Tag Archives: Tom Torlakson

Trending toward graduation

California’s high school graduation rate is edging upwards for most groups of students. The overall graduation rate for 2010-11 was 76.3 percent, or 1.5 percent above the prior year.

Tom Torlakson, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, acknowledged that while it’s not a surge, it’s still good news.

“It’s heading in the right direction; it’s certainly not where we want it to be,” said Torlakson during a telephone conference call with journalists on Wednesday. “The thing that I think is more noteworthy is the larger gains we’re seeing among Hispanics and African American students.”

The graduation rate for Hispanic students increased by 2.2 percent to 70.4 percent, and rose by 2.3 percent among African American students to reach 62.9 percent. At the same time, dropout rates for those groups of students fell by 3.1 percent and 2.1 percent respectively. English learners also showed progress, with a 3.8 percent increase in their graduation rates.

Torlakson said these improvements are especially striking because they’re happening “in the face of terrible budgets, a lot of turmoil and uncertainty in schools, more crowded classrooms, a shorter school year, summer school being eliminated,” and a shortage of textbooks, computers, and science lab equipment.

He credited the change to more focused interventions for low-income students at risk of dropping out, such as AVID and the Puente Project, that give them the support, encouragement, and college prep skills to put college within their grasp.

The CALPADS difference

This is the second year that the state has calculated graduation and dropout rates using CALPADS, the longitudinal student data system that uses unique student identifiers.

One year adjusted changes in state graduation and dropout rates. (Source:  California Dept. of Education). Click to enlarge

One year adjusted changes in state graduation and dropout rates. (Source: California Dept. of Education). Click to enlarge

With CALPADS, state education officials can track student progress from ninth grade to twelfth grade, accounting, for the most part, for students who transfer to other public schools in the state, earn GEDs, and even those who stay in high school for a fifth year to graduate.

“This is the first time we’ve been able to compare the rates from one year to the next, and for them to be used in the federal accountability system,” said Keric Ashley, director of the data management division at the state department of education.  Starting next year, Ashley said California will have enough data to calculate graduation and dropout rates for students starting in seventh grade.

Nearly all states now use a similar system required by the federal government for reporting under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  Before CALPADS, there was little consistency, and not always great accuracy, in how districts and the state computed these rates. One common approach was to take a head-count of students in ninth grade and subtract the number remaining at the end of twelfth grade.  Another method was to add up all the 17-year-olds reported to be in public and private schools and divide that by the total population of 17-year-olds.

Even CALPADS has limitations and some bugs to be worked out.  As the chart on the left shows, there are two columns for the class of 2009-10 – the first is 09-10 and the second is 09-10(A).  The “A” stands for adjusted.  Ashley explained that when CDE was reviewing the rates for the class of 2011, they noticed that some graduates had been in high school for more than four years so they were actually part of the previous year’s cohort and had to be switched.  There will be another adjustment in December, when school districts will have another opportunity to make corrections to their data.

CALPADS also doesn’t know if a student transfers to a private high school in California, switches to home schooling or leaves the state unless the original school gets documentation from the student’s family and sends it to the state department of education.  It also doesn’t track students who complete high school in different venues, such as an adult education program at a community college.

These are small gaps and won’t account for big changes in the numbers, but having more and better data can be meaningful, said Russell Rumberger, director of the California Dropout Research Project at UC Santa Barbara and author of the book Dropping Out:  Why students drop out of high school and what can be done about it.

“We’d like to know how many of our students eventually graduate and go on to college,” said Rumberger. ”As a state we’d like to know everybody who completes, however and whenever they do it.”

It’s a bill’s life

California school buses won’t be wearing anything but yellow for the foreseeable future.  This week, the state Senate Education Committee killed SB 1295. Introduced by Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, it would have permitted school districts to selling advertising space on the outside of buses to raise revenue.  This is a shortsighted decision by Democrats on the Senate Education Committee,” said the Diamond Bar Republican.  “We should be providing solutions, not gambling on the future of our children.”

Democratic Senator Leland Yee of San Francisco failed to convince members of the Senate Education Committee to put some limits on executive salaries during tough economic times.  SB 967 would have prohibited Cal State University trustees from increasing top administrators’’ salaries within two years of raising student fees.   It would also have capped salaries for newly hired executives at 5 percent above what was paid to their predecessors.

Yee’s bill grew out of frustration last July when the Cal State University Board of Trustees approved paying the new president of San Diego State University a $100,000 more than his predecessor.  During that same meeting, the Board increased tuition by 12 percent, or an additional $294 per semester for undergraduates. Last month, CSU trustees agreed to 10 percent pay increases for the incoming presidents of Cal State Fullerton and East Bay.  Even State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson criticized the board for its lack of tact.

“The students we serve and the public that supports our system enjoy no immunity from the consequence of the Great Recession, which has left millions without work and more millions more working harder for less.  Why should those we select to lead our campuses be any different?” wrote Torlakson earlier this month in a public letter to CSU leaders.

