part 1 and here for part 2) with Thoughts on Public Education when he was in California for a conference at Stanford University on the Finnish educational system, which we wrote about here.

Valuing teachers

Some of the biggest differences between the United States and the better scoring nations on PISA is in the prestige of the teaching profession. “Pay in the United States is comparatively low,” said Schleicher. Although U.S. teachers may earn more money than those in other countries, the compensation is significantly lower than for other professions. That’s not the case in places like Singapore, where teachers are paid on par with other civil servants, including lawyers.

Salary is one aspect of teacher satisfaction, but it isn’t solely responsible for the high attrition rate among new teachers, which is 30% in the first five years, according to the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future.

In other countries, teachers are given time during the school day to collaborate with their colleagues and to observe master teachers, and they receive high-quality professional development. They also have a career ladder that isn’t just aimed at administration.

“If you tell a person who’s 25 years old, you are in school, you are going to be a math teacher, and 25 years from now you’re still going to be in that school as a math teacher, you’re telling young people that there is no future for them,” explained Schleicher. Other countries have professional progressions that could lead to the principal’s or superintendent’s office, but also include training other teachers, going into curriculum development, and other non-bureaucratic positions. “That way,” said Schleicher, “you’ll retain your best teachers in the profession.”

Factoring for diversity

When asked what three steps the United States should take to propel itself back onto the top of the charts, Schleicher was quick with an answer.

  • Common Core standards:  The U.S. has already begun this process of developing a set of clear goals detailing what good performance looks like.
  • Building capacity for delivering Common Core:  Attracting the best people into the teaching profession and providing the resources, support and professional develop to retain them.
  • Developing an equitable system:  This takes the second step even farther by attracting the best teachers and principals to work in the most challenging classrooms and schools, and ensuring that the money gets where it can make the biggest difference.

Critics of the PISA rankings cite the vast differences between the United States and some of the countries at the top of the list as significant challenges to employing some of these measures.  Singapore and China have powerful central governments.  Finland lacks racial and ethnic diversity, and the entire population of the country could fit into California’s public schools with a million seats left over.

Schleicher said that PISA does consider the environment in comparing countries, including diversity in wealth, language, ethnic background, and religion.  The United States isn’t alone in dealing with diversity, “there are a lot of countries that are a lot more successful than the United States in moderating socio-economic diversity,”  he said. “The context of an education system is a challenge, but the test of truth for an education system is how it moderates that context.”

Common Core, ‘dubious causality’

The horse race of international rankings in education is based on misconceptions that can lead countries such as the United States to consider sweeping reforms that probably won’t improve academic achievement, according to a new report. The 2012 Brown Center Report on American Education released yesterday by the Brookings Institution makes a case against Common Core standards – arguing that California’s current standards are superior – and cautions against placing too much weight on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and international comparisons.

“We have to be careful when looking at test score data; it’s not the same thing as how many points did the New York Giants score versus the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. These tests have to be interpreted very carefully,” said author Tom Loveless in a video accompanying the study.

Loveless is especially critical of using international exams, such as PISA, to rank countries’ educational systems. The United States tends to score in the average range on the test, behind top performers including Shanghai, Finland, Singapore, and Canada.

In what Loveless calls a flaw of “dubious causality,” lower performing countries mistakenly look for a single policy to explain the success of top performers. One of those dubious connections he’s referring to is Common Core standards. He said advocates of Common Core often point out that the top ten countries all have national standards. But, said Loveless, “if you look at the bottom ten nations in the world, they all have national standards too.”

The report cites arguments by two outspoken critics of Common Core in California, Ze’ev Wurman and Bill Evers, who “conclude that the math standards, in particular, are inferior to existing standards in Massachusetts and California.”

Wurman was a member of the Mathematics Curriculum Framework and Criteria Committee that developed California’s 1997 mathematics framework, and Evers served on the 1996 California State Commission for the Establishment of Academic Content and Performance. Both were members of the California State Academic Content Standards Commission and, as TOP-Ed reported here, their fellow commission members overwhelmingly rejected their efforts to rewrite the Common Core standards to look like California’s earlier math standards.

One of those other commissioners is Scott Farrand, a math professor at Sacramento State University.  He questioned how California’s standards can be considered the highest in the country when two-thirds of elementary students score advanced or proficient on the California Standards Test, but that falls to less than a quarter by eleventh grade. What that says to Farrand is that merely setting a high bar doesn’t improve achievement.

“What sets the Common Core State Standards apart is not the level of the standards, however one might measure that. It is their focus and coherence, and their insistence on student understanding,” said Farrand.  He’d like to see the “my standards are higher than yours” posturing end so the people responsible for implementing Common Core standards in California can spend their time understanding “what standards can and should do,” rather than engaging in “silly bickering” that detracts from that progress.

