(This commentary first appeared in TOP-Ed.)
It probably could have been predicted a decade ago. The way the American political system judges schools – indeed the whole center of gravity of educational accountability – is shifting again. From a rigid reliance on test-based numbers, which was the fashion of the big state and federal education laws of the George W. Bush era, the pendulum is slowly swinging back toward breadth, flexibility, and moderation.
In California, the most recent example – and the most encouraging – is Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg’s SB 547. The bill would replace API, the 12-year-old Academic Performance Index, which, in rating each school and district, narrowly focused on standardized tests in reading and math, with a much broader set of standards.
The criteria would still include the standardized tests – accounting for a minimum of 40 percent in elementary schools, a maximum of 40 percent in high schools – on a new Education Quality Index (EQI). But they would also comprise, in the upper schools, dropout and graduation rates, readiness for college and careers, and a set of other items yet to be determined (among the possibilities: a Pupil Growth Index, a Pupil Engagement Index, and an Innovation Index).
Given the generational swings in American education fashion, the shift, both at the national level and in California, was almost inevitable, but it’s still a major improvement over the current standards.
SB 547 is not a perfect bill – and can’t be. Can things like “pupil growth” or innovation or love of literature or citizenship ever be reliably reduced to numbers? Worse, perhaps, is that Americans’ ambivalence about what they want from their schools makes the standards by which they measure them ever-mutable, uncertain, and sometimes controversial. At any given time, half of us will be unhappy with “the schools.”
Conflicting, changing measures of achievement
As a nation of fact hunters, we want hard numbers by which to judge achievement and hold the schools accountable, but we want the system to be forgiving as well: meritocracy and democracy. No excuses, but give the child (the school, the teacher) a second chance, make allowances and provide special programs for special education students and English learners.
The Steinberg bill necessarily leaves a lot of the specific criteria-setting to state education officials and to a committee of informed citizens. Among those criteria, it might also have usefully included a measure of students’ cultural literacy. But the bill is a sign that the ice is breaking.
There’s belief in Sacramento that Gov. Jerry Brown, who now has SB 547 on his desk, will veto it and demand still moreflexibility. A few months ago Brown, the Jesuit-humanist who seems leery of school policy that’s excessively numbers driven, vetoed CALTIDES, the California teacher data system, and not just because he’s beholden to the unions.
Still, it would be unfortunate if he blocked this bill as well. On all scores – the double meaning is intended – this bill could be the start of a sequence of major improvements over the narrow system we have now.
Americans have been tinkering with the schools and debating true beliefs about how children learn and what they should learn for more than a century and a half: progressive education vs. traditional schooling; phonics vs. so-called look-say or whole language; more homework vs. less homework or no homework; grade retention vs. social promotion; discovery learning vs. direct instruction; constructivist math vs. math facts…. The list runs to the horizon and beyond.
The current era began before the passage of No Child Left Behind, the paradigmatic education law of the early Bush years, but NCLB effectively represents it. By the year 2014 all children were to be “proficient” in reading and math. But it left the definition of “proficiency” to each state, many of which changed the definition in order to look successful. It skewed school curricula, brought about widespread cheating, and generated almost no improvement.
NCLB’s one great advantage was that by requiring each major subgroup to be assessed and make adequate progress, it pressed states and districts to pay attention to a lot of kids who had been ignored: special ed students, ethnic minorities, and those who came to school speaking little or no English.
But the effective target – universal proficiency, as defined by each state – was either impossible to achieve or fatally dumbed down. And the reformers’ favored remedies – starting charter schools, firing teachers and principals of failing schools or otherwise “reconstituting” those schools, throttling teachers unions – rarely work. There is no pedagogues’ cavalry out there ready to charge to the rescue.
So now, as the damage becomes obvious – as NCLB stigmatizes good schools for one perceived failure or another, or as the same school is declared exemplary by one set of criteria and condemned by another – the reexamination that should have taken place years ago begins, and the rollbacks with it. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is offering wholesale waivers to states that will accept some version of his standards in place of the Bush standards.
Duncan’s Race to the Top may turn out to be no better than and just as narrow as NCLB, but the waivers he is now proposing are a sign that things aren’t working. The vast majority of schools are still a long way from the broad, humanistic standards that the best practitioners, here and abroad, strive for. And no doubt Steinberg’s bill, if it ever becomes law, will need tweaking as its unintended consequences appear. But it’s still a promising step toward a more rational and intelligent way of judging our schools.
Peter Schrag is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of “Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future” and “California: America’s High Stakes Experiment.” His latest book is “Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America” (University of California Press). He is a frequent contributor to the California Progress Report, where today’s article also appeared, and is a member of the TOP-Ed advisory board.