Dan Walters

Dan Walters

Dan Walters: California tries a new way to reform education

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 3A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013 - 8:16 pm

Thirteen years ago, the Legislature – spurred by then-Gov.Gray Davis – made one of its periodic forays into educational reform, or so we were told.

The Public Schools Accountability Act purported to give us an objective measure of how well local schools were doing via a single number reflecting standardized test results.

By and by, the API numbers became factors in the buying and selling of homes, and eventually spawned efforts to evaluate teachers and principals by their students' test scores, as well as parental campaigns to wrest control of low-API schools via charters.

Not surprisingly, therefore, they also resulted in a narrowing of teaching, reoriented to raising test scores rather than to the abilities and needs of students. And that led to neglect of subjects that weren't being tested, such as art, music and, in high schools, vocational education.

What the politicians touted as reform was, in reality, a mixed bag at best, which has been the history of educational decrees from Sacramento.

As the negatives of the API approach to evaluating schools became more obvious, it sparked new interest, both at the local level and in the Capitol, in a more holistic credo.

For instance, Fresno Unified, one of the state's largest and most troubled districts, has begun experimenting with a computerized system of tracking students' progress. It measures not only formal learning, but their emotional and physical health and, in high school, their readiness for the workplace as well as for college.

It recognizes – unlike the simplistic API number or the wrongheaded mandate in some districts that every high school student should be on a college prep track – that the talents, interests, and family situations of 6 million school kids are as individual as fingerprints. It acknowledges that schools must adapt to the kids, not force them to adapt to a one-size-fits-all mandate. By doing so, it compels teachers, administrators and counselors to intervene when needed and to bring other resources, such as social welfare services, into the picture.

Darrell Steinberg, the president pro tem of the Senate, became the Capitol's champion of holistic evaluation. This year, after early setbacks, he won enactment of legislation that makes test scores no more than 60 percent of the API grade for high schools and includes other factors, such as graduation rates and preparedness for college, the work force and technical training.

Broader measures of educational outcomes could make teacher unions more willing to entertain teacher evaluation programs, and may pave the way for reforming school finance to concentrate more resources on the kids who need the most help – a priority for Gov. Jerry Brown.

Maybe this time, school reform will be real because it will deal with reality.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Dan Walters

Dan Walters, political columnist

Dan Walters

Dan Walters has been a journalist for more than a half-century, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. At one point in his career, at age 22, he was the nation's youngest daily newspaper editor.

He joined The Sacramento Union's Capitol bureau in 1975, just as Jerry Brown began his first governorship, and later became the Union's Capitol bureau chief. In 1981, Walters began writing the state's only daily newspaper column devoted to California political, economic and social events and, in 1984, he and the column moved to The Sacramento Bee. He has written more than 7,500 columns about California and its politics and his column now appears in dozens of California newspapers.

Email: dwalters@sacbee.com
Phone: 916-321-1195
Twitter: @WaltersBee

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