Doubts over 8th grade algebra for all

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeb Bush’s ed reform show

You could say that the only folks missing from the National Summit on Education Reform at San Francisco’s Palace Hotel were teachers, but that would be wrong, on a technicality; they were outside protesting. Teachers might have had a vested interest, or even an interesting viewpoint, in the issues raised during the two-day conference. Stuff like tenure, seniority, testing, Common Core standards, and using technology in education.

Governor Jeb Bush, Chairman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education. (Photo from Foundation website)
Governor Jeb Bush, Chairman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education. (Photo from Foundation website)

But, no, they weren’t invited into the inner sanctum of power brokers, policy makers, and politicians brought together for two days of learning and lobbying by former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education. It might have been awkward for them be in the room when Idaho’s schools chief praised his state legislature for eliminating teacher tenure, or when Indiana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction described the “herd mentality of the union,” and remarked that “it takes an act of God to get rid of a tenured teacher.”

Still, anyone expecting a strict conservative ideology would have been confused. Don’t get me wrong; the only bona fide liberal in sight was Ben Austin, director of Parent Revolution, the Los Angeles-based nonprofit behind the parent empowerment movement. And even Austin is having a hard time maintaining his pedigree these days, at least with the teachers unions. Still, he was on the inside with other players who also can’t be pinned down other than to say they’re all “reformers.”

For example, Checker Finn, voice of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, moderated a panel with Anne Bryant, director of the National Association of School Boards – who playfully quipped that she and Checker disagree about 100 percent of the time – at one end of the dais, and Joel Klein, the former New York City schools chancellor and current Vice President and COO of News Corp’s Education Division, on the other end.

News Corp’s main man, Rupert Murdoch, delivers a keynote address today; after all, he recently plopped down $360 million to buy Wireless Generation, a Brooklyn-based education technology and consulting company. You’ll recall that News Corp already knew a bit about wireless technology used in cell phones.

But last night, the keynoter was Melinda Gates, and earlier Thursday attendees heard from Sal Khan, the unassuming Silicon Valley genius behind Khan Academy, the nonprofit developer of thousands of high-quality online lessons available free of charge, who joked that he used to think YouTube was for cats playing pianos, not for serious mathematics.

Despite their seemingly diverse perspectives, the speakers all do fit together, each bringing a puzzle piece that gives shape to Jeb Bush’s vision of an American education system that’s once again an equal competitor among industrialized nations.

“My personal belief is there is no one single thing that needs to get done,” said Bush during his opening remarks. [Read the entire speech here]. What it will require, he said, is a combination of school choice (vouchers), Common Core standards, rigorous assessments, consequences for anything less than excellence, and using technology to transform education.

Bush reached out to odd bedfellows to make his case, though. At one point he borrowed from Stanford Professor and teacher advocate Linda Darling-Hammond, describing academic standards in the United States as a “mile wide and an inch deep,” while the rest of the world concentrates on fewer core concepts and teaches them in depth.

A few minutes later, when deriding the self-esteem movement, he quoted former Harvard President Larry Summers, whom Bush described as a “kind of politically incorrect guy,” as saying “we need to stop telling kids they need to have self-esteem to achieve and start telling them they need to achieve to get self-esteem.” It was the only line that drew loud applause.

It’s also interesting to note that Jeb Bush’s support for Common Core standards is consistent with his view of federalism: Washington can and should play a strong role by setting expectations, but then it had better step aside and let the states decide how to get there.

“We have 50 states, trying 50 wacky things through trial and error, which I think is the best way to try to solve problems rather than the kind of D.C. solution these days, which is top down,” said Bush. “I like the more dynamic solutions, and our federal system is designed exactly for this. We do have laboratories of democracy that are prepared to make the changes.”

Brown saves ed bills for last

Kathryn Baron contributed to this article. See additional coverage today in TOPed.

Signatures and vetoes went flying out of the State Capitol over the weekend as Gov. Brown raced to meet the October 9 deadline to take action on all the bills passed by the Legislature. He signed three bills that will lead to significant changes in what students are taught in the classroom. Two will advance the process of adopting the Common Core standards in math and reading; the third will start the process of updating the state’s science curriculum. And he okayed bills making it easier for foster youth to enroll in college, allowing trained school staff to administer a life-saving drug for epileptic seizures, and giving the public more say in what school districts do to programs once protected by categorical funding that’s now available for general school use.

