Tuesday, September 15, 2009


…in NCLB we had an impossible goal; in a race there are winners and losers. Where is the right metaphor?

  • Obscure database is key to U.S. educational funds for California 

  • California needs 'Race to the Top' funds

  • Evaluating teachers

Obscure database is key to U.S. educational funds for California

The data system tracks student, teacher and administrator performance year to year but has barely gotten off the ground. Other states' systems improve student performance and hold schools accountable.

By Jason Felch and Jason Song | LA Times

September 14, 2009 - California's chance to receive hundreds of millions of federal educational dollars may rest heavily on an obscure and long-neglected piece of education infrastructure: a statewide data system that tracks students, teachers and administrators year to year.

Such education systems are expensive, complex and do not win elections for politicians. But experts say they are essential to learn how much of the nearly $60 billion that California spends on K-12 education makes a difference, a fact that student achievement tests only hint at.

Last month, California rolled out the first component, a student database known as CalPADS. It will eventually make it possible to measure what works and what doesn't in classrooms throughout the state. The second major component, a teacher and administrator database known as CalTIDES, will not come online until 2011.

Though still in its infancy, the state's data system has had a rocky history. The project was first conceived in the 1980s, but has been stalled repeatedly by infighting among state agencies and a lack of political support. Already overdue and over budget, it lacks many of the key components in place in other states such as Texas and Florida.

On Friday, the state Legislature passed a bill that removed one of the system's key limitations -- it sets aside a 2006 state law that, at the insistence of teachers unions, prevented California from using the system to evaluate teachers based on the academic gains of their students.

Experts say that identifying the most effective and least effective teachers is one of the most important factors in improving education, and the Obama administration has said that California would be ineligible for $4.35 billion in competitive federal education grants unless it changed the law.

But education officials say that Friday's legislative fix does little to make California more competitive for the federal money, known as Race to the Top funds. To improve the state's chances, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and several legislators have proposed a sweeping education reform bill that, among other things, seeks to hold teachers accountable for the performance of their students.

So far, few in Sacramento have championed the proposal, and the Democrat-controlled Legislature is facing pressure from the powerful teachers unions to delay the bill, education officials say.

David Sanchez, president of the California Teachers Assn., made his position clear at a summer meeting with his membership.

"Paying and evaluating teachers based on a single test score does not improve student learning and does not help attract and retain quality teachers in lower-performing schools," Sanchez said.

"And we will not stand for it."

Disorganized data

California has long been awash in educational data. The state Department of Education alone has 125 separate databases, including those that track student test scores, national origin and school finances.

But for all that data, the state cannot answer many basic questions about public education: Which high school classes are best at preparing students for success in college? Do the hundreds of millions of dollars spent annually on training actually make for better teachers? Which credentialing programs prepare the most effective educators?

For the most part, officials say, nobody knows.

David Gordon, the superintendent for Sacramento County schools, recalls a discussion in 1983 over unifying the databases to make it easier to measure the effectiveness of education reforms.

For two decades, the idea has been popular among reformers and policy wonks, but never received political support or funding.

In the meantime, other states developed data systems that have allowed them to improve student performance, hold schools accountable and spend education dollars more efficiently.

California was spurred into action in 2002, when the No Child Left Behind law required the state to collect new data. The Legislature approved CalPADS that year with little opposition. It was projected to cost $6 million.

In fact, the student database has taken seven years and tens of millions of dollars to build -- the exact figures are in some dispute.

Many attribute the project's delays to the Department of Finance, which one study said used "100 ways of saying no" to slow the project. Finance officials have fought bitterly with the education department on the scope of the system and who would control access to the data.

H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the finance department, acknowledged his department's concerns about privacy and costs over the years. But once the system was approved, "in no way, shape or form have we been an impediment to providing the funds to build the system."

Even today, the two departments have dramatically different estimates for the pricetag: Finance puts it at more than $100 million, including ongoing costs; the Department of Education says one-time development costs were $24 million.

Whatever the figure, some say the state has been penny-wise and pound-foolish, wasting far more money by not investing in the system sooner. "If you're going to be investing $60 billion a year, to have a $20-million system in place to monitor what is working seems an obvious and appropriate investment," said Gary K. Hart, the former secretary of education for Gov. Gray Davis.

