CTA and Quality Education Investment Act: selling the same old snake oil

(This commentary first appeared in TOP-Ed.)

Drug companies often hire researchers to evaluate the prescription medicines they’ve designed. Without fail, the studies reveal – surprise! – that the drugs work. Then, when they want the public to pay top dollar for a product, the drug companies dig up wise-looking doctors in lab coats who tout the “research-based” benefits in television commercials.

Last week, we learned that the California Teacher’s Association has taken a page from the drug companies’ book. First, they asked a research firm to evaluate the nearly $3 billion education reform program that they helped design, promote, and turn into law, the 2006 Quality Education Investment Act (QEIA). Then, when the researchers discovered that the program “worked,” CTA ran commercials on the radio touting its benefits.

Not surprisingly, the reforms included in QEIA are the same ones CTA has been promoting for years: reducing class sizes, expanding professional development, and adding staff. According to the commercials, these are the education reforms the state should be investing in.

Before buying these lines, we took a closer look at CTA’s claims.

Let’s start with the claim that, “for the 2009-10 school year alone, QEIA schools, on average, experienced nearly 50 percent higher growth on the California Academic Performance Index (API) than similar, non-QEIA schools.”

Fifty percent seems high. But our question was: 50 percent of what? According to the report, QEIA schools made gains of 21.2 points, while the other similar schools moved up 14.4 points. This difference of 6.8 points amounts to 50 percent, but given that this gain is calculated on a 1,000-point scale, 6.8 points is marginal at best. The average QEIA-funded school still needs to gain approximately 100 points in order to meet the state goal of 800.

So we looked in the report for more persuasive evidence of impact. We searched for information on how many QEIA schools had exited the final years of Program Improvement – the federal designation of a failing school. We searched for the number that had moved out of the lowest 20 percent of schools (only these schools were eligible for the program). We looked for overall state rankings and wondered how many students were passing the state tests.

Strangely, all of these critical signs of school improvement were missing. In fact, the study’s only evidence of “proven success,” was the extra 6.8 points. To satisfy our curiosity, we dug up some more data by visiting the California Department of Education website. We found that in 2009-10, close to 80 percent of QEIA sites were still in Program Improvement and more than 95 percent had yet to meet the state API target of 800. After the 2008-09 school year, 71 percent were still ranked in the bottom 20 percent of schools. On the state’s most recent exams, students in QEIA schools underperformed the state average by 20 points in English-Language Arts and by more than 10 points in math.

While we recognize this is a multi-year program, the fact still remains that these schools, which are receiving billions of dollars, are doing only marginally better than those that have not been pumped full of additional funds. As we illustrated in our May 2010 research brief, “Keeping the Promise of Change: Why California’s chronically underperforming schools need bold reform,” California has a long history of spending millions on school turnaround grants for marginal improvements in our state’s highest-need schools.

The sad part of this is that the intended beneficiaries of those dollars, California’s mostly poor, African American and Latino students, desperately need immediate funds to fundamentally reform their schools now. And although many local leaders and educators in the targeted school districts had ideas about how to spend school improvement dollars to significantly reform their schools, no one bothered to ask for their suggestions. Instead, QEIA was another piece of reform legislation dreamed up in the dark back rooms of Sacramento.

If asked, perhaps some of the state’s local education leaders would have taken a look at the broad evidence on the limited benefits of class-size reduction and most of the other QEIA strategies – and would have instead chosen to invest in things more likely to result in long-lasting impact. Perhaps they would have recognized that the most important factor in improving a school isn’t the number of students in a classroom, but the quality of the teacher in the classroom. Then, they might have chosen to spend the dollars on evaluation systems that measure teacher effectiveness, incentives to attract the best teachers to high-need schools, support for struggling teachers, and rewards for the best teachers.

The CTA opposes any legislation that will allow us to reform the teacher evaluation system and use that information for high-stakes staffing decisions. In contrast, reformers around the nation are recognizing that an effective teacher in every classroom is the most effective school reform strategy. By investing in reforms in the way we evaluate, develop, assign, support, and reward our best teachers, we can expect to see gains in our neediest schools that are truly worth celebrating.