AB 250 (Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica): The State Board of Education adopted Common Core in August 2010. This bill sets out the timetable for creating curriculum frameworks, which will put muscle and flesh on the skeleton of the basic standards to better guide teachers on what students are expected to know. The math frameworks will be completed by May 30, 2013 and English language arts a year later. That in turn will lead to the process for textbook adoption. The bill also extends the contract for the current California Standards Tests through 2014, at which point, if all is on schedule, the new Common Core assessments being developed by a consortium of states will replace them.

SB 140 (Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach): The state is scheduled to start using the new Common Core assessments in 2014, one year before the State Board of Education is to formally adopt new textbooks aligned with Common Core standards. That’s clearly backwards, so SB 140 instructs the State Department of Education and the Board to compile a list of supplemental instructional materials for math and English language arts in elementary and middle school to use in the interim. Districts will have more flexibility than in the past in choosing materials; they’ll have a lot to choose from, since other states will be sharing what they’ve developed.

SB 300 (Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley): Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson will appoint a committee including elementary and secondary science teachers, school administrators, and university professors to revise science standards for the first time since they were created 13 years ago. Their product will go to the State Board no later than March 2013 for its approval by July 30, 2013. The new standards will be based on the Next Generation Science Standards and will be the science version of the Common Core standards, a multistate effort, led by Achieve Inc. The standards will be an elaboration of the Framework for K-12 Education, written by the Board of Science Education of the National Research Council.

SB 161 (Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar): Until a few years ago, school nurses or trained teachers and staff administered a potentially life-saving emergency drug treatment to children suffering severe epileptic seizures. Nowadays, not only are school nurses a dying breed, but those remaining are no longer allowed to train anyone else to administer the drug, known as Diastat.

State law already allows teachers and staff to administer other emergency medications, but Diastat is different because it’s given rectally. SB 161 allows school staff to voluntarily take a course to learn how to administer Diastat with parents’ written consent.

AB 189 (Mike Eng, D-Monterey Park): Ever since the Legislature approved categorical flex starting in 2008, school districts have been able to take money that had been targeted for specific programs, like adult education, and put it into their general funds. Until now, the state hasn’t been able to track where the money is going and the public has had little say in what happens to categorical programs. AB 189 requires districts to hold public hearings when they propose eliminating categorical programs and creates a new resource code for reporting the expenditures to the state. The law also helps preserve some adult education programs by allowing districts to charge fees for classes in English as a second language and citizenship. AB 189 sunsets on July 1, 2015.

AB 194 (Jim Beall, D-San Jose): Foster youth have a dismal record of attending and completing college. About 20 percent of foster youth enroll in college, and barely 3 percent graduate. AB 194 requires the 112 community college campuses and California State University campuses to grant priority enrollment to current and former foster youth up through age 24, and urges the University of California to do the same. Supporters hope the new law will help keep foster youth in college by making it easier for them to get the classes they need to graduate, especially as budget cuts have forced public colleges to reduce the number of course sections they offer. The bill would sunset July 1, 2017.

Baker’s dozen bills before Brown

(Kathy and John combined efforts on this post.)

It all comes down to one person. Dozens of education bills passed in the final days of the legislative session are now in Gov. Brown’s hands. He has until October 9th to sign or veto. Here are highlights of some of the most controversial and comprehensive measures.

SB 611 (Darrell Steinberg, D- Sacramento): The University of California has approved thousands of Career Technical Education courses as qualifying for admission to UC and CSU campuses under the A-G requirements. But nearly all of them have been approved only as electives, not as core subjects. This bill would authorize a new UC institute to work directly with high school teachers to develop dozens of CTE courses that would qualify as math, English, and science courses for UC and CSU admission – a big shift in UC’s approach to CTE and potentially a boost for partnership academies and programs that stress career and college readiness.

SB 547 (Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento):  This bill would replace California’s long-standing school rating system, known as the Academic Performance Index, or API, with an Education Quality Index, or EQI. It would also fulfill the original intent of California’s Public Schools Accountability Act of 1999 by requiring the State Department of Education, in consultation with an advisory committee, to develop multiple measures for the EQI rating that include graduation rates, a college preparedness index, and a career readiness index in addition to the STAR test and High School Exit Exam. A similar bill, AB 400, passed the Legislature in 2007, but was vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger.

AB 1330 (Warren Furutani, D-Long Beach): High school students would be able to substitute a year-long career technical course (CTE) for either a year of foreign language or of visual/performing arts as one of 13 courses needed to graduate from high school. Supporters of the bill say it would give students at risk of dropping out an engaging alternative to keep them interested in school. Opponents, who include those who want to qualify more students for four-year colleges, worry districts will cut back courses in arts and foreign languages, making it harder for students to qualify for CSU and UC campuses. Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed a similar bill last year.

