Category Archives: Twenty-first Century Learning

Another report urges changing API

A report this week from a Washington think tank bolsters Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg’s call for significantly revising the state’s primary accountability measure, the Academic Performance Index. Now, if Gov. Jerry Brown would only read it…

“Ready by Design: A College and Career Ready Agenda for California,” published by Education Sector, recommends that the API shift focus from students’ performance on standardized tests to measures of readiness for college and careers, such as high school graduation rates, results of Advanced Placement tests, and percentages of students needing remediation in college. Account-EdSectorStudyCover062012That’s essentially what Steinberg’s bill, SB 1458, would do without specifying what measures would be included, and that is what his bill last year, SB 547, would have done, had Gov. Jerry Brown not vetoed it with a snarky message sharply critical of quantitative gauges of school achievement.

The report concluded that additional measures would not be a panacea, “but an outcomes-oriented API would at least measure and reinforce what’s most important: graduating students from high school with the knowledge and skills to succeed in higher education and a career,” wrote co-authors Anne Hyslop, a policy analyst with Education Sector, and Bill Tucker, deputy director, policy development at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The report was funded by the James Irvine Foundation, a big promoter and funder of an initiative to combine college readiness and career technical education, called linked learning.

This is the second report from Ed Sector in a month on the California API. Last week, I wrote about “Academic Growth over Time,” in which author Richard Lee Colvin, a former executive director of Ed Sector, recommends Los Angeles Unified’s alternative way to calculate student results on standardized tests. The reports need not be mutually exclusive; recommendations from both could be combined.

When establishing the three-digit API index in 1999, the Legislature implied that it would be adding a range of measures, but never did. Instead, the API is based on California Standards Tests results, primarily English language arts and math, plus results on the high school exit exam, which are not indicators of preparation for life beyond high school. But by adopting Common Core standards two years ago, the state embraced the goal of aligning high school achievement with college and career expectations. The API needs to change to reflect this, the Ed  Sector report says.

In his veto message of SB547 last year, Brown said that changing API now, when facing the challenges of new Common Core curriculum, texts, and tests, “doesn’t make sense.”

Sharply rebutting that, the authors wrote, “In fact, what doesn’t make sense is implementing new standards, tests, and curriculum that are aligned with college and career readiness while continuing to evaluate school performance based on an entirely different goal. More important, Brown’s continued opposition to CALPADS, his refusal to apply for federal funds to improve the state’s data collection, and his veto of the API redesign, only serve to maintain the very status quo that he repeatedly condemns.”

While college acceptance rates are indicators of readiness, the report recommends adding evidence of post-high school achievement to the API, such as college remediation rates, percentage of students who return to college after one year, and the percentage of students who enter the military or who go straight to work after high school. Unlike states like Florida, which track students after high school, California has incomplete, voluntarily collected data – hence the criticism of Brown for forgoing chances for federal database money.

Underutilized EAP measure

California does have one measure of readiness that other states consider a model: the Early Assessment Program, a series of questions created by the California State University and administered as a supplement to CSTs taken by high school juniors. But the authors said that “while touted as a model for those developing Common Core assessments, its respect outshines its influence.” The University of California and most community colleges don’t use results of EAP, and most high schools aren’t using the followup courses in math and expository writing that would enable high school seniors to bypass remediation in college.

Quoting a 2006 survey that found 10 percent of high school teachers said their students graduated not ready for college, compared with 44 percent of college faculty who said students arrived unprepared, the report cited “mismatched expectations on both sides.” Including college readiness measures in the API would encourage high schools, colleges and business leaders to work closer to create common expectations and share expertise and knowledge. The report cited promising examples: collaboration between a San Diego high school and the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District to redesign high school English courses; and the extensive agreements between Long Beach Unified and the local community college and CSU, Long Beach.

Calling SB 1458 “my highest priority,” Steinberg said, “I really believe this bill would bring about a change in cultures. It would create incentives to link education with needs of economy in a fundamental way.”

“The Administration is fine with the API the way it is. I disagree and want to limit the importance of testing,” he said.

The bill, which has passed the Senate, will be heard in the Assembly Education Committee on June 27. Steinberg said he hoped to negotiate with Brown on the measures in the bill. It includes the possibility of including school inspections, which Brown raised in his veto message and mentioned in his State of the State message in January.

