Author Archives: John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

About John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (www.TOPed.org), one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

Parcel taxes beat the odds

Voters remain up in the air about passing a statewide tax to help schools, according to recent polls. But given a chance to support local schools exclusively, more than two-thirds of voters in nine school districts said yes – a wide enough margin to pass a parcel tax. Even the four parcel taxes that lost got over 60 percent support and would have passed had the threshold for passage been 55 percent – an idea that’s been kicking around for years but can’t get out of the Legislature for lack of Republican votes. *

Voters on Tuesday passed  23 of 34 school construction bond proposals. Source: Michael Coleman, League of California Cities. (click to enlarge)

Voters on Tuesday passed 23 of 34 school construction bond proposals. Source: Michael Coleman, League of California Cities. (Click to enlarge)

Also in Tuesday’s primary, voters in 23 K-12 districts passed nearly $2 billion worth of school construction bonds, a strong commitment in uncertain times. A piece of that money in some districts will go toward upgrading technology, critical as districts move toward implementing Common Core standards with digital textbooks and computer-administered assessments. Bond measures in an additional 11 districts were rejected, although a few came tantalizingly close to the 55 percent needed for approving school bonds.

For 2012, 13 of 18 parcel taxes have passed; that’s 72 percent, which is higher than the historical passage rate of 58 percent. Among the losers on Tuesday were a $54, four-year parcel tax in Santa Barbara, which would have replaced a $50 tax due to expire next year, and a parcel tax in West Contra Costa Unified based on a home’s size – 10.2 cents per square foot. But voters there can get another chance, if the school board is inclined, since the existing 7.2 cents per square foot won’t expire for two years.

Parcel taxes are one of the few ways that school districts can raise money. They’re predominately found in high-cost Northern California, especially the half-dozen counties in the Bay Area, with a smattering in wealthy districts around Los Angeles. Most parcel taxes are under $100, especially initial parcel taxes. The exceptions on Tuesday were an eight-year, $458 tax in Ross Valley School District in Marin County, replacing a $309 parcel tax, and a $123, eight-year tax for elementary and high schools in Santa Cruz; it passed with more than 80 percent of the vote.

Because of the passage of Proposition 13, parcel taxes cannot be based on a property’s value. Because McMansions, cottages, and office buildings are all charged the same, parcel taxes are regressive, unrelated to an ability to pay. So it’s ironic that both tax initiatives on the November ballot, which would raise money by raising the graduated income tax (Gov. Jerry Brown’s would also include a ¼ cent increase in the sales tax) are doing far worse than the parcel taxes and bond measures. Attorney Molly Munger’s Our Children, Our Future tax would send money directly to schools – essentially what parcel taxes do – though that feature is not widely known.

Voters favor local control with their money, which appears to be why parcel taxes, for all their faults and limited geographical range, continue to do well.

* Thanks to Mike McMahon, school consultant and trustee of the Alameda Unified School District, who tracks historic and current information on parcel taxes and other school data.

Judge to rule on teacher evals

A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge has promised to finish up this weekend his decision on whether state law requires school districts to consider student test scores in evaluating teachers.

A landmark ruling on behalf of students and parents suing Los Angeles Unified and the district’s teachers union would give Superintendent John Deasy the muscle of the law to press ahead with adopting growth in student performance as one of several metrics for  teacher evaluations. It would signal to other school districts that they must also do so in some fashion. A ruling against the plaintiffs might not change the status quo, since few school districts currently use student test scores in formal evaluations.

Oral arguments in the case had been scheduled for Tuesday, and Deasy, who’d been subpoenaed to testify, was in court. But after Judge James Chalfant indicated he had nearly completed his tentative ruling, attorneys for both sides agreed to wait until the next hearing, on June 12, to respond to what he has written. Chalfant didn’t preview his position, although he did dispute a characterization by the attorney for the district of the broad issue in the case – possibly a sign which way he’s leaning. He did make clear several times that he was thoroughly versed in the case, had read the record and recognized the case’s importance.

What does Stull Act require?

Sacramento-based nonprofit EdVoice, filing suit for the parents, has forced the issue in Jane Doe et al vs John Deasy. It argues that the four-decade-old Stull Act, the state law laying out procedures for teacher and principal evaluations, requires that evaluations consider “pupil progress as it reasonably relates” to district standards and to state academic standards as measured by the California Standards Tests. Among those agreeing with that position is Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who, when he was speaker of the State Assembly, sponsored a bill that updated the Stull Act.

Los Angeles Unified has extensive data tying student test scores to teachers. It created a system, called Academic Growth over Time (AGT), that uses demographic data on individual students and  their results on past years’ tests to project future results. Teachers are scored on whether students in their classes exceed or fail to meet those expectations.

Deasy has shared AGT scores with individual teachers, though they haven’t counted in evaluations yet. He hasn’t said what percentage of an evaluation AGT would comprise, although he said it would be a minor piece.

The plaintiffs argue that, in failing to incorporate test scores, the district “has relinquished its obligations to the students in order to placate more powerful interests” – in other words, caved to union pressure. As evidence, they point to 600 randomly selected teacher evaluations that they reviewed. While 98 percent of teachers had satisfactory reviews, less than 3 percent made any reference to standards or tests, attorneys said, and the evaluation forms contained no questions requesting information on students’ learning relative to standards. The plaintiffs argue that the failure to evaluate teachers effectively violates students’ civil rights, denying them their constitutional right to an opportunity for a quality education.

Deasy has proven to be the plaintiffs’ star witness. Their brief begins by quoting from his deposition: “We do not currently construct evaluations of teachers by using how students do over time in terms of their academic outcomes.” On Tuesday, after a brief hearing, Deasy told reporters that he looked forward to a ruling that would help clarify the state law and support his effort to use AGT districtwide. He acknowledged that the district and UTA had discussed trying to settle the lawsuit, without success.