On the aye side of the voting, the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday passed a measure by Senator Kevin De León to increase eligibility for CalGrants, the state higher education program that provides merit and need based funds.

The committee also approved several bills aimed at bringing down the price of textbooks and making them available electronically.  Read more about those bills here.

Coming attractions

Some of the textbook bills are up for their next vote next week.  Legislators are also scheduled to move to the next step with bills that would require information on academic achievement of students for new charters and renewals, that seek to reduce out-of-school suspensions and expulsions,  (which we wrote about here), and create a middle class scholarship program for California residents attending UC or Cal State.

We will be updating action on education bills on a weekly basis.  Click here for a table providing the status of about three dozens of those measures.

More gain, no pain NCLB waiver

Gov. Jerry Brown described his relationship with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as a “work in progress” after a face-to-face meeting last week in Washington. Californians will soon find out how much progress if the State Board of Education next week approves a very different request for a waiver from the No Child Left Behind law than the one Duncan will be expecting.

Again assuming the role of the nonconformist state, California would ask Duncan for immediate relief from NCLB’s spending constraints and penalties without having to jump through the hoops that Duncan is demanding of other states. One of those is the adoption of a teacher and administrator evaluation system that would include student test scores  as a factor – a requirement that the California Teachers Association staunchly opposes.

“California state law and our current fiscal condition make it virtually impossible to implement all of the waiver requirements in every district and school in the state,” says a draft letter to U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary of Education Michael Yudin that would be signed by Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and State Board President Michael Kirst if the State Board approves. Unlike other states that have applied for a waiver, California would not try to negotiate a better deal. The state would argue that the waiver is warranted in its own right; districts want it, and student achievement would ultimately rise if California could be out from under much of NCLB.

The federal Department of Education thus far has granted waivers to 11 states; the next deadline, to which several dozen states may apply, is this week. A final deadline is Sept. 1, but it would be too late for a waiver for the 2012-13 school year. California would ask for an immediate two-year waiver.

Torlakson, who has called Duncan’s waiver requirements an overreaching swap of one set of burdens for another, is pushing the “state-devised” waiver idea. State Board Executive Director Sue Burr has followed its development and presumably informed Brown, another sharp critic of NCLB, the Race to the Top competition, and other Obama administration education reforms.

Brown probably has a better chance of trouncing Duncan one on one in basketball than California has in getting the waiver approved. But California would be making a point with its request: The waiver that the state is seeking is justifiable and permissible; it’s Duncan who is stretching his authority by demanding concessions for a waiver beyond what’s contained in NCLB.

California is not asking for all of the benefits from a waiver that Duncan is offering but it is seeking the primary ones: flexibility to use $353 million in Title I money now restricted to tutoring and transporting students to their districts of choice, and release from having to identify and prescribe turnaround programs for schools identified as failing under NCLB. In testimony before the State Board, superintendents have cited these benefits in calling for the state to pursue Duncan’s waiver option. Districts with Title I schools – about 60 percent of the state’s 10,000 schools – would still have to spend the money on low-income students, but could use it, say, for preparing teachers for Common Core standards or for their own school improvement plans outside of NCLB’s limited models.

In return, Duncan is requiring that states commit to:

  • Adopt and implement college- and career-ready standards. California has partly met this by adopting the Common Core standards, but the state Department of Education estimates that the state and districts would have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars over the next two years in training teachers and purchasing textbooks – money the state doesn’t have or, in the case of instructional materials, lacks the current authority to approve. Other states have negotiated the deadline.
  • Create a new school accountability system that identifies 15 percent of schools with the largest achievement gaps or the worst performance and create improvement plans for them. High-performing schools would be rewarded. State officials assert that Duncan is requiring adoption of a new state assessment system that tracks student growth from year to year, even though Common Core assessments would replace them in two years.
  • Pass a new evaluation system for teachers and administrators while providing value-added student test scores to math and English language arts teachers. State education officials point out that the state cannot promise that the Legislature will revise the current Stull Act and, if it did, that unions and school boards in the every school district would negotiate the adoption next year.

Paul Hefner, spokesman for Torlakson, said the Superintendent considers the state’s proposed waiver “a third way” – a reasonable solution to districts’ need for flexibility and consistent with the “spirit of the law’s waiver authority.”

Financially strained districts on rise

Nearly a third of California students attend school in a district facing dire financial circumstances. A report released yesterday by the State Department of Education shows that 127 of California’s 1,037 school districts are now designated as either in negative or qualified budget territory. And that’s before taking the January trigger cuts into account.

2011-12 California school districts in financial distress. (Source: Calif. Dept. of Education). Click to enlarge.

2011-12 California school districts in financial distress. (Source: Calif. Dept. of Education). Click to enlarge.

Seven districts in the First Interim Status Report for 2011-12 received a negative certification, meaning they might not have enough money to get through the rest of this academic year or the next one. They include Vallejo City Unified, which was on the verge of bankruptcy in 2004 and is still paying off a $60 million bailout loan from the state.

