Source:Pacific Research Institute: California Education Report Card
The news is not all bad for public education in California. For instance, since passage of Proposition 227 and the implementation of English-immersion instruction in the classroom, more children from non-English-speaking backgrounds are becoming fluent in English. The state’s academic standards are among the best in the nation, and with the advent of the standards- aligned California Standards Test there will be increased pressure on schools to teach to the standards.
California’s school accountability program, while certainly not perfect, has at least put an accountability structure in place that focuses on improving student achievement. Finally, although some of the increase may be due to non-academic factors, it is still the case that student test scores on the Stanford-9 exam have increased significantly since the test was first administered in 1997–98. All that having been said, many other indicators point to continued crisis in California’s public education system.
Large majorities of students are failing to score at the proficient level on the new California Standards Test. Scores on the NAEP exam show that California often lags far behind the national average and states like Texas with comparable demographics. Many students are not taking tougher courses and the graduation rate is still below 70 percent. Remedial instruction rates at California State University campuses are shockingly high, indicating that even supposedly good students are graduating from public schools with deficient knowledge and skill levels. Total education spending is at historic highs, but there is also too much waste and misallocation of tax dollars to ineffective programs.
There is some reason for hope, however. In 2002 and 2003, the State Senate Select Committee on Central Valley Economic Development, chaired by Senator Charles S. Poochigian of Fresno, has held hearings in various parts of the state which have focused on the findings of PRI’s report They Have Overcome: High-Poverty, High-Performing Schools in California. As mentioned previously, the PRI report profiles eight public elementary schools with low-income student populations that annually achieve top ratings on the state’s Academic Performance Index. These schools should serve as models for the numerous low-performing schools in the state and the intent of the hearings has been to expose local education officials and educators to these models.
The enthusiastic and positive response of local superintendents, district administrators, principals, teachers, and parents at the Senate hearings to the report’s findings indicates that many local schools are now ready to adopt methods that are proven to work. Indeed, some school districts, like Los Angeles Unified School District, have made great gains in student achievement by implementing research-based, structured, phonics-intensive reading programs that rely on teacher-centered, direct-instruction techniques.
WHAT POLICYMAKERS NEED TO DO
In order to improve learning in the classroom, and promote more efficient and effective delivery of education services at both the state and local levels, PRI makes the following recommendations:
- California must use empirically proven research-based curricula. The state Board of Education has done an excellent job in developing standards-aligned subject-matter curriculum frameworks and approving standards-aligned textbook series. It is imperative that local school districts ensure the full and comprehensive implementation of these curricula in the classroom.
- Schools must use empirically proven research-based teaching methods. The state schools of education still promote ineffective student-centered teaching methods and ignore successful teacher-centered direct instruction techniques. Teaching methods in the classroom will have to change if student achievement is to improve.
- Comprehensive use of the state academic standards as goals for student learning, guideposts for teaching, and tools for teacher professional development. In too many schools, standards-related activity is spotty or even non-existent. The standards must inform all academic activities and meeting the standards must be the key goal for all schools.
- Reform the state’s accountability system. There are too many holes in the current accountability system, with large numbers of low-performing schools not subject to the system’s accountability measures. Accountability should be mandatory for all schools; there should be no hesitancy to impose tough sanctions on failing schools; and higher test-score growth targets should be implemented.
- Implement a school-choice accountability option. Florida includes a school-choice component in its accountability system. Students at failing public schools can use a school-choice voucher to attend a private school. Florida public schools have responded by improving the quality of education in their classrooms.
- Adopt value-added testing. California is in the early stages of establishing a database that will include longitudinal data on individual student test scores. This database could form the basis for a value-added measure of student achievement that would allow policymakers to see how education programs and individual teachers affect student performance in the classroom. Such a testing system would make it easier to design teacher merit pay systems based on objective performance.
- Reform education finance. The state’s categorical programs are largely ineffective and inefficient. Funding for these programs should be block granted to local districts. Popular programs like class-size reduction should not be exempted. In order to ensure that block grant money is used effectively, it is imperative that the school-choice accountability option be available so that the threat of children exiting the public schools acts as incentive for school districts to focus block grant funds on improving student performance.
- Implement differential pay for teachers. The teacher shortage in California is most acute in math and science. Instead of uniform wage structures and pay increases based on years of service and additional schooling, teachers in subject areas where there is a shortage should be paid more than teachers in non-shortage subject areas. Merit-pay systems could reward truly excellent teachers in non-shortage areas.
- Reform collective bargaining. Teacher collective bargaining agreements are a huge impediment to improving education. Through seniority rights, complex grievance procedures, and other devices, these agreements prevent principals from hiring the right teacher for the right classroom at the right time. The state should re-examine the collective bargaining process and streamline or repeal those aspects that prevent the delivery of high quality education services. Student achievement in California can be lifted from mediocrity and failure if policymakers are willing to focus on what works and eliminate what does not. Although this advice seems simple, it is also incredibly difficult, especially given the powerful players with a vested interest in keeping those things that do not work. Standing up to these special interests will require a great deal of political will and courage. To that end, policymakers should keep in mind that the education system exists not for special interests but for the benefit of California’s children and their future.
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