Career- and college-ready: Are they synonymous or different?

Like cream and sugar, or ice cream and cake, college and career ready roll off the tongue together as any good platitude should. In adopting the Common Core standards, California and other states agreed students graduating high school should be prepared for college and careers. Educators have been arguing ever since what that means. If not the same, then how is career readiness different from college readiness, and how should it be measured? We’ve asked five experts with different perspectives to share their views: the husband-and-wife team of Robert Schwartz and Nancy Hoffman, he of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and she of a national nonprofit focusing on workplace and education for low-income individuals; Robert Balgenorth, a union leader in the construction trades; Barbara Nemko, Napa County superintendent of schools; Gary Hoachlander, president of ConnectEd, the California Center for College and Career; and Devin Blizzard, CEO of much-acclaimed CART, the Center for Advanced Research and Technology, an academic career technical school in the Central Valley. We encourage you to share your views as well.

Schwartz, Hoffman: Early career counseling, job shadowing for all

Robert Schwartz

Robert Schwartz

All young people graduating high school “college and career ready.” Sounds great, but what does it mean? In California, at least, college-ready means meeting a set of course requirements prescribed by the UC and CSU systems, even though those institutions serve, at best, only a quarter of an age cohort. But what do we mean by “career-ready?” Because there is no parallel attempt by California’s business and industry leaders to broaden academic requirements to demonstrate their application in the work world and to add 21st century skills and activities that develop career-readiness, the phrase turns out to be a

Nancy Hoffman

Nancy Hoffman

throwaway.

If we were serious about creating policies to serve all kids, we would put career planning and experience in a variety of workplaces at the center of this discussion, not at the margins. After all, only about half of young people who start a two- or four-year degree actually complete one, but all young people, we hope, are going to go to work.

Our education system should help all young people make informed decisions about the career paths they want to pursue, even if they may change careers later. Young people these days have little work experience and few opportunities to learn to work. Yet we behave as if preparation for college is the main purpose of high school, rather than explaining to young people that college is a pathway to a career, and that they need to take courses that equip them with skills and credentials with value in the labor market.

If we were serious about career readiness, we would bring together employers, post-secondary educators, and K-12 leaders to design pathways in grades 9-14 that have recognized currency in the labor market. We would invest in career information and counseling for all students beginning in the middle grades. We would require, as the French and German systems do, that all students have at least two weeks of job shadowing or other workplace exposure before they enter high school.

We have learned from the highly successful Early College High School movement, now serving 77,000 students in 28 states, that the best way to ensure “college readiness” is to enable students to start taking college classes while they are in a supportive high school environment. Analogously, the best way to ensure career readiness is to provide workplace experience in the context of 9-14 career pathways. California has some great models in Linked Learning and Partnership Academies, but they serve far too few students.

Nancy Hoffman is a vice president and senior advisor at Jobs for the Future, a national nonprofit in Boston focused on improving educational and workforce outcomes for low-income young people and adults. Her most recent book is Schooling in the Workplace: How Six of the World’s Best Vocational Education Systems Prepare Young People for Jobs and Life.

Robert Schwartz is the Francis Keppel Professor of Educational Policy and Administration at the Harvard Graduate School of Education where he co-leads the Pathways to Prosperity Project. He was an education advisor to the mayor of Boston and the governor of Massachusetts, and served as first president of Achieve.

Robert Balgenorth: Restore value to ‘the other 4-year degree’

Robert Balgenorth

Robert Balgenorth

For years now, the construction industry, the manufacturing sector, and even auto mechanics have been clamoring about the need for students to graduate high school ready to work in our industries. Contrary to popular belief, these are not low-skilled jobs. Rather, they require significant knowledge of mathematics, algebra, trigonometry, physics, and computer science.

Today’s plumbers, electricians, and sheet metal workers are learning to use Building Information Modeling, a highly specialized computer program that illustrates the location of every wall, pipe, and outlet before a building is even built. Ph.D. computer scientists aren’t the ones doing the modeling; this work requires journeyman sheet metal workers and pipefitters who have come up through the apprenticeship system.