Another 120 districts – 17 more than last year – landed in qualified status. They range from Los Angeles Unified, the largest district in the state, to La Grange Elementary School District in rural Stanislaus county, with 7 students. These districts will get through this year, but may not be able to pay their bills in the next two years.

“The financial emergency facing our schools remains both wide and deep,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson in a written statement. “The deep cuts made to school funding – and looming uncertainties about the future – are driving school districts to the brink of insolvency.”

For a second straight year school districts are planning their budgets without knowing whether they’ll have to take another mid-year cut. If voters reject all of the tax increase measures on the November ballot, funding will fall by about $450 per student next year. In the meantime, the March 15 deadline for preliminary layoff notices to teachers is three weeks away.

“I don’t think this list accurately reflects how serious the situation is,” said Michael Hulsizer, head of governmental affairs for the Kern County Office of Education. “Imagine one of these districts facing a $450 per student cut on top of where they are; they have no place to go other than to make cuts right now.”

That’s what Superintendent Kent Taylor is working on in Southern Kern Unified School District. A year ago the district was on the negative list, facing insolvency. This year, after renegotiating all its vendor contracts and getting the unions to accept some furlough days and reduced medical coverage, the district has moved into the positive zone. Taylor intends to keep it there, and that means getting into the weeds himself, looking for any place to save money.

2010-11 California School Districts in financial distress.  (Source: Calif. Dept. of Education) Click to enlarge.

2010-11 California School Districts in financial distress. (Source: Calif. Dept. of Education) Click to enlarge.

“Superintendents nowadays, if they want their districts to survive, have to spend a lot of time on business. Half my day is spent on finances, and that’s how we’re going to stay strategically planned for the future.”

Even the best plans can’t compete with the recession. In San Bernardino County, where the unemployment rate is nearly 12 percent, a quarter of the school districts are on the qualified list. Riverside County, with 12.5 percent unemployment, has 40 percent of its districts in qualified status. But it’s the school districts around the state capital that are reeling the most. More than 95 percent of students in Sacramento County attend one of the eight school districts that ended up with qualified certification.

It falls to the county offices of education to monitor the districts and try to help them get back on sound footing. “I send them a letter which gives them the steps we think they need to take,” explained Dave Gordon, superintendent of the County Office of Education. “Our role of fiscal oversight is not to tell them what to cut; our role is to tell them what it will take to maintain their solvency.”

One of the most dramatic downturns in the county is in Elk Grove Unified, where Gordon spent nearly a decade as superintendent. During his tenure, Elk Grove was one of the fastest growing districts in the state; they couldn’t build schools fast enough. Since then, the housing market tanked, growth stopped, the district’s enrollment fell, and, of course, the state made huge cuts in education.

Gordon said one of the biggest problems is the state deferrals that push billions of dollars in Proposition 98 funding into the following fiscal year. The state shortfall gets erased that way, but districts are left scrambling for cash to cover their expenses, and as they run out of reserves they turn to loans, often with high interest rates.

That’s why there’s so much riding on the governor’s tax initiative. Gov. Brown said the first thing he’d do with the additional funds for education would be to start to pay down the deferrals.

County offices are advising districts to again prepare for the worst, but “worse is a matter of degree nowadays,” said Gordon. “It’s all a question of how much you’re willing to prepare for the sort of doomsday cuts. What we keep saying to people is that hope is not a strategy.”

LAO wants to redirect QEIA funds

Nearly 30 percent of California schools funded under the Quality Education Investment Act, or QEIA, may be expelled from the program at the end of this academic year for not meeting one or more of the requirements. That could leave up to $140 million in QEIA funds on the table – money the Legislative Analyst says the state should use to fill in the gaps in other educational programs.

There’s one barrier to the proposal: the QEIA law forbids it. SB 1133, introduced in 2006 by former state senator and current State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, requires that any funds left over when schools are removed from the program stay in the program. The money would be divided among the remaining schools for cost-of-living and enrollment increases.

Gov. Brown's plan to pay off QEIA and other temporary programs. (Source: LAO). Click to enlarge.

Gov. Brown's plan to pay off QEIA and other temporary programs. (Source: LAO). Click to enlarge.

The LAO acknowledges as much in its just released analysis of Gov. Brown’s 2012-13 education budget plan. The report recommends a statutory change to free up the money. It faces formidable opposition, and not just from Superintendent Torlakson, but possibly from higher up. Unlike much of the LAO’s report, which analyzes the governor’s budget proposals, this idea came directly from the legislative analyst.

“That is our recommendation,” said Edgar Cabral, one of the LAO’s education analysts. “The governor did not make that recommendation, and I doubt he would.”

State Board of Education president Michael Kirst said in an email that he wouldn’t support the plan either, and suggested that any changes “might also have to go back to the court as well as the Legislature.”

Stepping back

QEIA grew out of a lawsuit filed by the California Teachers Association against Gov. Schwarzenegger for reneging on a promise to repay school districts and community colleges $2 billion taken from Proposition 98 in 2004-05 in order to help get the state through a budget crisis. When state revenues increased that year, schools should have received an additional $1.8 billion under the Prop 98 guarantee. Instead, the governor based the 2005-06 school funding guarantee on the lower amount from the previous year.

