LA Times, Nov. 11, 2004 [see also letter from State Superintendant Jack O'Connell, below)

The Easy School Fixes Are Over

The pace of school gains in California has slowed, after years of slight but steady test score improvement. The quick fixes have been exhausted standards established, class sizes cut, curriculum revamped, teachers trained. New progress will require education leaders to address intractable problems that hold California's public schools back: unpredictable and inadequate funding; growing rolls of poor, immigrant and disabled children; and an aging teacher corps hamstrung by inflexible labor unions. Unfortunately, courage and creativity seem to be in short supply in the state's education bureaucracy.

The state's 5-year-old standardized testing program was supposed to be part of an Academic Performance Index that would measure school achievement in several areas, including attendance and graduation rates. Teachers and schools that did well were to receive bonuses; schools that didn't got intervention. But the bonuses stopped when the money dried up, the intervention felt like punishment, and the index never evolved to include anything other than test scores which tend to be low in schools with low-income students and higher in schools with middle-class kids. All schools are expected to show yearly gains, but low-ranking schools must make up more ground at a faster pace.

This year, fewer than half of the state's 6,500 public schools met their improvement goals, down from 78% last year. Los Angeles Unified schools did slightly better 52% made acceptable improvement, compared with 85% last year. Testing experts say the slowdown follows a familiar pattern in assessment programs, in which initial dramatic gains tend to slow as time goes on.

That's why it was disingenuous for state Supt. Jack O'Connell to launch a finger-pointing campaign, blaming teachers and parents for losing focus and suggesting that scores will rise if we simply "redouble our efforts." His obsession with toughening academic standards and sending every student off to college must seem frustratingly myopic at schools where half the kids have dropped out by 12th grade.

State Education Secretary Richard Riordan is no better. He has been conspicuously silent for most of his tenure. Both O'Connell and Riordan spend plenty of time visiting schools; they ought to use those trips as more than photo ops.

It's clear even from this year's stagnant test scores that some schools are succeeding against long odds. Here's what works:

  • Collaboration among teachers,
  • support from parents,
  • frequent measurement of student skills and
  • early intervention with struggling students.

Officials ought to study successful schools and spread their stories, bringing light, not heat, to the test score debate.

Note: the above editorial corresponds to an article of which I only have a scan:

Los Angeles Times, Oct 29, 2004, pg. B1 & 9 (back to top)

Pace of School Gains Is Slowed (scan of article)
Fewer than half meet their goals, a sharp decline from last year's performance. Budget cuts, bigger classes, loss of focus blamed.
Duke Helfand and Jean Merl

Word Count 783
Abstract (Article Summary):
Fewer than half of California's public schools met state targets for academic improvement this year, a sharp decline from last year, when most schools met expectations, according to data released Thursday.
The latest report tells whether schools met their goals on the Academic Performance Index, which grades campuses on a scale of 200 to 1,000 based on students' scores in math, English and other subjects. ... [see scan of article for rest of text]

LA Times, Thursday, Nov. 18, 2004 (back to top)

Slow Process of Improving Schools
The Nov. 11 editorial, "The Easy School Fixes Are Over," fundamentally misunderstood why California sets the bar high for student achievement. California is nationally recognized for implementing high standards through teacher training, and aligning curriculum, textbooks and tests to ensure kids are learning. This ongoing 10-year effort has improved schools. This is not a quick fix but a long-term quest we must not abandon just because it's not an overnight success.
Analysts say the slowdown in academic progress may be a waning fidelity to teach the standards-based curriculum. We must stay focused on high standards and redouble our efforts to avoid complacency. I would never blame educators or parents. We must work as a team and take responsibility for our children's education.
I am proud of what The Times calls my "obsession with toughening academic standards." This does not mean every child should go to college. It means our education system should challenge every child to reach his full potential after graduation, whether he chooses college, the military or careers.
Jack O'Connell
State Superintendent of Public Instruction


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