Steinberg’s API alternative

Rebuffed by Gov. Jerry Brown last year, Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg is back with another academic accountability bill, this time giving the governor lots of latitude to help redefine how to measure schools’ performance. SB 1458 needs to be vague, because, at this point, no one but Brown professes to know what he has in mind.

Recognizing that the Academic Performance Index, based predominantly on English and math standardized test results, was too narrow a gauge, Steinberg last year proposed replacing the API with an Education Quality Index that would have included other indexes, such as 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 of the EQI in high school. Steinberg and key supporter Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson built an impressive coalition of supporters – business and civil rights groups, career and technical education groups, charter schools, the state PTA, and early childhood education advocates.

But in his veto message of SB547, Brown criticized the continued reliance on quantitative measures. “SB 547 would add more things to measure, but it is doubtful that it would actually improve our schools. Adding more speedometers to a broken car won’t turn it into a high-performance machine.”

In the new bill, Steinberg would retain the 40 percent maximum use of the API, and would instruct Torlakson to expand the use of science and history tests within it. As for the remaining 60 percent, SB 1458 would allow Torlakson and the State Board of Education to incorporate another idea that Brown mentioned in his veto message and State of the State message: school inspections or visitations to measure the quality of learning and instruction not measured by standardized tests. Brown has not clarified if he is talking about a corps of outside inspectors, as is used in England by the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) or a less formal system of intradistrict inspections.

The State Board, led by Brown advisor Michael Kirst, plans to make the adoption of new accountability measures a priority this year. At his instigation, the San Francisco-based nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization WestEd has surveyed other states’ accountability systems and analyzed all of the data that the state collects. Its report has not yet been released.

The timing is right for a new accountability system. Brown proposes to give near-total control over spending and budget decisions to local districts this year, as part of his school finance reforms. It will become imperative to  create better ways to measure whether schools are providing a rich environment for learning, spending dollars effectively on students who have been targeted for extra money, and preparing students well for post high school jobs and colleges.

New UC role: Grow career tech

Instead of just weeding out career technical courses, Sen. Darrell Steinberg wants  University of California educators to plant some career tech seeds and cultivate them.

That’s not something that the UC system, with a lingering bias against applied learning, had been comfortable with. But within four or five years – if  Steinberg’s goal is reached – UC will have helped create dozens, perhaps hundreds, of courses with career applications, elevating the substance and status of career tech as well as  injecting real-world content into classes that most California students take.

Steinberg, the Senate president pro tem, is the author of SB 611, which would write into law the mission of a new UC institute charged with overseeing the design of career tech courses satisfying the entrance requirements to UC and the California State University system. It’s in a package of three Steinberg bills that would significantly reshape K-12 education. SB 612 reauthorizing collaborative projects between UC educators and K-12 teachers, is partly a companion to SB 611 and would provide teacher training for the new courses that the Institute would establish. SB 547, which TOP-Ed contributor Fred Jones wrote about this week, would add new performance measures to the Academic Performance Index (API), while sharply deemphasizing standardized test scores in a handful of subjects.

All three bills were heard Wednesday before the Senate Education Committee, and Steinberg gave a speech about them later that day to the Sacramento Press Club.

“The package begins to change what gets taught by partnering with the UC to make applied career-focused curriculum the norm, not the exception,” Steinberg said in his speech.

A committee of the UC Academic Senate known as BOARS screens high school courses to decide if they can qualify for one of the 15 course requirements for UC and CSU known as A-G. According to Don Daves-Rougeaux, Associate Director of Undergraduate Admissions, Articulation and Eligibility of the University of California, the committee has approved nearly 10,000 CTE courses – over 40 percent of all CTE courses offered – based on a review of the syllabi.

But nearly all of these have been approved only to count toward the arts, lab science, and electives requirements of A-G. Only eight were sanctioned as satisfying the math, history, or English language arts requirements. It was this imbalance that Steinberg wanted to address when he pressed UC President Mark Yudof to create the University of California Curriculum Integration Institute.

The Institute identified career pathways, like bioengineering, and invites CTE and pure academic teachers to come together in four-day conferences to design a course that combines hands-on learning and core academic material.

So far, Institute panels have created only four courses qualifying for A-G, but, significantly, three meet the math requirement – Business Math, Business Statistics, and Da Vinci Algebra I, combining arts and math – and the fourth, Applied Medical English, satisfies the English requirement. The next conferences will develop math and lab science courses for three career pathway programs: engineering design, finance and business, and hospitality and tourism, Daves-Rougeaux said.

The CSU might have been a more natural fit for the Institute, since it trains most teachers in California and is not a research-focused system.  Steinberg approached Yudof because UC is the gatekeeper of A-G. But some CTE advocates are skeptical whether UC professors can understand the value of applied education. It’s like asking an English professor to design a course in Farsi, a different language entirely.

Sen. Alan Lowenthal, a retired community psychology professor at CSU-Long Beach, got to the heart of that issue in questioning Steinberg and Daves-Rougeaux. He surmised that the reaction of many at UC would be that incorporating applied learning would lower academic standards of UC admissions. “Is everyone embracing this?” he asked.

Daves-Rougeaux said that UC has already made the shift in approving thousands of career tech courses and that leaders of BOARS have participated in developing courses at the institute.

Steinberg acknowledged the Institute reflects “a big shift in culture” for UC, “no doubt about it.” CTE must not be a “niche” program; instead, hands-on, practical learning must become standard in schools, so that students see the relevance of what they are learning.

Representatives of business and a number of education groups testified in favor of all three of Steinberg’s bills. No one testified against them. SB 611 passed the Education Committee 7-3 with three Republicans voting against.