QEIA funding by grade. (Source: County Supes Association-CCSESA). Click to enlarge.

QEIA funding by grade. (Source: County Supes Association-CCSESA). Click to enlarge.

Under the settlement, schools in API deciles 1 and 2 were eligible to apply for QEIA funds, but there was only enough money for about 500 of the nearly 1,500 schools in the lowest rankings. The numbers have fluctuated some since the program began in 2007-08, and there are now 474 schools – and that number is falling – in the program.

The latest reporting from County Offices of Education to the State Department of Education (as yet unpublished) shows that 137 QEIA schools haven’t met at least one requirement of the program. They include:

  • Class size reduction: A maximum of 20 students in grades K to 3 and 25 students in grades 4 through 12,
  • School counselors: Must have a student-counselor ratio of no more than 300:1,
  • Highly qualified teachers: All teachers must meet the standards for highly qualified teachers in No Child Left Behind,
  • Professional development: Develop a coherent plan for professional development and track participation by teachers, administrators, and paraprofessionals,
  • Teacher experience index (TEI): Teachers at QEIA schools must have an average level of teaching experience at or above the average of the entire school district for the same type of school, and
  • API: The average API growth scores from 2008-09, 2009-10, and 2010-11 must exceed the school’s average API target for those same three years.

By law, these schools could be terminated from the program beginning next fall, but the State Board of Education has begun granting waivers from a few of the provisions. As of its meeting last month, the Board has approved 45 waiver requests and denied five from the class size reduction requirement, and approved three waivers from the teacher experience index and four under highly qualified teachers.

Board members drew the line, however, at waivers for not meeting API targets.  “This is the main goal of QEIA; I really have difficulty saying we can waive student achievement,” said board member Yvonne Chan at last month’s meeting, before a unanimous vote to deny five waiver requests for academic performance.  At last count, 70 QEIA schools have fallen short of their API targets.

The California Teachers Association, which led the charge for QEIA through its lawsuit, notes that even if every school that hasn’t met all the requirements is booted from the program, the overwhelming number of schools will remain.  Considering that California schools have absorbed about $20 billion in cuts in the past few year, “it’s very promising that so many QEIA school weathered that storm and are making progress,” said CTA spokesman Mike Myslinski.

That’s why the CTA will oppose any effort to take money that would otherwise provide those QEIA survivors with a little extra funding, said Myslinksi.   “For us, the law is very clear that any so-called excess money really needs to go back to the schools.”

A case study for NCLB waiver

A couple hundred children sitting cross-legged covered the floor of the multipurpose room at Oak Ridge Elementary School in Sacramento. Behind them, parents, grandparents, and siblings filled rows of metal folding chairs, while teachers stood beside their students. The room was abuzz with excitement as principal Doug Huscher bounded onto the stage and led everyone in a cheer.

“When I say ‘Oak Ridge,’ you say ‘Feel the pride,’” shouted Huscher. Three times he called and they responded.

It was the warm-up to the school’s first-ever awards ceremony for student performance on the California Standards Test (CST). Teachers presented more than 200 Olympic-style medals to their students: bronze for moving up at least one level on the exam, silver for scoring in the proficient range, and gold for advanced.

It was also a celebration for the school itself. Two years ago, when it was in the bottom 5 percent in the state for academic achievement, Oak Ridge, along with five other low-performing schools in the Sacramento City Unified School District, applied for a piece of the $316 million in federal money allotted to California through the School Improvement Grant program. They lost.

So superintendent Jonathan Raymond launched his own reform, the Priority Schools program. He installed new principals and many new teachers in the six schools, gave them additional funds from Title I and the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, told them to come up with a school improvement plan, and held them accountable.

Raymond sees this as a prototype for education reform efforts and that’s why he’s pushing the State Board of Education to seek a waiver under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), in which the federal government would give districts and schools flexibility and not hold them to the rigid models of NCLB and other federally-funded reforms.  A waiver would also allow low-income schools that receive Title I funds to use that money as they see fit.  So far the State Board has not been persuaded to apply.  Raymond said if they did, it would also solve another cruel irony related to Oak Ridge; after all its work and achievement on California’s standards, it’s still considered a failing school under NCLB.

Academic and behavioral changes at Priority Schools. (Source:  Sac City Unified School District). Click to enlarge.

Academic and behavioral changes at Priority Schools. (Source: Sac City Unified School District). Click to enlarge.

After Huscher’s first year as principal of Oak Ridge, its ranking on California’s Academic Performance Index, or API, soared by 82 points, from 658 in 2009-10 to 740 last year. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson recognized the accomplishment last August, by holding his news conference to announce statewide API results at Oak Ridge.

Given those plaudits, Huscher was understandably frustrated when the school again failed to meet the federal benchmarks for Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) under No Child Left Behind. Out of 25 measurements, Oak Ridge fell short in one: Asian students who were English learners didn’t score high enough on the English language arts exam. Oak Ridge wound up in year five of program improvement, opening it to a number of severe penalties.