AB 47 (Jared Huffman, D-Marin): Under the 2-year-old Open Enrollment Act, students in the state’s 1,000 lowest-performing schools are theoretically eligible to attend better schools outside of their own district (it’s too soon to see how often it’s been used). This bill would tighten eligibility rules to weed out schools that, because of quirks in the law, are not among the lowest-performing 10 percent. It would  exclude schools with over 700 API, among the new requirements. Open Enrollment was passed to strengthen the state’s Race to the Top application. Republican senators strongly opposed loosening the law.

SB 300 (Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley): California’s science standards haven’t been touched since their adoption 13 years ago. This bill, written by the California Science Teachers Association, would establish a process to revise them by 2013. Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson would appoint a committee of science educators that would do the work under a tight timeline; the State Board of Education would have to approve the new standards. The standards would be based on Next Generation Science Standards, a multistate effort that would become the science version of the Common Core standards. Traditionalists who created the current standards are skeptical.

AB 131 (Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles): Undocumented students who meet certain requirements have been allowed to pay in-state tuition at California’s public colleges and universities since 2002. But efforts to provide them with public financial aid have failed for years. That began to change this year when Gov. Brown signed AB 130, the first of two bills by Assemblyman Cedillo collectively known as the California Dream Act. While AB 130 allows undocumented students who meet the in-state tuition requirements to apply for private financial aid offered through state colleges and universities, AB 131 is a harder sell. It would open CalGrants to these students. Opponents say that in a time of steep budget cuts it’s unfair to legal residents to give money to undocumented students, and they warn that it could create an incentive for more people to come here illegally.

AB 743 (Marty Block, D-Lemon Grove): Nowhere is the disjuncture between high school and college expectations more pronounced than in the state’s 112 community colleges. Between 70 and 85 percent of students who take a community college placement exam aren’t ready for college-level math or English. But there’s no consistency in the tests, because there are nearly as many different exams as there are community colleges. AB 743 would establish uniform placement exams in math and English.  They wouldn’t be mandatory, but colleges that continued to use their own placement tests would miss out of big savings from the volume discount.

SB 161 (Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar): Children who suffer severe epileptic seizures risk brain damage or even death unless they receive emergency medical care within five minutes. SB 161 would allow school staff to voluntarily take a course to learn how to administer Diastat, a an emergency anti-seizure medication, with parents’ written consent. State law already allows teachers and staff to administer other emergency medications, but Diastat is different because it’s given rectally. Although the bill has strong bipartisan support, it’s been targeted by major labor unions, including both teachers unions and the nurses association, which tried to use it as leverage to reverse the loss of school nurses in recent years due to budget cuts.

Foster youth

AB 194 (Jim Beall, D-San Jose): Assemblyman Beall has been a strong proponent of legislation to help foster youth complete their education. AB 194 requires the 112 community college campuses and California State University campuses to grant priority enrollment to current and former foster youth up through age 24, and urges the University of California to do the same. Supporters hope the bill will help keep foster youth in college by making it easier for them to get the classes they need to graduate, especially as budget cuts have forced public colleges to reduce the number of course sections they offer. Currently, about 20 percent of foster youth enroll in college, and barely 3 percent graduate. The bill would sunset July 1, 2017.

AB 709 (Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica): It’s not uncommon for foster children to be moved to different schools many times during their youth.  This bill would add a section to the state’s Health and Safety Code, bringing it into conformity with provisions of the Education Code requiring schools to immediately enroll foster youth even if they can’t provide the school with all their medical records, including proof of immunizations. This bill has no opposition and passed the Senate and Assembly without any no votes.

Common Core

Three bills before the governor would combine to place California on a timeline to prepare for the implementation of Common Core standards and assessments.

AB 250 (Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica): The State Board of Education approved Common Core standards in math and English language arts a year ago. The state belongs to a multistate consortium that is developing the Common Core standardized tests that will be aligned to the new standards. This bill would start the process of filling in the gaps. It would require the State Board to adopt new curriculum frameworks, which flesh out standards into a detailed road map, by May 2013 for math and a year later for English language arts. It would require the state Department of Education to work with the State Board on developing training for teachers in Common Core subjects. It also would extend STAR, the current standardized tests, until the replacements are introduced in 2015.

SB 140 (Alan Lowenthal, D- Long Beach): California has postponed any new textbook adoptions until after Common Core standards are in place. But with those new standards come the new student achievement tests. In order to make sure that students are prepared for those Common Core assessments, this bill would require the State Department of Education and the State Board of Education to develop criteria for evaluating supplemental instructional materials that include Common Core content standards, and then to compile a list of those materials for kindergarten to eighth grade for English language arts and kindergarten to seventh grade for math. (Eighth grade math isn’t included because of a disagreement about whether the state’s math standard should include Algebra 1 in that grade.) Schools wouldn’t be required to choose from the list, or to use any supplemental materials. SB 140 has no organized opposition; however, votes in the Assembly and Senate were almost entirely along party lines.

