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You are here: Home Newsroom Our Ideas Themes in the News Archive September 2010

September 2010

Sept. 3: Back-to-School Blues (and some reasons for hope)// Sept. 10: Pushing Test Boundaries Beyond the Horizon// Sept. 17: “No Excuses” vs. Acknowledging Reality // Sept. 24: Senate Kicks Opportunity Out of Reach

Back-to-School Blues (and some reasons for hope)

  • 09-03-2010
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Themes in the News for the week of Aug. 30-Sept. 3, 2010

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The beginning of each school year signifies a fresh start—new hopes and resolutions, a new grade level, a new teacher, new supplies and clothes; and yes, learning new stuff: the satisfaction of mathematics, stories from literature and history, wonders of science, and all the rest. Those of us who are years removed from back-to-school moments can still recall both the excitement and apprehension of reentering school halls and classrooms. 

Regular readers of these UCLA IDEA Themes might feel more apprehension than most. Much of last year’s education policy news and analysis has been very grim, indeed. What changes can families expect to see at school as a result of a year’s worth of hits to the state’s public education system? And what makes us feel good about California schools?

First, the bad news:

Crowded Classrooms  Thousands of layoffs mean teachers will instruct more students. The California Board of Education, which grants requests to increase class sizes in grades with caps to enrollment, gave out 16 exemptions in the past year, but has heard 16 requests last month and expects to hear another 16 this month (Sacramento Bee). Class size increases usually occur in increments of one or two students per year, so the news of an increase doesn’t strike most people as terribly significant—what’s another student or two in a class if it means that a school district can remain solvent?  Yet, it doesn’t take many years before California teachers are teaching 44 students in a foreign language class or 39 students in science. A $10 billion federal bill could provide relief, but it’s uncertain how much or when that money will get to schools.

Shorter School Years  Some school districts have cut costs with furloughs achieved by eliminating days from the school year. Districts try to restrict furloughs to non-instructional days, but many can’t limit them in that way. Besides, those “non-instruction” days will be sorely missed. These are days that have been used for training, planning, parent conferencing, and other essential activities that schools and teachers will have to pinch from instructional time or drop altogether. California’s calendar has gone down from 180 days to 175 for many students (California Watch, Orange Counter Register).

Bare Bones Classrooms  The remaining teachers must make do with less. If they’re not asking students and parents to supply classroom materials or dipping into their own pockets, they’re cutting erasers in half to stretch them out or reaching out to private donors. Schools will continue to see declines in maintenance, technology purchases and repairs, availability of books and paper, and more.

Diminished Programs  Summer school continues to be threatened with many programs cuts. Nationwide, programs of all sorts were diminished, including cutting lunches to low-income students. Some programs that provide instruction to juvenile offenders, expelled students, pregnant teens and others who benefit from alternatives to traditional public high schools could be cut or eliminated (Los Angeles Times). As districts cut back on transportation services, families scramble to find reliable and safe ways to get to school. The cuts will be more than just inconvenient. Many students and parents will face added stress, wasted time, and even lost days of work and school.

Lack of School Staff Support  Gone are the days of school nurses. Fewer and fewer of them are assigned to one campus anymore. If they have not been laid off, the remaining district nurses are now finding themselves rotating among many different campuses (Sacramento Bee). Guidance counselors, social workers, college and career counselors, and librarians are suffering the same fate.

Uncertainty  Schools are realistic, “make-do” institutions. If funding, last-minute program changes, reforms, or teacher hiring (and student assignments and scheduling) are unclear by the first day of school, principals don’t have the luxury of saying they're not ready—that they will push back schools’ first day to November 1. These distracting conditions can turn schools into frantic environments—a condition that wastes time and saps attention to teaching and learning.

So, What’s the Good News?

Teachers and Other School Personnel  The vast majority of California teachers are dedicated, caring and skilled. This is easily overlooked in the midst of sensational demands that schools root out teachers who are slackers and incompetents. Most parents say that their own local schools and teachers do a pretty good job (PPIC). Teachers can’t overcome the inadequacies of underfunded and under-resourced schools, but they keep learning alive in classrooms.

