Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Fads rise and fade in schools

Education, like other human activities, is subject to ever-changing whims, fads and notions.

That seems to be particularly true in California, whose political climates evolve very rapidly.

Every time a new governor takes office, or the Legislature undergoes a turnover, we get new prescriptions for improving our rather poor levels of academic achievement vis-à-vis other states, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

As noted here before, the “accountability” regime that was enacted about 15 years ago, rooted in academic testing and opposed by teacher unions and their political allies, is now undergoing a complete overhaul whose outcome is uncertain.

Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR), our long-standing academic testing system, has been scrubbed, to be replaced by so-called “Smarter Balance” assessments, based on Common Core English and math standards.

Initial Smarter Balanced test results will be released soon and will show very low achievement rates – which may be why the Department of Education removed math and English STAR results dating back 15 years from the Internet, thus making comparisons between the two systems difficult.

Late Friday, in response to criticism, the department said it would restore the STAR data.

Meanwhile, the department abruptly ended the “exit exam” that high school seniors had to pass, forcing the Legislature to pass a bill to allow seniors to graduate without the test.

California’s tendency to shift educational gears on political whim is, however, not confined to state officialdom. It’s also endemic in large urban districts, where high-pressure politics predominate.

One nostrum that many districts adopted a decade ago was forcing all high school students into college-prep courses that would qualify them for enrolling in the University of California and the state university system.

They took their cue from former state schools Superintendent Jack O’Connell, who proposed it in his 2004 “state of education” address.

It was feel-good politics, pretending that everyone in high school had the interest and the aptitude for college studies and was capable of mastering such a rigorous curriculum.

Implicitly, it denigrated students who weren’t college-oriented and had other interests and talents that would be better developed by artistic, technical or vocational curricula.

As a lengthy article on the EdSource website points out, declaring a college-prep policy is one thing, but reality is another.

It threatened to leave many thousands of high schoolers without diplomas, and one-by-one, the districts pulled back, creating loopholes without formally repealing college-for-everyone decrees.

Grading standards were softened, parents were allowed to opt-out and kids who shunned college-prep work were shifted into alternative schools – maneuvers aimed at saving face for officials who didn’t want to admit they erred.

O’Connell and other officials framed the one-size-fits-all policy as educational equity, but in fact it’s just the opposite.

True equality is providing kids with educations that embrace and develop their interests and talents, whether it’s nuclear physics or carpentry.

And by the way, the state has severe shortages of carpenters, electricians, plumbers and other skilled craftsmen who do society’s real work. Much-needed new housing is being delayed by the shortages.