Politics & Government

Dan Walters: Judging schools isn’t easy

California’s education establishment is happily jettisoning the strict, test-based systems of rating schools under both state and federal laws.

Administrators and teachers considered the two systems, sponsored by former Gov. Gray Davis and former President George W. Bush, to be overly simplistic and punitive.

The Legislature has suspended the state system indefinitely while the federal No Child Left Behind program was superseded by the less punitive Every Student Succeeds Act late last year.

Sue Burr, a member of the state Board of Education, termed the federal law switch a “get-out-of-jail-free card” for schools that had received sanctions for low academic achievement.

However, the board must now create a substitute that embraces the state’s new Local Control Funding Formula, a shift to Common Core academic standards and the residual requirements of the new federal law – and that’s proving to be a daunting task as it moves from the conceptual to the specific.

The goal is a “single, coherent accountability and continuous improvement system” that’s based on “multiple measures” and is a “flashlight, not a hammer,” in some of the oft-used jargon.

The LCFF provides extra money to school districts with large numbers of poor or “English learner” students to raise their achievement levels.

An “equity coalition” of education reform, civil rights and civic groups is pressing the board to adopt specific achievement goals, with tight oversight, to ensure that the money is, in fact, spent on underachieving students.

They’ve implied, most recently in a letter to state school board President Michael Kirst last week, that failure to satisfy their demands could mean a lawsuit based on the state constitution’s standard of providing what they call “an equitable opportunity to learn.”

Kirst and Gov. Jerry Brown have resisted the calls for tight state oversight, saying they trust local school officials to do the right thing by underachievers.

However, the new federal law, while more lenient than its predecessor, still requires states to identify schools that fall short on several criteria, including high school graduation rates and English learner progress, so the state’s draft accountability “rubric” is being altered accordingly.

Kirst and his colleagues are starting to get specific on what will be measured, how it will be measured and what will happen to schools that fall short, with an eye toward final adoption in October and implementation, along with the new federal law, for the 2017-18 school year.

As they get more specific and fold in the federal requirements, they are starting to meet resistance from the politically powerful California Teachers Association, which had applauded the shift to a decentralized, nonpunitive system.

Several CTA members told the board Thursday that they see the evolving accountability system as “far afield” from the decentralized model in earlier drafts and beginning to resemble the old system with more specific evaluation criteria and interventions for schools that fail to live up.

The conflicts set the stage for another half-year of infighting.

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