Deasy’s statements under oath notwithstanding, the district’s formal position is that it is complying with the law. The AGT model that the district is piloting is proof that the district is linking test scores to teacher evaluations. (This argument glosses over that actual implementation of AGT is at least a year away and will be contested in court by United Teachers Los Angeles.) The district’s teacher evaluation form also contains many questions that relate to student performance, including whether a teacher:

  • Demonstrates knowledge of state standards and student development;
  • Plans and implements classroom procedures that support student learning;
  • Uses the results of multiple assessments to guide instruction.

Lawyers for the parents, however, argue that these areas may examine and support effective teaching, but don’t tell you whether student learning has actually increased.

United Teachers Los Angeles makes a very different argument. Contrary to what EdVoice, Villaraigosa, and the parents claim, UTLA says point blank, “The Stull Act does not prescribe how local school districts must conduct employee performance evaluations.” The criteria for evaluations are left to the school district, and any changes must be collectively bargained. And the district has wide discretion in determining how pupil growth “reasonably relates” to standards of student achievement, the UTLA argues in its brief.

Estimating Common Core costs

The adoption of the Common Core standards comes at tough time for districts that have cut teacher training days and textbook purchases to stave off further layoffs. But a new study for the Fordham Institute co-authored by a University of San Francisco political science professor concludes that the transition to the new standards in the next few years need not be onerous.

“The bottom line is that successful (Common Core) implementation does not have to be wildly expensive – and could also support changes that have a permanent and positive impact on the quality and effectiveness of teaching and learning,” says Putting a Price on the Common Core: How Much Does Smart Implementation Cost?

“Smart” is key. The researchers, who included Patrick Murphy of USF, did a state-by-state breakdown using three scenarios for one-time costs for buying new materials, training teachers in the new standards, and implementing the new assessments. For California, the cost ranged from $380 million (the El Cheapo model the authors don’t recommend) to $1.6 billion, the Business as Usual model. The latter assumes the state would proceed with the Common Core as it has with previous state standards adoptions, with full purchases of printed textbooks for every student and 80 hours of professional development for every math and English language arts teacher.

However, the authors argue that technology and national standards create a third, “balanced option” costing $681 million. Common Core offers opportunities for California to piggyback on curriculum development and lesson planning that other states and national educator groups are doing well already. California can and should tap into those resources. The balanced or middle way assumes that teachers would receive some of their training in webinars and on their own through online lessons and the rest though the “train the trainer” method, in which one or two staff members receive intensive training and then teach others. Instead of a paperbound textbook, they could supplement materials using open source or other digital content. The assessments could be computer administered. (California is part of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium of states, which is creating computer-adaptive online assessments for 2014-15.)

Here are the estimated costs of Common Core for California and the next four largest states under three scenarios. Column 5 is the amount the states now have to spend on teacher training and textbooks. Columns 6 through 8 are the net costs, after applying Column 5 to the costs in Columns 2 through 4. Source: Putting a Price Tag on Common Core (click to enlarge).

The estimated costs of Common Core for California and the next four largest states under three scenarios. Column 5 is the amount the states now have to spend on teacher training and textbooks. Columns 6 - 8 are the net costs, after applying Column 5 to the costs in Columns 2 - 4. Source: Putting a Price Tag on Common Core. (Click to enlarge)

How much net savings?

Those are the gross costs. However, since states are already spending money on teacher training and textbooks and materials, the study assumes that for the next few years this money would be channeled to Common Core, so the net cost of implementing the new standards would be substantially less. As the study notes, “… it’s hard to fathom why any state or district would not seek to repurpose much of its current budget for standards implementation at least relative to math and English language arts.”

The study puts California’s current annual expenditures at $533 million. Subtract that amount from each of the three options, and the net costs for California drop substantially – to $1.070 billion for business as usual and $148 million for the “balanced” approach. In theory, the cheap model would save the state $153 million from what it is paying now by going digital and cutting corners on training, but this figure is silly, for reasons I’ll get to (see chart).

The Fordham study’s net cost to California of $148 million contrasts with the estimate of the state Department of Education. The Department of Education projects the cost of converting to Common Core at between $1.36 billion and $1.56 billion, according to figures that Paul Hefner, communications director for the Department, passed on. This is very close to Fordham’s “Business as Usual” amount and approach. It assumes $500 million to $700 million for textbooks and materials, plus $871 million to train the state’s 287,000 teachers ($2,000 for each middle and high school teacher, who’d be trained in one subject for 80 hours, and $4,000 for elementary teachers, who’d be trained in math and English language arts). Proposition 98 spending next year will be around $50 billion.

There’s no way of knowing now who’s closer to being right, Fordham’s middle way or the state, because the state’s charter schools and 1,000 school districts will be fending for themselves, some making the most of collaboration and new technology, some sitting around waiting for the state to tell them what to do.

Assembly, batteries are extra

But there are additional factors to consider:

  • Many districts have cut back on training and materials over the past several years, so the $535 million that the study estimates is being spent now on those items is high. The Legislature removed restrictions on materials purchases and professional development spending. A survey this year from the Legislative Analyst found that nearly 80 percent of districts had cut back on training, and more than 60 percent reported spending less on materials. That’s why it’s fatuous to say that the state could save $152 million under the cheapest option. It can’t save on what it’s not now spending.
  • The study doesn’t include the cost of technology needed to administer Common Core tests and achieve savings in the implementation – a major omission. In a Fordham webinar last week, Murphy cited two reasons: States and districts are all over the map in their use of and capacity for computers and bandwidth, and states should be investing in technology for its benefits to education that go beyond Common Core adoption. (Districts are in the midst of taking a survey that will reveal how well equipped they are for administering the SMARTER Balanced assessment in 2015.)
  • The Common Core cost estimates are for one-time expenses, but districts can spread them out over several years.
  • California shifted some of the Common Core standards in math to lower grades and added a few standards in English language arts. The study doesn’t factor in extra assessment and training costs from California’s deviations, and the State Board and Department of Education  haven’t dealt with the issue either.

