Thursday, April 10, 2008

Daniel Weintraub: Quit test-score chase, reform schools – now

By Daniel Weintraub | Sacramento Bee
Sunday, April 6, 2008
Story appeared in FORUM section, Page E1

There was good news and bad news for California in the results from a national writing test given to eighth-grade students last year.

First the bad news: California students performed worse than students in all but four other states, and students here in just about every demographic category did worse than similar students elsewhere.

The good news is that California's students have not gotten any worse since 2002, they have improved a bit since 1998, and the gap between the achievement of minority students and whites has shrunk significantly in the past eight years.

And one neutral observation: California's scores on these national tests are dragged down by the high percentage of students who are still learning English. Twenty percent of California students fall into that category, compared with just 6 percent nationwide. California's English learners actually perform on par with students elsewhere who are still learning the language. But they do so much worse than fluent English-speakers that the gap makes California's scores far worse than they would be if the state had fewer immigrants.

But among all California students, just 25 percent of eighth-graders were proficient or better on this test of writing skills. And that's not good enough.

The test, known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, is not the kind of multiple-choice exam on which performance depends on the "drill and kill" methods so many teachers say they oppose. In this case, "teaching to the test" would mean requiring students to write short narrative, informative or persuasive essays in response to a prompt.

The disappointing results should be further motivation for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature to begin talks now on how to change the way the state governs schools, rather than waiting, as the governor has suggested, until he and lawmakers have fixed California's nagging budget problems. That could take years.

Schwarzenegger recently released a far-reaching set of recommendations from a bipartisan group of 18 education experts he asked to examine education policy and suggest changes. That panel, led by former Occidental College President Ted Mitchell and Dede Alpert, a former school board member and state legislator from San Diego, offered a blueprint that should prompt a serious discussion of how to improve student performance.

Their fundamental conclusion was that California's schools are so bound by rules and regulations ordered from Sacramento that they lack the flexibility to do what they need to do to succeed. Schools that do perform well do so in spite of the system, not because of it.

"Currently in California we have a completely convoluted governance system that puts everybody in charge and nobody in charge," Alpert said last month. "Therefore, everybody can just point fingers when they talk about who is responsible for what's happening."

Alpert said the state has a "culture of compliance" rather than a focus on results.

That system, the report said, does not ensure that sufficient resources reach the students who need them, fails to provide teachers with proper training or support, and has no incentives to reward achievement "at any level." Instead, it creates "reverse incentives" that reward low performance and punish excellence by giving failing schools more money and then taking it away when performance improves.

The committee suggested building on California's strength – widely praised academic standards that give students, teachers and parents a clear idea of what is expected in each subject at each grade.

The most successful schools use those standards as the basis for their curricula. They also set high expectations for students, have top-notch teachers and principals, use data to drive decision-making in the classroom and give teachers time to collaborate.

The schools need more money, the report said, but "just pumping more money into a system that structurally impedes success" will not deliver results.

Instead, the report said the state should streamline governance by creating a system where the money follows the student to his or her school and is adjusted to meet the different needs of students from different backgrounds. Principals at the school sites would be given more power over how to spend that money, given more authority over personnel, and, in the end, be held accountable for their results.

None of this can happen, the governor's experts said, without a state-of-the-art data system that collects information on student performance and ties it back to the kind of teaching to which each student was exposed.

Ultimately, Mitchell said, the key will be to make teaching a "true profession" with advancement opportunities, on-the-job mentoring, professional standards, evaluations linked to student achievement – and compensation to match the responsibility.

Much of this can be done at little or no cost. Even the financing side will take years to phase in once it is adopted. So there is no use wasting time. The students are not getting any younger. And, at least according to the latest test scores, their performance is not getting much better. Nothing will be gained by waiting another year.

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