Brown: API plus school inspections

Toward the end of his provocative message last week vetoing a bill creating new quantitative measures for school accountability, Gov. Jerry Brown made what seemed like an off-the-cuff  suggestion: “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,” Brown wrote, “but it could improve the quality of our schools.”

Brown hadn’t talked about this idea before, and he has made bare mention of it since. State Board of Education Executive Director Sue Burr told me not to expect the governor to come forth with a statewide proposal for such a system.

And yet Brown’s suggestion for school inspections is credible, and it didn’t spring out of the blue. In talks leading up to the veto of SB 547, the alternative to the API, Brown and State Board of Education President Michael Kirst discussed the concept of a statewide system of inspections, which progressive writer and education researcher Richard Rothstein recommended in his 2008 book, Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right. (Kirst has read the book; it’s not clear whether Brown has. No one from Brown’s press office would ask him for me.)

Four years ago, Gov. Schwarzenegger’s Committee on Education Excellence, chaired by Ted Mitchell, also endorsed  formal school inspections as a way of discovering what a school is doing well and where it needs improvement. Turning the superintendent of public instruction’s office into an inspectorate was one of the Committee’s novel ideas. But Schwarzenegger buried the Committee’s report, and its recommendations have been largely ignored. (You can read the section on the inspectorate – Recommendation 3.5 – starting on page 25 of the 31-page section on school governance.)

Both Rothstein and the Committee on Education Excellence based their recommendation on the English model, the Office for Standards in Education, or Ofsted, which has been inspecting schools for nearly two centuries. Unlike the “locally convened panels” that Brown referred to, Ofsted consists of a corps of professionally trained educators who spend days in each school, observing teachers, examining student work, and looking beyond test scores to include students’ workplace skills, their personal and emotional development, and their “spiritual, moral, social and cultural development.” Inspectors publish the results but don’t rank schools; they’re graded pass, in need of modest improvements, or in need of serious intervention to correct problems.

Rothstein, a researcher with the Economic Policy Institute who spends half a year living in Oakland, shares Brown’s dislike of the use of standardized tests as the sole measure of schools’ achievements and teachers’ performance. In his latest blog entry, Rothstein praised Brown’s “eloquent” veto message, in which he “articulated an alternative to the narrow standardization of schooling and the promotion of misleading quantitative test score measures that have characterized American education in the last generation.” SB 547 would have created other indices beyond results on math and reading tests, but still could not have addressed whether schools had been effective in developing “character, inquisitiveness, citizenship, civic awareness, historical reasoning, scientific curiosity, [and] good health habits.”

Inspections can address these less quantifiable attributes. “If the panels that Brown advocates are constituted with appropriate experts in curriculum and instruction, and include members of the public as observers, they have the potential to finally provide citizens with the ability to distinguish effective from ineffective schools in their state and communities,” Rothstein wrote.

More than accreditation visits

In brief comments in Beverly Hills on Friday, Brown said that he favored, as a complement to existing standardized tests, “more on-site evaluation of teachers, following the model of accreditation.” But in Grading Education, Rothstein dismisses the nationwide accreditation process of K-12 schools – done in California by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) Accrediting Commission for Schools – as an inadequate system of accountability. It’s useful as a self-evaluation tool by peers and perhaps, with changes, can evolve into such a system, he wrote.

Rothstein lays out the criteria for adapting Ofsted to American schools. (New York City also has its own version, known as Quality Review):

  • Every school should be inspected once every three years;
  • In addition to using test scores to verify whether students have acquired basic skills and knowledge, inspectors should determine how students are doing with regard to critical thinking, the appreciation of arts and literature, social skills and work ethic, preparation for work skills and college, physical health, and emotional health;
  • Inspectors should be professional evaluators, not volunteers, but also include members of the public and representatives of the business community;
  • Inspections should occur with little or no advance notice;
  • Inspectors should look at student work as well as test scores;
  • Reports should be published;
  • There should be consequences, including state takeover of schools where improvement doesn’t occur following repeated failed accreditation reports.

Brown has said he would meet with Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, author of SB 547, to  create an alternative accountability system. Brown has given no indication he’s interested in a statewide, mandatory inspection system, which could cost several hundred million dollars in California (Rothstein estimates the cost nationwide as 1 percent of spending on K-12 education).

Rothstein recommends that California try a pilot program. “Pick a few districts,” he told me. “No one has worked out how to do this.”

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.

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.