“After all this effort, you have this amazing increase in API, and the feds come in and say, ‘Guess what?  You didn’t make it,’” said Huscher.

The disconnect between state triumph and federal failure isn’t unusual in this era of No Child Left Behind. Of the 3,890 California schools in Program Improvement, 476 met their API targets. What’s different today is that the U.S. Department of Education realizes that NCLB is a flawed law, and is offering waivers to states to provide relief from sanctions, including those that are psychological.

“The punitive elements of NCLB – this public labeling of schools that are working hard to improve learning – are damaging and destructive,” said Raymond. A waiver, he added, “would go a long way in helping to remove stigma and repair the reputations of many schools.”

But State Superintendent Torlakson has so far convinced the State Board of Education not to apply, warning that the requirements in exchange for a waiver are too costly. California is one of ten states that haven’t submitted either formal requests for waivers or letters stating they intend to apply.

Oak Ridge an example of waiver flexibility

Under pressure from local superintendents, the State Board is going to reconsider the issue at its next meeting in March.

Sac City’s Raymond said schools like Oak Ridge are case studies of what’s possible when they’re given latitude to be creative and develop improvement plans based on their specific student populations instead of the prescriptive remedies and sanctions of federal education officials. “We had that, and it didn’t get us anywhere,” he said.

Through the Priority Schools program, Oak Ridge principal Huscher has been able to hire a training specialist who meets weekly with teachers from each grade to analyze data from student work, design interventions and lessons based on the data, model those lessons for the teachers, and work in their classrooms if necessary.

“The first year I was here it didn’t seem like there was very much collaboration between grade levels,” said third grade teacher Kelly Toomey, one of four teachers who remained on staff after it became a priority school. “I think the most important change that I’ve seen is that the focus and the culture of the school across the board with parents and students is academics.”

During a visit to her class earlier this year, Toomey had nearly every student engaged in a lesson on the difference between expository and narrative writing, using two books about penguins, one nonfiction and one fiction.

She broke into song when Tacky the penguin sang “how many toes does a fish have?” sending the kids into giggling fits; she paused after reading the word “odd” to make sure the students understood it; and she prodded them to think deeper.

“So what could we say about narratives?” Toomey asked one of her students. “It’s make believe,” he answered. “But was your personal narrative story you wrote make believe?” she prompted. “No,” he said, “it was very true.” “It was very true,” she agreed. “This is odd, like Tacky.”

Strengthening the home school connection

Teachers are required to make home visits, and Toomey said she’s noticed more parent involvement as a result. They ask questions about academics and homework, and they come to school more often.

Anthony Bookhamer’s grandmother said it was important for him to have his teacher see where he lives. Anthony won two gold medals at the awards ceremony, one for math and one for English language arts.  After returning to his spot on the floor, he looked through the door to his right, into the hallway where his grandmother, Lenna Tryon, watched from the seat of her walker. Anthony waved enthusiastically and raised the medallions off his chest to show her.

“The school’s so good for him,” said Tryon. “They know he’s got special things; he has to have water, he has to wear a hat, and he can’t play more than ten minutes or be out in the sun more than ten minutes…and they set him up in the front so he can see better; his eyesight is pretty bad. He’s done remarkable and just everything’s come back to him.”

About two years earlier, Anthony was in an apartment fire that killed his mother and left him with burns over 70 percent of his body. His hands, legs, back, and stomach are scarred, he lost several fingers, and he has a bald spot on the back of his head where the flames scorched him. Anthony spent five months in the hospital and went to live with his grandmother.

Before Huscher came to Oak Ridge, it was a different place, said Tryon. There were no awards for the kids, she never received any communication telling her what was going on, and she didn’t feel welcome at the school. Now they call her a few times a week to let her know how Anthony’s doing and what’s going on; they have family game nights and monthly parents’ meetings.

Sac City has been adding more schools to its Priority School program, and Raymond is looking for ways to keep it going and sustainable. A waiver would help in that as well. Relief from NCLB sanctions would free up millions of dollars that districts with program improvement schools are required to set aside for private tutoring companies that have no accountability.  It amounts to $2.4 million for Sac City.

“We sort of look back and we chuckle now because we didn’t get the [School Improvement] grant for perhaps a variety of reasons, none of which made sense to us,” said Raymond.  “But we said the heck with it, we’re going forward anyway, we’ve got a good plan, we believe in it.”

Warming up to an NCLB waiver

John and Kathy co-wrote this post from Sacramento.

For the second time in as many months, the acting Assistant Secretary of Education came to California  to call on the State Board of Education to apply for a waiver from most of the requirements and penalties of the No Child Left Behind law. All but ten states have either formally applied for a waiver or indicated they would in the next round. California is the only one of the ten that Michael Yudin has visited.

