Nothing is all that surprising when it comes to the unwillingness of Gov. Jerry Brown and the rest of California’s political leaders to advance the kinds of systemic reforms needed to help children succeed. Since returning to office two years ago, the once-and-future governor has teamed up with traditionalists such as Supt. Tom Torlakson to do the bidding of the National Education Association’s and American Federation of Teachers’ Golden State affiliates. This includes shutting down development of the CalTIDES teacher performance data system (and ending efforts to use objective student test score growth data in evaluating how instructors are improving student achievement), tossing Parent Revolution boss Ben Austin and Ted Mitchell of the New Schools Venture Fund off the state board of education, striking a settlement with traditional districts to end the state’s role in authorizing the charter schools that are the bane of their existence, and failing to stand up on behalf of children against the successful effort by NEA and AFT affiliates to kibosh Senate Bill 1530, which would have made it easier for districts to rid classrooms of criminally abusive teachers.
So your editor wasn’t shocked that Brown announced that he would sign Assembly Bill 484, which all but guts any kind of accountability or meaningful reform by eviscerating all but four of the state’s battery of exams measuring how districts and schools (along with the adults who work within them) are helping or hurting student achievement. In fact, the only thing surprising about Brown’s move and that of the state legislature is that it wasn’t done sooner. After all, neither Brown, Torlakson, nor the Democrats who control the state senate and assembly have been willing to stand up to NEA and AFT affiliates — or the rest of the Golden State’s educational ancien regime; especially in the case of the NEA and AFT, the ample coffers they bring to the table on behalf of Brown and his colleagues is what they really want. Building brighter futures for children — especially those from poor and minority backgrounds who make up the majority of enrollment throughout the state? Not even on their minds.
It’s also not shocking that Brown, Torlakson, and company have eviscerated accountability in spite of a denouncement from Rep. George Miller, the top Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee. After all, the state department of education has long had a strained relationship with Miller and his staff, who think that the state’s education agency is the epitome of incompetence (and have plenty of evidence to prove it). Miller’s disapproval of the state meant plenty when he chaired the committee three years ago; it is less so now that he no longer chairs it. More than likely, Brown and Torlakson are betting that Miller’s counterpart, House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline, will simply bless the decision as an example of the end of federal role in education policy he wants (except when it comes to ladling out funds for suburban districts to spend on condemning kids to special ed ghettos).
It’s also not surprising that Brown and company moved in spite of threats from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan that the Obama Administration would withhold the $7.3 billion (as of 2012-2013) the Golden State receives from the federal government. That is nearly one-fifth of the Golden State’s budget for education. For one, Brown is counting on the state’s congressional delegation — including senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, along with House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi — to put pressure on the Obama Administration to not even take that step. Brown is also likely keeping in mind last year’s U.S. Supreme Court on the Affordable Care Act, which restricted the federal government from withholding existing federal funds from states that refused to implement ObamaCare; the ruling could also be applied to federal education funding if the Golden State chooses to fight the Obama Administration’s effort in court. This may not work because the state is subject to the No Child Left Behind Act, which is existing law. But it is a good gamble nonetheless. There’s also the inconvenient fact that the Obama Administration has essentially paved the path for eviscerating accountability through its No Child waiver gambit, which has allowed states such as Tennessee and Florida to implement Plessy v. Ferguson-like proficiency targets and essentially bring back the soft bigotry of low expectations for poor and minority kids former President George W. Bush and reformers fought so hard in the last decade to beat back. One can dare argue that California’s move is just an extreme example of the decisions made in other states that the administration has approved in spite of opposition from civil rights-based reformers and others within the movement.
Let’s be clear about this: The consequences of Brown’s decision and that of the legislature are dire for Golden State children. Data on the performance of children in nearly all but perhaps the eight districts who make up the California Office of Reform Education awarded a No Child waiver last month will be lost altogether. Save for whatever diagnostic exams districts, charter school operators, and private schools undertake on their own, families will not know if their children are improving in their literacy or numeracy until they take the state’s high school exit exam. Researchers will lack useful longitudinal data on how children are being served and what works in improving student achievement. School leaders and teachers of a reform mindset will not have the data they need to address student needs. In short, the Golden State has essentially told children, their families, and those who want to build brighter futures for them to take a hike.
Sure, there will be at least three exams for measuring scientific literacy — and California plans on implementing Common Core-aligned tests developed by the Smarter Balanced coalition of states by 2015. That effort (along with the supposed need to reset the baseline for achievement from scratch) is the reason given by Torlakson and Brown for why they are eviscerating the current tests. But given California’s lack of commitment to advancing reform on other fronts — including the move earlier this year to stop requiring districts to provide middle school students with Algebra 1 coursework under the guise of implementing Common Core (as well as the opposition to the standards from hardcore progressives within traditionalist ranks), there’s no reason to expect Golden State officials to do what they have promised.