"We've been something of an embarrassment in the states on this issue," said Gordon, the Sacramento County superintendent. "This has been way, way too long in coming."

Despite the delays, CalPADS' development has already yielded some major breakthroughs for the state. California has been able to count the number of dropouts far more accurately, and students' test data and enrollment history will now follow them when they transfer between districts, eliminating the need for some of the costly testing.

And soon, the state will be able to answer those basic questions about what works in California classrooms.

When the teacher and administrator database is in place, the state for the first time will be able to determine which teacher training programs produce the most effective teachers.

Used together, the systems will allow the state to save money by eliminating programs that are not working.

"It's not going to solve the state budget deficit," said Mary Perry, deputy director of EdSource, a California policy group that has studied the data system. "But it's going to help educators learn what helps student performance and what doesn't."



California needs 'Race to the Top' funds

The 'Race to the Top' fund is too advantageous to ignore, the state's Board of Education president says. That means tying teacher evaluation to student performance, and that's a good idea.

By Ted Mitchell | Op Ed in the LA TIMES

September 15, 2009 -- California soon must decide whether to make dramatic changes and lead the nation in education reform or -- if it can't or won't change -- be dragged along as other states show what bold change looks like. That's the message U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan delivered to a California audience this summer.

Duncan challenged California to do away with a 2006 law that prohibits the state from using student performance data in evaluating teachers on a statewide basis. A few local districts do evaluate teachers using their students' test scores; Los Angeles Unified is not among them.

The stakes grew much higher in July when Duncan announced that states with such "firewalls" would be barred from vying for a share of the $4-billion federal "Race to the Top" fund, the largest competitive education fund in U.S. history, unless they changed their laws. The resulting national controversy, framed as a test of wills between the Obama administration and the most populous state, has generated plenty of heat.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced a special session of the Legislature that ends Oct. 5 to sweep away the 2006 law and other potential impediments to California's application for Race to the Top money.

There must be a truly new, bold approach to education in this state, and eliminating the firewall is a good first step toward that end.

No doubt it came as news to most Californians that such a firewall even exists, and for many, it makes as much sense as it would if my daughter's teacher were required to assign her grades without looking at her papers, tests and homework. As a recent report from the New Teacher Project makes clear, this firewall contributes to a perverse situation in which teachers are treated as widgets, neither rewarded nor supported because the performance of one cannot be distinguished from another. It's hard to think of another field that would tolerate such an arrangement. Indeed, good teachers want and deserve to be recognized for what they're doing well, and to receive help where they are struggling.

Yet in recent weeks, leaders in our school systems and teachers unions have declared that breaching the firewall is a political nonstarter because of fears of state centralization of teacher evaluations, privacy and other concerns. And insiders have argued about whether changes in the law are necessary for local districts to use student data in evaluations

These are distractions. Teacher contracts and performance evaluations are now and will remain local responsibilities, and data safeguards are easily constructed. The firewall should come down, now. But to address the spirit of Race to the Top as well as its stated requirements, we must address the real question here: Should the professional evaluation of a teacher be based, at least in part, on measurements of how much students are learning?

The answer is, and must be, yes.

Does saying yes mean, as some opponents of such a policy argue, that teacher evaluations should be based simply on standardized test scores? Of course not. President Obama and Duncan have said that teachers should not be judged solely on student scores. State education leaders from both sides of the aisle in California agree. Teacher effectiveness is not a one-dimensional question.

The good news is that districts such as Long Beach and Garden Grove are successfully using student performance data as part of robust and multifaceted evaluations of their teachers. The largest and most successful of Los Angeles' charter school organizations are planning to incorporate student performance into their teacher evaluation, development and promotion systems as early as next year.

Any useful system of evaluation, including these bold California initiatives, will have measures of student performance and progress along with other important indicators of teacher effectiveness. The latter should include classroom observation by trained administrators and peers, evaluation of teacher work and recognition of the special challenges teachers and students in our most affected schools face. Such systems would allow districts and schools to recognize exceptional teaching and share best practices, help teachers develop skills in areas of weakness and, yes, help identify teachers who ought to leave the profession.