One of Common Core’s sharpest critics in California, Ze’ev Wurman, believes that the Fordham study’s implementation estimates are way low. The technology costs will be substantial; the new computer-administered tests, in which teachers will grade essays and questions, will be permanently more expensive; and the teacher training needs will far exceed 80 hours, Wurman said last week during a webcast forum sponsored by Fordham. “Professional development will take hundreds of hours over many years,” he said. The needs will be in content, not pedagogy; Common Core requires teaching elements of geometry in middle schools, a more extensive knowledge of fractions, plus close reading to texts in English language arts. (He is not alone in believing that Common Core will expose  weaknesses in math  knowledge of many elementary teachers.)

“Eighty hours will not solve anything,” Wurman said.

In a foreword to the study, Fordham Institute President Chester “Checker” Finn and Ambler Winkler acknowledged the difficulty of implementing Common Core in a few years. “Let’s not kid ourselves. Of course it is going to be a challenge to implement the Common Core standards well. School leaders will be charged with advancing new teaching and learning paradigms, teachers with conveying more demanding material, and students with learning tougher content and skills.”

But Finn and Winkler also chided the rear-guard tactics by Common Core critics to overstate costs. “Having lost the adoption battle, Common Core opponents are now waging a budget battle, determined to paint the (Common Core standards) as a crazily costly mandate imposed upon the states. Though we loathe scare tactics, we do agree that states and districts had better go in with eyes wide open. After all, if they are to approach implementation seriously, they must have a solid estimate of its price tag.”

LA groups want test scores part of evaluations

Two Los Angeles education groups have offered separate teacher evaluation frameworks that they hope will help break the impasse between Los Angeles Unified and its teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles.

“There is frustration that, even after years of discussion, there still is no new system in Los Angeles,” Mike Stryer, a former Los Angeles Unified teacher who helped create the plan for Our Schools,  Our Voice Coalition, said at a news briefing Thursday.

Our Schools, Our Voice Coalition wants teacher observations to comprise  60 percent  of  a teacher's evaluations score, followed by student test scores at 25 percent. Source: Our Schools, Our Voice (click to enlarge).

Our Schools, Our Voice Coalition wants teacher observations to comprise 60 percent of a teacher's evaluation score, followed by student test scores at 25 percent. Source: Our Schools, Our Voice. (Click to enlarge)

The biggest barrier – at this point seemingly uncrossable – is disagreement over the inclusion of student standardized test scores in the evaluation. The district uses a method, Academic Growth over Time, that measures a teacher’s impact on student test results. Superintendent John Deasy wants to include the AGT score in the evaluation, although he has not said how much weight it and other factors would have. UTLA remains adamantly opposed, ­and devoted considerable space in a 53-page evaluation proposal released in March to argue why, as unsuitable and inaccurate measures, “standardized test scores should play no part in high stakes decisions leading to dismissal.”

Both Our Schools, Our Voice Coalition – with parents, education advocates, and some Los Angeles teachers – and Teach Plus, a national network of teachers with a chapter in Los Angeles, support phasing in AGT, but with conditions. Among requirements under the Our Schools, Our Voice Coalition plan, AGT wouldn’t count unless a course’s curriculum matched the standardized tests and there was a statistically significant sample size. AGT wouldn’t count for probationary teachers. And all test results would remain confidential, inaccessible to the public and the press (no more providing data for publishing in the Los Angeles Times). Use of test scores would be phased in, counting 10 percent the first year, reaching a maximum 25 percent after three years. Teach Plus also advocates starting at 10 percent, working up to a third of a teacher’s evaluation, if benchmarks for test integrity and reliability are met, said John Lee, executive director of Teach Plus Los Angeles.

What the union, the district, and the two outside groups all agree on is that classroom observations should constitute the biggest piece of an evaluation: 60 percent under Our Schools, Our Voice’s plan and at least half, Deasy has indicated, under the district’s. The district is currently training principals in uniform observation rubrics and piloting observations in 100 schools involving 700 teachers. Teach Plus wants teachers to help evaluate their peers in areas requiring content expertise but in a capacity of providing classroom guidance, separate from a formal evaluation with consequences. UTLA favors an expanded use of Peer Assistance and Review, a panel of teachers who counsel teachers needing improvement and recommend dismissal for those who “have been given a real chance to improve but are unable to meet clearly defined standards.” Under the Our Schools, Our Voice recommendations, a mentor will be assigned to a teacher identified as needing intensive support for at least a full year.

Like the district’s eventual plan, Our Schools, Our Voice proposes student surveys (beginning in the third grade), parent surveys, and a measure of contributions to the community – each counting 5 percent. And Our Schools, Our Voice includes a new, intriguing element: a way to identify and reward, with up to a bonus 10 percent score, those teachers who help close the achievement gap for Hispanic students, African American students, and English learners in the bottom quarter who  make marked progress.

The release of both organizations’ recommendations is intended to prod UTLA and the district to start talking. But at this point, leverage is more likely to come from the courts or the Legislature.

On Tuesday, in Los Angeles County Superior Court, there will be arguments in a suit brought by the nonprofit EdVoice on behalf of Los Angeles Unified and UTLA over the failure to include standardized tests in evaluations. EdVoice makes a good case that the Stull Act, the 40-year-old state law on teacher evaluations, requires test-score use, but districts like Los Angeles Unified have ignored the provision. A victory by EdVoice – and indirectly for Los Angeles Unified, though named as a defendant – might force UTLA to back off its unqualified opposition to the use of test scores.

Until now, Los Angeles Unified has argued that it has the exclusive right to determine the requirements for an evaluation. It exercised that right in setting up the pilot evaluations, despite the opposition of UTLA. But later this summer, the Senate will likely take up AB 5, sponsored by Democratic San Fernando Valley Assemblymember Felipe Fuentes, which would replace the Stull Act. As currently written, most aspects of an evaluation process would have to be negotiated with unions, which could stretch out adoption of a new system for months, if not years.