AB 124 (Felipe Fuentes, D-Sylmar): Fuentes’ bill ensures that the Common Core standards extend to English learners. It would require the State Superintendent of Public Instruction to convene a group of experts in English language instruction to revise and align the curriculum, materials, and assessments for Common Core so they’re appropriate for English learners.

A common thread in education bills

All three bills designed to put California on steady footing for the coming of Common Core standards are now in Gov. Brown’s hands. State lawmakers yesterday approved the last of those measures along with measures that would require a common placement exam at community colleges, provide smoother passage for foster youth at state colleges, and grant relief for schools misidentified as failing.

Preparing for the common era

Assembly member Julia Brownley’s (D-Santa Monica) bill, AB 250, gets the process rolling for California to develop curriculum frameworks and assessments that are aligned to the coming Common Core standards.

The State Board of Education adopted Common Core state standards in English language arts and math last year, but until now California hasn’t had a process in place to align the curriculum, instructional materials, and student testing with the new standards, said Brownley in a statement issued after the vote.

“The Common Core state standards establish clear goals for learning to provide students with 21st century skills they need for success, such as critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and creativity,” said Brownley. “Once we implement these standards we will be able to compare the academic achievements of California students with those of students across the country.”

As we reported here last week, Brownley’s bill also postpones the end of the state’s Standardized Testing and Reporting program, or STAR, by a year, until January 1, 2015, when it will be replaced by the new student assessments developed for Common Core.

The bill requires the State Superintendent of Public Instruction to work with the State Board of Education to develop model professional development training in the new frameworks and standards for teachers and principals.

Her bill also does something very uncommon in government; it simplifies a few things. Currently, the group that that recommends curriculum frameworks to the State Board of Education and develops criteria for evaluating those materials is called the Curriculum Development and Supplemental Materials Commission. AB 250 renames it the Instructional Quality Commission.

Under its new, lighter banner, the commission would recommend curriculum frameworks that are aligned to Common Core standards. The State Board would have until May 30, 2013 to adopt the frameworks in math, and until the following May for English language arts. Those frameworks would have to include strategies for teaching disabled students.

AB 124, by Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes (D-Sylmar), ensures that the standards extend to English learners. His bill requires the State Superintendent to convene a group of experts to revise the curriculum, materials, and assessments for Common Core so they’re appropriate for English learners.

Common testing at Community Colleges

One of the biggest disgraces in California’s goal to ensure all high school graduates are college ready is the number of students required to enroll in remedial classes in community college.  About 70 percent of incoming community college students aren’t prepared for college-level English.  Math is even worse; 85 percent place into remedial classes.

Numerous studies have shown that the more time a student has to spend in a remedial course, the less likely that student is to graduate.

But those numbers vary across the state’s 112 community colleges, for the most part because there are nearly as many placement exams as there are campuses.  One count, by The National Center for Public Policy in Higher Education, found more than 94 different exams, although researchers identified three placements tests that were used more than most.

It’s a frustrating situation for students who may qualify for college math in one school, then transfer and find themselves in remedial classes.

That assortment of assessments will shrink under AB 743.  The bill, introduced by Assemblyman Marty Block (D-Lemon Grove), who chairs the Higher Education committee, establishes a uniform placement exam.

The Community College Chancellor’s Office would select the test, which would be an off-the-shelf exam.  But the new test wouldn’t be mandatory.  Colleges could continue to use their own placement exams, said Paige Marlatt Dorr, a spokeswoman for the Chancellor’s office.

“This bill will be an important step forward in getting all of the colleges to use the same test,” said Marlatt Dorr, and they’ll have a financial incentive to do so.   She said the Chancellor’s office will get a volume discount with an unlimited use license.

But, even if schools opt in for the common assessment, the bill doesn’t establish a uniform passing score, so students would still face individual campus disparities.

A college boost for foster youth

Even the dismal college success rate for students in remedial education is better than the odds for foster youth.  Of the 75,000 foster youth in California, 70 percent say they want to attend college.  But only 20 percent enroll and barely 3 percent graduate.  Somewhere between 600 and 800 former foster youth attend UC, 1,200 are at CSU, and 6,500 are enrolled in community colleges.

Those numbers could drop as budget cut force the state’s public colleges and universities to reduce course sections making it more difficult for students to get into the classes they need to graduate.