“Our effort here is to release the pressure valve of No Child Left Behind,” Yudin told the State Board on Wednesday, noting that 3,900 schools in California already face sanctions under NCLB’s Program Improvement designation. “We are creating the opportunity to create space and remove barriers to allow states to be innovative and creative.”

Yudin’s pitch seems to be working. Just two months ago, Board members were skeptical of the costs and the conditions that would come with the waiver and declined to take any action.

On Wednesday, they directed staff at the state Department of Education to start gathering information for a potential vote at their next meeting in March on applying this summer.

Even State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson now seems amenable. When Education Secretary Arne Duncan first proposed the waivers in September, Torlakson balked at what he projected to be a $2 billion cost and rigid conditions for meeting the waiver.

“If the administration understands the complexity and the diversity of the state of California, and the financial pressure we’re under, we would design a customized waiver. I believe there is opportunity here,” said Torlakson.

As Torlakson knows, without a waiver no Title I school in California will meet NCLB’s demand that every student score proficient on the California Standards Test. When that happens, they’ll also lose control over a significant portion of their Title I dollars and face a narrow range of federally prescribed improvement options.

Concern over losing that money drew nearly a dozen superintendents from around the state to Sacramento yesterday to plead with the Board to seek a waiver.

“This is a point of desperation,” said Sanger Unified Superintendent Marc Johnson, whose tiny 11,000-student district stands to lose control of $500,000. Sanger has been using that money on its own intervention programs, which he credits with increasing the district’s high school graduation rate to 94 percent.

“Children in this state will be harmed because of the failure of state agencies to take action and embrace this,” said Johnson.

He and the other superintendents said the Board needs to be aware of the demoralizing effect of having schools be labeled as failures and the burdens that come with sanctions.

Waivers wouldn’t even be an issue if Congress had reauthorized NCLB five years ago, as it was  supposed to. There’s a consensus on Capitol Hill and in the Obama Administration that the bill has major flaws that have to be fixed. Yet there’s little chance of that happening before the November election.

Strings are attached

The Obama Administration is offering states the opportunity to create their own school improvement models, but with new conditions that in some ways are more far-reaching.

  • Teacher and principal effectiveness: Every teacher and principal must be evaluated using multiple factors including, for teachers, their ability to boost student test scores;
  • A new accountability system for closing the achievement gap: The Administration wants the states to develop interventions for students in the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools and, in a new requirement, for students in schools with the largest achievement gaps – 900 schools in California.
  • Accelerated implementation of Common Core standards and career and college readiness standards: The state is well on its way to meeting these requirements.

Several of these and other factors have given the Board pause. A key concern is that these conditions – especially teacher and principal evaluations – would become mandates for all schools, not just Title I schools, which the state would have to fund.

Board members also pressed Yudin about what happens three years out when either the waiver ends or the federal government, under NCLB’s successor, seeks to impose new sanctions if they fail to meet the requirements of the waiver. Would they lose money or be reinstated in Program Improvement?

Yudin wouldn’t predict the future, given the uncertainty of possible partisan shifts in Washington, D.C.  But he did try to allay fears of the costs and stress the flexibility that California would have in designing its plan.

The California Teachers Association in particular has opposed any use of student test scores in evaluating teachers. But Yudin said that the federal government is offering a lot of latitude to the states. He noted that Massachusetts, a recipient of Race to the Top funds and one of the 11 states that has already submitted a waiver application, will only be using test scores to validate the accuracy of the other measures.

Meanwhile, Alice Petrossian, president of the Association of California School Administrators, promised the State Board that ACSA would take the lead in developing criteria for evaluating principals. For the past year, ACSA been working on the issue and potential legislation.

The cost of these programs, said Yudin, could in large part be borne by money the federal government is already providing to the state. This includes $268 million in Title II professional development money that could go toward teacher training for Common Core and teacher and principal evaluations. An additional $239 million in Title I dollars that Program Improvement schools currently have to set aside for federal interventions would be freed up for the alternative plans that the state would create.

Despite these assurances from Yudin, several Board members remained uneasy about potential costs to the state and the short two-to-three-year timeline to get all these new statewide programs up and running. “Would you relax requirements to move forward in a timely way because of the fiscal constraints facing states?” Carl Cohn asked Yudin.

Yudin said the states would have a lot of leeway in what they propose as long as the plans are implemented statewide within three years; however, he emphasized that this is not a competition where states will be scored against one another.

“I do believe that it is an iterative process,” said Yudin. “We will do everything we can to help states.”

Pushing aside reservations was Board member Yvonne Chan, the principal of a national blue ribbon charter school that is now in Program Improvement. “I strongly urge you to think outside the box,” Chan, whose term ends this week, urged her colleagues on the Board.

In Chinese, opportunity is two words, explained Chan, holding up a slip of paper on which she had written Chinese characters. “The first stands for risk, the second for success. No risk, no opportunity, folks. If we wait for everything to be absolutely perfect we’re never going to do it,” said Chan.  “If we can have this collective confidence in ourselves, then we can fix this, we can come up with new solutions for these persistent problems.”

