Brown vetoes API alternative

Calling it “yet another siren song of school reform,” Gov. Jerry Brown has vetoed a bill that would have expanded the state’s accountability system to include measures other than standardized tests.

SB 547, the top education priority of Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, was one of 15 education-related bills that Brown killed on Saturday, the day before the deadline for acting on legislation before him. Among the others: SB 185, a direct challenge of Proposition 209’s ban on considering race and ethnicity in admitting students to CSU and UC; and AB 203, modifying the Parent Trigger law.

In a sharp, two-page veto message of SB 547, Brown mocked “academic ‘experts,’ ” backed by “editorialists and academics alike,” who have “subjugated California to unceasing pedagogical change and experimentation.” He singled out the “current fashion” of collecting “endless quantitative data … to distinguish the educational ‘good’ from the educational ‘bad.’ ” Instead, Brown indicated that he favors a “focus on quality” instead of quantity – with measures such as “good character or love of learning,” as well as “excitement and creativity.”

As to how to do this: “What about a system that relies on locally convened panels to visit schools, observe teachers, interview students and examine student work? Such a system wouldn’t produce an API number, but it could improve the quality of our schools.”

Steinberg and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, a sponsor, had rounded up widespread and diverse support for SB 547 from business groups, some advocates for low-income children, the career technical education (CTE) community, and much of the education establishment – the PTA, school boards, and administrators associations. (The California Teachers Association, which will cheer Brown’s anti-testing rhetoric, took no position on the bill.) Even an organization representing gifted students signed on.

Replace with Education Quality Index

Some supporters, Steinberg included, fundamentally disagree with Brown over the use of data to measure student and school performance. Others acknowledge that standards-based reforms and standardized tests, as demanded by the Legislature and the federal government, are here to stay. All agree that the current system, basing a school’s Academic Performance Index mostly on annual math and English language arts tests, narrowed the curriculum in many schools and created perverse incentives to focus on testing.

SB 547 would have replaced API with an EQI, an Education Quality Index, that would have added more indices, particularly in high school. Measurements could have included dropout rates, the need for remediation in college, success with career technical education programs, and graduation rates. Standardized tests would have counted no more than 40 percent in high school, no less than 40 percent in K-8, as determined by the state Department of Education and the State Board of Education. Backers of the current system questioned whether the EPI would be too squishy. Brown took the opposite view ­– that it would have demanded more of the same, hard data.

In his veto message, he also criticized the timing, taking effect at the same time that the state was switching to Common Core standards in math and English language arts, with their own set of demands. The combination would “add significant costs and confusion,” Brown wrote.

But Steinberg disagrees, noting that the transition to the Common Core standards, with a focus on college and career readiness, is the right time to change the accountability system to reflect that priority.

“It’s a fine idea that the governor wants qualitative pieces, but that does not change the fact that our high schools are not focused on the economy and what we expect young people to do when they graduate from high school,” Steinberg said in an interview.

“I disagree with his view on data, which can show what works and what doesn’t; that is what taxpayers want with their money. What we are doing (with SB 547) is not negating quality measures, just trying to improve quantitative measures.”

Steinberg said he would meet with Brown soon to create a bill in 2012 that fixes “a flawed system that has negative consequences for children and schools.”

(Readers: Is Brown a visionary or a policy Luddite? What do you think?)

More applied learning meeting A-G

Brown did sign two other bills that Steinberg sponsored to encourage more hands-on learning in high school. SB 611 will encode in statute the new UC Curriculum Integration Institute, which brings together CTE and core academic teachers, along with UC professors, to design innovative courses, blending applied learning, that satisfy A-G course requirements for admission to UC and CSU. The Institute has created a half-dozen so far with limited funding; with SB 611 in hand, Steinberg says he will approach foundations to underwrite the effort for hundreds of additional courses.

SB 612 complements SB 611 by reauthorizing the California Subject Matter Projects, which provide teacher training and development for courses created by the Institute and related courses.

