Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Rating California schools is a big battle

Students Matter, an organization created and financed by Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch (pictured), successfully sued the state over teacher seniority and tenure laws, contending that they shortchange “high-needs” students. Now it’s suing 13 school districts for not obeying the Stull Act, the 1971 law that requires teachers to be evaluated based on student achievement.
Students Matter, an organization created and financed by Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch (pictured), successfully sued the state over teacher seniority and tenure laws, contending that they shortchange “high-needs” students. Now it’s suing 13 school districts for not obeying the Stull Act, the 1971 law that requires teachers to be evaluated based on student achievement. AP

California’s largest-in-the-nation public school system educates – or purports to do so – 6 million-plus kids from dozens of socioeconomic, ethnic and linguistic backgrounds.

National academic testing has found that California’s students rank near the bottom in achievement.

The situation spawns two perpetual political debates – whether we’re spending enough money to raise that achievement, and whether there’s sufficient accountability for results.

The money question is in abeyance, at least temporarily. An improving economy, a temporary tax increase and an overhaul of state school aid have raised per-pupil spending from all sources by roughly 50 percent in recent years to $13,000 a year, and from one of the nation’s lowest levels to at least the middle ranks.

Indeed, school spending has increased so dramatically during Jerry Brown’s second governorship that advocates of other programs, particularly health and welfare services to the poor, complain they are being shorted.

A multifront war over who should be held accountable for students’ progress, however, is still raging, and if anything metastasizing like a California wildfire.

Without writing its formal obituary, Brown and other politicians, plus the state’s education establishment, have strangled the test-based accountability system that California adopted in the late 1990s.

Educators, particularly the politically powerful California Teachers Association, despised a system that not only graded schools on how well they were improving academic achievement, but provided the basis for “parent trigger” actions to seize control of ill-performing schools. Nor did the CTA like the potential for using the data to judge teachers’ competence.

The system was overly simplistic and punitive, critics said, didn’t make allowances for differences among students, and encouraged “teaching to the test.”

Legislators, state schools superintendent Tom Torlakson and the Brown-appointed State Board of Education are developing a replacement system, what one planning document calls “an improved accountability system that uses multiple measures to more completely assess the progress schools are making.”

However, it’s extremely difficult, bordering on impossible, to know what will emerge, or when, because pieces are scattered throughout the various policy venues and are being couched in the densely opaque jargon of professional educators.

Acronyms are flying.

Trish Williams, member of the State Board of Education

“Acronyms are flying,” Trish Williams, a member of the state school board, complained during one jargon-packed presentation on a new accountability system in July. “It sounds like a foreign language.”

“I’m trying to put the puzzle together,” another member, Feliza Ortiz-Licon, added.

This is a sample of what consultant Nancy Brownell was telling them:

“The conversation around what we’re learning and the development of the evaluation rubric obviously applies in the context of accounting at the larger context. So while the specifics of really being able to build a system that emphasizes the cohesive framework that leads to a sense of how we are going to operationalize the demands and expectations in Ed Code around the rubric around how the components then of an accountability system that focuses on multiple measures and tries to, as several of you have said, weave the pieces together to help think about the context of the state priorities and how the guiding principles are a lens we want to continue to develop the details.

“I have taken to using a picture of an iceberg in some of the presentations on accountability. There is a lot of agreement in some ways on the surface level. None of us would question the importance of the principles. It’s really below the surface in the huge picture I use of what does that really look like in an operationalized system.”

The paperwork of the process is as impenetrable as the verbal gobbledygook. And if members of the state Board of Education are having great difficulty understanding what’s happening, what chance do members of the larger public have?

So far, we know that the old test-based accountability system, the Academic Performance Index, is out. In June, state education officials abruptly halted the state’s high school exit exam while the Legislature weighs a measure, Senate Bill 172, that would suspend it for at least three years.

It’s problematic whether the parent trigger law that the education establishment hates will survive. And it’s unlikely that teachers will be individually graded even though the Stull Act, a state law on the books for decades – and ignored for decades – says they should be.

The new system will almost certainly be tied to the Local Control Funding Formula, the awkwardly named school finance overhaul that Brown pushed through the Legislature, having embraced a “weighted formula” theory advanced by Michael Kirst, an education researcher whom Brown appointed to head the state school board.

The formula provides extra money to school districts with large numbers of poor, foster care and/or “English-learner” students, aiming to close the “achievement gap” between them and their more affluent and English-articulate classmates.

California’s public school system, the largest in the nation, educates more than 6 million children.

Nearly 60 percent of California’s 6 million-plus students fall into those “high-needs” categories, and individual districts range as high as 100 percent, with large urban districts almost all having very high percentages.

In Los Angeles Unified, with nearly 500,000 students, it’s 83.5 percent, in San Bernardino Unified it’s 93.2 percent, and in Santa Ana Unified it’s 94.3 percent.

An informal coalition of civil rights and school reform groups has pushed Brown and Kirst’s board to impose tight accountability, ensuring that extra funds are actually spent on the targeted kids and districts meet improvement standards.

However, Brown and Kirst have adopted “subsidiarity” as their principle, giving local school systems maximum flexibility on how extra money is to be spent. And Torlakson, a close ally of the CTA, told school districts they could spend LCFF money on teacher salary increases, countermanding a directive from his own staff.

Stiffed at the state level, coalition members have continued to press their cause in the courts. That includes aid to local groups seeking to continue using the parent trigger law even though the Academic Performance Index, upon which takeovers are based, has been suspended and is probably dead.

Recently, a group of parents in Anaheim, supported by former state Sen. Gloria Romero, who authored the law, won a court case that allows them to take over a low-performing school. The California Teachers Association criticized the decision as being “based on outdated data,” meaning the suspended API.

Public Advocates and the American Civil Liberties Union, meanwhile, are suing Los Angeles Unified, saying the giant district is diverting LCFF money meant for poor and English-learner students to other purposes.

Students Matter, an organization created and financed by Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch, successfully sued the state over teacher seniority and tenure laws, contending that they shortchange “high-needs” students. Now it’s suing 13 school districts for not obeying the Stull Act, the 1971 law that requires teachers to be evaluated based on student achievement.

The Stull Act enforcement drive has spawned efforts in the current legislative session to rewrite the law. Two very similar measures, Assembly Bill 575 and Senate Bill 499, would soften the evaluation law’s provisions and – most importantly – make all local evaluation systems subject to collective bargaining.

In effect, therefore, teachers would be evaluated only on criteria that their unions find acceptable.

School boards and administrators, along with education reform groups, are critical of that approach, saying it would eliminate meaningful evaluation. While school unions probably have the muscle to push one or both bills to Brown’s desk, whether he would go along with weakening the Stull Act is uncertain.

As the unions and their supporters war with the reformers and civil rights groups over accountability on multiple fronts, Brown has tried to avoid identification with either. But if either of the two bills reach him, he’ll be compelled to take sides on at least that one battle.

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