'We're Trying To Get Below the Surface of Numbers'
This year, Policy Analysis for California Education--PACE--has undertaken two of its most ambitious projects to date: a study of the impact of education reform at the local level, and an assessment of the condition of children in the state.
Known as "PACE-ACE,'' the first study is being financed with $175,000 from the California legislature. It focuses on 12 high schools and 6 middle schools that have been relatively active in carrying out the initiatives required under California's education-reform law, Senate Bill 813.
Over the course of a year, teams of researchers are spending about 13 days at each school developing case studies.
"We're trying to get below the surface of numbers to understand the real impact in the classroom,'' said Michael W. Kirst, co-director of PACE.
The study will try to determine whether key provisions in the reform measure are being carried out in secondary schools. It will also attempt to identify the local factors associated with successful implementation, and the elements of state policy that may hinder or help reform efforts.
In addition, researchers will try to assess the law's impact on the school curriculum, the knowledge and instructional skills of teachers, and the knowledge and performance of students.
Allan R. Odden, director of the Southern California PACE Center and project director for the study, said, "We ought to get out of this some clear strategies both locally and at the state level for stimulating high-school reform.''
In addition, PACE researchers expect to make a series of recommendations for fine-tuning SB 813.
But the study does not attempt to evaluate the overall success or failure of the state's reform efforts.
Mr. Kirst said they excluded from the study schools that were not actively pursuing education reform because the state government did not want to evaluate SB 813's results prematurely.
In general, he said, he agreed with that decision.
But it raises some cautionary flags about PACE's ability to maintain its independence, in the face of a large influx of state dollars.
"When [PACE] was taking money totally from outside the government, they could say, 'Hey, we have no ties. We're totally outside of it.' Now that's changed,'' said Lorraine M. McDonnell, senior political scientist with the RAND Corporation, a California-based consulting firm.
"As someone working at RAND, I'd be the last to say that's going to compromise their research,'' she added, "because I don't think it needs to. But it's an issue.''
Others predicted that the study--one of the first in the nation to examine with precision the effects of a state's school-reform initiatives--will be invaluable in guiding future reform efforts.
"It's terribly important, not just for the state, but for the country to have a handle on the effects of the reform movement,'' said Marshall Smith, dean of the school of education at Stanford University.
Conditions of Children
The second major initiative--paid for with $137,500 each from the James Irvine and Stuart foundations--will attempt to characterize the overall condition of children in the state in much the same way that PACE's "Conditions of Education in California'' sheds light on children's educational status.
"It's a huge effort for us,'' said James W. Guthrie, also a co-director of PACE.
"The reason for it is that it became clear that children are embedded in a larger context, and schools can't do it all,'' he said. "It was a conscious effort to expand the reach--and, hopefully, preserve the core--of what we've done to this point.''
According to PACE researchers, a growing number of California children are "at risk'' in terms of health, poverty, crime, suicide, and substance abuse.
In addition, increasing numbers of disadvantaged and limited-English-proficient children are entering the state's public schools each year.
Because the schools traditionally have not had much success in educating such students, the PACE researchers argue, it is imperative that policymakers begin to understand the connection between the conditions of education and the profound social and economic changes shaping children's lives.
The first version of the report is expected to be released early next year. Like the "Conditions of Education'' report, it will include data as well as interpretive essays by experts in the field.
Unlike "Conditions of Education,'' it will not rely as heavily on statistics, because so much information is lacking about children's general well-being.
"We're dealing with such disparate folks here--mental health, criminal justice,'' Mr. Guthrie said. "One of the tricks for us is going to be to get these topics integrated, and to look for a kind of cohesiveness that professionals in those fields don't have.''
According to Mr. Kirst, the study will strive to conceptualize a
"new vision of delivering children's services,'' based on the
assumption that neither the schools nor the family can "do it