Other vetoes

SB 185: In his veto message, Brown said that he actually agreed with the intent of the bill, which would have allowed CSU and UC to consider race, gender and  ethnicity  when considering undergraduate and graduate admissions, and that he wrote briefs backing the position when he was attorney general.

But the courts, not the Legislature, must determine the limits of Prop 209. Passing the bill, sponsored by Sen. Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina), “will just encourage the 209 advocates to file more costly and confusing lawsuits.”

AB 203: The veto of a bill dealing with the “Parent Trigger” law was a surprise, since the sponsor, Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica), who chairs the Assembly Education Committee, had gone to great lengths to get Parent Revolution, the chief proponents of the law, and skeptics to agree to the language. It clarified pieces of the parent empowerment law, which the Legislature passed in a hurry in late 2009. The law permits a majority of parents at a low-performing school to petition for a wholesale change, such as a conversion to or takeover by a charter school.

But Brown said that the State Board has spent a full year writing regulations covering the petition process and these should be allowed to work before changing the law.

In a statement expressing her disappointment, Brownley said the bill “could have reduced potential litigation over the law’s ambiguities” by clarifying aspects of the signature process. Ben Austin, executive director of Parent Revolution, credited Brownley for collaborating and listening to parents with his group, then added, “But I do think the Governor’s veto sends a strong signal that it’s time to stop tinkering and start implementing the Parent Trigger.”

A much needed shift away from rating schools on test results alone

It probably could have been predicted a decade ago. The way the American political system judges schools – indeed the whole center of gravity of educational accountability – is shifting again. From a rigid reliance on test-based numbers, which was the fashion of the big state and federal education laws of the George W. Bush era, the pendulum is slowly swinging back toward breadth, flexibility, and moderation.

In California, the most recent example – and the most encouraging is Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg’s SB 547. The bill would replace API, the 12-year-old Academic Performance Index, which, in rating each school and district, narrowly focused on standardized tests in reading and math, with a much broader set of standards.

The criteria would still include the standardized tests – accounting for a minimum of 40 percent in elementary schools, a maximum of 40 percent in high schools – on a new Education Quality Index (EQI). But they would also comprise, in the upper schools, dropout and graduation rates, readiness for college and careers, and a set of other items yet to be determined (among the possibilities: a Pupil Growth Index, a Pupil Engagement Index, and an Innovation Index).

Given the generational swings in American education fashion, the shift, both at the national level and in California, was almost inevitable, but it’s still a major improvement over the current standards.

SB 547 is not a perfect bill – and can’t be. Can things like “pupil growth” or innovation or love of literature or citizenship ever be reliably reduced to numbers? Worse, perhaps, is that Americans’ ambivalence about what they want from their schools makes the standards by which they measure them ever-mutable, uncertain, and sometimes controversial. At any given time, half of us will be unhappy with “the schools.”

Conflicting, changing measures of achievement

As a nation of fact hunters, we want hard numbers by which to judge achievement and hold the schools accountable, but we want the system to be forgiving as well: meritocracy and democracy. No excuses, but give the child (the school, the teacher) a second chance, make allowances and provide special programs for special education students and English learners.

The Steinberg bill necessarily leaves a lot of the specific criteria-setting to state education officials and to a committee of informed citizens. Among those criteria, it might also have usefully included a measure of students’ cultural literacy. But the bill is a sign that the ice is breaking.

There’s belief in Sacramento that Gov. Jerry Brown, who now has SB 547 on his desk, will veto it and demand still more flexibility. A few months ago Brown, the Jesuit-humanist who seems leery of school policy that’s excessively numbers driven, vetoed CALTIDES, the California teacher data system, and not just because he’s beholden to the unions.

Still, it would be unfortunate if he blocked this bill as well. On all scores – the double meaning is intended – this bill could be the start of a sequence of major improvements over the narrow system we have now.