Arun Ramanathan is executive director of The Education Trust—West, a statewide education advocacy organization. He has served as a district administrator, research director, teacher, paraprofessional, and VISTA volunteer in California, New England, and Appalachia. He has a doctorate in educational administration and policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His wife is a teacher and reading specialist and they have a child in preschool and another in a Spanish immersion elementary school in Oakland Unified.

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9 Responses to “CTA and Quality Education Investment Act: selling the same old snake oil”

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  1. JT on Jan 20, 2011 at 9:08 pm01/20/2011 9:08 pm

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    Check the stats on Otay Elementary, Harborside Elementary, and Silverwing Elementary in Chula Vista Elementary School District. All three of these schools received QEIA funding and drastically improved as a result of these additional resources. All became California Distinguished Schools. I worked on the admin team at Otay Elementary and this year we received the National Blue Ribbon Award–one of only 3 schools in San Diego county, K12, to receive this honor. Our API score was 846; there is no gap between English Learners and all students. 70% of students are ELs and the majority of students are socio-economically disadvantaged. I can personally attest to the fact that QEIA played a vital and most significant role in providing Otay with the additional funding to hire staff and fund intervention programs. This is a firsthand account.

  2. Caroline Grannan on Dec 26, 2010 at 9:59 am12/26/2010 9:59 am

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    Whoa. For a charter industry insider to accuse teachers of peddling snake oil is as rich as it gets.

  3. David B. Cohen on Dec 17, 2010 at 12:16 am12/17/2010 12:16 am

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    I also find this analysis limited.  I approached with an open mind, aware of my bias, and looking critically at both sides, but while Mr. Ramanathan talks about digging deeper, I don’t see much depth.  He criticizes the report for flimsy comparisons, but offers the same, trying to diminish the results in QEIA schools without providing comparisons.  For example, most of them are still in Program Improvement.  Yes, well, how many of the lowest performing, non-QEIA schools made it out of PI?  70% of them are still ranked in the bottom 20% statewide, but he doesn’t compare this number to non-QEIA schools, or tell us what the historical trend was for schools moving out of the bottom 20% prior to QEIA.  Of course, if it turns out that union leadership, which relies on teacher leadership at the site level, can yield positive changes in education without dramatic structural reforms, union-busting, and an influx of charter schools, then Mr. Ramanathan’s organization might become superfluous.  Unfortunately, it takes a lawsuit against the state to fund QEIA, while the pro-charter think tanks can rely on a steady funding stream from conservative think tanks, charter school investors, and the major ed-reform philanthropists whose rhetoric is “students first” but whose expenditures are not.

  4. John Wingo on Dec 10, 2010 at 3:48 pm12/10/2010 3:48 pm

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    This is a frustrating piece, and I would expect much better thinking and preparation from Dr. Ramanathan. Some of the facts are wrong, like this being a back room deal of some sort. Looking at the numbers, Dr. Ramanathan is saying on one hand that the scale is out of 1000, and on the other hand that the growth needs are to reach 800 by increasing 100 points.  The QEIA schools, according to the article, were 21 points up on average.  That’s a one year gain of 21% towards attainment of the goal.
    With the non QEIA sites increasing in the midst of increasing class sizes, increasing transiency of our population (because families in low-income schools have been forced into moving homes a lot lately), and less resources to accommodate growing needs, our CA teachers should be heralded as heroes! We have been moving to greater collaboration times between teachers in our schedules and have been working closely with district administration in many of our districts to turn profound obstacles into opportunities for local reform. Test scores show that our efforts are working even in non-QEIA schools.
    I and other CTA members would love to dialogue more about this. I am the Vice President of the San Bernardino Teachers Association, and a classroom teacher by day. I serve on the CTA state representative council, am a liaison to the Linked Learning Alliance, and am an NEA representative. I also have ties to the Harvard GSE EdLD program. If you are serious about reform Dr. Ramanathan, call me and we can work together to make great reforms for every student in CA.

  5. Frank Waters on Dec 10, 2010 at 3:02 pm12/10/2010 3:02 pm

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    So the author finds near double gains EACH YEAR in the first two years of the program insignificant?  If he has a program that takes a school in the bottom decile and puts them at the top in one year, then let’s have at it and spread it far and wide. Otherwise, let’s move ahead with reforms like QEIA that are showing steady and genuine improvement.