Lawsuit over ‘nonsense’ EL program

In a special state Senate hearing last month, California’s system of classifying, reclassifying, and teaching English learners came under heavy criticism from educators and advocates, who cited inconsistent and ineffective policies and practices for teaching students who comprise one-quarter of the state’s schoolchildren. On Wednesday, parents and teachers in a small Central Valley town added an exclamation point to the criticism by filing suit against the state and their school district over a curriculum for English learners they say is damaging their children’s chances to learn to read and write.

The lawsuit, filed in Sacramento Superior Court by attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union in California, charges that 6,000-student Dinuba Unified and the state violated their children’s constitutional right to equal education opportunity and federal law mandating sound instruction for English learners. The district adopted, and the state rubber-stamped its approval of a curriculum that “contradicts everything we know about how children learn language,” ACLU attorney Mark Rosenbaum said in a statement. Teachers in the district who have taught Second Language Acquisition Development Instruction, or SLADI, concluded it was “nonsense,” the lawsuit said.

The ACLU is asking the court to order the district to stop using the program and the state to follow the law and thoroughly evaluate and monitor programs that districts adopt for English learners. Through the lawsuit, attorneys are prodding the state Department of Education and the State Board of Education, which is also a defendant, to begin to face up to flaws in the system for English learners. “As Dinuba goes, so goes the state of California in terms of English learners.”

More than half of elementary school English learners score below basic on the state’s English and math tests. Only 56 percent graduate from high school, and annually only one in ten English learners is redesignated as fluent in English and no longer needing extra help.

In naming Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson as a defendant, the ACLU also quoted from Torlakson’s Blueprint for Great Schools. English learners, it says on the CDE website, “fall further behind the longer they are in California schools, as do low-income students. The curriculum and teaching supports currently in place are not preparing these students for the higher-order skills expected in high school and beyond.”

In a short statement, the state Department of Education said it was reviewing the allegations, then added, “It is unfortunate that the parties chose to file suit rather than making a good-faith effort to meet with state officials to address their concerns.” Since Dinuba Unified has been a Program Improvement district for a half-dozen years for failing to make its standardized test targets under the No Child Left Behind law, the lawsuit notes that the district, through consultants, must approve the curriculums that the district uses for English learners and verify that teachers are trained in them. CDE spokesperson Paul Hefner said that he could not verify if the department sanctioned Dinuba’s use of SLADI.

Dinuba Unified declined comment as well on the allegations. In a statement, Superintendent Joe Hernandez said that he had a “productive conversation” on Wednesday with the plaintiffs, “and the parties have agreed to work together in good faith to avoid costly and excessive litigation.”

Dinuba is a city of 24,000 east of Route 99, midway between Fresno and Visalia. More than 90 percent of Dinuba Unified students are Hispanic and one third are English learners; 70 percent qualify for free or reduced lunches.

Syntax, not picture books, for SLADI kids

Adopted by the district in 2009, Second Language Acquisition Development Instruction is apparently an unorthodox and not a widely used curriculum for English learners. (ACLU’s Rosenbaum said he knew of no other district that uses it.)

SLADI takes a grammar- and spelling-intensive approach to learning English, starting with first and second graders, who learn parts of speech and sentence construction. What students don’t get is exposure to texts that are rich with vocabulary and picture books – fun stories that motivate children to want to learn to read, said Nona Rhea, a 23-year elementary teacher (15 of those years in Dinuba), who was trained in SLADI and has taught it for two years. She is also one of five teachers who signed on as plaintiffs, along with two children, their parents, and a resident of Dinuba worried about the district’s English language programs.

“It cost me sleep at night. I don’t want to see children separated from other kids where they don’t learn the state’s English language arts curriculum,” said Rhea. “I wouldn’t want it for my children or grandchildren.” It also has a scripted curriculum with diagrams of sentences and a K-6 vocabulary and an approach that is inappropriate for first and second graders, she said.

Rosenbaum called SLADI “a ‘Hunger Games’ approach to education whereby adults madly crush the futures of children. SLADI is the equivalent of attempting to teach children how to swim by having them memorize the chemical formula of water.” The district’s Q&A on its SLADI website says that two of the six principles of SLADI are: 5) “Language growth occurs in deliberately created states of productive discomfort. Students must be pushed to a level of discomfort; 6) Error correction is crucial for building language accuracy.”

Before the adoption of SLADI, English learners and English speakers were mixed in heterogeneous classes. Under SLADI, the least proficient English learners attend separate SLADI classes for 2-and-a-half hours daily for half a year, then return to regular classes in January. For more advanced students, as measured by CELDT, the California English Language Development Test, students are pulled out for 45 minutes daily.

The assumption was that students who went through SLADI could then be integrated back into the classroom. But these students have missed a half-year of the state curriculum, Rhea said, without extra help to catch up. “Students assume they are the problem, but they’re not.”

The lawsuit says that the two unnamed 8-year-old plaintiffs’ reading scores on CELDT regressed considerably after taking SLADI. One child was assigned the program in first and second grades. Both children’s parents say they’re worried their children have not learned how to read.

The lawsuit also says that test scores for English learners as a whole have declined as a result of SLADI. Last month the Dinuba Teachers Association took the position that the district should not have adopted a program that “defied accepted research and common sense,” the lawsuit said. The teachers added, “(F)or our K-2 students this is a backwards model that could prove detrimental to their futures. Teachers cannot reconcile this in their minds and hearts.”

Teacher dismissal bill moves on

It will be easier and quicker to fire teachers in the most egregious misconduct cases, under a bill that the Senate passed Tuesday 33-4.