Americans have been tinkering with the schools and debating true beliefs about how children learn and what they should learn for more than a century and a half: progressive education vs. traditional schooling; phonics vs. so-called look-say or whole language; more homework vs. less homework or no homework; grade retention vs. social promotion; discovery learning vs. direct instruction; constructivist math vs. math facts…. The list runs to the horizon and beyond.

The current era began before the passage of No Child Left Behind, the paradigmatic education law of the early Bush years, but NCLB effectively represents it. By the year 2014 all children were to be “proficient” in reading and math. But it left the definition of “proficiency” to each state, many of which changed the definition in order to look successful. It skewed school curricula, brought about widespread cheating, and generated almost no improvement.

NCLB’s one great advantage was that by requiring each major subgroup to be assessed and make adequate progress, it pressed states and districts to pay attention to a lot of kids who had been ignored: special ed students, ethnic minorities, and those who came to school speaking little or no English.

But the effective target – universal proficiency, as defined by each state – was either impossible to achieve or fatally dumbed down. And the reformers’ favored remedies – starting charter schools, firing teachers and principals of failing schools or otherwise “reconstituting” those schools, throttling teachers unions – rarely work. There is no pedagogues’ cavalry out there ready to charge to the rescue.

So now, as the damage becomes obvious – as NCLB stigmatizes good schools for one perceived failure or another, or as the same school is declared exemplary by one set of criteria and condemned by another – the reexamination that should have taken place years ago begins, and the rollbacks with it. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is offering wholesale waivers to states that will accept some version of his standards in place of the Bush standards.

Duncan’s Race to the Top may turn out to be no better than and just as narrow as NCLB, but the waivers he is now proposing are a sign that things aren’t working. The vast majority of schools are still a long way from the broad, humanistic standards that the best practitioners, here and abroad, strive for. And no doubt Steinberg’s bill, if it ever becomes law, will need tweaking as its unintended consequences appear. But it’s still a promising step toward a more rational and intelligent way of judging our schools.

Peter Schrag is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of “Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future” and “California: America’s High Stakes Experiment.” His latest book is “Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America” (University of California Press). He is a frequent contributor to the California Progress Report, where today’s article also appeared,  and is a member of the TOP-Ed advisory board.

Brown skeptical of key ed bill

Gov. Jerry Brown has warned lawmakers that his veto pen will flow freely over the next three weeks. Among bills on the threatened list is potentially the most far-reaching K-12 education legislation before him – a bill that would significantly shift the state’s accountability system away from its concentration on standardized tests. SB 547 is also a priority of its author, Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg.

Acknowledging that the bill may be in trouble, Steinberg said Friday that Brown “has expressed some doubts” about it, while not precluding the possibility that he might sign the bill, in several discussions they have had.

Brown, too, has expressed a dislike of the reliance on standardized tests by the state and particularly the federal government with the No Child Left Behind law to measure the success of students and teachers. So one would think that he would be simpatico with Steinberg on SB 547, which would create an Education Quality Index, or EQI,  to replace the Academic Performance Index, or API, with new indices to downplay standardized tests.

Brown’s apparent objection isn’t about the bill’s cost but instead about uncertainties over a possible demand for new data. Brown has a visceral distrust of statewide data systems and use of data in general. He killed money for a statewide database on teachers – CALTIDES – and wanted to delete additional federal funding for the state’s database on students, CALPADS, though the Legislature reinserted it into the budget.

SB 547 would create new indices measuring a broader range of student achievement, such as career and college readiness, accomplishment in areas outside of core subjects, and high school graduation and dropout rates. For high schools, standardized tests would be a maximum of 40 percent of the new EQI; for middle and elementary schools, standardized tests would comprise a minimum of 40 percent of the EQI.

“This bill is consistent with his (Brown’s) philosophy of getting away from test scores,” Steinberg said.  And with Congress deadlocked over the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the formal name for No Child Left Behind, California should set its own priorities and “lead by example,” Steinberg said.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and an advisory committee would develop the EQI, but the State Board of Education, whose members are Brown appointees, would have to approve it. That would give Brown control over the indices, Steinberg said. Rather than veto the bill, Brown could sign it with a message signaling the changes he would want to the bill next year, he said. (He also credited Brown for spending a lot of time and thought on the bill.)

