Peter Schrag

Peter Schrag

Gov. Jerry Brown’s George Wallace act seems just a little forced. Standing defiantly against the feds in the schoolhouse door as the Alabama governor once did is probably not his shtick.

But Brown, who this week suggested American schools were just fine before the federal government “intruded in education,” seems to be trying. For a bright guy, that was about the silliest thing he ever said.

The Washington pointy-head in Brown’s drama is U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who’s threatened to punish California with loss of federal money if it suspends its testing program in math and English.

And last week, with a loud push from state schools chief Tom Torlakson, that’s just what the Legislature did. So this year, for the first time in 15 years, most state tests in California schools, tests required under NCLB, the federal No Child Left Behind Act, will not be given. Say Duncan’s name in Sacramento these days, and you’re likely to get loud hissing.

The tests may not be given in 2014-15 either. And without the tests, schools won’t get the customary API (Academic Performance Index) rating. In effect, there will be no state accountability system.

What triggered all this were the ambitious new Common Core academic standards for K-12 schools and the computer-based Smarter Balanced exams – to be “field tested” this year – that California will use to measure how well students and schools are meeting them.

Common Core, developed under the aegis of the nation’s governors and state school superintendents and formally adopted by some 40 states, represents a fundamental curricular change.

It’s strongly oriented to problem solving, essay writing and analysis rather than the fact-based, bubble-tested back-to-basics curriculum that’s been the fashion for the past thirty-plus years. The aim is to create national academic standards like most other nations that might – might – raise American students to world-class learning.

It’s a big switch – for teachers, for students, for parents. Torlakson, the teachers unions and others in the school establishment who back Assembly Bill 484, the bill authorizing the suspension, say it’s crazy to ask schools to begin teaching to the new Common Core standards, and at the same time require tests based on the old standards.

But as Education Trust-West, which advocates for poor and immigrant children in the schools, contends, “that shift should not come at the expense of public transparency about student academic performance. The language of [the bill] could result in two years where California citizens will lose critical information on student academic outcomes.” Why not test in whatever curriculum you’re teaching, regardless of what it is?

What makes the stakes still greater – and the issues more complicated — is that the introduction of Common Core coincides with the launching of LCFF, Brown’s new Local Control Funding Formula, which is designed to give schools extra money for students from low-income families and for English learners.

But since LCFF leaves more fiscal discretion to local districts – also a favorite of the governor – it necessarily requires a way for the state and local voters to determine how well the money is spent.

There’s no assurance that the districts will in fact spend LCFF funds on the kids who are supposed to be the special beneficiaries. Deep down, Brown hates standardized tests, but because there will be no tests, there will be no baseline to judge how well the schools are using that discretionary money for maybe another five or six years.

To make things still murkier, when the Legislature enacted LCFF, it ducked the details, ordering the State Board of Education to set the criteria requiring the districts to actually spend the extra money designed for poor children and English learners in the schools they attend.

Given the long and ugly history of non-transparency in school spending, there are good reasons to write those spending rules very carefully.

Districts often hid the vastly unequal amounts going to schools serving the neediest kids, and some may still. They’ve put disproportionately large amounts into the schools where parents have clout and into teacher pay increases, then back-filled the gap with federal funds that were supposed to be spent on extra help for needy kids, making everything look equitable.

California has begun to address some of those problems. But unless there are rigorous rules for equity and the academic and fiscal data to make certain they’re obeyed, and that they work, districts will respond to the same old pressures – influential parents, union power, taxpayer groups – that they always have. On that front AB 484 won’t help. Until 2015 at least, we’ll be flying blind.

And as to Jerry Brown’s good old days: Maybe he forgot that those were the days when black kids in the South went to school (all segregated) only five months in the year, when there were no Indian or Chinese engineers, when Japanese technology was a joke and when they weren’t building planes in Toulouse that are as good as those built in Seattle. Parochialism in California is as dumb in 2013 as it was in Alabama in 1963.

This commentary was first published in the Sacramento Bee.

•••

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.

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  1. Frances O'Neill Zimmerman 7 years ago7 years ago

    Dan Walter hates the Democrats and the Governor. I don’t share this animus, but it would be impossible
    not to come to the conclusion I have described. I find it very sad.

  2. Doug McRae 7 years ago7 years ago

    Regarding CTA influence on AB 484 passing legislature, Sac Bee columnist Dan Walters reached the same conclusion in a column he wrote shortly after the 484 amendments were released the 1st week of September.

  3. Frances O'Neill Zimmerman 7 years ago7 years ago

    Thank you for this clear explanation of what is being cooked up and passed wholesale in the Democrat-controlled California Legislature. We miss you, Peter Schrag. It is criminal, in my opinion, that there will be no accounting for what kids and their teachers do for at least the next two years in this huge state. That's a long time in the school lives of a lot of children, many of whom are poor and English-learners. That's … Read More

    Thank you for this clear explanation of what is being cooked up and passed wholesale in the Democrat-controlled California Legislature. We miss you, Peter Schrag.

