The results of the Smarter Balanced assessments, the centerpiece of the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress, or CAASPP, were released Sept. 9 and showed the vast achievement gaps that decades of education reforms have failed to close. In a series of interviews, EdSource executive director Louis Freedberg interviewed several leading experts about the continuing gap – and what additional reforms are needed to narrow or close it. Part Three of the series features Michael Fullan, professor emeritus of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. Fullan is working closely with several California school districts and the California Department of Education to implement what he calls the “right drivers for whole system reform.” He has written elsewhere that California “needs to go slow, to go fast” and has “three years to get it right.”
What do the Smarter Balanced test results say about the effectiveness of reforms in recent decades?
The gaps were there and they are still there. It is an indicator that the right strategies were not being used.
But there have always been achievement gaps?
In my view the reforms that have been used have been too driven by accountability and individual development, and not by the right strategies that we know to work. The second thing is that the Smarter Balanced assessments represent higher standards than the previous assessments so it’s more demanding, and it is the first time students are taking tests online. So they will show lower performance because the standards are higher.
The way to way to look at this now is what kinds of strategies are going to show progress and movement forward in reducing the gap more. We need to focus on language development, encourage very specific collaboration and leadership that goes with it, zero in on improving instruction and getting teachers to work together. It is too soon to tell if it will work. I’m not saying wait for five years. I’m saying let’s start looking very closely at how we are doing from year to year.
Do you think that the reforms in place in California are the right reforms? Are they going to make a difference in narrowing the achievement gap?
The short answer is yes. I personally don’t think the Common Core in itself is the longstanding answer. The standards themselves for math and language development within it are important. The fundamental solution is changing the quality of teaching, individually and teachers working together. Those are the strategies I am working on with a lot of districts. The shift is not only replacing the curriculum. It is the new work of teachers and principals working together on very specific demands to do things differently, to measure the results openly and transparently, and be able to compare how students are doing this year with next year.
Is targeting more funds at high-needs children, as we are doing in California, the right strategy?
Yes. We’ve done this in Ontario where we target the whole system. We especially look at those groups that are underperforming and then do things that really address that need. If you are talking about the whole system, for example in districts where they did a great job with special education students, getting students to learn in ways they never did before, it spilled over to the overall performance of the district. As long as you take a whole-system perspective, you can expect everyone to improve. I think some of the strategies we have (in California) are powerful enough to address the difference and begin to reduce the gap.
Are you concerned whether there is enough accountability in California?
The Local Control and Accountability Plan has gone off the rails and it is becoming a huge compliance and bureaucratic operation. So implementation of the LCAP is not good, and that needs to be corrected. That said, I don’t think there was much accountability in the past because there weren’t big consequences for districts in the previous system. So it is not as if we are now throwing away the keys and telling people to do what they want. In fact, there are new pressures on districts to do things better. We also know heavy-handed accountability, as logical as it sounds, only makes matters worse. We need a new version of accountability that is compatible with LCAP and the Common Core.
How would a new version of accountability be different from accountability under NCLB?
We have found that “in your face” accountability was not working, especially with the old measures. What makes it better is to have better standards that encourage people to want to do something; better teacher development, especially working in groups; transparency of results; and intervention to do things. The new accountability comes from having better specificity and better transparency, and then to act on results.
Do we have that now in California?
We don’t have it now because tests are new, so they haven’t kicked in yet in terms of their presence. You have to have the ideas to act on the results. That is what the Task Force on Accountability and Continuous Improvement, co-chaired by Eric Heins from the CTA and Wes Smith from ACSA, will be working on. So this is just the beginning – not in an open-ended sense so that we have to wait for four years to do anything but in the sense that things need to be done quickly. Ten months from now we will have another set of test results to look at. All this requires specific action. Whether it will happen, I can’t predict, but I am working with other people here in California to make it happen.
Will we need to end poverty in order to really make a difference in closing the achievement gap?
Poverty makes a huge negative difference, and there are a whole bunch of things that need to be done in terms of policy and action. But if you say we can’t do anything in schools so we should give up, then you are stuck with nothing. If we do the right things as we have seen in some districts, we know the impact of poverty, which is quite strong, can be cut in half by better teaching – not eliminated but reduced. The new strategies in education are competing with poverty and can make more of a difference than we think we can make. If you really end up saying there is nothing we can do because of poverty, then you are really dead in the water.