Students  California students are rich in their diversity and potential. When given appropriate opportunities to learn and the help of caring adults, they work hard and achieve well.

Parents and Communities  California has an abundance of neighborhood and community groups that work tirelessly to bring opportunities to students. Some have joined with civil rights organizations, calling on the state to fulfill its constitutional obligations to provide all students a quality education. Others support new programs and schools which are models for what communities want for all of their children. New coalitions of grassroots groups and long-established civic groups are summoning their their values and commitments to public education and their political clout to reestablish education as a top civic priority.

Pushing Test Boundaries Beyond the Horizon

  • 09-10-2010
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Themes in the News for the week of Sept. 6-10, 2010

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Last week, the federal government awarded $330 million to two consortia of states to overhaul current standardized assessments. Over four years these states, California included, will work with university professors and others to design new, technology-based assessments that would assess the sort of complex, higher-order skills that current tests cannot touch (Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Education Week).

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke glowingly of the project, saying the new tests would address one of the biggest complaints he has heard from teachers: “bubble tests pressure teachers to teach to a test that doesn’t measure what really matters.” The use of technology “makes it possible to assess students by asking them to design products or experiments, to manipulate parameters, run tests and record data,” Duncan said (New York Times).

The push for new assessments is prompted by new national learning standards. The money was allocated through the Race to the Top funds after almost 40 states signed on to the Common Core Standards this summer. The new proposals include many testing approaches that are already in place in countries that rank highly on student performance.

One group of states, known as SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium, will create computer-based exams that can adapt to student responses, delivering the most appropriate questions as the student progresses. Prompts could even ask students to demonstrate research skills. The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career, though similar, will feature tests throughout the year that would offer instant feedback to teachers and would allow them to adapt instruction to student progress.

To the extent that standardized tests are driving current reforms—including teacher evaluations, student promotions and punitive measures for schools—it makes sense to create new assessments to reflect learning accurately. It is hard to criticize a sincere effort to make exams more relevant—especially considering the limits of current testing; however, the influx of federal funds and a four-year commitment from 43 states and the District of Columbia raises many questions (School Matters, School Matters, 4 LA Kids blog). Simply “improving” tests does not ensure we get the assessments we need.

The consortia are engaged in development proposals that participating states must enact within four to five years. Who will be monitoring and publicizing the states’ (and the test’s) readiness for high-stakes decisions? For example, the current online technology in many schools is primitive, teacher training and participation is expensive, and there is no end in sight to the overall financial crises in states like California.

The proposed assessments test only English and math. What will happen to other subjects that also matter if those subjects are not supported by the tests? Will music, art, literature, history, civic engagement, languages, and so forth remain on the back burner while the flame of standardized testing lights up a few measurable skills?

What options or permissions will states have to override or supplement the tests?  For example, will it be possible for states to test ELL students in their home language? 

Testing “what really matters,” asking students to probe deeply into higher-order tasks, and adapting instruction based on “instant feedback” require much more than an infusion of technology-based instruments. Quality learning, or globally competitive learning, if one prefers, doesn’t happen within a tight loop of student, test, teacher, and back around again. New tests are encouraging if they stand alongside a well-trained and well-supported teaching profession, adequate school facilities, informed and engaged communities, extended-day school programs, attention to students’ health and much more.

“No Excuses” vs. Acknowledging Reality

  • 09-17-2010
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Themes in the News for the week of Sept. 13-17, 2010

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Is California education improving, failing, or just hanging on? On Monday, the state released the results of California’s Academic Performance Index, or API. The numbers showed slight improvement over last year with almost half of California’s public schools—46 percent—reaching the target of 800 on a 1,000-point scale.  Overall, the state scored 767, a 13-point gain from the previous year (San Francisco Chronicle).

At the same time, more California schools than last year failed to achieve the No Child Left Behind Act’s standard of “Adequate Yearly Progress,” or AYP. Out of about 6,100 schools that receive federal funds for low-income students, 3,197 didn’t meet their AYP goal (California Watch, Sacramento Bee). AYP is a measure of improvements from one year to the next in the proportion of students scoring proficient in math and English Language Arts. Unlike California’s API, the federal AYP is a moving target, with schools expected to continuously increase the percentage of students scoring proficient until reaching 100 percent.

