School Reform Again: From Pillar Back to Post5 min read

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There’s nothing surprising in California’s most recent attempt to re-do California’s school accountability and rating system. The system’s problems were probably predictable a dozen years ago when it was first set up.

What’s interesting is the question of whether the sharp improvements of the past ten years on the state’s Academic Performance Index, the API, really mean anything, and if so, what.

When State Senate President pro-tem Darrell Steinberg tried to fix the system last year by de-emphasizing tests and including criteria like dropout and graduation rates, Gov. Jerry Brown shot it down, not because he liked the existing test-based regime, but because “adding more speedometers to a broken car won’t turn it into a high-performance machine.”

Now, with SB1458, Steinberg is trying again by, among other things, basing school evaluations in part on periodic school visits by teams of experts (??), a costly and ill-defined idea whose chief attraction is that it’s close to Brown’s heart. The bill would also abolish the practice of ranking schools by deciles, from ten (for the highest scoring ten percent) to one.  If it does end, probably the only complaints will come from Realtors.

But in the years since the API system was first implemented, the percentage of schools scoring 800 or above – the target on a scale of 200 to 1000 that the state set for proficiency in math and reading – has more than doubled from 20 percent in 2001-2 to 49 percent last year. That means that even if a school improves significantly, it could remain stuck in the bottom. That’s hardly a way to encourage, much less reward, improvement.

But the great California leap forward raises that other question. Does a decade of rising API scores mean that more than twice of our students now know more, have more finely developed academic skills, are better prepared for college and careers than those of a decade ago? Or does it tell more about cramming and test preparation and, by inference, about what’s taught and not taught?

California’s lagging scores on NAEP, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, generally (and maybe undeservedly) regarded as a reliable indicator of education achievement, suggest that in California the API is again allowing a lot of schools to undeservedly claim that all their students are above average, an oxymoron that a decade ago was derided as the Lake Wobegon phenomenon.  Are they really that much better?

In the meantime, the fencing between the state and the feds continues over the conditions U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan imposed on states seeking waivers from the mandates of NCLB, the by-now famously unworkable No Child Left Behind Act of 2002. Yes, Virginia, our schools are subject to two accountability systems, one state and one federal, and, as we’ve learned, sometimes schools rating high on one are judged failures by the other.

Both Gov. Jerry Brown and state school superintendent Tom Torlakson have refused to accept the conditions for Duncan’s waivers. Although California agreed to adopt the new national common core college and career readiness academic standards developed under the aegis of the National Governors Association and is working with other states to develop tests based on them, the state has so far been unwilling to commit itself to the other federal criteria that would enable it to replace NCLB’s impossible mandates. One of those unacceptable criteria, currently in high fashion among reformers, is the evaluation of teachers based on student test scores.

Among the NCLB mandates all states want to escape is the nonsensical requirement that all students be proficient in reading and math by 2014. Because it allows states to set their own proficiency levels, it prompted some to water down their standards instead of beefing up their programs.

“California has rejected No Child Left Behind as a broken system that has not worked for our schools or our students,” Torlakson said in handout last month. “While our state continues to weigh its options regarding a waiver, this much is clear: one top-down decade is enough. The law’s failures should prompt a thorough reassessment of the federal role in education, not merely the substitution of one set of inflexible requirements for another.

“Our schools are making great strides—even in a time of terrible budget choices. They deserve relief that does not require them to slow or reverse their progress with no assurance of stability for the long term.”

That, too, is an absurdity. At a time when California schools are sending layoff notices to tens of thousands of teachers, when schools are cutting programs and school calendars, when the great gaps in achievement for different groups have barely shrunk, and when there’s little certainty that school spending, already cut by billions, won’t be cut more, talking about “great strides” is an embarrassment.

You can’t blame Torlakson – or maybe even Jerry Brown. Brown now talks blithely about weighted school funding and increased local control. But it’s a century of local (and/or state) control, always responsive to electoral majorities, which brought the educational mess the nation finds itself in now.

Many years ago, Will Rogers supposedly remarked that the schools were never as good as they used to be. In our constant search to make them again as good as they never were, we’ve shuttled through endless cycles of reform.

Even if you accept the latest API scores as indicators of real improvement, they raise a troubling question: Why do our high schools – indeed all U.S. high school students – score so much lower on almost every measure, domestic and international, than our elementary schools?

Could it be because two decades of reform-driven emphasis on rote learning of the “basics” in math and reading have driven out not only what E.D. Hirsh called cultural literacy but any preparation for the problem solving, the analytical skills, the critical thinking and the creativity that advanced skills require? Have we reformed ourselves into marginal incompetence?

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Peter Schrag, whose exclusive weekly column appears every Monday in the California Progress Report, 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 newest book, Not Fit for Our Society: Nativism, Eugenics, Immigration is now on sale.

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