I get the feeling sometimes that the rest of the country sees California from afar as some sort of Bohemian enclave, with grapes on the vine and iPods in the vending machines. So as we head into the fall, I am here to give you a bit of an update from the land of milk and sunshine.
California schools improved their scores on the state’s reading, writing and math tests, but the achievement gap persists for African American and Latino students. Furthermore, even though more schools raised their scores on the state’s Academic Performance Index, more of them FAILED to meet increasingly demanding federal targets, which are ratcheting up as we approach 2014, when, according to NCLB, all students are expected to be proficient.
Nearly ten percent of the state’s high school seniors – almost 46,000 students -- did not receive diplomas last year because they failed the high school exit exam. That was a big jump from the six percent that failed to graduate the year before, because for the first time, the numbers included special education students, who are required to pass the test as well. Among this group, 46% failed. Our State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Jack O’Connell, insists that these students should be held to the same high standard, stating “Special-education students deserve a diploma that has real value and real meaning.” Unless, of course, they fail the test, in which case they apparently deserve no diploma at all.
California schools, we are told, have the “highest standards in the nation.” That’s why the state Board of Education, at the behest of Governor Schwarzenegger, recently decided to require all 8th graders to take Algebra. The State Superintendent Jack O’Connell responded by submitting a $3.1 billion request to the governor to pay for smaller class sizes, teacher training and summer programs that such a shift would require. Not that any such money will be actually provided – this is jousting, you see.
Meanwhile, due to a $15 billion deficit, our state legislators and governor have failed to meet a July deadline to pass a budget, and the schools are receiving only about 70% of the funds they are due, causing severe hardships, including crowded classrooms.
As an educator in this state, I have to admit that these conflicting mandates and divergent indicators make it difficult to know if we are on the right track. State tests show we are improving, but the Feds say we are losing ground. One board says everybody should get Algebra in the 8th grade, but clearly many of our students are not ready. Meanwhile, the state has no budget, and the schools are getting less money than ever. How can we reconcile this confusion? I think many teachers look around and see chaos, and rather than getting involved, they simply hunker down and try to weather the storms. This is a big loss, in my view, because classroom educators have an important voice on all of these issues. Teachers should be involved in setting coherent and achievable goals, at the federal, state and school district levels. Middle and high school math teachers should be consulted before Algebra is mandated for all 8th graders, and a serious plan should be developed to improve instruction and build the scaffolding needed to reach such a goal.
Policymakers have become accustomed to issuing mandates from on high, and teachers and students subjected to these mandates have not raised our voices loud enough to be heard on those lofty heights. Reform policies will not succeed if they are not grounded in the realities of the classroom, and if they do not engage the active and enthusiastic participation of teachers and students. Barack Obama suggests that change comes from the bottom up, and I think he is right. Our schools will improve when teachers and students are inspired by a vision of their own capacity to make them change.
What do you think? Is California unique? Is there any direction emerging from current efforts to reform schools at the state or federal level? How can we get some clarity and unity of purpose?
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