SB 1530, a response to a series of shocking abuse cases in Los Angeles Unified, would allow districts to suspend with pay teachers accused of sex, violence, or drug charges involving children and then speed up the process leading to a dismissal. A formal appeals process before the three-member Commission on Professional Competence would be replaced by an administrative law judge who’d issue a strictly advisory opinion to the local school board, which would have the final say.

The bill, authored by Sen. Alex Padilla, a Democrat from Los Angeles, will lead to a significant change in the legal process for a narrow range of misconduct cases. It will also allow districts to file dismissal charges during the summer – a quirk in the law favoring teachers – and will allow evidence more than four years old to be considered in dismissal cases. (Clarification: The bill applies not just to teachers but to all certificated personnel, including administrators.)

Had the bill already been a law, Los Angeles Unified could have handled Mark Berndt, 61, differently. He’s the teacher at Miramonte Elementary who’s been charged with 23 counts of lewd acts against children ages 7 to 10. Rather than go through an expensive and time-consuming appeals process, the district paid Berndt $40,000, including legal fees, to get him to drop the appeal of his firing.

The district had investigated complaints about Berndt dating back two decades but failed to substantiate them. Information about the complaints wasn’t in his file, because a clause in the district’s contract with United Teachers Los Angeles required that misconduct allegations that did not lead to action be expunged from a teacher’s file after four years.

In passing Padilla’s bill, the Senate beat back amendments proposed by Senator Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar) that would have extended the provisions in Padilla’s bill to a broader range of misconduct cases. Huff pointed to  cases involving teachers who locked a student in a closet and made ethnic slurs and fun of a handicapped child, which, he told senators, would not have been covered by the Padilla bill. Huff accused Democrats who closed ranks behind Padilla’s bill of  choosing “to support union representatives at the expense of our children and the honorable teachers serving them.”

Earlier this month, the Senate Education Committee defeated Huff’s own bill, SB 1059, on teacher dismissal, which included the amendments that he introduced on Tuesday, as well as shortened the appeals process and gave school boards the final say for dismissing teachers for unsatisfactory performance – a sweeping change. Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy and a representative of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa testified for the bill, saying the current dismissal process can take years and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The California Teachers Assn. and the California Federation of Teachers had opposed both bills, saying they eroded due process protections against false and unproven accusations.

Padilla said that teachers will retain the right to a hearing with witnesses and the right to appeal a decision to Superior Court.

Figuring districts’ weighted funding

The state Department of Finance has released the district allocations under Gov. Jerry Brown’s revised plan for weighted student funding that shaves off the peaks, fills in the valleys, and includes other changes that make allotments flatter, arguably fairer, and potentially more politically palatable to those who criticized aspects of the formula.

The 77-page spreadsheet of district and charter school allocations doesn’t reveal – and inquiring minds will want to know – how districts compare with one another and with a statewide average once the formula is fully funded in 2018-19. But the raw numbers are there to calculate percentage increases and per-student spending, and Nick Schweizer, the program budget manager for education in the Department of Finance, did provide me with a district average increase, along with some cautions.

That figure is 47 percent, which is to say that between the base year of 2012-13 and full funding seven years later, the Department of Finance is projecting the average district’s growth under the formula, which covers most but not all education spending, will be 47 percent. This assumes that the tax increase proposed for November passes; the weighted student formula will be put off if it doesn’t. So, if your district revenues increase more than 47 percent, because you have large numbers of disadvantaged students, it’s more than likely a “winner” under the formula; if under 47 percent, it’s more than likely a “loser.” (Update: The Public Policy Institute of California on Tuesday released an analysis of the revised formula, with district figures. Go here.)

The impact of the proposed weighted student funding formula on the state's 10 largest districts. To determine a district's increases in per student funding from 2012-13 to full funding in 2018-19, divide columns 5 and 7 by student enrollment in column 4. Source: state Department of Finance. (click to enlarge)

The impact of the proposed weighted student funding formula on the state's 10 largest districts. To determine a district's increases in per-student funding from 2012-13 to full funding in 2018-19, divide columns 5 and 7 by student enrollment in column 4. Source: State Department of Finance. (Click to enlarge)

The chart at left, which shows the 10 largest districts, illustrates the impact. Santa Ana Unified, with 84 percent poor children and 56 percent English learners, will see district funding rise 71 percent (last column divided by fifth column) by 2018-19, and per-student funding rise from $6,460 to $11,040. Capistrano Unified, with 10 percent English learners and 21 percent low-income students, will see district funding rise 38 percent and per-student funding increase from $6,052 to $8,388.

There are caveats to consider when comparing a district with the 47 percent statewide average:

& As Schweizer points out, this assumes that, absent the formula, nothing will have changed in the allocation of categorical or restricted money and general or revenue limit spending in seven years. That would be unlikely, given that the trend has been to cut or eliminate some categorical programs and increase the revenue limit;

& Some districts might get less than 47 percent and still do better than they would have otherwise, if they are currently getting little categorical money. Each district’s individual circumstances vary somewhat;

& A district’s base in 2012-13 matters. Some districts, like Los Angeles Unified, will see per-student spending increase less than 47 percent. But they will start with a high base in 2012-13 and will end up doing well in 2018-19 (more on why later).

As for the 47 percent spending increase over seven years: Finance released a graph showing per-student funding, but only through 2015-16 (see chart), as far into the future as it makes detailed projections. Schweizer said that for the remaining three years, Finance conservatively projected 5 percent annual revenue increases. It also assumed flat district enrollments for the calculations. The four-year, ¼ percent sales tax increase that is built into the calculations ends in 2015-16, complicating the picture.

Significant changes from January’s formula

Under a weighted student formula, districts will receive a base funding per student plus a supplement based on the number of  low-income students and English learners. Brown proposed to fund the supplement, or weighted portion, from a pot of what has been categorical programs. Districts with few disadvantaged students will lose most if not all of that money, amounting to hundreds of dollars  per child.