The construction industry has been using apprenticeship programs to teach skills to young people for the last century. They work under the tutelage of journeymen for 3-5 years while going to school to learn the theory behind what they’re doing on the job. Each of the 15 building and construction craft and trade unions, working in partnership with union contractors, operate joint apprenticeship programs that have provided the United States with the best-trained construction workforce in the world. These programs are overseen by the California Division of Apprenticeship Standards.

Because so many school districts have dismantled their vocational training and industrial arts programs, students are no longer introduced to what might become their lifelong careers.

Studies show that many students drop out of school because their classes aren’t interesting, and don’t seem relevant to their lives. Apprenticeship programs routinely report a 50 percent failure rate among those taking their basic math entry exam. Those test-takers were inspired to enter a construction career path, but are lacking the educational basics. If math, English, and science could be applied toward specific career goals, students might be more motivated to stay in school, and more prepared to enter careers upon graduating. Career Technical Education can provide that spark for students.

Only 20-25 percent of students will attend a four-year college, and when they do, they will rack up tens of thousands of dollars of debt before even landing an entry-level job. Apprenticeship is free, and offers students an opportunity to learn a skill while earning a paycheck.

That’s why we call it “the other four-year degree.” We fully support CTE because we need students to be prepared to enter apprenticeship and learn skills for our construction industry when they graduate.

Robert Balgenorth is president of the State Building and Construction Trades Council, and Co-Chair of the GetREAL-California Coalition (Relevance in Education and Learning).

Barbara Nemko: Inform students on all post-high-school options

Barbara Nemko

Barbara Nemko

The terms “college and career readiness” are often seen as synonymous, but are they? It’s relatively easy to understand what “college-ready” means: academic skills sufficient for the rigors of college work. “Career-ready,” however, is often left undefined. At a time when “college for all” appears to equate to “student success,” it is important to explore what “career-ready” means.

Pathways to Prosperity,” a recent Harvard University report, argues that expecting all students to go to college is short-sighted. The report indicated that 63 percent of jobs do require some form of post-secondary education, but it also showed that many students who complete a post-secondary graduate program have given little thought or preparation to their career interest. How do we prepare high school graduates to be college- and career-ready?

Career readiness includes three major areas: core academic skills, and the ability to apply those skills to real-world situations and in routine workplace activities; employability skills (critical thinking, problem solving, communicating, and responsibility) that are essential in any career/life area; and job-specific skills related to a specific career pathway.

Career readiness provides a foundation that all students need to make informed decisions about their post-high-school options. These include post-secondary education, entry-level employment, apprenticeships, or military service that will lead to self-sufficiency and the attainment of the student’s aspirations, career, and life goals.

In today’s world, every student in California must have the knowledge and skills to make appropriate choices and successfully manage their careers throughout their lifetime. Graduating from high school both college- and career-ready will make that possible.

We need to enact  changes to our accountability system to address more than just standardized test scores. Proposals like Sen. Darrell Steinbergs’s SB 1458, redefining the state’s accountability measures, hold the promise of expanding the scope of what we value and therefore measure in our schools – while creating incentives for districts to expand the programs and curriculums to help our students become career-ready. High School Accountability Report Cards (SARCs) should be required to include the percentage of students who are graduating career-ready, so that parents start to monitor whether or not schools are addressing this critical life skill.

The California State Plan for Career and Technical Education already has tools that can help districts and local school sites measure the status and effectiveness of their CTE programs. Existing quality criteria identified in the State Plan provide a great foundation on which to build a more comprehensive and responsive accountability system.

Policy leaders must pay attention to the need to strengthen the “career-ready” status of all of our students in meaningful and effective ways. We can no longer afford to ignore the reality that employability and career readiness do matter – for the economic growth of our citizens and our state.

Barbara Nemko has been the superintendent of schools for Napa County since April 1997. She served on the Transition Team for State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, and is currently a member of his Technology Task Force. In previous administrations she served on several state boards including the State Plan for Career and Technical Education and the Master Plan.

Gary Hoachlander: Talk about college, career readiness together

Gary Hoachlander

Gary Hoachlander

College- and career-ready: as we dig into the new rhetoric surrounding today’s high school graduates, I hope we will focus on the word “and.” By exploring the intersections and connections between college and career readiness, we have the opportunity to expand our thinking about effective learning in both the classroom and the workplace.