  6. anne freeman on Dec 10, 2010 at 2:58 pm12/10/2010 2:58 pm

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    Look at these statistics and then tell me it’s snake oil.
    444 QEIA schools had positive growth in their API scores.
    20 had two-year API growth of _ 100 points
    72 had two-year API growth of _ 75 points
    169 had two-year API growth of _ 50 points
    Twenty schools have increased their API score by 100 points or more.

  7. julie palacios on Dec 10, 2010 at 2:50 pm12/10/2010 2:50 pm

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    Speaking as a dedicated Latina educator born and raised in east Oakland, I can testify to the success of QEIA.  Many outsiders make a pit stop at OUSD with great ideas to improve flatland schools.  These outsiders usually end up leaving our district in debt or changing the curriculum, and not for the best.
    With QEIA funding, teachers have led a change that can be seen and felt in the community.  For my school, smaller class size and teacher collaboration has made a tremendous difference.  Our school has made it out of program improvement.
    I have dedicated 9 years as a teacher in Oakland and I can tell you that QEIA funding has made a world of difference.

  8. Jesse Aguilar on Dec 9, 2010 at 10:12 pm12/9/2010 10:12 pm

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    It seems as if the author is guilty of exactly the same thing he is castigating the California Teachers Association for. There is an agenda embedded in these words; one that is being peddled by those who are not in the classroom but see an opportunity to make a buck. The snake oil being sold here is of the “charter schools can do no wrong” and “let’s blame the teachers” variety. My suggestion is to get in the classroom and then tell me that size doesn’t matter. The author ridicules professional development and embraces ideas like merit pay and new assessment instruments – which I’m sure means using state assessment scores to evaluate individual teachers. It’s the same ol’ same ol’. No new ideas here.
    I am a classroom teacher and I am lucky enough to teach at a school that has been blessed with QEIA funds. I’ve seen the difference that is being made at my school. I see the focus. Our teachers talk with each other now and not just about what we did over the weekend but about our kids. We work every day to improve learning. We have up-to-date text books and computers. Our teachers feel better equipped with both resources and training. We have a real functioning site council, not a rubber stamp committee. Our students see the difference too. They used to see their school as the “ghetto” school. They don’t anymore. I’m noticing that they wear shirts and sweatshirts with college insignias more now. They talk about college now.
    Teachers want their students to learn. How can they not? Teachers next to parents are the people who care most about our kids because they are the ones that have taken the time and built the relationships. Teachers are the ones who listen to their aspirations. Teachers are in the trenches. Teachers are the practitioners. To choose to listen to corporations with an agenda to sell over the voices of teachers who are in the classroom every day and know what works when it comes to teaching and learning is simply absurd.
    Unfortunately, teachers do not have the deep pockets that Gates and Broad do so all you here, including this article, is the mythology of the charter school and the simplistic notion that teachers are the cause of everything bad in education. QEIA shows a different reality. One attested to by people working with real life kids. Teacher driven professional development does matter, collaboration does matter, the availability of resources matter a lot. My school is evolving into a better school and it’s because of QEIA.

  9. Russ Lemon on Dec 9, 2010 at 3:01 pm12/9/2010 3:01 pm

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    After 35+ years as an electrical engineer, I spent a few years as a substitute teacher in California high schools and junior high schools.  The textbooks for chemistry and physics were well written and the teachers using them usually had their masters in that field.  But the general science textbooks had hundreds of errors.  Many of the teachers teaching general science did not recognize the errors!  I even heard teacher teaching incorrect concepts.  There are also many errors in other subjects.  It is sad seeing a student trying to get his answer for a math or science problem to match an wrong answer in the back of his textbook.
    The best way to improve test scores is to teach correct principles.  To insure that this is done, I believe that all textbooks should be available on-line.  Parents and teachers who find errors must have a way to have errors in these on-line textbooks corrected.  Having textbooks on-line helps insure every student has home access to the text book he or she needs.  [I noticed that the “text books” in shortest supply and never taken home, had the most errors.]
    There is too much fraud in grading students knowledge.  I was surprised at how many students had the “answers” to a multiple choice final pre-algebra exam for Seniors.  If the same questions are asked each year, the order of problems should be changed for each class.  Another problem is that “slow students” are often given easier tests.  GPA is no longer an accurate reflection of student knowledge or capabilities.

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