While there’s no single reason for these disheartening statistics, AB 194 by Assemblyman Jim Beall of San Jose, hopes to remove at least one obstacle.  It would require California State University and community colleges to give current and former foster youth priority enrollment. The University of California, which sets its own policies, indicated its support in a letter to Beall.

If the Governor signs AB 194, it would sunset in 2017.

Fixing a flaw in the Open Enrollment Act

San Pedro Elementary School in Marin County boosted its Academic Performance Index (API) by 60 points between 2009 and 2010, but the school was labeled low-performing.

“Something is wrong with our open enrollment system when high performing schools get labeled as low performers and grouped together with schools that truly need to improve academic performance,” said Assemblyman Jared Huffman in a press release after the legislature sent his bill, AB 47, to Gov. Brown.

The measure would clear up some unintended consequences of the Open Enrollment Act, the 2010 law that California had to approve to be in the running for a Race to the Top grant. Not only didn’t the state get the money, but, Huffman says, the Act set up some high achieving schools to be labeled as low performing, a designation that lets parents move their children to higher-performing schools in any other district in the state.

AB 47 would change the method for identifying schools as low-achieving to exclude any school with an API of 700 or higher, or any school that’s increased its API score by 50 points of more from one year to the next.

Huffman’s bill also exempts County Office of Education schools for special education students, but adds charter schools to the mix.

Sherry Skelly Griffith, a legislative advocate for the Association of California School Administrators, says the Open Enrollment Act caused confusion and damaged morale at schools that were showing strong gains.  “Our Association believes that low performing schools should be held accountable,” said Griffith in a written statement, “and that can’t be accomplished if the wrong schools are labeled failing.”

Lawmakers advance standards

(Kathy and John combined efforts on this post.)

Heading into the final week of the session, the Legislature has sent bills to Gov. Brown that would revise state science standards and build a bridge to the approaching Common Core with instructional materials, curricula and professional development.

California will revise K-12 science standards for the first time since they were adopted 13 years ago, a light year in a fast-changing world.

The Assembly passed yesterday and forwarded to Gov. Brown SB 300, which will authorize Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson to appoint a committee of experts, including elementary and secondary science teachers, school administrators, and university professors. Under a tight timeline, they will present the revised standards to the State Board of Education by March 2013, in order for for the Board to modify and adopt them by July 30, 2013, four months later. There will be at least two public meetings before then at which the public can comment on the standards.

SB 300, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Loni Hancock of Berkeley, was written by the California Science Teachers Association, which has been calling for standards revisions for years – and not only because they were outdated, without mention of stem cells and biotech. Many teachers have argued there are too many science standards, leading to too little opportunity for in-depth science exploration and little understanding of scientific concepts.

The division of opinion dates back to 1998 and a bitter split between scientists who favored an inquiry-based or hands-on approach to science education and those focused on a content-based curriculum. The latter, led by then 86-year old Nobel Prize winning physicist Glenn Seaborg, won out, and California’s science standards reflect that philosophy.

The pendulum is already swinging. SB 300 directs the new standards to be based on the Next Generation Science Standards, which will be the science version of the Common Core standards, a multistate effort, led by Achieve Inc. The standards will be an elaboration of the Framework for K-12 Education, written by the Board of Science Education of the National Research Council. In an interview in TOPed last month, the chairwoman of the board, Stanford physicist Helen Quinn, said that the new standards will provide a “coherence” and integration of core scientific ideas over multiple years that have been missing in the current state standards. The standards, she said, will focus on “crosscutting concepts” that stress similarities in the scientific method and approaches – analyzing data, developing models, defining problems, carrying out investigations – common to physical science, biology, and engineering.

California is competing to be named among a handful of states that will work with Achieve to create the standards. The winners were to be announced in August.

Among the critics of the new Frameworks is Ze’ev Wurman, a software engineer from Palo Alto and former adviser to the U.S. Department of Education who helped write the state’s math curriculum frameworks. Wurman fears that the new standards will be light on actual science and heavy on science appreciation. The frameworks did not call for the application of mathematical equations and techniques; the lack of integrating algebra and trigonometry would appear to be a fundamental flaw that will produce “good consumers of science and technology,” rather than prepare them for training in actual science, Wurman wrote in a blog entry.

A head start on SMARTER Balanced

Lawmakers also sent Gov. Brown the first of three bills aimed at keeping the state one step ahead of planning for the coming of Common Core.

SB 140 by State Senator Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) requires the State Department of Education and State Board of Education to compile a list of supplemental instructional materials for math and English language arts in elementary and middle school.

It’s a stop-gap measure to make sure students are prepared for the new tests, which will cover Common Core standards. Those exams could start in 2014, but the state isn’t scheduled to take up a full-blown textbook adoption until sometime after 2015.