    It is criminal, in my opinion, that there will be no accounting for what kids and their teachers do for at least the next two years in this huge state. That’s a long time in the school lives of a lot of children, many of whom are poor and English-learners. That’s a long time for parents (and teachers and principals) to be working in the dark.

    Could there be a coincidence between the suspension of testing and growing national pressure to use standardized test results as a small part of teachers’ evaluations? It’s simple: get rid of the test; get rid of test-based teacher evaluation. Probably we should thank the California Teachers Association — the biggest, richest, spendingest lobby in the state capitol of Sacramento.

  4. Chris Stampolis 7 years ago7 years ago

    Peter, your column prsents an excellent conclusion to remind how horrid educational conditions were in the 1960s and to remind also about the pressures on school leaders of influential parents, unions and taxpayer groups. I invite you to review the sample SBAC exams and the Common Core guiding documents on the CDE website. It is inaccurate to conclude that Common Core is opposed to what you define as "back to basics." In fact, the … Read More

    Peter, your column prsents an excellent conclusion to remind how horrid educational conditions were in the 1960s and to remind also about the pressures on school leaders of influential parents, unions and taxpayer groups.

    I invite you to review the sample SBAC exams and the Common Core guiding documents on the CDE website. It is inaccurate to conclude that Common Core is opposed to what you define as “back to basics.” In fact, the posted Common Core State Standards for Mathematics require more memorization and automaticity than California ever before has seen. And the new SBAC tests uploaded at CDE primarily are multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank.

    Thus, the proposed suspension of testing is even more goofy than the advocates suggest because there are few significant required changes. Common Core content is not a HUGE shift from current content. There are some tweaks and, yes, there are HIGHER standards and expectations – primarily with regard to now required memorization of multiplication tables and knowledge of correct spelling and grammar. But continuing the STAR tests would not be a setback. A student has to know the correct answer in either setting.

    Additionally, Common Core is more “back to basics” than we ever have seen before because the fill-in-the-blanks SBAC test questions provide nowhere for students to hide. Points will be given for accurate answers on almost every question on almost every SBAC test.

    For those of us advocating on the front lines to close achievement gaps in math and english proficiency and to promote college and/or career readiness, taking away testing data presents a significant impediment. Thank you for your honest comments that it may take many years before new data surfaces. We’ll find out soon whether Superintendent Torlakson really is committed to expeditious implementation of the new SBAC exams statewide, or if this is a strategy to delay state testing indefinitely. We already are at a point where the current set of 9th graders likely will be long gone from 12th grade before a new set of comparative data is available. Their generational results won’t be well-tracked. And, it appears we’ll never again have statewide Algebra 1 specific data to review grade-by-grade/cohort-by-cohort, including information to track accelerated math achievement.

    – Chris Stampolis
    Governing Board Member, Santa Clara Unified School District
    Member, Democratic National Committee
    408-771-6858 * stampolis@aol.com

  5. el 7 years ago7 years ago

    Schools rarely see dramatic changes in test scores. I think it's safe to assume that next year's test scores would look a lot like last year's. The first priority for our money has to be student learning and quality instruction. Testing does not create either. It creates some window into what is going on in schools, but it's a mistake to think that testing creates an accurate observation of what is going on just because it … Read More

    Schools rarely see dramatic changes in test scores. I think it’s safe to assume that next year’s test scores would look a lot like last year’s.

    The first priority for our money has to be student learning and quality instruction. Testing does not create either. It creates some window into what is going on in schools, but it’s a mistake to think that testing creates an accurate observation of what is going on just because it makes nice convenient numbers. The numbers may make you, as an outsider to a school, feel better, but it does not relieve you of the responsibility to walk inside the school and see what is actually going on in order to evaluate it. And a test that measures the wrong thing, especially a test that will generate destructive angst if the scores fall by 5-10 points, can be worse than not measuring.

    I am not against testing per se. But we need to understand its limitations and keep going back to our first principles. The first principle is: provide a quality education to all students. We have a lot of data to work with. We have taken that data and decided to completely change our curriculum and our testing regime, as well as our state funding strategy. Having done so, it’s not clear that test scores in the transition period have any meaning anyway. We’ve already decided to stop doing what we were doing, and our new procedures won’t be fully implemented.

    In my district, there is a particular area of concern that was highlighted by past state tests, and a change in strategy is already in progress. I’ve asked that we think about what information we can gather to make a local determination if our changes have been successful. I hope every school will continue to engage in careful self-reflection on areas of weakness.