Saturday, March 20, 2010


Schools still bad after 20 years

The 2009 Brown Center Report on American Education: How Well Are American Students Learning?

By John Fensterwald | The Educated Guess

March 18th, 2010 -- The lowest performing schools in California in 1989 were still the lowest performing schools 20 years later, despite a slew of so-called school reforms, a battery of new standardized tests, punishments for bad schools, incentives for them to become better and experiments in curriculums and programs.

That was the finding (part II of the three-part study) of the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy, which compared state test scores of 1,156 California schools with an eighth grade two decades ago and still operating  today. Five out of eight schools (63 percent) in the bottom quartile of schools then were bouncing around the bottom in 2009, while 27 percent – about one in four – moved up to the second quartile. Only 1.4 percent – one in 70 – bounded up to the top quartile.

The opposite was true too. The top-scoring schools stayed at the top.

This static state wouldn’t matter so much if lowest performing schools as a group were moving ahead and closing the achievement gap. But that hasn’t happened, for the most part. Although API scores have shifted upward for all schools over the past decade, California scores on the NAEP exam – a national standardized test – have stagnated or declined.

Brookings researcher Tom Loveless sees the “depressing” lack of movement among schools as a sober warning to the Obama’s administration, with its big thrust to turn around the worst-performing schools. Stating that California “tried just about everything,” he runs through a list of programs and experiments in curriculums, charter schools, new and old math, phonics and whole reading, that failed to nudge the needle overall.

But, in fact, the opposite is true. There’s certainly been a lot of motion but little commitment in California.  Following swings in the state budget, statewide school reforms have been inconsistent, faddish, halfhearted and poorly measured. The worst schools and districts have rarely been closed or taken over. Teacher and principal training has been sporadic. And the boldest, far-reaching recommendations  in Getting Down to Facts and the Governor’s Advisory Committee on Education Excellence – like revamping teacher pay and seniority rules, site-based budgeting, guaranteeing good teachers in bad schools and substantially increasing state funding for low-income and English-learning students – have been dismissed as too expensive or politically risky.

So the Brookings study indirectly ends up making the case, at least for the 5 or 10 percent of the worst-performing schools, for some of the  drastic options that Obama is proposing. Speculating on the question, “What causes, or at least reinforces, the persistence of school test scores over the decades?” Loveless answers, “Achievement seems to be part of the institutional DNA of schools, handed down from decade to decade, the past influencing the future.”

Which is to say, low expectations and a school poisonous culture that can seep into a school like mold.  Breaking from the past may require, in those cases, closing down a school, transferring ineffective teachers, inviting in a charter school, and in all cases, more resources than the nation’s 46th lowest funded state has been willing to spend.

Loveless observes that over the same 20 years, the worst performing professional sports teams have done far better in turning themselves around than the worst schools, with a few exceptions, like the NBA’s Sacramento Kings. Most professional sports have draft lotteries and salary caps to help teams at the bottom. But, Loveless says, schools also have compensatory strategies, too. They just don’t seem to work as well.

But, at the risk of stretching the analogy, California’s lowest-performing, urban schools are like Major League Baseball’s small-market teams, where stars (teachers) flee as free agents,  rookies are recycled through, the stadium is antiquated, and the fans have all but given up hope.

The A’s can pick up and leave Oakland, but most families can’t. Just tinkering with the rules won’t make their children’s schools much better.

(The study of California schools was the second part of the 2009 Brown Center Report on American Education: How Well Are American Students Learning? The other two parts – an examination of California’s conversion charter schools and a longitudinal evaluation of  results of NAEP, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also came up with interesting findings.)


State: Ed groups misinformed feds

Letter to U.S. Department of Education on California’s State Fiscal Stabilization Fund Round Two Application

By John Fensterwald  | The Educated Guess 

March 17th, 2010 - The Schwarzenegger administration has responded, in a letter to federal officials, to  education groups’ charges  that the state violated rules for qualifying for remaining stimulus money from the feds. Herb Schultz, the governor’s overseer of stimulus dollars, made it clear in an accompanying statement that he was peeved that advocates would have the audacity to “try to stand in the way of securing nearly a half a billion dollars in critical funding for our education system during these difficult economic times.” And, or course, he denied anything improper.

The education groups say it’s the Schwarzenegger administration that is standing in the way of hundreds of millions of dollars due schools under the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund. They wrote the U.S. Department of Education that the governor’s proposed and past budgets shorted K-12 schools money  in violation of the requirement that states maintain  levels of education spending as a prerequisite for receiving billions of dollars. They said that Schwarzenegger had used accounting tricks to make it look like the state was in compliance, when it actually would have to increase K-12 spending by at least $600 million. The groups included the Education Coalition (school boards association, CTA and the administrators’ association) and a coalition of organizations led by Public Advocates.

The arguments center on accounting rules: how Schwarzenegger handled repayment of past Proposition 98 obligations and whether it improperly deferred money for low-achieving schools under  QEIA (Quality Education Investment Act), which was created through a court  settlement with the California Teachers Assn. Schultz said the state handled it properly and accused that the organizations of deliberately misinforming the feds.

The organizations also charged that the governor’s proposed gas-tax swap, replacing the sales tax on gasoline with an excise tax, was a deliberate effort to lower the state’s spending obligation under Prop 98. Schultz’ letter doesn’t address that issue.

By John Fensterwald on March 17th, 2010

No comments: