(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.