California wins early learning grant

California has won a $52.6 million grant for early childhood education programs through the federal government’s Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge.  US Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius announced the nine winners of the $500 million competitive grant program at a White House press event this morning.

“It’s great for our state,” said Scott Moore,  senior policy advisor with Preschool California, which helped write California’s application. The state’s proposal was unique because it calls for locally-based programming rather than a large statewide grant.  Sixteen regional consortia in the state will share 85 percent of the funds and most of the decision making.

This is a “recognition that what California is poised to do is seen as cutting edge and leading in the nation in terms of providing, especially low income children and children starting to fall behind, the chance to catch up and the chance to be ready for school,” said Moore.

California was among nine states awarded grants;  35 states plus Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico applied.  The state had been seeking $100 million dollars, but a note on the U.S. Department of Education website says there wasn’t enough money to meet that request (see box at right).

Race to the Top - Early Learning Challenge winners and grant amounts (source:  US Dept. of Education) click to enlarge

Race to the Top - Early Learning Challenge winners and grant amounts (source: US Dept. of Education) click to enlarge

Sue Burr, executive director of the State Board of Education, said the Department of Education will consult with the consortia members about how to proceed with less money.  The options range from reducing the number of regions in the consortia or keeping it at 16 and having each of them do a little less – perhaps working with fewer schools or not holding as many training sessions.  “I think it will still be a robust implementation,” said Burr.

The California plan calls for developing a tiered quality rating system to encourage early childhood programs to have quality teachers and quality instructional materials, and to make sure they’re aligned with the skills children will need when they enter kindergarten.

The grant almost didn’t make it to the federal government.  As we reported here, Gov. Jerry Brown waited until the eleventh hour to finalize the application and sign off on it.

In a statement released this morning, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said, “this grant will help more California children get good care and a good start at learning, which we know is key to their long-term success, at school and beyond.”

High marks for CTE academies

When I met Reanna Garnsey two years ago, she was a 4.0 junior at Laguna Creek High School in the Elk Grove Unified School District. As a ninth grade student, her GPA was 0.8. Reanna cut school – a lot. What brought her back from the brink of dropping out was the Green Energy Technology Academy (GETA), a program that combines academics with real-world skills in alternative energy, including research, mentorships, and internships. Reanna’s transformation was so stunning that State Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg asked her to testify before the Legislature in support of a bill to fund more of those programs.

Her story may be on the far side of average, but programs like GETA, known as California Partnership Academies, are producing many success stories, according to a report released Tuesday by the State Department of Education.

“A Profile of the California Partnership Academies 2009-2010″ by UC Berkeley’s Career Academy Support Network, found that high school seniors in academies have a 95 percent graduation rate, compared with 85 percent of seniors statewide; they’re more likely to attend college and more than half – 57 percent – graduate with the courses required for admission to the University of California or California State University, a whopping 21 percentage points above the statewide rate.

Academies are programs located within comprehensive high school that focus on growing industries in their communities, such as alternative energy, health care, the arts, or building trades. They’re small, usually serving about 200 students in grades 10 through 12, who stay together for three years. At least half of the students must be considered at risk for dropping out or failing. School districts have to supply matching funds and develop partnerships with local business and industry.

“This kind of hands-on learning, this connection to the real world, makes so much sense,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson during a phone call with reporters yesterday. “It engages students to see the relevancy of the mathematics, the science, the language arts that they’re asked to do.”

So I was surprised to receive an email last week from Eric Johnson, the Laguna Creek teacher who started GETA, asking for help because the program’s funding runs out at the end of this academic year.

“This means that we must now go through the entire grant application process to secure future funding,” wrote Johnson in an appeal to business partners to write letters of support to help GETA make its case for new funding from the state.

Funding is starting to fade

Money for more than 200 of the state’s 500 partnership academies is slated to sunset at the close of the current school year. However, there are new funds available. During a special session last April, the Legislature passed SB 1x 1, authored by Sen. Steinberg, which allocates $8

Funding Sources for California Partnership Academies (source:  Career Academy Support Network) click to enlarge.

Funding Sources for California Partnership Academies (source: Career Academy Support Network); click to enlarge.

million a year through 2017, from the State Energy Resources Conservation and Development Commission, to pay for about 100 academies focused on green energy and technology.

Despite its successes, GETA will have to reapply for the money, going up against every school that decides to enter the pool.

“No question that not only do we have to expand what we’re doing, but before we can expand we have to keep what exists and what is successful intact,” said Steinberg during Tuesday’s telephone conference call.

Keeping the doors open at all 200 academies will cost about $15 million. Some of that money would be available if lawmakers reauthorize SB 70, the bill that initially established the California Partnership Program. Steinberg said his office will be working on that during the next session.

Still, partnership academies aren’t exactly sweeping the state. There are just under 48,500 students enrolled in the programs – about 3 percent of all students in grades 10-12, raising questions about their cost effectiveness.

Exit exam pass rates by race & ethncity (source:  Career Academy Support Network) click to enlarge.

Exit exam pass rates by race & ethncity (source: Career Academy Support Network); click to enlarge.

