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Time to 'rekindle' California's enthusiasm for K-12 reform?
Concentrating resources on reducing class sizes has not been a panacea for all achievement-related challenges, new Berkeley-Stanford report says

| 29 November 2006

Seven years after Sacramento embarked on ambitious and costly school reforms, test scores are leveling off and achievement gaps are growing in some grades, according to a policy-analysis think tank with offices at Berkeley, UC Davis, and Stanford.

Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) takes stock of the state's schools every five years. Its new report, released earlier this month, shows that the share of students proficient in reading at fourth- and eighth-grade levels has remained flat in recent years, based on national test results. Meanwhile, achievement gaps have grown wider in middle schools and failed to narrow in elementary schools.

In 2003, the share of eighth graders from middle-class families who were proficient in English language arts was 28 percentage points greater than the share of students from poor families performing at the proficient level. By 2006 the gap had grown to 33 percentage points. The disparity in the share of eighth graders proficient in math grew by two points over the same four-year period.

"Policymakers and local educators have much to be proud of, especially implementing very demanding performance standards," says Haleh Hatami, editor of the PACE report. "But we discovered lingering inequities in student performance. Sacramento needs to revisit the current tack when it comes to school reform."

The report, "Crucial Issues in California Education 2006: Rekindling Reform," details how test scores did improve, mainly in elementary schools, following enactment of former California Gov. Gray Davis' comprehensive school reforms in 1999, as local educators faced stiff accountability pressures.

"But we now see that rules and penalties hitting many schools don't motivate educators and students in the long run," says Bruce Fuller, a Berkeley professor of education and public policy and a contributor to the study. "Sacramento expects educators to deliver world-class educational standards on a Third World budget."

California schools face particular challenges, the PACE report notes, including hosting the largest and most diverse student populations in the country, with one-quarter of their students English-language learners, 65 percent minorities, nearly 11 percent with disabilities, and 19 percent living in poverty. The state's schools have 35 percent more students than the national average, according to 2005 figures. According to some analyses, almost one in three California students currently drops out of high school.

Complicating performance on mandated tests is that while 1,000 California schools are meeting state standards, they are considered failing when judged by national tests. "Washington is further complicating accountability reforms," charges Fuller, "failing to reward schools that show robust progress in boosting student achievement."

Meanwhile, the report notes, California's public-school students are learning at slower rates than their counterparts in states such as Texas or New York, which have similar family demographics.

"We cannot blame stalling test scores on the demographics of our kids," Fuller insists. "Our research team suggests that accountability with crisp incentives for growth, freeing up school principals from layers of regulation, and stronger resources overall would rekindle California's reform momentum."

The PACE analysts recommend four key policy changes:

. Reorient school accountability and finance to renew gains in low-performing schools;

. Pursue a more coherent strategy to boost performance of English-language learners;

. Make school finance simple and transparent;

. Focus government leaders in Sacramento on tracking district and school performance, and deregulate authority over school resources down to the individual school level.

The report praised California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the state's teachers unions for agreeing to target $2.6 billion in new school aid for low-income and blue-collar communities. But it added that most of this money is focused on a single remedy - reducing class sizes - that has yielded disappointing results over the past decade, including failing to boost test scores.

For more on PACE, visit pace.berkeley.edu.