An example: At a Health Careers Academy in a southern California high school, seniors spend three mornings a week in a group internship at local medical facilities. One morning I observed student interns at Kaiser Permanente learning how to perform electrocardiograms. Collaborating with the students’ classroom teacher, a physician’s assistant walked the interns through how to attach electrodes to the body and how to read the electrocardiogram results.

That afternoon, back in medical sciences biology class, the students focused on the human cardiovascular system and the role electricity plays in regulating the heart. They learned how different forms of heart disease can interfere with this electrical system, and they dug deeper into electrocardiography and related technologies such as pacemakers and artificial hearts.

This strong connection between real-world learning at a working hospital and the related academics later that afternoon in biology class did not, of course, happen by accident. It took a thoughtful, skilled teacher to structure that engaging learning experience and help her students integrate their hands-on experience with a classroom lesson.

We call this kind of integration Linked Learning, an approach that transforms students’ high school experience by bringing together strong academics, demanding technical education, and real-world experience. We know that high-quality Linked Learning produces greater student engagement, improved achievement, and a higher likelihood of postsecondary enrollment and increased earnings.

Presently this kind of learning tends to happen in spite of the system rather than because of it. Making it an integral part of student learning will depend on broadening our current accountability measures beyond standardized test results in isolated academic subjects. In the long run, this will require new balanced assessment methods that gauge student performance on interdisciplinary projects and industry-generated design challenges.

In the short run, we can look at ways to expand California’s Academic Performance Index to recognize such things as a juried student project, an internship evaluated by industry professionals, or completion of a certified Linked Learning Pathway or an integrated program of study offered through California’s Partnership Academies, Regional Occupational Programs and Centers, or standards-based career and technical education career pathways.

By connecting college and career readiness, we can change teaching and learning in ways that help today’s young people leave high school prepared for lasting success in both postsecondary education and career – no longer just one or the other.

Gary Hoachlander is president of ConnectEd: The California Center for College and Career. He began his career as a brakeman for the Western Maryland Railroad and, since completing his doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley, has devoted his professional life to helping young people learn by doing – connecting education to the opportunities, challenges, and many different rewards to be found through work. To learn more, visit www.connectedcalifornia.org.

Devin Blizzard: Blend specific sector, broad interpersonal skills

Devin Blizzard

Devin Blizzard

True career readiness demands that an individual possess complex, vocationally tied individual assets. Having been a STEM and Career Technical educator since 1998, I can offer a perspective from workforce employers and young professionals.

Not surprisingly, work ethic and interpersonal skills remain relevant.  Employers increasingly demand employees who can contribute to productive teams. Learning aptitude, responsibility, passion, perseverance, organizational skills, and professional appearance continue to be held in high regard. Organizations are increasingly investing in employees who demonstrate problem solving and innovation skills.

Employers understand that substantial investments must be made in college graduates to develop them into valuable contributors. Employers are also expressing concern that potential workforce members frequently do not possess the specific skill sets to serve jobs in their regions. In the Central Valley, a skills mismatch exists between a workforce formerly heavily invested in construction and employers seeking skilled machinists, medical technicians, automotive technicians, and other specialized tradespeople.

Deciphering the functional meaning of true career readiness should be done career by career. Only then may we responsibly develop ways to measure competencies aligned with employee success in a specific field. There is a growing trend to develop policy and fund initiatives that support a general career readiness ideal.

Because the career readiness construct is such a general term, any endeavor to quantify it will be at best a generic approximation. These things said, attempts to develop an exam grounded in career readiness and a national set of Common Core standards hold promise to be much better than our present arsenal of standardized tests.

Traditionally, standardized tests have surveyed students for their breadth of knowledge. I believe improvements are on the horizon. The SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium is endeavoring to build a next generation of assessments aligned to English Language Arts and Mathematics. Their aim is to infuse real-world-aligned problem solving tasks and simulated project-based elements in an assessment that  can be administered economically online. It’s ambitious, and the new test’s architects admittedly don’t know how they’re going to do these things. But it’s promising to see test developers aspiring toward a better instrument.

