School & District Management Opinion

How and Why California Is Not New York

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — February 02, 2015 5 min read
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Snow aside, it’s a good month not to be in New York. As the politics of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s second term roll out, it appears likely that the rhetoric of education reform will likely trump substantive progress. The New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) has declared its willingness to go to war, and the state’s education budget appears to be hostage to a series of hot button issues, including tax credits for donations to scholarship programs for private schools.

All indications are that California’s quite different reform path will gain more traction. Comparison and contrast are in order.

Cuomo’s actions and legislative proposals over the last month clearly place him in the corporate reformer--Democrats for Education Reform--camp that believes that education can best be driven by teacher evaluations tied to standardized test scores. Also, opening more charters, it is believed, will introduce competition into public education and thus make district-run schools either better or irrelevant.

Cuomo has declared war, or redeclared it, against the state’s teacher unions, and they have responded in kind. “I’ll be happy to stand with the teachers, the students, and the parents if the governor wants to have a war,” said Karen Magee, president of NYSUT, adding “I’m more than confident that we will win.” The press and bloggers have been on this like hungry puppies. “Gov. Cuomo Takes on Education,” headlined the New York Times editorial pages. But it’s a wasteful war. Cuomo is a Democrat; he’s not Wisconsin’s Republican governor Scott Walker who wants to make political hay by mortally wounding public sector unions. So, despite all the rhetoric about war, the fight in New York is essentially positional bargaining. Each side will give a little. Maybe the cap on charter schools won’t be lifted entirely. Maybe the percentage of a teacher’s evaluation that will be tied to standardized test scores will lower than the governor has said he wants.

It’s the wrong fight

The problem is that this “game of inches and progress”, as Columbia University professor Jeffrey Henig called it, will sop up political energy. It’s the wrong fight. In the end, the fight will be all about “the test” and not very much about building the capacity of the state’s school system.

Because political energy will be focused on the test and its uses, there are likely to be unintended consequences, some of which are already apparent. New York, like California, has supported the Common Core of State Standards as the building block for instruction and assessment. Governments and teacher unions in each state have supported the Core. But the punitive evaluation focus of the tests in New York has heightened opposition to the standards themselves. NYSUT has turned against the Core itself, and opposition has grown among parents. A Long Island teacher has refused to give the test this spring.

I believe California’s political path is likely to be more productive.

In contrast to New York, our politicians have started to turn around 20-years of low-trust school reform where Sacramento targeted dollars and sent accountants and compliance officers to see that they had been spent in the correct categories. Gov. Jerry Brown famously said, “I would prefer to trust our teachers.” The form of this trust is being worked out. In the first instance it involves radical decentralization--the Local Control Funding Formula--both with money and accountability. So, rather than fight over whether 20 percent of a teacher’s score can be determined by local measures--Cuomo doesn’t want to count any local measures--California has moved away from a single accountability measure and toward eight state priorities. Measurement of each will be partly determined locally.

High stakes set aside

In addition, California left teacher evaluation and high stakes accountability out of the initial political calculus. Partly, this reflects pure political pragmatics. The California Teachers Association was dead set against linking test scores and teacher evaluation, and it was judged more important to have their support for financial decentralization and the Common Core rather than fight over teacher scores. And it was judged more important to get districts to concentrate on teaching to the Common Core than being judged by how well it went. The lack of test scores gave teachers the freedom to experiment with new, “deeper learning” approaches to instruction, and many did.

So, California students took the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) tests last spring, but districts, students, and teachers didn’t get any scores. The scores are supposed to be made public this spring, but there is substantial political pressure not to attach consequences to them, at least for a while.

The lack of test scores also let district administrators concentrate on implementing the Local Control Funding Formula, and trying to get their heads around the associated Local Control Accountability Plan. Early reports are that everyone tried earnestly, which is a big deal. Surface compliance with dictates from Sacramento is endemic in California, so seeing districts engaged in trying to make the new law work has been heartening.

Beyond the pure political pragmatics, there is important system design and development work in progress. Because the various interest groups are not fighting about what percentage of a teacher’s evaluation is to be based on test scores, they are in the initial stages of trying to hammer out what a good, fair evaluation system would look like. Because there is no pitched battle about the Common Core itself, there is ongoing work about how to make the SBAC tests more useful to teachers and students by getting more formative feedback from the testing and instruction system.

But the big payoff is the shift in the locus and mode of accountability and the effect that is having in reshaping the landscape of education reform. For the past decade, those who believe that punitive testing of teachers should be the sharp edge of education reform have cloaked themselves in the “reformer” label and created what they believe to be the sole pathway to improving schools.

New York is firmly on that path; California, is blazing a different one. I like our odds of success better.

The opinions expressed in On California are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.