Saturday, July 21, 2007


ANTONIO'S KITCHEN CABINET: A team advises the mayor how to fix troubled high schools. Most haven’t fixed any.

by Patrick Range Mcdonald | LA Weekly

Wednesday, July 18, 2007 - Last week, Monica Garcia was simply on a roll. The new president of the Board of Education was zipping through her reform motions for the Los Angeles Unified School District with almost no opposition, and the meeting showed the rare promise of an early finish. Then something curious was discovered by district employees — the draft files of Garcia’s reform motions showed they had been written not by Garcia, but by the Mayor’s Office.

Garcia shrugged it off, telling the Los Angeles Times she needed “support and feedback.” Matt Szabo, press secretary for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, said the motions were a “collaborative effort” led by the independently elected Garcia.

Yet if the new school board, dominated by allies of Villaraigosa like Garcia, is embracing reforms that could affect the city’s 704,000 public school children — reforms arrived at under a so-called collaborative effort — it seems natural to ask: Who are the people behind the collaboration?

For the past year, Robin Kramer, the mayor’s chief of staff, has been shaping a kitchen cabinet on school reform. Villaraigosa heavily relies upon these insiders to inform and push through his sometimes controversial agenda — and, apparently, to create policy for special friends like Garcia.

His inner circle consists of three people with ties to the same education think tank — Broad Foundation alums Ramon Cortines, Marshall Tuck and Marcus Castain — and one old Villaraigosa friend, former Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund lawyer Thomas Saenz.

Yet when it comes to turning around a massive public school system like Los Angeles Unified, not one of them — not even former schools Superintendent Cortines — has made much of a mark. In fact, many educators say, the Mayor’s Office seems to have made a conscious decision to not seek the direct advice and expertise of highly regarded school-turnaround veterans, although Villaraigosa has peddled a very different impression to the public.

On January 17, many of the city’s power brokers in education and politics gathered at Hirasaki Democracy Hall in Little Tokyo. Villaraigosa brought them there, promising to unveil a “framework” report, called “The Schoolhouse,” for improving public schools. A few moments into his opening remarks, the mayor said, “Over the last year and a half, my team and I have visited dozens and dozens of schools that are working for our kids. We’ve met with some of the most accomplished educators in the country. We’ve hit the books ourselves, examining — often late into the night — the lessons to be gleaned from cities like New York, Boston, Chicago, San Diego and everywhere in between.”

Though the report later struck some as a rehash of old ideas, the approach sounded promising. Yet when the L.A. Weekly contacted educators from the cities cited by Villaraigosa, they told an entirely different story.

“The short answer is no,” Villaraigosa never gleaned ideas from him, said Carl Cohn, superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District and recipient of the prestigious Harold W. McGraw Jr. Prize in Education. Cohn said no one from the Mayor’s Office met or spoke with him, although he’s just 120 miles down Interstate 5. Nationally renowned for rebuilding high schools in his previous job in Long Beach, the education superstar Cohn was also portrayed in the movie Freedom Writers. He’s a hard one to miss.

If Villaraigosa’s team had made the two-hour-plus trip to San Diego, Cohn said, he would have told them to “remove all excuses and monitor day-to-day student achievement.” He would have suggested building better relationships between adult teachers and teenage students. He would also offer managerial support to help those relationships flourish. This way, Cohn said, the size of a school doesn’t really matter. Standards are set, and students and teachers are relating.

In Boston, recently retired supe Thomas Payzant, who now lectures at Harvard, said he never heard from the Mayor’s Office, although he believes they talked to Boston Mayor Tom Menino. Payzant is another McGraw winner, and he sits on its board of judges with Ramon Cortines. For whatever reason, Cortines has yet to hit up his esteemed colleague for advice.

Payzant would have told the mayor’s crackerjack team that “continuity” in school district upper management is essential to building better schools. “If there’s always change going on at the top, where there’s always a new agenda,” Payzant said, “it creates instability. You have to build support and allow some time for schools to improve.”

Villaraigosa took a dramatically different tack when he launched his reform program, attacking LAUSD Superintendent Roy Romer for months. Romer left the job as expected last fall, furious over Villaraigosa’s harsh public-relations campaign. Today, many observers still talk about how Romer dramatically improved Los Angeles’ elementary schools.

Payzant cited his pick of top educators whom any kitchen cabinet should consult before launching major reforms: Chicago Public Schools Chief Executive Officer Arne Duncan, Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Beverly Hall and Denver Public Schools Superintendent Michael Bennet. When contacted by the Weekly, however, Duncan and Hall said, nope, they never heard from Team Villaraigosa. And Bennet’s spokesman, Alex Sanchez, said he has “no record” of the Mayor’s Office contacting Bennet, who’s on vacation.

New York Public Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, another superstar with a real track record in fixing urban schools, didn’t respond to repeated inquiries.

