Whenever I finish teaching a doctoral level course at my university, I always remind my students that, no matter what they’ve learned in my class, they should never abandon their common sense when it comes to running schools. Both the U.S. Department of Education and a number of California interest groups, presenting themselves as the sole protectors of students of color, could benefit from that admonition.
In September, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law Assembly Bill 484, ushering in a one-year respite from the state’s 15-year-old standardized testing program. The goal was to give students and teachers a year to prepare for new tests intended to measure how well students are doing on the Common Core State Standards.
The California Standards Tests, which millions of students have taken each spring since 1998, are widely regarded as outdated, and in need of reform. They consist mainly of multiple choice questions, measuring only a fraction of the “deeper learning” that students are expected to acquire. The spring of 2014 would have been the last year students would have taken them anyway.
The governor, the State Board of Education, and the state superintendent of public instruction have all agreed that common sense should carry the day when it comes to new assessments in California. Concerned parents, hard-working classroom teachers and dedicated school principals all recognize the validity of this forward-looking approach.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has in any case encouraged states to apply for waivers to administer pilot or field tests for the Common Core in place of their outdated tests. That was to prepare them for more intensive, “computer adaptive” tests all students will take in the spring 2015. Just as in California, those states would not be required to publish the results of the pilot Common Core assessments.
The only difference is that California is saying that students only have to take pilot tests in either math or English language arts this spring. The following spring they would have to take both.
Yet Secretary Duncan is now threatening to withhold at least $15 million – and potentially billions more – in funds intended for our most challenged students as a punishment for California deciding what is best for these very same students. He is doing so even as he tries to force California to enforce a law that he himself has publicly criticized for failing to achieve its central purpose – to leave no child behind.
I am amazed that the leaders of the U.S. Education Department appear to think that school leaders in California are nothing more than a bunch of “southern sheriffs,” who are determined to “turn back the clock” when it comes to looking out for the civil rights of poor and minority students. And, that only the high-handed threat of denying poor kids the money to which they are entitled will bring us to our senses. This is a sad commentary on what passes for leadership in Washington today.
The future of our nation will not be threatened if our schools don’t have standardized test scores for one year. Educators who espouse this nonsense should seriously examine whether they are worthy of the title. The fact that these educators have indicated that they couldn’t possibly know how students are doing without the state telling them risks branding them as incompetents.
The notion that today’s Washington has the answers for California, when it comes to improving the life chances of students who historically haven’t been well-served by the public schools, is completely devoid of reason. They seem to have forgotten that even without the annual standardized tests, students still take multiple tests throughout the school year administered by their teachers.
Typically these locally administered tests are far more useful to students teachers and parents than the California Standards Tests, because results are available soon after they are taken and can be used to inform what and how students learn. By contrast, the state’s standardized tests are taken close to the end of the school year, and published months after students have taken them. The test takers may not even be in the same school any longer by the time the results are released.
When I was superintendent of the Long Beach Unified, we decided that every third-grader would sit with a well-prepared teacher and a book with a known reading level. The teacher, using an approved scoring rubric, would make a determination with regard to whether or not the youngster was reading at grade level. And if they were not at grade level, we provided them with a required five-week summer intervention program designed to address their reading challenges.
Yes, we actually acted on our own data without the state of California, or Washington, telling us how our third-graders were doing. That was a novel idea way back in the dark ages of the 1990s. Parenthetically, I would point out that that school system ended up winning the prestigious Broad Prize in a national competition, and today is hailed by the Battelle for Kids Foundation as one of the five best school systems worldwide.
If Washington recognized the importance of common sense, they would be applauding California’s remarkable $1.25 billion investment in preparing our schools for the new Common Core State Standards. I dare anyone at any level of the U.S. Department of Education to name a state that is doing more to embrace these new standards than California – standards that this same department was so enthusiastic about that it made states adopt them to be eligible to compete for its $4.3 billion Race to the Top fund.
Instead, our commitment to prepare for these standards is met with threats, bluster and ill-conceived brinkmanship as it tries to force the state to continue to enforce every aspect of the No Child Left Behind law – a George W. Bush-era initiative that all thoughtful leaders, including President Obama and Secretary Duncan, recognize has outlived its usefulness.
Further, if Washington truly cared about empowering parents and local communities to collaborate with school systems on better preparing students for college, careers and civic participation, they would be enthusiastically embracing Gov. Brown’s ground-breaking reform of the state’s antiquated and inequitable school funding system.
On the scale on which it is being implemented it is the most exciting development in education in several decades. To a greater extent than any other state, the state is targeting additional funds to school districts so they can better meet the needs of low-income students, English learners, and foster children.
California is ushering in a long overdue return to common sense. For that, it should be rewarded with praise, not punishment.
Carl A. Cohn, the former superintendent of Long Beach and San Diego Unified School Districts, is a member of the State Board of Education and Director of the Urban Leadership Program at Claremont Graduate University. (Cohn is also a member of the EdSource Board of Directors. This commentary represents his views and not necessarily those of EdSource or its board.)
A shorter version of this commentary was published in the San Francisco Chronicle.