Dan Walters

California education officials, politicians battle feds over schools

Students including Olga Rozmarynowska, center, perform classroom exercises to discover clues to unlocking a box during class at Bella Vista High School in Fair Oaks on Feb. 26, 2016.
Students including Olga Rozmarynowska, center, perform classroom exercises to discover clues to unlocking a box during class at Bella Vista High School in Fair Oaks on Feb. 26, 2016. rbenton@sacbee.com

It’s quite evident that a subliminal goal of the state’s new “multiple measures” accountability system for California’s K-12 schools is to avoid any direct consequences for failure.

That’s why the state’s education establishment heartily endorses drafts of the system being finalized by the state Board of Education that abolishes the state’s previous system of assigning scores to schools to signal how well their students are improving.

That’s also why education reform and civil rights groups are so critical of the plan, saying parents and the public need straightforward reports on academic achievement rather than a mishmash of data, much of it subjective and unrelated to academics.

Without hard data, they say, we won’t know whether the “achievement gap” that separates poor and “English-learner” students from their more privileged classmates is widening or narrowing.

However, the criticism is being largely ignored. Last month, Gov. Jerry Brown endorsed the board’s pending plan in vetoing a bill, passed unanimously by both legislative houses, that would have required more explicit measures of educational achievement.

Brown described the plan as “a thoughtful and integrated federal, state and local accountability system …”

There is, however, another player in the game who outranks the governor: Uncle Sam.

Under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, states must rate schools – not as explicitly as before, but still identifying low-performing schools based on academic tests.

That’s exactly what the education establishment doesn’t want. State schools chief Tom Torlakson and other officials have complained loudly about the requirement, saying they lack the time and money to track year-to-year changes in achievement.

Torlakson and board president Michael Kirst, in a letter to federal education officials, objected to using proficiency standards in the new “Smarter Balanced” tests to identify low-performing schools, calling them “too narrow.” The bill Brown vetoed would have required the state accountability system to be merged with the federal law.

From a political standpoint, resistance to providing data the feds want may be well-placed. The last round of testing, tied to the new “Common Core” standards, showed widening achievement gaps.

Were that to continue, it would tarnish Brown’s multibillion-dollar program of increasing aid to schools with large numbers of “high needs” students on an assumption that more money translates into better outcomes.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Education denied the state a waiver from having to administer science tests. Last week, the feds threw another curve to California and other states that want to avoid strict reportage of achievement levels. It issued new regulations on teacher training, requiring reports on how well new teachers are performing in the classroom, including whether their students’ academic achievement scores are improving.

It’s a step toward evaluating teachers on outcomes, which the education establishment – particularly unions – despises.

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