Brown attacks tests and data as main measures of school success

October 9, 2011
California Governor Jerry Brown

Update 10/12/11: Gov. Jerry Brown recently clarified his position on testing and the API. More details >

Setting himself apart from other governors, Gov. Jerry Brown has launched an extraordinary broadside against the current national obsession with testing that continues to dominate school reform efforts across the state and nation.

His attack on testing came Saturday in an uncompromising veto message to Senate Bill 547, authored by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento). The bill, among other things, would have reformed the Academic Performance Index (API), the state’s main device to rank how well schools and districts are doing.

In his veto message, Brown described a sign in Albert Einstein’s office that read “not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.”

Brown’s critique of testing is significant not only because it marks the most outspoken critique of testing of any governor, but also because it comes from the chief executive of a state which educates 1 in 8 of the nation’s public school children.

Brown’s remarks also puts him at odds with the Obama administration which, as a condition for states to compete for a series of government grants, including the administration’s signature Race to the Top competition,  has relentlessly pushed states to develop even more extensive data collection efforts.  That includes a new drive to pressure states to incorporate student test scores into teacher evaluations.

“The current fashion is to collect endless quantitative data to populate ever changing indicators of performance to distinguish the educational “good” from the educational “bad,” Brown wrote.

He called Steinberg’s bill a “siren’s song”—evoking an image of the the bill resulting in a  grim outcome for the state’s schools, just as the seductresses in Greek mythology lured sailors to crash their ships on the rocks.

Steinberg’s legislation would have added other indicators of school performance to the API such as a such as a “college preparedness index” and a “career readiness index,” and come up with a new school ranking system to be called the “Education Quality Index.”

Brown referred to provisions in the bill as  “turgid mandates.”  “It is doubtful that the bill would actually improve our schools,” he said. “Adding more speedometers to a broken car won’t turn it into a high-performance machine.”

His remarks are also significant because Brown arguably is more involved—and has had more hands-on experience—in education than any governor in memory.   Brown started two charter schools in Oakland, the School for the Arts and the Oakland Military Academy.   According to several accounts, he is still very much involved with the schools, talking to their principals frequently,

An indicator of his involvement is that Brown removed a layer of bureaucracy between his office and the State Board of Education and Department of Education by abolishing the Secretary of Education position in his cabinet. “I am the Secretary of Education,” he said In remarks to the State Board within days of being inaugurated as governor last January.

Educators and policymakers say at least for now the governor’s office, the State Board and the California Department of Education are working more collaboratively and cooperatively than at any time in recent years.

Brown’s veto of Steinberg’s bill suggests that the governor and the Legislature have considerably more work to do get on the same page. Over the weekend Brown did sign 34 education bills into law, and vetoed 15.  But his dismissal of Steinberg’s bill bordered on the scornful, indicating that the two had not come close to reaching agreement on arguably the most significant K-12 education bill to reach his desk.

Brown returned to a theme he raised during his surprise visit to the State Board of Education in January of the importance of education not only to deliver academic excellence, but also to “inculcate character.”  Steinberg’s bill, he pointed out, “nowhere mentions character or love of learning…It does allude to student excitement and creativity, but does not take these qualities seriously because they can’t be placed in a data stream.”  The bill, he said, does not recognize that “quality is fundamentally different from quantity.”

But perhaps the most intriguing part of his veto message was his suggestion for evaluating schools at a local level.

“What about a system that relies on locally convened panels to visit schools, observe teachers, interview students, and examine student work?” Brown proposed.  “Such a system wouldn’t produce an API number but it could improve the quality of our schools.”

Brown did not provide any details, such as how these panels would be constituted, who would decide what they would evaluate, and whether the information they collect would be standardized in any form to allow for comparison with other schools or districts.

Steinberg in turn said Brown’s veto of SB547 “leaves in place a narrow accountability system that is failing our students, teachers and schools because it is based 100% on standardized test scores” and that he looked forward “to hearing the governor’s proposal on how to reform the status quo.”

It is hard to know whether Brown’s critique of the state’s testing regimen indicates that he really wants to end testing as we know it in the state’s schools, or whether he is just being provocative to open up a broader debate on the issue.  A call to his office late yesterday was not returned, as Brown’s staff raced to meet the midnight deadline to complete action on all bills awaiting his signature.

But the vehemence of his veto message suggests that this is more than just an intellectual exercise.  Given the centrality of testing and data on the education landscape, it is hard to imagine how the state could even begin to make the changes Brown suggests without significantly dismantling the elaborate edifice of “accountability” reforms California and the nation have erected over the past decade or more.

Update October 12, 2011:

In remarks published in an editorial in the San Diego Union Tribune, Gov. Brown has clarified his veto message of SB 547.

Brown said his veto message was “neither a rejection of testing nor a spur to debate,” but rather a “critical reflection” on the bill. He said he “believed in a certain amount of testing.” He said thought that the Academic Performance Index (API) was “a good metric” but it shouldn’t crowd out “other good measures” of student performance. In his veto message last Saturday, he had proposed setting up “a system of local convened panels” to evaluate schools, noting that “such a system wouldn’t produce an API number.”

In a talk in Irvine on October 11, as reported by the Orange County Register,  he further elaborated on his thinking by saying:

You need objective testing, but you also have to unleash the feelings and the creativity of the teacher. Otherwise, it’s just a recipe. You standardize everybody like homogenized peanut butter.

He complained that “we have a testing system now that is more extensive for 2nd and 3rd graders than the bar exam that I took 40 years ago”

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