Thursday, December 02, 2010

CTA CITES QEIA’s BIG IMPACT: Is it teacher leadership or smaller classes?

By John Fensterwald - Educated Guess |

12/01/10 • Over the past three years, API scores have increased significantly for the bottom 20 percent of California schools, despite ongoing budget cuts. But they’ve risen even higher overall in those lower-decile schools that have gotten their share of a seven-year, $3 billion program that the California Teachers Association exacted in a court settlement with Gov. Schwarzenegger over a Proposition 98 dispute in 2006. In some of those schools, the money also has inspired other changes – in parent involvement, student engagement, and teacher leadership – that are important but harder to measure.

The Quality Education Investment Act, or QEIA, required that the recipient 488 schools use the extra money – from $500 annually per student in K-3 to $1,000 per student in grades 9-12 – to hire counselors and extra teachers to lower class sizes and to spend money on teacher training.

As reported in Lessons From the Classroom, the results at the end of the first three years of the program appear impressive. The average API scores of QEIA schools rose  63 points, compared with 49 points for the non-selected deciles 1 and 2 schools. In the last two years of full implementation of the program, 72 QEIA schools had growth of 75 or more points in API, while 169 had a two-year growth of more than 50 points. The gains were greatest in elementary schools (18 points difference between QEIA and non-QEIA schools) but only 2 ½ points separated high schools (52 API point gains in QEIA schools compared with 49.5 points with non-QEIA schools). Nearly all of the schools are attended by low-income and minority children.

During this time – 2007-08 to 2009-10 – state budget cuts forced many districts to significantly enlarge classes, upwards of 30 in some elementary schools and 40 in some high schools. QEIA not only shielded recipient schools from the worst cuts; it required the classes be no larger than 20 in K-3 and an average of 25 in grades 4-12 (or five fewer students per grade level than existed pre-QEIA). And it required the hiring of one counselor per 300 students, compared with 1 per 1,000 – the nation’s worst ratio – in non-QEIA high schools.

Class-size reduction, which has produced mixed results in terms of higher student achievement according to nationwide studies, is by far the costliest expense. And so it will be critical, once the QEIA windfall ends, for legislators to decide how to spread scarce dollars effectively on all schools, not just the lucky ones that won the QEIA lottery – about a third of the deciles 1 and 2 schools.

Determining which specific strategies funded by QEIA contributed to the most gains is hard to do – as measured so far by Vital Research, the LA-based researchers hired by the CTA. But an analysis of 22 QEIA schools in the report, based on interviews at the schools,  does provide some clues.

All of the schools implemented class-size reduction. But the biggest preliminary impact, at least in the most successful QEIA schools, has been the change in school culture and leadership. QEIA allows some flexibility in spending dollars – whether for technology, teacher coaches, a family resource center, or release time for lesson planning. And teachers could choose how professional development dollars are spent. The requirement that the School Site Council, including parents, approve the QEIA plan, has led to a deeper outreach and involvement of parents  at many schools.

Researchers found that in the nine schools with the highest growth in API scores, teachers collaborated more by grade and in small groups and operated in leadership teams that made professional development decisions. In the majority of the lowest-scoring nine schools, teachers reported that the district or principal mandated the form of teacher training. In the highest-scoring QEIA schools, professional development concentrated on core subject areas, like math and English. In schools with the lowest gains, teacher training was disjointed and lacked coherence. Eight of the nine highest-scoring schools used data to guide professional development decisions, while only one of nine of the lowest-scoring schools did.

The teachers interviewed certainly perceived that smaller class sizes made a difference, enabling them to spend more time on instruction and in one-on-one conversations with students and less time on classroom management. At a forum in Sacramento on Tuesday, a panel of principals and teachers reaffirmed that belief. Compared with the alternative – swollen class sizes in non-QEIA schools – it’s no wonder they want to defend QEIA’s class sizes.

But the report also indicates that the quality of teacher collaboration, professional development, and use of data had the biggest impact on API scores. Those schools with the lowest gains on average were comparable to non-QEIA schools without smaller classes. And it’s interesting that in the planning year, before class sizes were reduced, the average gain in API scores for all QEIA schools was about the same as in the past two years. Teacher involvement made a difference from the start.

It’s still too soon, with not enough hard data, to make any conclusions. Vital Research has promised to do a more thorough evaluation, using controls to make accurate comparisons between non-QEIA and QEIA schools, and to take a deeper look at the qualitative factors beyond scores alone.

It will fall on CTA, the biggest backer of QEIA, to sponsor the work. Despite approving the $3 billion deal, the Legislature did not include a penny to hire an independent evaluator of the program.

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