Responding to criticisms of his initial proposal in January, the governor:

& Raised the base and added grade differentials, recognizing that high school districts have been getting higher funding and elementary schools have received subsidies for smaller classes. The base will be $5,466 per student for K-3, $4,934 for 4-6, $5,081 for 7-8, and $5,887 for 9-12. The K-3 funding will have the previous class-size reduction categorical money folded in, though districts will be free to use the dollars however they choose.

& Reduced the weighted amount for disadvantaged students from an extra 37 percent per child to 20 percent;

& Cut the bonus amount to districts with high concentrations of disadvantaged students from a maximum of 37 percent to a maximum of 20 percent for districts with 100 percent disadvantaged students. The concentration factor is phased in for districts with more than 50 percent disadvantaged populations. The administration has not offered the research behind the concentration factor. Putting that aside, allocating it on a districtwide basis overlooks the fact that individual schools in districts with low overall rates of disadvantaged students may have heavy concentrations of poor students and English learners.

An example is Mount Diablo Unified in Contra Costa County, with an overall average of 21 percent English learners and 36 percent low income. Mount Diablo High School has 71 percent low-income children and 43 percent English learners, while Ygnacio Valley Elementary has 79 percent low-income and 62 percent English learners. Their students will gain nothing because of the district’s average.)

& Phased in the program over seven years instead of six years, starting next year with 5 percent weighted student funding/95 percent current system.

& Paid off what districts are owed from recent years’ cuts and denied cost-of-living raises on the revenue limit portion, which is student funding minus categorical programs. This debt is called the deficit factor and now totals 22 percent of the revenue limit amount – a huge IOU.

Conditioning the full implementation of the weighted student funding on repayment of revenue limit dollars removes a major criticism of the plan. But that will not satisfy those districts with relatively few disadvantaged students, which will permanently see their categorical dollars shifted to more needy districts.

An example is Acalanes Union High School District in Contra Costa County, with a total of 5 percent English learners and low-income students. Under the January proposal, the district would actually have lost money under full funding. Under the latest plan, per-pupil spending will rise 23 percent, or about half of the state average, by 2018-19, because of  the loss of about $609 per student in categorical funds, a little less than 10 percent of total funding. Associate Superintendent Chris Learned says that he’s sympathetic to the need for weighted student funding, but that districts’ funding should be fully restored to the 2007-08 pre-recession level before phasing in the new system.

& Pulled two big categorical programs totaling nearly $2 billion (Correction: $1.3 billion) out of the weighted student distribution formula. These are the Home to School Transportation program and the Targeted Instructional Improvement Grant (TIIG), which is mainly money districts received to settle desegregation suits.Neither TIIG nor bus money has been equitably or rationally distributed among districts. But districts like Los Angeles Unified (where TIIG amounts to about $500 per student) and San Jose Unified (nearly $1,000 per student) would be crippled without the money. Brown is proposing to let districts keep what they’ve gotten for TIIG and transportation but no more. Over time, the impact of the money would diminish by not receiving yearly cost-of-living adjustments.

Under the revised formula, Los Angeles Unified’s per-student funding would increase 44 percent by 2018-19, slightly less than the state average, while San Bernardino’s funding would increase 58.5 percent (see chart), significantly above average. But because of TIIG, Los Angeles would start with a bigger base and end up in 2018-19 with $10,967 per student, about the same as San Bernardino’s $11,027.

More dismal science test results

Once again, California students have done stunningly worse than their eighth grade peers in other states on Science 2011 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), a biennial test of knowledge in science.

The results were announced earlier this month on the same day as the release of the first draft of the Next Generation Science Standards, which the National Research Council and states have been developing. Many California science educators are counting on the new standards, which focus on an in-depth understanding of science concepts, to jump-start improvement in science in California. Count Elizabeth Stage, the director of the Lawrence Hall of Science, the public science center at UC Berkeley, among the optimists, but only, she adds, if the state makes science a priority, with more time spent on  it and training for teachers in how it should be taught.

Partial state by state results, including California, with percentages of students who tested basic, proficient and advanced. Source: NAEP (click to enlarge).

Partial state-by-state results, including California, with percentages of students who tested basic, proficient, and advanced. Source: NAEP. (Click twice to enlarge)

There’s a lot of room for improvement. Nationwide, 32 percent of students tested proficient or above on the NAEP science test of physical, life, and Earth and space sciences. In California, 21 percent tested proficient, including one percent advanced, and 47 percent were far below basic. California’s average score of 140 on a scale of 300 – on the upper end of the below-basic band – put it on par with Arizona and perennially poor performers from the Deep South – Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana – at the bottom. Only Washington, D.C., which took the test for the first time this year, did a lot worse.

The national average was 152, two points higher than in 2009. Massachusetts, often compared with California for its rigorous standards in general, had a score of 160 ­ – the upper end of the basic band, with 40 percent of its students proficient and 4 percent advanced.

Science scores made a slight improvement in California in two years but continued to lag behind the nation. Source: NAEP (Click to enlarge)

Science scores made a slight improvement in California in two years but continued to lag behind the nation. Source: NAEP. (Click to enlarge)

White students in California scored 159, compared with 163 nationwide, and Asians averaged 158, one point below the national average. But Hispanics in California scored only 128, compared with 137 nationwide, with only 11 percent proficient or advanced. For African Americans, the scores were 124 in California (8 percent proficient) and 129 nationwide.

Dave Gordon, superintendent of Sacramento County and a former member of the NAEP board of governors, called California’s distance behind the rest of the nation “shocking.” He said the low score reflects that science is not being taught enough in elementary grades, where disproportionate time is spent on math and English language arts, which are tested annually (science is tested only in fifth and eighth grades in California). And science isn’t being taught engagingly, with hands-on lessons, Gordon said.