What do these tests and accountability measures reveal about the state’s education progress? Neither the API nor the AYP tell much about improvement of California schools outside the context of some other telling data. Two examples give a snapshot of the bigger challenge.

Even before the deep cuts of the last two years, California ranked near the bottom in the amount it spends on students. Using a new formula to adjust for cost-of-living differences across states, EdSource estimates that in 2007-08, the state spent $8,853 while the rest of the nation averaged more than $10,000 (Other cost adjustment formulas place California even lower in national rankings). Further, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that the rate of Americans living in poverty in 2009 was the highest since 1994 (UPI). The poverty rate was 14.3 percent last year as 3.8 million people increased the ranks of the poor in the country for a total of 43.6 million.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell argued that budget cuts over the last two years have required schools to do more with less. At the release of the slightly improved API numbers earlier this week, he said, “We could see greater improvement if our schools were fully funded…We’re shortchanging our schoolchildren today” (San Francisco Chronicle).

During his back-to-school speech, President Obama urged students to work hard and said, if they did, then nothing would be beyond their reach (USA Today). Such encouragement is good, but not enough; and, it can have its downside. A lot of Americans are ready to seize on this “you-can-do-it” sentiment to blame poor schooling outcomes on students (and parents and teachers) who simply didn’t work hard enough. Yet we know that in schools and communities there are millions who are working desperately hard every day, and there is still much that is beyond their reach.

When addressing education policy, education leaders, including the president, must expose the painful realities that diminish students’ success. These are risky truths to tell because many believe that acknowledging the role of underfunded schools and student poverty is simply making excuses for low performance. But, as a New York University education professor Pedro Noguera said recently, “acknowledging this reality is not the same thing as making excuses for failure” (New York Daily News).

Senate Kicks Opportunity Out of Reach

  • 09-24-2010
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Themes in the News for the week of Sept. 20-24, 2010

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Last week, IDEA’s Themes in the News reported on President Obama’s back-to-school speech urging students to work hard. If they did, he pledged, nothing would be beyond their reach. Then, on Tuesday, the U.S. Senate failed to pass the DREAM Act (Education Week). Just when many students’ aspirations seemed to be possible, the Senate kicked hopes and dreams beyond their grasp.

Nothing was gained by keeping exclusionary laws on the books and the lost opportunities are devastating. About 65,000 undocumented students—between 20,000 and 30,000 in California—will graduate high school this year without the same opportunities to continue their education as those afforded to their citizen classmates.

The DREAM Act would have set strict conditions for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrant students, allowed them to pay in-state college tuition and attain scholarships for which they qualify. Many of these students have lived in the U.S. since they were small children—never knowing a home other than the United States.

By failing to pass the DREAM Act, the country, and California in particular, are losing a potential pool of college-educated adults prepared to contribute to the state in many ways, including the economy.  At a rally earlier this week, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa alluded to waste of individual efforts and taxpayer dollars when denying full opportunity to hard-working and well-educated youth.  Passage of the DREAM Act, he said, would provide “a great return on money we’ve already invested” (Los Angeles Times).

The denial of the DREAM Act also diminishes civic life. The status quo puts to lie our most cherished democratic ideals—equality under the law, one person one vote. Lacking legal status, undocumented residents have limited opportunities to share their civic ideas and civic energy. In classes everywhere students discuss the responsibilities of citizenship knowing that they are excluded from fully participating in society.

Without the DREAM Act, we continue to place caring educators in an untenable position. Teachers and college counselors face the task of educating students for a future they cannot afford or might not have access to. They must explain to students why it’s important to study for exams even as they can promise no payoff for these efforts.

The media and political leaders often trumpet tales of individual students who struggle and eventually overcome difficult circumstances to achieve educational success (New America Media). How then are we to understand the stories of tens of thousands of our students who work so hard and come up empty-handed?

Weekly Themes In The News

Each Friday “Themes in the News” explores one of the current week’s “breaking news” topics—selected by IDEA staff and its partners—for summary and reflection.   Hyperlinks of the news stories, which are cited, allow readers to explore the theme on their own.