So who are the wizards over at the Mayor’s Office seeking out for schools-reform advice? Press Secretary Matt Szabo, who failed to return phone calls, isn’t talking. But the mostly vague “Schoolhouse” report offers some clues on its final page, acknowledging people and entities for “sharing your time, passion, ideas and critical feedback.”

The list shows that, as the mayor’s advisers sought information over the past several months, they didn’t venture too far outside of Los Angeles city limits. And many of the organizations Villaraigosa listed — labor unions such as SEIU 1877 and the California Teachers Association, along with the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Urban League, and the LAUSD itself — are far more closely associated with waging adult political battles than achieving any measurable academic improvements for high school or middle school students.

In the end, critics suggest that what the mayor’s team has learned so far, two years into his widely publicized effort, is more of the same old, same old.

“If you always reform what you’ve always reformed,” says former Board of Education member David Tokofsky, “you’ll always get the reform that you’ve already reformed the last time you reformed.” The best he can say about Villaraigosa’s team is that they are “well-intentioned.”

Another group acknowledged by Villaraigosa in his Schoolhouse plan is the Parent Collaborative, a volunteer organization created by the LAUSD in 1994 to give parents a stronger voice. Until March, Bill Ring was its chairperson, serving during the year the mayor’s team was supposedly chatting with everyone. Did anyone talk to him?

“We were slighted,” Ring says plainly.

Ring, in fact, had to go to Marcus Castain and ask him to be a speaker at a Parent Collaborative meeting in 2006, and even then, he says, Castain never asked parents’ advice.

Nine months later, Ring offers, “The district has to pay attention to the middle class, and the middle class comes in all colors. The middle class is just as afraid of the schools as everyone else... In my circles, people genuinely believe [Villaraigosa’s] heart is in the right place, but the challenge to take this on is bigger than the mayor and his team.”

Of course, Villaraigosa isn’t attempting to reform the system entirely on his own. The mayor is now hitching his star to Green Dot Schools and Steve Barr, who founded the nonprofit company in 1999 to improve secondary education by creating so-called charter high schools using public money. Charter schools are freed from many rules placed on public schools, and thus seen as a potential way to quickly innovate and, maybe, address the horrific high school dropout rates. Green Dot has achieved some success, but Barr’s schools have a special advantage: They attract motivated students with proactive parents.

The people in the Mayor’s Office writing reform motions behind closed doors for Monica Garcia are driving his education strategy: Cortines, a likable former superintendent with a reputation as a caretaker, rather than a rebuilder, of schools in San Francisco, San Jose, New York and, briefly, Los Angeles; Tuck, a 33-year-old Young Turk with a Harvard Business School degree who has worked with Green Dot; Castain, a onetime talent recruiter for the Broad Foundation; and Saenz, a controversial lawyer who was an architect of Villaraigosa’s overturned, unconstitutional law to grab some control of LAUSD. (Saenz is a curious choice, as he sits on the financially troubled L.A. County Board of Education — an obscure school board that shows little ability to improve its own high school results.)

Well-intentioned or not, students, teachers and parents are stuck with this surprisingly isolated crew. And Cohn and Payzant are still waiting for that phone call.


Last week while I wasn't paying attention the Texas legislature (the late Molly Iven's benighted "Lege") voted to end the TAKS – the granddaddy of all high school exit exams! Or so claimed an NPR headline a news search engine found: "Texas to End High School Exit Exams".

News too good to be true of course, what the Lege has done is to make the process much more complicated – and in a Texas-kinda way - more sensible. Starting in 2011 Texas is going to give the tests right after they teach the subject! Whatta concept! Twelve tests, given right after you learn the material – so there's none of that messy retention. Or critical thinking. Just a' teachin' t' th' test, Wall2Wall.

….now if the College Board/ETS would give the SAT® tests after SAT courses are over ….instead of in May. - smf

TEXAS EDUCATORS GO BACK TO THE DRAWING BOARD ON TESTS: End-of-course tests to replace TAKS in high school

by Jason Embry, Austin American-Statesman Staff

Sunday, July 8, 2007 - The Texas public school system knows how to test.

It has field tests, diagnostic tests, TAKS and reading proficiency tests, tests you take when entering kindergarten and tests you must pass to graduate from high school. Tests that were retired five years ago still appear from time to time, and this state even gave America the test-happy No Child Left Behind Act.

The state spends $80 million a year to develop and administer its tests. Educators try to ensure that questions are the appropriate difficulty level and cover material students should know. Students and parents got to see a mock TAKS test at Fulmore Middle School in 2005.

Once again, the Texas Education Agency is cranking up its test-producing machine. The Legislature has ordered educators to stop giving the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills in high school and replace it with 12 end-of-course exams. They'll be similar to final exams in a class, but they will come from the state instead of local teachers.

Students who will enter ninth grade in fall 2011 will be the first to take the new tests, and four years would seem more than enough time to make the switch. Yet the writing of the new tests has already begun. It will involve thousands of educators over the next few years and will cost the state $168 million.