Meanwhile, Steinberg has been campaigning to raise visibility for the bill; last week, he and Torlakson held a press conference in Los Angeles with Torlakson, U.C. Regent George Kieffer, and representatives from business and civil rights groups, the state PTA, and early childhood education advocates to call on Brown to sign it.

The bill has substantial support from diverse groups (see list at the end of Steinberg’s fact sheet), representing business and manufacturing, career technical education, gifted students, charter schools, school administrators, and school boards. The California Teachers Association hasn’t taken a position on SB 547; the California Association of School Counselors and the California Business Educators Association are backing it. Steinberg is hoping other groups will speak up between now and Oct. 9, the last day for Brown to sign or veto bills.

John can be reached at john@svefoundation.org.

EQI may replace API in rankings

California’s Academic Performance Index (API) was never supposed to be based on a single test. When it was created as part of the Public Schools Accountability Act of 1999, the legislation was clear on that point.

“This bill would require the Superintendent of Public Instruction, with approval of the State Board of Education, by July 1, 1999, to develop the Academic Performance Index (API), consisting of a variety of indicators, to be used to measure performance of schools, especially the academic performance of pupils.”

In the dozen years since, the only variety has been in the changing high-stakes tests used to determine the school rankings. That would change under a set of bills approved yesterday by the Assembly education committee. SB 547, 611 and 612, by Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), would reduce the emphasis on the California Standards Test by limiting the exams to no more than 40 percent of a high school’s overall ranking, and a minimum of 40 percent for middle and elementary schools.

The new measurement system would also replace the API with a new system known as the Education Quality Index, or EQI, which would be based on multiple measures developed by a committee headed by State Superintendent Tom Torlakson. For starters, however, SB 547 calls for including graduation rates and how well schools prepare students for college and career success. And the bill allows more measures to be added down the road.

Free throws aren’t everything

Years ago, when I wrote about critics who said the API measure was too narrow, Jay Rosner, executive director of the Princeton Review Foundation, used a sports metaphor to illustrate. If Shaquille O’Neal were judged only on his free throws, he’d never have made it to the pros, said Rosner; that wasn’t his strength. Steinberg and California school superintendent Tom Torlakson reached into the wide world of sports to make a similar point in an OpEd that appeared in Wednesday’s Sacramento Bee.

“No one would judge Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum’s performance based on one inning,” they wrote, “why should parents and the public judge a school based on one set of tests?”

They warn that too much emphasis on standardized tests narrows the curriculum to the subjects being tested and ignores other important aspects of education.

“Are students staying in school or dropping out? Are they ready to continue their education? Do they have the training and skills to start a career? A test score alone won’t answer those questions.”

Ready for change

Just a year after California enacted the Public Schools Accountability Act, Congress approved No Child Left Behind, which added even more significance to high-stakes tests. Now it looks like history may repeat itself in reverse. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has already announced (and we reported here) that unless Congress takes up reauthorization in the next few weeks, the Department of Education will start granting waivers to give states some flexibility from the severe consequences if every student doesn’t score at the proficient level or better on their state exams.

Duncan warned that without a relaxation of those provisions, more than 80 percent of the nation’s schools may be mislabeled as failing.

Susanna Cooper, a consultant to Sen. Steinberg, says the frustration that’s been building among educators and state policy makers over the testing may account for the lack of opposition at yesterday’s committee hearing. In the long queue of people waiting to comment on the bills, not one spoke against them. Some said their organizations hadn’t taken a stand yet, but added that they generally support the measure.

“I think the amount of support for the bill is striking because it (the bill) represents significant change, but I think that’s a reflection of the current limitations of the accountability system,” said Cooper. “I think people are just ready to do something else. We’re at a point where the system is ready to embrace change.”