PACE studies offer recommendations for California schools
Status report from multi-campus center for education-policy research coincides with celebration of its first 25 years
| 10 October 2008
BERKELEY — State leaders rely on inconsistent barometers of student progress, face a looming teacher shortage, and wrestle with staggering and persistent achievement gaps. Yet these problems all can be addressed, at least in part, without infusions of new money, according to a comprehensive report released last week by Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), an independent, non-partisan education-research center based at Berkeley, Stanford, and the University of Southern California.
“Conditions of Education in California 2008,” a status report produced by leading education scholars with PACE, was presented at a symposium of education researchers and policymakers in Sacramento on Oct. 2. The full report is available at pace.berkeley.edu.
“Most observers of California’s education system agree that major changes will be needed to bring about significant gains in students’ and in the schools’ performances,” said PACE Executive Director David Plank in the report’s introduction.
And while real progress in improving educational quality will require a stronger economy and serious resolution of California’s structural budget deficit, Plank said, many of the policy remedies the PACE report proposes do not require any new spending.
Among PACE’s recommendations are depoliticizing state educational-testing operations, adjusting academic-achievement benchmarks, targeting resources to meet the needs of disadvantaged groups, giving local schools more flexibility in allotting their resources, rationalizing public-school finance and governance, and encouraging innovation in both school leadership and teacher recruitment. The report also addresses an embarrassing lack of student readiness for the transition from high school to postsecondary education.
So many tests, so little context
State and federal education officials rely on five different tests of student progress in elementary through secondary grades, but according to Bruce Fuller, a Berkeley professor of education and public policy and a PACE director, and Lynette Parker, a Berkeley doctoral student in education, those barometer tests are showing contradictory results.
This often leaves parents, educators, and employers confused about how schools are doing and whether they meet the federal mandates of legislation such as No Child Left Behind.
For example, the California Department of Education estimated that 51 percent of the state’s fourth-graders were proficient readers last year. Yet the broad-based and more demanding National Assessment of Educational Performance (NAEP) exams showed just 23 percent were reading proficiently, the researchers said.
In Sacramento schools, the state Academic Performance Index continues to climb for high-school students, even though the share of students testing at proficient levels is declining. Said Fuller: “This is terribly confusing for parents and employers who want to know whether progress is real or illusory.”
To resolve this problem, Fuller and Parker recommend that the state:
- Set up an “independent scorekeeper” to measure school and student performance by separating the state’s testing office from the California Office of Education. This would limit adverse impacts of conflicting, often politically charged pressure from voters, business leaders, civic groups, and other advocates.
- Enhance understanding of test results by making the state Office of Education publish federal NAEP test results for reading and math skills in the fourth and eighth grades whenever corresponding state scores are released.
- Push for quick development of a strong state data system to track individual student performance over time, rather than recording results for differing cohorts of students.
Looming teacher shortage
Researchers at Stanford, in their part of the PACE study, report an uneven age distribution for teachers, with the bulk of them in their early 30s or in their 50s. As the older teachers retire over the next 10 to 15 years, the researchers say, the state will face an urgent need to recruit and train new teachers.
Furthermore, California’s teacher workforce is unbalanced in its ratio of female to male teachers and its ratio of nonwhite teachers to nonwhite students. It also faces daunting difficulties in filling teacher vacancies in math, special education, and music, and in finding teachers who are bilingual.
The Stanford researchers propose to:
- Explore alternative forms of compensation, such as housing incentives as well as retention and signing bonuses, to recruit and retain highly qualified teachers.
- Improve working conditions, increase monitoring of teacher effectiveness, and strengthen school leadership, which is often as important as pay to teachers.
- Support professional development for teachers.
- Tap untraditional routes into teaching, such as the Teach for America volunteer program.
Gaps in achievement and opportunity
Nearly 57 percent of California’s K-12 students are African American, Latino, or Native American — the three racial/ethnic groups that persistently fare the worst on standardized testing. One-quarter of all California’s elementary- and secondary-school students are English learners, and they score the lowest of any group.
These gaps are well-known, but Patricia Gándara, a professor of education and director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, and Megan Hopkins, a doctoral student at UCLA, insist in their part of the PACE report that the story doesn’t end there.
Along with achievement tests, they recommend that policy makers also consider other, broader indicators that show how schools and students measure up, including discrepancies among these groups in terms of their access to specialized programs (such as Gifted and Talented Education, in which white and Asian students are overrepresented by as much as 100 percent relative to their percentages in the population). There also are huge gaps in the access that various ethnic and racial groups have to experienced teachers and materials, in their pass rates for high-school exit exams, and in the number of students finishing college-preparatory classes and going to college.
“Many high-achieving African American and Latino students begin disengaging from school in the elementary grades,” report Gándara and Hopkins. “There is great debate about the nature and causes of school disengagement among youth, but certainly attending schools with insufficient resources and high rates of teacher turnover ... must be contributing factors.”
The researchers contend that it will take more effort and more time to help some of California’s students to meet those goals: “Simply exhorting students and teachers to do better, without the tools to accomplish the task, is unlikely to produce significant gains,” they write.
They recommend that the state:
- Develop and provide high-quality, culturally and linguistically appropriate preschool instruction for low-income, Latino, African American, and English-learner students.
- Survey students to track the degree to which students are engaged in their schooling and to show where problems develop.
- Institute plans for more equal distribution of qualified and experienced teachers, as well as educational opportunities such as gifted programs.
- Add instructional time and summer enrichment programs so students in targeted groups can catch up.
‘. . . a really powerful idea . . .’
PACE was established 25 years ago in the wake of property-tax-limiting Proposition 13. Other states have followed in PACE’s footsteps, including Michigan, Texas, Indiana, and Florida, although many centers have been short-lived.
“This is a really powerful idea,” Plank said of PACE. “But it turns out this is not such an easy thing to do.”
Reforming education isn’t easy either, he noted, particularly in a year that had been dubbed “The Year of Education” before the state budget reflected so much red ink. “But,” he said, “we need to keep working at it, even if it takes another 25 years.”