What’s more, the overall gains seem to have slowed a bit. Back in 2004-05, 80 percent of academy tenth graders passed the California High School Exit Exam in math, compared to 74 percent for all other tenth graders. The gap was even larger for the English language arts section of the exam. But by 2009-10, statewide pass rates increased to within 1 or 2 percentage points of academy students, whose rates barely changed.

But that’s not the case for tenth grade Hispanic students in academies, who outperformed all other Hispanic sophomores in math and English language arts. The report also found that both African American and Hispanic seniors in academies graduated at significantly higher rates than those not in academies – 16 percent higher for African Americans and 14 percent higher for Hispanics.

Those are the statistics that Steinberg said should provide strong incentive to keep these programs funded and continue to expand them. “In my view, this report illustrates the future of high school in education, not only in this state but in this country,” he said. “It shows that we do not need to make the false choice between academic rigor and real world learning. High school courses must include both.”

A bulwark against bad eating

With monster 49ers tackle Bill “Bubba” Paris heading a soccer ball to Brandi Chastain (her idea) and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson leading elementary school students in San Jose on a lap around the field while still in a suit, Torlakson on Thursday kicked off  Team California for Healthy Kids, an initiative to spread the gospel of healthy eating and exercise.

It’s not a new message, of course, but, faced with rising childhood obesity and asthma, cannot be said often enough. Between one-third and a half of minority children born this year will become afflicted with diabetes – an astonishing figure cited by Dr. Harold Goldstein, executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy.

Brandi Chastain receives a header from Buba Paris; they're part of Tom Torlakson's TEAM California for Healthy Kids (click to enlarge).

Brandi Chastain receives a header from "Bubba" Paris; they're part of Tom Torlakson's Team California for Healthy Kids.

The California Center and other health advocates have succeeded in working with the Legislature to pass laws driving  soft drinks and candy out of schools; it’s been a harder struggle, in part for lack of leadership and creativity, to bring good food into the schools.

A fresh food ethic is spreading, however, and reaching districts like Alum Rock Union Elementary School District, a low-income, predominately minority district in East San Jose, which Torlakson chose as his launching pad. At Ryan Elementary, kids have an open salad bar every day; through a federal grant, fresh fruit and vegetables from local growers arrive three times each week for distribution as snacks during breaks and recess; water is becoming the drink of choice; and students late for school no longer go hungry (serving breakfast in bags in the classroom has increased participation from 20 percent to 80 percent, according to Amber Watson, director of Alum Rock’s child nutrition services).

Companies like organic lunch provider Revolution Foods of Emeryville are finding they can make a business of lunch in public schools.

Team California has a website for passing along ideas and tips for physical activities like instant recess, quick exercises within a classroom. And Torlakson is hoping to inspire partnerships for after-school programs, collaborations with farmers markets and community gardens.

Certainly, if Torlakson could repeat the assemblage of star athletes that he brought together in San Jose – Paris, Chastain, pitchers Vida Blue and Bill Laskey, super marathon runner Dean Karnazes – in all 10,000 schools in California, kids would be inspired to change. Short of that – or without leadership at a district or community level – it will be a struggle to win over one student, one family, one school at a time.

Chastain, former Olympian and women’s professional soccer player, encouraged Ryan students to choose what’s best for them, regardless of what other kids are eating or doing with their time: “You are the leader of you; make choices that others aren’t making,” she said.

"Bubba" Paris gives a gentle, guiding hand to the press after speaking to the kids in Alum Rock. (Photo courtesy of Chuck Weis)

"Bubba" Paris gives a gentle guiding hand to a diminutive member of the press after speaking to the kids in Alum Rock. (Photo courtesy of Chuck Weis)

Paris, who protected Joe Montana in the ’80s when the 49ers won three Super Bowls, offered his life story as proof that people can will themselves to create a healthy lifestyle. Growing up in Louisville, Paris’ mother and grandmother showed their love in the food they made­ – “butter, sugar, and fatty things.”

“I thought that was normal; the love I found in my meals would live on” into adulthood. Rich foods with the worst ingredients were what he associated with family, comfort, happiness.

After he retired from football, his weight mushroomed to 400; he had high blood pressure and developed diabetes. He faced the odds of a short life.

He switched what he ate, lost 75 pounds (he’s still 325) and brought his diabetes and cholesterol under control. “I know how you can change things if you want,” he said, but more important is to start with a healthy lifestyle in elementary school.

Paris literally embodies America’s problem writ large. For the last 30 years, Goldstein said, the United States has undertaken a massive experiment to answer the question, What would be the impact on its children if the nation changed their food and activities by:

  • Putting a fast food restaurant on every corner;
  • Filling them up with sugary beverages sold in our schools;
  • Taking away physical education or simply making it boring;
  • Offering them alluring TV programs and computer games?

The answer is in, Goldstein said, with more than a third of children obese and overweight, with children today facing a shorter life expectancy than their parents.

“It is imperative,” Goldstein said, “that schools become a haven for a healthy environment.”