We are moving strategically as a nation toward better assessments of global career readiness. Successful prototypes should inform instruction and learning. A score on a singular readiness assessment should never serve as the scorecard by which society determines who is invited to access college, career, or the global competitive economy.

A school administrator for two decades, Devin Blizzard is the  chief executive officer at the Center for Advanced Research and Technology (CART), an academic career technical education pathway school that is operated jointly by Clovis and Fresno Unified School Districts. He has served as the director of the Central Valley Robotics and FIRST senior mentor since founding CVR in 2002. He has presented at regional and national STEM, Career Technical, and Model Schools conferences.

Finnishing School

Forget Santa Claus and saunas, the biggest export from Finland these days is its educational system. During a two-day conference this week at Stanford University, Finnish educators discussed how they improved so dramatically and what the United States can learn from the Nordic country.

Facts on Finnish education.  (Source:  Pasi Sahlberg). Click to enlarge.

Facts on Finnish education. (Source: Pasi Sahlberg). Click to enlarge.

Finnish education reform can be summed up in ten points, according to Pasi Sahlberg, a director at the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture and author of Finnish Lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland? The first nine are instructive, but it’s number ten that sums it up neatly and harshly.

“All of these factors that are behind the Finnish success seem to be the opposite of what is taking place in the United States and the rest of world where competitive, test-based accountability, standardization, and privatization seem to dominate,” Sahlberg told participants at the Empowerment Through Learning in a Global World conference. “There is hope, but you have to be smart in the way you do things…and in many of the things that you are trying to do here I see very little hope.”

Yep, that smarts, especially since Sahlberg acknowledged that Finland borrowed a lot of its reform ideas from the United States, as did many other countries, when American education was the envy of the world. Since then, the U.S. hasn’t progressed so much, at least where PISA, a triennial international exam of 15-year-olds, is concerned. In addition to Finland, PISA shows that Canada, Korea, Singapore, and Shanghai, China have all surpassed the United States.

About those other nine lessons, well, they’re a mix of common sense, shifting priorities, and paradoxes. Here are some of the key elements:

  • Pursuing excellence and equity: Achievement differences among schools in Finland is small, about 5 percent.
  • Standardized-free test zone: There’s no standardized testing until students are in their last year of school, and the scores aren’t used to evaluate teachers.
  • Wrapping education with health and welfare: There’s a nurse in every school and every child gets a free comprehensive check-up every year. Dental and mental health services are also provided, as is universal free lunch. Play is a priority and children must, by law, have recess.
  • Less is more: The school day is relatively short – about four hours in elementary school – and younger students get little homework. But teachers get a lot of time for collaboration to develop curriculum and independent learning plans tailored to each student’s strengths and weaknesses. Finland also spends less money per student than the United States.

    More money and more time in school don't always equal better education. (Source: Pasi Sahlberg) Click to enlarge.

    More money and more time in school don't always equal better education. (Source: Pasi Sahlberg) Click to enlarge.

  • Professionalizing teaching:  The Finns focused on teaching as a key driver of reform and of the education system, and made it a noble and attractive profession by making salaries commensurate with other professionals such as doctors and lawyers, by requiring teachers to earn a research-based master’s degree and making it tuition free, by providing high-quality professional development, by giving teachers a lot of autonomy and time to work collaboratively with their colleagues, by offering career development paths that don’t just include administration, and by not evaluating teachers based on their students’ test scores.  As a result, they created one of the most, if not the most, competitive teacher education systems in the world.  The acceptance rate into colleges of education is about one-in-ten, and only ten to fifteen percent of teachers leave the profession before retirement, compared to about 50 percent for teachers in urban schools and a third for other areas in the United States.

Leaning power of PISA

Finland’s educational reputation is largely a result of its students’ scores on PISA, and critics say that’s not enough. Lee Shulman, Professor emeritus of education at Stanford, noted the irony of the very people who decry the use of high-stakes testing being willing to rely on a single exam to rank the world’s school systems.

“PISA is another standardized test. It’s not a proof test. It’s credible because it fits our belief system,” argued Shulman during his presentation at the conference. “We should commit ourselves to multiple measures, not just one test.”

