Dan Walters: California tries a new way to reform education

dwalters@sacbee.comDecember 19, 2012 

Thirteen years ago, the Legislature – spurred by then-Gov.Gray Davis – made one of its periodic forays into educational reform, or so we were told.

The Public Schools Accountability Act purported to give us an objective measure of how well local schools were doing via a single number reflecting standardized test results.

By and by, the API numbers became factors in the buying and selling of homes, and eventually spawned efforts to evaluate teachers and principals by their students' test scores, as well as parental campaigns to wrest control of low-API schools via charters.

Not surprisingly, therefore, they also resulted in a narrowing of teaching, reoriented to raising test scores rather than to the abilities and needs of students. And that led to neglect of subjects that weren't being tested, such as art, music and, in high schools, vocational education.

What the politicians touted as reform was, in reality, a mixed bag at best, which has been the history of educational decrees from Sacramento.

As the negatives of the API approach to evaluating schools became more obvious, it sparked new interest, both at the local level and in the Capitol, in a more holistic credo.

For instance, Fresno Unified, one of the state's largest and most troubled districts, has begun experimenting with a computerized system of tracking students' progress. It measures not only formal learning, but their emotional and physical health and, in high school, their readiness for the workplace as well as for college.

It recognizes – unlike the simplistic API number or the wrongheaded mandate in some districts that every high school student should be on a college prep track – that the talents, interests, and family situations of 6 million school kids are as individual as fingerprints. It acknowledges that schools must adapt to the kids, not force them to adapt to a one-size-fits-all mandate. By doing so, it compels teachers, administrators and counselors to intervene when needed and to bring other resources, such as social welfare services, into the picture.

Darrell Steinberg, the president pro tem of the Senate, became the Capitol's champion of holistic evaluation. This year, after early setbacks, he won enactment of legislation that makes test scores no more than 60 percent of the API grade for high schools and includes other factors, such as graduation rates and preparedness for college, the work force and technical training.

Broader measures of educational outcomes could make teacher unions more willing to entertain teacher evaluation programs, and may pave the way for reforming school finance to concentrate more resources on the kids who need the most help – a priority for Gov. Jerry Brown.

Maybe this time, school reform will be real because it will deal with reality.

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