There appears to be a connection. Students of teachers who reported they did hands-on projects nearly every day scored significantly higher (156 points) than those who reported they did it only once or twice a month (149). A survey of California teachers and principals last year by the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning at WestEd confirms Gordon’s impressions; 85 percent of elementary teachers said they had no training in science in the past three years, and 40 percent said they taught it less than an hour each week.

Sixteen of 47 states that took NAEP in 2011 made what NAEP termed significant increases – anywhere from two- to six-point gains on the 300-point scale. Although California’s score also increased three points, from 137 in 2009, NAEP didn’t consider this significantly higher because of the number of test takers relative to the size of the state.

There was some good news nationwide and in California, in narrowing the achievement gap. Hispanic students’ scores rose five points nationwide and four points in California, reducing the big disparities between them and white students from 30 points two years ago to 26 points in 2011 nationwide and 31 points in California. The 36-point gap between African American and white students in California and 35-point gap nationwide failed to narrow.

More than multiple choice

NAEP Science was given to 122,000 eighth graders in 7, 292 schools in 47 states. It used a matrix sampling method, with each student answering only sections of the test. It tested students in physical science and life science (30 percent each), with 40 percent Earth and space sciences. The NAEP test isn’t aligned with California standards or those of any state. It measures the knowledge that a group of scientists and educators agree that all students in eighth grade should know. While California’s science test is all multiple choice, NAEP includes some short-answer questions that require students to analyze a problem or set of data and explain the reasoning behind an answer.

72 percent of eighth graders who took NAEP Science answered this question correctly (click to enlarge)

72 percent of eighth graders who took NAEP Science answered this question correctly. (Click to enlarge)

NAEP science results shouldn’t be compared with California’s content standards tests, in part because the NAEP board sets a higher expectation for reaching proficiency. NAEP defines “basic” as partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade, while “proficient” represents “solid academic performance. Students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challeng­ing subject matter.”

Even the description of “basic” knowledge in the Earth and space sciences section sounds rigorous, however: Students “should be able to describe a Sun-centered model of the solar system that illustrates how gravity keeps the objects in regular motion; describe how fossils and rock formations can be used as evidence to infer events in Earth’s history; relate major geologic events, such as earthquakes, volcanoes, and mountain building to the movement of lithospheric plates; use weather data to identify major weather events; and describe the processes of the water cycle including changes in the physical state of water.”

By comparison, students who test proficient “should be able to explain how gravity accounts for the visible patterns of motion of the Earth, Sun, and Moon; explain how fossils and rock formations are used for relative dating; use models of Earth’s interior to explain lithospheric plate movement; explain the formation of Earth materials using the properties of rocks and soils; identify recurring patterns of weather phenomena; and predict surface and groundwater movement in different regions of the world.”

California eighth graders take and are tested in physical science. They’re supposed to learn Earth science in sixth grade and life science in seventh grade. So students are partly being tested in NAEP on two-year-old knowledge ­ – one reason cited for California’s poor performance. But both Gordon and Stage say that’s a minor factor.

Stage says that California science standards require an extensive knowledge of facts; with little time to teach science each week, that’s what teachers focus on and not a conceptual framework or scientific investigations and experimentation.

The Next Generation Science Standards teach science in a more integrated way, encouraging students to see common practices between life science and engineering and technology. It stresses what creators call “crosscutting concepts” – a way of linking different areas of science through similar lines of inquiry, such as cause and effect, patterns, and scale. These sound abstract, but the standards stress making them explicit.

Stage points to a distinction between second grade California and New Generation standards dealing with motion of objects. California requires that students know “the way to change how something is moving is by giving it a push or a pull.” The Next  Generation standards would expect students to “analyze data to determine the relationship between friction and the warming of objects” by rubbing two objects together or “develop and share a design solution to reduce friction between two objects,” perhaps by lubricating wheels on a skateboard – something kids can relate to.

The Next Generation standard is an /“accessible way to understand the relationship between energy and experience and it’s a really good example of an engineering practice,” Stage said.

California is expected to adopt the new standards sometime next year. It has no plans – or money, for now – to design a new set of science assessments, but Stage hopes that California will join other states in creating one.

Race to the Top opens up to districts

California school districts will finally be able to seek Race to the Top money without interference and resistance from Gov. Jerry Brown and state officials.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on Tuesday announced much anticipated draft criteria for a $400 million competition open to individual districts or groups of districts nationwide. That’s enough money to fund a projected 20 proposals for grants of $15 million to $25 million, Duncan said.

For districts and qualifying schools in California, this will be the last opportunity to pursue innovative ideas and school models they have not been able to develop in cash-strapped times. The three previous Race to the Top rounds have been open only to states, and California has been shut, although it was one of nine finalists in the second cycle and was all but guaranteed at least $49 million in round three. However, Brown declined to sign the application on behalf of seven districts that put it together, because he believed it would have obligated the state to enact statewide reforms he opposed. As a result, Duncan rejected the state’s application out of hand.

That hasn’t discouraged John Deasy, superintendent for Los Angeles Unified, one of the lead districts in the aborted last round. Deasy said Tuesday that the nation’s second largest district certainly will be applying for $25 million. LAUSD’s pilot schools, its new teacher evaluation system, and experiments in other schools are the kinds of reforms that Race to the Top is encouraging, he said.

Applications will be due in July; the awards will be announced in October, and money for the grants disbursed in December.

LAUSD and the other six Race to the Top districts formed the California Office to Reform Education, or CORE, to continue their work implementing Common Core and teacher evaluation. They also have been encouraging federal education officials to open up Race to the Top to districts. Hilary McLean, director of communications for CORE, said that the superintendents remain intrigued at the possibility and will examine the criteria for applying either singly, as LAUSD intends to do, or collectively.

There will be a new twist. The top priority will be, Duncan said, “personalized student-focused learning” ­– approaches and programs directed to meeting individual student needs within and outside of the classroom. The Department of Education describes these on the Race to the Top website as “collaborative, data-based strategies and 21st century tools to deliver instruction and supports tailored to the needs and goals of each student, with the goal of enabling all students to graduate college- and career-ready.”