An early iteration of the bill nearly died in a disagreement over eighth grade math. The State Board of Education last year approved two sets of math standards for grade eight: Common Core and Algebra I. SB 140 tried to include materials for both, but ran into several roadblocks. Critics said the dual standards could lead to tracking and revert to a time when schools had two sets of expectations, often based on race, ethnicity, or income.

The dispute was settled by removing eighth grade math from the bill. The final version covers English language arts for kindergarten through eighth grade and math for kindergarten through seventh grade.  State education officials want the State Board of Education to take a redo and adopt a single eighth grade math standard.

The California Department of Education has already started soliciting materials from publishers. Once that’s finished, the final list will go to the State Board for approval. But because these are supplemental materials, local districts aren’t restricted to the State Board’s list the way they are with textbook adoptions. Districts can choose their own materials as long as they cover the standards, or they can choose to do nothing.

Companion bills moving along

Two sister bills still in the legislative process would round out early preparation for the Common Core standards.

AB 250, by Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica), adds professional development and requires the State Board to adopt new curriculum frameworks and evaluation criteria that are aligned to the Common Core academic content standards. It also keeps the state’s STAR testing system in place for an extra year, when it will be replaced by the new assessments developed for Common Core.

Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes (D-Sylmar) has the third leg of the stool. His bill, AB 124 , requires the state to convene a group of experts in English language instruction to ensure that the curriculum, materials, and assessments for English learners are aligned with the Common Core standards.

The two bills won’t come up for a floor vote until Monday at the earliest.

State’s second graders get a STAR

A third attempt to end second-grade testing in California has fallen short. The Assembly Appropriations Committee placed Sen. Loni Hancock’s bill under submission, blocking it from consideration for the remainder of this session.

For a while, SB 740 seemed to be on a winning path, clearing each legislative hurdle with few tribulations and many powerful supporters. So advocates for SB 740, all of them thoroughly familiar with the vagaries of the legislative process, were understandably caught off guard by the appropriations committee’s action.

When we first wrote about it last June, the bill had the backing of the California PTA, both state teachers’ unions, and the California School Boards Association. Since then, Tom Torlakson, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, has signed on, sending a letter to the chair of the Assembly Appropriations Committee that urged him to support this “much-needed measure.”

Torlakson’s letter summed up the primary arguments for the bill.

  • Educators, psychologists, and early childhood education experts say high-stakes testing of young children does not provide valid and reliable data,
  • Eliminating second-grade STAR tests in California would save the state more than $2 million a year,
  • California is one of perhaps 10 states that test second graders, and
  • Second-grade testing is not required under No Child Left Behind and will not be included in the new Common Core standards under development.
  • Committee action is baffling

    Hancock’s bill also appeared to have, if not Gov. Brown’s blessing, then at least his belief in the concept. In the May budget revision, the Governor wrote that “testing takes huge amounts of time from classroom instruction,” and said he would reform the state’s testing and accountability system by engaging “teachers, scholars, school administrators and parents to develop proposals to reduce the amount of time devoted to state testing in schools.”

    “We are baffled as to why this would not get out of the Appropriations Committee,” said Sandra Jackson, spokeswoman for the California Teachers Association. “There was a lot of support for the bill.  There was cost savings. There is plenty of formative and summative testing already.”

    Savings may be outweighed

    There was also mounting opposition and doubts – doubts about the efficacy of waiting too long to test students on state standards, unintended financial consequences, and timing.

    “Under the guise of saving a small amount of money, SB 740 eliminates an early assessment that helps schools identify kids who need extra help and use best practices to give them the additional assistance they need to reach grade level expectations,” wrote EdVoice, a nonprofit organization working for school reform in California, in a call to action on its website.

    EdVoice has been an unwavering and vocal opponent of Hancock’s legislation.

    However, it’s a misnomer to paint all supporters as opposed to testing and accountability. They say they want appropriate and useful testing, and contend that the California Standards Test, which is part of the Standardized Testing and Reporting system or STAR, is neither.

    “The California State PTA believes early assessment is critical to improving public education for all children, helping them to reach grade level proficiency, and to provide services needed for success,” wrote Patty Scripter, the California State PTA’s Legislative Advocate, in a letter of support last June.  However, she said that if the goal is to understand students’ strengths and weaknesses in order to give them individual attention, then standardized tests are ineffective.

    Scripter said that while the committee’s action was disappointing, it’s also understandable in light of the coming switch to Common Core standards that will revamp the state’s entire testing system.  “Some people thought this wasn’t the time to be making changes,” she said.

    Analysts for the State Department of Finance and the Assembly Appropriations Committee also suggested that that the money saved by eliminating the test could have backfired on school districts and the California Department of Education.