Other skeptics have raised questions about making comparisons between countries that differ so widely in size and demographics. Finland has 3,500 schools and 60,000 teachers. Its entire population of 5.5 million is smaller than California’s entire student population.

“You could argue that the main reason [for lower U.S. scores] is that we have a 24 percent child poverty rate and you have a four percent child poverty rate,” said one audience member during a question-and-answer session. “You could argue that we have a segregation problem where we bunch our poor children into bad schools.”

What’s more, Finland’s reading scores on PISA fell slightly from 2006 to 2009, dropping from an overall score of 547 to 536.  This is the sort of variable that American teachers say is natural and illustrates why rankings based on single exams are inadequate measures.  Despite that setback, however, Finnish students remained in the top three for reading, math and science, while scores for U.S. students placed them smack in the middle.

States show it could happen here

America’s diversity is an issue, but shouldn’t be an excuse said Stanford education professor Linda Darling-Hammond, co-director of the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education and author of numerous books including The Flat World and Education:  How America’s commitment to equity will determine our future.

Linda Darling-Hammond and Pasi Sahlberg at Finland-U.S. education conference at Stanford. (photo courtesy of Barbara McKenna).  Click to enlarge.

Linda Darling-Hammond and Pasi Sahlberg at Finland-U.S. education conference at Stanford. (photo courtesy of Barbara McKenna). Click to enlarge.

“PISA rankings in the United States are driven by inequality. If you looked only at schools where less than 10 percent of the students are low poverty, we’re number one in the world,” said Darling-Hammond during her talk at the conference.  In Finland, the focus on the dual goals of excellence and equity have significantly closed the achievement gap. In California, where there’s a three-to-one difference in spending between high- and low-wealth districts, the gap has barely budged.

Some states have implemented reforms similar to Finland’s with noticeable results.  Massachusetts, New Jersey, Vermont, and Connecticut have raised and equalized teacher salaries, made it

Equitable resources for all students makes a difference in achievement.  (Source:  Linda Darling-Hammond, Stanford).  Click to enlarge.

Equitable resources for all students makes a difference in achievement. (Source: Linda Darling-Hammond, Stanford). Click to enlarge.

more difficult to become a teacher, and invested in high-quality professional development.  It wasn’t always altruistic; a judge ordered New Jersey to invest more money in low-wealth schools after decades of litigation.  But once that happened, it became one of the top-performing states.  Darling-Hammond says Hispanic and Black students in New Jersey now outperform California students, on average.

Gov. Brown is also taking a page from the Finnish model with his proposals to reduce the number of standardized tests that students take, and to switch to a weighted-student formula for funding, through which schools would receive a flat amount of money for each student and additional funds for children who need more resources to help them succeed, such as English learners and low-income students (read more about this proposal here).

“The house of education is divided by powerful forces and strong emotions,” said Brown in his State of State address earlier this week.  “My role as governor is not to choose sides but to listen, to engage and to lead.  I will do that.  I embrace both reform and tradition – not complacency.  My hunch is that principals and teachers know the most, but I’ll take good ideas from wherever they come.”

Seems like some of them are coming from Helsinki.

Baker’s dozen bills before Brown

(Kathy and John combined efforts on this post.)

It all comes down to one person. Dozens of education bills passed in the final days of the legislative session are now in Gov. Brown’s hands. He has until October 9th to sign or veto. Here are highlights of some of the most controversial and comprehensive measures.

SB 611 (Darrell Steinberg, D- Sacramento): The University of California has approved thousands of Career Technical Education courses as qualifying for admission to UC and CSU campuses under the A-G requirements. But nearly all of them have been approved only as electives, not as core subjects. This bill would authorize a new UC institute to work directly with high school teachers to develop dozens of CTE courses that would qualify as math, English, and science courses for UC and CSU admission – a big shift in UC’s approach to CTE and potentially a boost for partnership academies and programs that stress career and college readiness.