"Although it's an enormous amount of work and it's a three-year process for developing each test, it's a well-known process," said Criss Cloudt, associate commissioner at the Texas Education Agency. "We have a lot of experience and a lot of history developing tests."

End-of-course exams will differ from the TAKS in two significant ways. For one, students must average a passing score on the 12 tests to graduate instead of having to pass each major subject area. In other words, there's more room for a bad day, but only one or two.

Second, students will take the tests right after the material is taught to them, avoiding the lags between learning and testing that can now last a couple of years or more.

"What we're basically doing is breaking the TAKS test up into pieces and spreading it out over the high school career," said state House Public Education Committee Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands. "If you're going to be tested on algebra I, the best time to be tested is right after you take it."


The machine in Texas never really slows down. The state spends $80 million per year to develop, administer and report the results of its tests.

Every year, the state asks every superintendent to nominate teachers and administrators to review and help develop test questions. That process continues even after exams are launched, because the state is always coming up with new questions and versions.

In 2005, two years after the launch of the TAKS, the state convened 141 test committees.

Some committees will review questions, and some will talk about what passing should mean; different committees are needed for tests written in English and Spanish, for instance, or for those given in special education classes.

The educator committees start by looking at the statewide curriculum in each subject and grade, and then establish a series of testing objectives. After that, educators from across the state who aren't on the committees can weigh in.

Committees will also talk early on about what format to use, such as multiple choice or open-ended. State law provides 10 days to grade nonwriting tests and return the scores to school districts, which is why multiple-choice questions are common.

From there, the private company that produces state tests, Pearson Education Inc., will develop as many as 500 possible questions for each test.

Teacher committees will discuss the questions, sometimes rewriting them or tweaking them, and leave a bank of about 300 that could be used. The questions go out on practice tests taken by Texas students, sometimes as standalone tests and sometimes embedded in existing tests. The practice tests trigger further review by teachers and statistical analysts. Officials at the agency ultimately choose about 60 questions for each exam.

"The teachers are fairly consistent in their view of the items," said Gloria Zyskowski, the education agency's director of student assessment. "But there have been times when we've had to take votes, and we've eliminated items if the teachers either tell us that they are not covered in the curriculum or, in some cases, they would not have been covered at the time at which we would have administered the test."

The state reviews exit-level tests, meaning the tests that students must pass to graduate high school, with advocacy groups such as the NAACP and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund to make sure they are free of racial, ethnic or other biases. College faculty also will check the accuracy of each test given in high school.


Because there are so many committees to follow, keeping track of the test-development process can be tough for anyone who is not paid to do so.

"I'm very concerned about the rigor of the test, because if the test is really easy, we haven't moved forward," said Brooke Terry, who is paid to follow the process at the small-government Texas Public Policy Foundation. Terry said she'll monitor the test-writing process to push for an essay section on history exams, for example.

The Legislature has told the education agency to write tests that can be given on computers, although schools will not be required to do so immediately. And here's another wrinkle: Usually, educators working on the test with help from experts and outsiders such as businesspeople and parents discuss how many right answers should be required to pass. That decision then goes to the State Board of Education.

But the new law defines a passing score as 70 percent of questions answered correctly. This will force test developers to keep the difficulty of the test the same from year to year, whereas today's TAKS can change in difficulty because the score required to pass can change.

When the TAKS was developed, the state board decided to make the test easier to pass in the first couple of years than it is today by requiring fewer correct questions for a passing score. It's unclear, Cloudt said, whether the law calling for end-of-course tests gives them that flexibility. That question and others could be addressed in the 2009 legislative session, before schools start giving the new test.

As with the TAKS, the end-of-course tests probably will be used to give schools ratings such as "exemplary," "recognized" or "academically unacceptable." But because the current ratings system is tied to the TAKS, the Legislature has called for a new system before the new tests are given.

"I would like to make it focused to be more helpful than punitive," Eissler said, meaning he hopes the accountability system will help highlight schools' problem areas before the state hits them with a lower rating.

The new tests won't all be written from scratch. Gov. Rick Perry previously ordered the state to start developing end-of-course exams in six subjects, though most of those tests have not reached the final stages.

As for students who are or will be in grades three through eight, don't get too excited. You'll still be taking the TAKS for the foreseeable future. But this is Texas, after all, so the foreseeable future may not last too long.


Starting with students who enter the ninth grade in 2011, high schoolers will be required to average passing scores on end-of-course tests in 12 subjects:

English I, II and III, algebra I, algebra II and geometry, biology, chemistry and physics,

world geography, world history and U.S. history

•The score on the end-of-course test will count for 15 percent of the student's class grade.

•Students who score below 60 must retake the end-of-course test but do not have to retake the course.

•Students could count scores on tests that are deemed just as difficult as end-of-course tests, such as the SAT or AP tests.

Source: Texas Education Agency

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