Column by Dan Walters - Sacramento Bee
Friday, November 23, 2007 - Gary Hart is a former teacher and state legislator who authored many of the reforms enacted in the late 1990s, including tougher curricular standards and mandatory statewide testing. He takes umbrage at a recent assertion in this space about the new flurry of reports and seminars on California's educational problems:
"If this account of educational verbiage sounds a little jaded, it's because California's schools, at least as measured by such things as test scores and high school dropout rates, have been deteriorating for several decades despite countless studies and programs that were supposed to fix things."
Hart contends that while the state's educational performance remains very low, it has improved marginally in recent years and, in fact, may not be any worse than it was in past decades, although there are no hard, comparable data on what was happening previously.
It's almost one of those philosophical, half-empty, half-full debates. Hart points out that as measured by national academic tests, the percentage of California's fourth- and eighth-graders rated as proficient in English and mathematics, has risen, generally from the mid-teens to the middle to high 20s over the past 15 years. He also notes that similar gains have been seen in state standardized tests.
It's a good point, although the state's rate of improvement has slowed to a crawl in more recent years in both testing systems. Perhaps my original assessment was overly broad, but whether the recent gains represent a truly positive trend, or merely a blip on a record of long-term decline, is another issue that cannot be resolved by objective numbers simply because we don't have data from decades ago.
If Hart is taking the half-full side of the debate, the half-empty position is exemplified by an op-ed article that appeared recently in the Los Angeles Times, authored by John Rogers and Jeannie Oakes, co-directors of UCLA's Institute for Democracy, Education and Access.
They were critical of Hart's political protégé, state Superintendent Jack O'Connell, for convening an elaborate "summit" that drew 4,000 educators to Sacramento and focused solely on the "achievement gap" between white and Asian American students on one hand and African American and Latino kids on the other.
"Strikingly," they wrote, "the state's other 'achievement gap' was barely mentioned at the summit; this is the gap between California and the rest of the nation. The most recent results from the National Assessment of Education Progress test (popularly known as 'the nation's report card') place California's fourth- and eighth-graders below those in nearly every other state in math and reading achievement. ... This national achievement gap affects students across the state regardless of their race. If we don't address both the racial and national achievement gaps, it's hard to imagine solving either one.
"For example, for years, people have been describing and lamenting California's general decline in education. We've all heard it. Test scores of California's Latino and African American students are, on average, among the lowest in the country. However, white students don't do well either, and by a wide margin: California's white eighth-graders score below white eighth-graders in every state but West Virginia and Nevada on the NAEP reading test."
Whether the state's schools are performing better or worse than they were a generation or two ago ultimately is less important than what's happening now.
Even if they are improving slowly, as Hart contends, it may be too slow to prevent California from becoming lodged at the bottom of the barrel. The fact that in the most recent NAEP tests, California's fourth-graders were second from the bottom, ahead only of the District of Columbia, should be a wake-up call.
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