21st century technologies

One obvious applicant pool would be districts and charter schools with a widespread use of online and blended learning; the latter is a hybrid that combines classroom instruction and online learning. California has leaders in blended learning: Palo Alto-based Rocketship Education, along with districts (Los Altos School District) and charters (Summit Public Schools) working closely with Mountain View-based Khan Academy on technologies that track individual students’ progress and allow them to learn at their own pace.

Among large districts, Riverside Unified, with 43,000 students, is the farthest along in piloting online and blended learning. It also operates the Riverside Virtual School for 12,000 students in and outside the district. Principal David Haglund said that a Race to the Top grant would enable Riverside to take its individualized learning commitment to scale.

But Duncan said that new technologies are only one approach to break the “one size fits all mold.” Pointing to the Promise Neighborhoods model of community involvement in schools, Duncan said this could be done by bringing adult tutors into the schools and establishing partnerships with community groups, colleges, and health services to meet the academic, physical, and emotional needs of students. Oakland Unified’s ambitious Community Schools, Thriving Students initiative, which has established partnerships for school health clinics in some schools, with plans for a community STEM concentration in West Oakland, is one effort that could be taken to scale. Deasy said that pilot schools with home visitations and extended-day programs are examples of what the district might choose to expand with a grant. LAUSD hasn’t decided whether to target certain schools or concentrate on select grades.

Some of the proposed criteria and stipulations may disqualify some districts and give others pause:

  • District applications must serve at least 2,500 students (too large for some rural districts and charter school organizations but not in a consortia with others), with at least 40 percent of students eligible for free or reduced lunch subsidies;
  • Applicants must agree to priorities of previous rounds of Race to the Top. These include having a data system that links teachers to students and a commitment to employ a teacher evaluation system by 2014-15 that gives significant attention to growth in student achievement;
  • The superintendent, president of the school board, and head of the teachers union all must sign the application. In previous rounds, union leaders’ consent was not required but helped a state’s score.

United Teachers Los Angeles didn’t sign off on LAUSD’s previous applications. Deasy said he assumes that the union would not stand in the way of pursuing $25 million for the district.

CSBA: Vote for both tax plans

The state PTA backs the tax initiative financed by civil rights attorney Molly Munger; the California Teachers Association and the Association of California School Administrators endorsed the governor’s initiative. This week, the California School Boards Association decided to support both.

On Sunday, at the urging of CSBA’s board of directors, school board members in the Delegate Assembly voted 129-79 to encourage their constituents to vote for both tax proposals that will appear on the November ballot. They did so after an hour-and-a-half debate and after defeating, by voice vote, an amendment calling for CSBA to support only Munger’s “Our Children, Our Future” initiative. There was no motion to support only “The Schools and Local Public Protection Act of 2012,” which Gov. Jerry Brown and the California Federation of Teachers are sponsoring.

“We are facing a nuclear winter for funding for public education,” said CSBA Vice President Josephine Lucey, a school board member from Cupertino. “Districts cannot absorb more cuts and provide a decent education.” Delegates decided it was smartest to back both initiatives, Lucey said, after concluding, “Why should we be fodder for a fight” between the two tax campaigns or the anti-tax Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which would play up its opposition to one of the tax plans.

Brown’s tax plan was favored by a slight majority, 54 percent, in a poll last month by the Public Policy Institute of California, while Munger’s drew only 40 percent support in that voter survey. But Munger’s plan would provide substantially more money for K-12 schools, so it came down to a difference between “the purists and the pragmatists,” said Frank Biehl, president of the East Side Union High School District school board and a delegate from Santa Clara County. “One side said Munger’s would bring more money for a longer time with more flexibility. The other side said, ‘It’s not going to pass so what difference doe it make?’”

Biehl, who plans to vote for both, said another factor was that the CSBA didn’t want to cut off dialogue with Brown, who has met with the board of directors and responded to their concerns, such as changing his plan for a weighted student formula.

Both initiatives are expected to qualify for the ballot. Brown’s tax plan would raise between $6.5 billion and $9 billion by raising the sales tax ¼ percent for four years and the personal income tax between 1 and 3 percent for seven years on those earning more than $250,000. But most of the money would go toward shoring up the General Fund, with $2.9 billion going toward Proposition 98 next year; Brown would commit that to repay part of  $9 billion in deferrals, late payments to school districts.

Munger’s initiative would raise $5 billion in 2012-13 and then $10 billion for 11 years by raising the state’s progressive personal income tax less than a half-percent for lowest earners up to 2.2 percent for those earning more than $2.5 million. In the first three years, her plan would pay off $3 billion in state bonds, freeing up money for the General Fund, with the rest going toward K-12 schools and early childhood education. After that, all of the money would go directly to schools, on a per-student basis, and early childhood programs.

If, against the odds, Munger’s initiative won and the governor’s lost, the Legislature could undermine it by separately manipulating the General Fund to decrease Proposition 98 funding for education. Brown and lawmakers have become adept at that. There would be disputes if both initiatives passed. The one with the highest vote total would determine which clauses applied in areas of overlap (the rates on the personal income tax); the courts would likely be called on to sort through other issues.

In its press release on Sunday’s vote, CSBA made a strenuous case for more school funding while expressing little enthusiasm for Brown’s initiative. Quoting CSBA Executive Director Vernon Billy, it said, “CSBA opted for the dual endorsement because schools desperately need funding.” Yet, he and the CSBA leadership want to make it clear to the public that the governor’s initiative does not provide new funding for schools. Instead, it bolsters the General Fund with new revenue.

“‘Under the governor’s plan, schools would get back some of the billions of dollars that were redirected away from them and used to shore up the state’s funding gap in the last budgetary cycle. The governor’s initiative only restores some of the funds already owed to schools,’” Billy said.