    Even though Finance didn’t take a position on SB 740, in its analysis of the bill Department officials pointed out that any money saved by doing away with the second grade test would revert to the Proposition 98 General Fund and that’s off limits to the CDE to use for state operations.

    Meanwhile, school districts that decided to give their second grade students other diagnostic tests in place of the STAR exam wouldn’t have been reimbursed by the state and would have had to pay out of pocket at a time when their budgets are already bare bones.

    STAR tests may end for youngest

    Reading about SB 740, State Senator Loni Hancock’s (D-Oakland) bill to eliminate second grade STAR testing, took me back to my daughter’s initiation into standardized testing. She puked. “She almost made it out the classroom door,” her second-grade teacher told me with a laugh. Since she didn’t have a fever and nothing happened that night, I brought her back to school the next day. Her classmates applauded when she walked in. Was it stress? Perhaps. She’s in college now and says she still dislikes tests.

    Hancock shares that aversion. She’s tried twice to pass similar legislation. Both bills died. SB 740 has made it to the Senate floor, where it will be voted on today. (See update below) “The second-grade test is something that has been of concern to her for a long time because of the recommendation of numerous groups that to do an assessment of second graders is not reliable,” said Rebecca Baumann, a legislative aide to the senator.

    No high stakes for young children

    The National PTA has taken the position that “Standardized multiple-choice tests and school readiness tests should never be used with preschool and early elementary children for any purpose.” The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) developed guidelines urging discretion in testing children 8 and under:

    The use of formal standardized testing and norm referenced assessments of young children is limited to situations in which such measures are appropriate and potentially beneficial, such as identifying potential disabilities.

    In place of the STAR exam, Hancock’s bill requires the State Department of Education to provide school districts with information on assessments in mathematics and English language arts that classroom teachers can use for purely diagnostic purposes – something that most teachers already do as a matter of course.

    Baumann says diagnostic tests are more practical because they can be given several times during a school year to provide teachers with immediate feedback on how each student is doing. STAR test results aren’t released until the school year is over. Plus, diagnostic tests don’t take up as much class time. “It takes six to eight days to administer the [STAR] test,” says Baumann. “The amount of time taken away from instruction at the second grade level is substantial.”

    740 is a blunt instrument

    Despite its difficult past, the current bill has few opponents on record. The staff analysis lists only EdVoice, a nonprofit organization working for school reform in California. But it’s a vociferous critic. President and CEO Bill Lucia calls it “a blunt instrument approach to taking the second grade out of the API (Academic Performance Index).” Lucia isn’t against having a policy discussion of whether the second-grade test should be included in the API, but says that’s a whole different discussion.

    His foremost concern is that waiting until third grade is too late to learn whether students are working below grade level. “We know the consequence of that can be extremely costly,” said Lucia, citing statistics that show a grim path, with students below grade level by the end of third grade being four times more likely to drop out of school, and dropouts being eight times more likely to wind up in prison.

    The State Department of Education hasn’t yet taken a position on 740, but State Superintendent Tom Torlakson “is supportive of the concept,” said Erin Gabel, his director for legislative affairs. In fact the Department sponsored a bill by Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica) that, initially, also eliminated second-grade testing. But Brownley removed that provision from AB 250 in order to get it out of the appropriations committee. The bill passed the Assembly yesterday and is now headed for the Senate.

    The main thrust of 250 is to make sure the state is prepared for the Common Core assessments that are set to begin in 2014-15. California has put all curriculum framework, professional development, and instructional materials adoption on hold while waiting for the Common Core standards, but Gabel says that’s poor planning. “It’s imperative that we provide direction and support for classroom instruction. We’re on a tight timeline here.”

    Conflicting opinions on NCLB and second grade

    EdVoice’s Lucia also argues that Title III of No Child Left Behind requires all English language learners in kindergarten through 12th grade to be tested every year to assess their progress. He says California stands to lose millions in federal funding if second graders are exempt from the STAR test. But Gabel says that’s not so. If it were true, then the state would already be out of compliance because it doesn’t administer the tests in kindergarten and first grade. She said the state has been using the California English Language Development Test (CELDT), which assesses English proficiency, without any pushback from the federal government.

    In fact, California is one of just a handful of states that has second graders take the exam. NCLB only requires standardized testing to begin in third grade, so the two panels developing tests for the Common Core standards are also starting with third grade. But just because it’s not mandated, says Lucia, doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile. Without second grade scores, he says, we’ll be losing “data to make better informed decisions on what’s working for kids.”

    Update: Turns out that SB 740 passed the Senate last night on a vote of 21 to 13, and was sent to the Assembly