SB 547 (Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento):  This bill would replace California’s long-standing school rating system, known as the Academic Performance Index, or API, with an Education Quality Index, or EQI. It would also fulfill the original intent of California’s Public Schools Accountability Act of 1999 by requiring the State Department of Education, in consultation with an advisory committee, to develop multiple measures for the EQI rating that include graduation rates, a college preparedness index, and a career readiness index in addition to the STAR test and High School Exit Exam. A similar bill, AB 400, passed the Legislature in 2007, but was vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger.

AB 1330 (Warren Furutani, D-Long Beach): High school students would be able to substitute a year-long career technical course (CTE) for either a year of foreign language or of visual/performing arts as one of 13 courses needed to graduate from high school. Supporters of the bill say it would give students at risk of dropping out an engaging alternative to keep them interested in school. Opponents, who include those who want to qualify more students for four-year colleges, worry districts will cut back courses in arts and foreign languages, making it harder for students to qualify for CSU and UC campuses. Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed a similar bill last year.

AB 47 (Jared Huffman, D-Marin): Under the 2-year-old Open Enrollment Act, students in the state’s 1,000 lowest-performing schools are theoretically eligible to attend better schools outside of their own district (it’s too soon to see how often it’s been used). This bill would tighten eligibility rules to weed out schools that, because of quirks in the law, are not among the lowest-performing 10 percent. It would  exclude schools with over 700 API, among the new requirements. Open Enrollment was passed to strengthen the state’s Race to the Top application. Republican senators strongly opposed loosening the law.

SB 300 (Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley): California’s science standards haven’t been touched since their adoption 13 years ago. This bill, written by the California Science Teachers Association, would establish a process to revise them by 2013. Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson would appoint a committee of science educators that would do the work under a tight timeline; the State Board of Education would have to approve the new standards. The standards would be based on Next Generation Science Standards, a multistate effort that would become the science version of the Common Core standards. Traditionalists who created the current standards are skeptical.

AB 131 (Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles): Undocumented students who meet certain requirements have been allowed to pay in-state tuition at California’s public colleges and universities since 2002. But efforts to provide them with public financial aid have failed for years. That began to change this year when Gov. Brown signed AB 130, the first of two bills by Assemblyman Cedillo collectively known as the California Dream Act. While AB 130 allows undocumented students who meet the in-state tuition requirements to apply for private financial aid offered through state colleges and universities, AB 131 is a harder sell. It would open CalGrants to these students. Opponents say that in a time of steep budget cuts it’s unfair to legal residents to give money to undocumented students, and they warn that it could create an incentive for more people to come here illegally.

AB 743 (Marty Block, D-Lemon Grove): Nowhere is the disjuncture between high school and college expectations more pronounced than in the state’s 112 community colleges. Between 70 and 85 percent of students who take a community college placement exam aren’t ready for college-level math or English. But there’s no consistency in the tests, because there are nearly as many different exams as there are community colleges. AB 743 would establish uniform placement exams in math and English.  They wouldn’t be mandatory, but colleges that continued to use their own placement tests would miss out of big savings from the volume discount.

SB 161 (Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar): Children who suffer severe epileptic seizures risk brain damage or even death unless they receive emergency medical care within five minutes. SB 161 would allow school staff to voluntarily take a course to learn how to administer Diastat, a an emergency anti-seizure medication, with parents’ written consent. State law already allows teachers and staff to administer other emergency medications, but Diastat is different because it’s given rectally. Although the bill has strong bipartisan support, it’s been targeted by major labor unions, including both teachers unions and the nurses association, which tried to use it as leverage to reverse the loss of school nurses in recent years due to budget cuts.

Foster youth

AB 194 (Jim Beall, D-San Jose): Assemblyman Beall has been a strong proponent of legislation to help foster youth complete their education. AB 194 requires the 112 community college campuses and California State University campuses to grant priority enrollment to current and former foster youth up through age 24, and urges the University of California to do the same. Supporters hope the bill will help keep foster youth in college by making it easier for them to get the classes they need to graduate, especially as budget cuts have forced public colleges to reduce the number of course sections they offer. Currently, about 20 percent of foster youth enroll in college, and barely 3 percent graduate. The bill would sunset July 1, 2017.

AB 709 (Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica): It’s not uncommon for foster children to be moved to different schools many times during their youth.  This bill would add a section to the state’s Health and Safety Code, bringing it into conformity with provisions of the Education Code requiring schools to immediately enroll foster youth even if they can’t provide the school with all their medical records, including proof of immunizations. This bill has no opposition and passed the Senate and Assembly without any no votes.