Although critics are right to say we have substantial work to do to improve our measures of student progress, they are quite wrong if they claim we can afford to wait until we have perfect assessments before we start down this road. Intentionally blinding ourselves to teachers' effectiveness cannot be the right answer.

Saying yes will require difficult changes. True leadership in this moment means actively piloting systems that connect the work of teachers to the progress of students in smart, thoughtful ways. Any other choice means accepting a different firewall -- one that stands between California's children and hundreds of millions of dollars in desperately needed federal funds, and between our children and the future they deserve.

  • Ted Mitchell is president of the state Board of Education and chief executive of the NewSchools Venture Fund.

Evaluating teachers

The 'Race to the Top' program places too much emphasis on raising standardized test scores, a former teacher argues.

By Walt Gardner | Op Ed in the LA TIMES

September 15, 2009 -- It seems so simple and fair. Because teachers are hired to teach, let's evaluate them on the basis of student performance. After all, employees in other fields are rated on their ability to perform their designated tasks. When teachers resist being similarly judged, therefore, they clearly are trying to evade accountability.

At least that's the common perception in the debate over the U.S. Department of Education's $4-billion "Race to the Top" fund. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature are weighing whether to change a 2006 law to allow this performance/evaluation linkage so the state can qualify for some of this money.

But before jumping to conclusions, taxpayers need to read the fine print that lays out the rules for the distribution of these funds in what is the federal government's greatest involvement in education reform in our history. To be labeled effective, teachers have to demonstrate that their students achieve "acceptable rates" of growth in an academic year.

It's precisely in the 5,000 chronically failing public schools targeted by the initiative that this particular mandate needs to be debated most openly. These schools are almost always located in inner cities and in rural areas. They are overwhelmingly populated by poor students who come from chaotic backgrounds.

When teachers inherit classroom after classroom of these students year after year, it's extremely difficult to focus on instruction. That's because of the powerful effect of out- of-school factors on learning. Too many poor students go to school each day without a nutritious breakfast, without sufficient sleep and without parents who are involved in their education. As a result, teachers are forced to perform triage rather than teach.

This bleak situation has long existed, but the recession has increased the number of students who are homeless and who have lost access to healthcare. About 1.6 million people, including 340,000 children, were homeless across the nation before the recession began, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. With unemployment on the rise, the situation will only get worse.

This outlook directly affects learning because the rate at which people move from place to place causes problems similar to those created by non-attendance. In 2008, about 6.5% of all children lived in their current residence for fewer than six months. For poor children, however, the rate was 10%, according to the Partnership for America's Economic Success.

It's not surprising, therefore, that most teachers are vehemently opposed to the demands of Race to the Top to link their evaluations to progress on standardized test scores, which in turn forms the basis for determining if students have advanced one grade level per school year.

Some argue that this position is merely an excuse. They cite the examples of schools that serve large numbers of students who qualify for free lunches because of their parents' income and yet have boosted standardized test scores. If they can do it, why can't all schools follow suit?

These schools certainly deserve high praise. But their success is neither sustainable nor achievable for the nation's 90,000 public schools serving 50 million students.

Heroic efforts extract too steep a price from teachers to form the basis of education reform. This is seen in the burnout in schools with a disproportionate number of needy students. At the Knowledge Is Power Program schools, for example, teachers are expected to teach every other Saturday and for three weeks during the summer in addition to their typical 10-hour days. How long can they maintain this schedule?

The potential for high teacher turnover already exists in public schools. Each year, U.S. school districts hire more than 200,000 new teachers for the first day of class. But by the time summer rolls around, 22,000 have quit, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

For students attending the failing schools that are the principal focus of Race to the Top, even the best of the nation's teachers will not be able to overcome the huge deficits in socialization, motivation and intellectual development they bring to class through no fault of their own.

The sooner we disabuse ourselves of the notion that teachers are miracle workers, the sooner we can address the fundamental causes of student failure.

  • Walt Gardner taught for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District and was a lecturer in the UCLA Graduate School of Education. E-mail: walt.gard@verizon.net

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