Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Will two big school overhauls pass the test?

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

California is embarking on two massive overhauls of its 6 million-pupil public school system – one of financing, the other of curriculum – with a proclaimed goal of improving the state’s poor academic outcomes.

One, pushed by Gov. Jerry Brown, shifts more money to school districts with large numbers of poor or English-learner students to narrow what’s called the “achievement gap.”

At Brown’s behest, the State Board of Education is giving districts considerable leeway on how the money is to be spent, spurning fears of civil-rights groups and school reformers that districts may not concentrate it on the targeted kids.

Brown calls that “subsidiarity” – the doctrine that decisions should be made at the lowest practical level.

Simultaneously, California is shifting its statewide curriculum to a nationwide template called Common Core, aimed at establishing high achievement standards and moving emphasis from absorbing facts to critical analysis.

Together, the two overhauls represent another chapter in California’s perennial search for magic solutions to its educational dilemma, a quest that has ranged from lowering class sizes to empowering parents to take over schools that do poorly in standardized academic testing.

This month, having obtained a federal waiver, the state school board suspended the test-driven school performance measure known as API for at least two years. And that means parents and others will have no way, at least temporarily, of judging which schools are doing well and which are failing.

The rationale is that it makes no sense to make qualitative judgments until Common Core is in place and a new assessment system, which will be field-tested in some districts this spring, is in place.

Supposedly, the API will be overhauled – reducing academic testing’s role in scores, adding other factors and aligning it with Common Cause. But whether the revised API, which is to emerge next year, will be a valuable guide to parents remains to be seen.

That uncertainty is driven by the very evident opposition to comparative assessments from Brown and the powerful California Teachers Association.

Brown denounced testing in a speech to this month’s state Democratic convention as an impediment to effective teaching while the CTA dislikes using test results as a basis for judging teacher competency, arguing that external factors such as poverty and parental involvement play equally powerful roles in outcomes.

There is some validity to both positions. Teaching to the test is obviously not healthy, and other factors certainly do affect learning.

However, without some objective measure of achievement over time, we’ll have no way of judging whether Brown’s money shift and Common Core really have some positive effect, or are just two more failed panaceas.