Common Core

Three bills before the governor would combine to place California on a timeline to prepare for the implementation of Common Core standards and assessments.

AB 250 (Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica): The State Board of Education approved Common Core standards in math and English language arts a year ago. The state belongs to a multistate consortium that is developing the Common Core standardized tests that will be aligned to the new standards. This bill would start the process of filling in the gaps. It would require the State Board to adopt new curriculum frameworks, which flesh out standards into a detailed road map, by May 2013 for math and a year later for English language arts. It would require the state Department of Education to work with the State Board on developing training for teachers in Common Core subjects. It also would extend STAR, the current standardized tests, until the replacements are introduced in 2015.

SB 140 (Alan Lowenthal, D- Long Beach): California has postponed any new textbook adoptions until after Common Core standards are in place. But with those new standards come the new student achievement tests. In order to make sure that students are prepared for those Common Core assessments, this bill would require the State Department of Education and the State Board of Education to develop criteria for evaluating supplemental instructional materials that include Common Core content standards, and then to compile a list of those materials for kindergarten to eighth grade for English language arts and kindergarten to seventh grade for math. (Eighth grade math isn’t included because of a disagreement about whether the state’s math standard should include Algebra 1 in that grade.) Schools wouldn’t be required to choose from the list, or to use any supplemental materials. SB 140 has no organized opposition; however, votes in the Assembly and Senate were almost entirely along party lines.

AB 124 (Felipe Fuentes, D-Sylmar): Fuentes’ bill ensures that the Common Core standards extend to English learners. It would require the State Superintendent of Public Instruction to convene a group of experts in English language instruction to revise and align the curriculum, materials, and assessments for Common Core so they’re appropriate for English learners.

Look to experience, not policy, to assess 21st century skills

Learning to collaborate and to solve ill-defined problems are to the 21st Century what industrial discipline was to the last hundred years, according to those who have studied what employers and society need. They need to be considered basic skills, just as are reading, math, and science, and they are one of the key elements of Learning 2.0.

By the turn of the millennium, it was clear that jobs requiring routine thinking and skills were giving way to those involving both higher levels of knowledge and also some applied skills, such as expert thinking and complex communicating, that are not well captured by most current educational standards or taught in the conventional curriculum. Teamwork, for example, is taught mostly in extracurricular activities.

But how to do this? If we as a society want creativity, if we want working together, where do we teach it? How do we assess it? The current policy path links new basic skills with a new generation of tests that will be a part of the Common Core of standards.

But the tests and the Common Core face a very long developmental chain and growing political opposition. A whole series of decisions has to fall the right way for tests and curriculum to emerge and be adopted. And all that happens before classrooms start to change.

Consider, for a moment, a parallel policy pathway. Instead of using educational policy to produce new tests that are to drive instruction, why not turn the process upside down and create accessible forms of learning that involve the new basic skills? Let changes in learning drive the tests.

By reversing the process, we would adopt the developmental strategy of “permanent Beta testing” made famous at Google. Get changes in learning and on-the-ground evaluation first, and build tests and curriculum based on the experience of thousands of users. Start from the bottom, not from the top. Cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, whose Why Don’t Students Like School? should be on everyone’s reading list, argues that seeing what works requires that some kind of assessment plan be in place and admits that measuring 21st Century skills is extremely difficult. Yet, there exist demonstration projects that carry with them both the capacity to evaluate and some experience developing instrumentation and professional practice.  (In a longer essay, I discuss the potential of study groups, project-based learning, and rethinking subject matter teaching to introduce 21st Century skills.)

We can probably advance 21st Century skills as much through grounded experimentation as we can through explicit public policy.

Charles Taylor Kerchner is Research Professor in the School Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University, and a specialist in educational organizations, educational policy, and teacher unions. In 2008, he and his colleagues completed a four-year study of education reform of the Los Angeles Unified School District. The results of that research can be found in The Transformation of Great American School Districts and in Learning from L.A.: Institutional Change in American Public Education, published by Harvard Education Press. Check out his blog, Mindworkers.com.