By eviscerating the current exams, efforts by reform-minded districts such as Los Angeles Unified to use objective student test score data in teacher evaluations have now been halted. This is exactly what traditionalists, including the NEA affiliate, the California Teachers Association, and the AFT division, the California Federation of Teachers, want to see happen. After all, it’s hard to reward high-quality teachers or remove laggard teachers from payrolls if they cannot be evaluated properly; for the NEA and AFT, which derive their revenues from teachers attaining tenure in just two years and remaining in classrooms for their entire careers, stronger performance management is not in their favor. This move also favors districts as well, especially those such as Compton Unified which have become super-clusters of failure. Without data on school and district performance, such districts can continue educational neglect and malpractice in plain sight. Because test score data also identifies whether schools are failing for five years or longer, it also makes it harder for Parent Power activists to use the Golden State’s Parent Trigger law.
The demands of these traditionalists are certainly the reasons why Brown, Torlakson, and California’s legislators are moving to eviscerate the current state tests. But for Brown, it isn’t just about doing the NEA’s and AFT’s bidding. At the heart of Brown’s latest move, along with many of his other education policy decisions (including his successful effort to move the Golden State all but fully funding districts and school operators — and essentially break down the funding system put in place during his first term as governor as part of the passage of Prop. 13), is his view that efforts to reform American public education are nothing more than social engineering. From where the former Catholic seminarian sits, the very idea of the state government structuring public education — and holding districts and schools accountable for how it serves children — is untenable. Essentially, Brown’s view is a rather twisted view of the Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity — an idea akin to the myth of local control of education — under which decisions should be made at the lowest possible level, preferably families (and under which governments above should not interfere so much in human action).
Yet Brown forgets a few basic facts. For one, under Article Nine of the Golden State’s own constitution, state government is charged with structuring public education (as well as promoting all forms of “intellectual, scientific, moral, and agricultural improvement”). More importantly, under the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Hunter v. Pittsburgh (as well as under federal education policy through No Child) districts are merely arms of state government with no ability to act on its own other than what state government decides they can do. In fact, this point is actually made clear through the state constitution’s own rule that the state government must pick up the tab for any “unfunded mandates” it requires districts to undertake. Essentially, the state cannot abandon that charge in any way without violating its constitutional obligations to its citizens — especially all children. There is no subsidiarity (or local control) under state law.
One aspect of that charge is holding districts and other school operators accountable for the education they provide to children in their care. This only can be done by using objective data that measures how school operators of all types are serving them. As three decades of research has shown, objective student test score growth data — especially analyzed through Value-Added Measurement techniques — are the best way to evaluate how districts and school operators how well or poorly they are doing in helping the children sitting in their classrooms gain the knowledge they need to write their own stories (or fulfill subsidiarity, as Brown would say). Eliminating the tests that provide that much-needed data makes it difficult to hold all within education accountable for their success and failure — and even makes it harder for teachers and school leaders to use data in sophisticated ways to help children.
Meanwhile Brown forgets that individual human action on education cannot be taken without high-quality data that shows families how well their children are performing and what districts and those who work within them are doing to improve (or bring down) student achievement. How can mothers and fathers fulfill their moral (and even, under the state’s compulsory education law, legal) responsibility toward the futures of their children without high-quality data? How can they help transform failure mills that damage so many of their children — or keep their kids out of warehouses of mediocrity — without data? If empowering human action is what Brown really wants to do, it cannot be done by keeping families and taxpayers, who are forced to subsidize districts, in the dark on how they perform.
Then there is the damage of eliminating data from use in evaluating teachers and school leaders. Within the last two decades, we have learned that teacher quality is the most-important factor in how well districts and schools serve children. In fact, the quality of education as much varies from classroom to classroom within schools as it does between them. Taking away data that school leaders can sensibly use to reward those teachers who do great work, remove those who are failing the kids in their classrooms, and structure schools and districts in ways to address particular student needs, is just senseless. The damage to the profession is even greater. As TNTP noted in a study it released last week, one of the key reasons why top-performing teachers are so frustrated with their profession is that they are forced to work alongside laggards, who under traditional teacher compensation systems, also receive the same rewards as they do for doing less to improve student success. You can’t elevate the profession by removing data useful in doing so.
What Brown is doing is morally and intellectually unacceptable. This is because education policies are more than just mere batches of paper. They are clear communications in action of the expectations we have for our society, especially when it comes to ensuring that every child gets a high-quality education. You can’t provide children with the high-quality education they need and deserve in order to stay on the path to lifelong success if curricula standards aren’t backed by strong carrots and sticks that hold districts and school operators accountable. Advancing and expanding accountability, as well as other reforms, are not efforts in social engineering. They are efforts to do what God has called upon all adults to do: Bend the arc of history toward economic and social progress. What Brown has forgotten is that other Catholic principle called solidarity, that is, as society, we are in this together when it comes to the futures of children.
Implementing Common Core standards, and then, eliminate the tools needed to ensure that children are reaping the standard’s promise of being provided comprehensive college-preparatory curricula is simply incoherent. More importantly, it won’t work. This is especially clear in light of the fact that California’s own past work on advancing accountability, testing, and standards (including the creation of the state high school exit exam in 2000, along with work on reading and math standards), along with the accountability measures put in place under No Child, have actually achieved results.
Certainly the six percentage point decline in the number of Golden State fourth-graders reading Below Basic as measured on the National Assessment of Educational Progress between 2003 and 2011 (from 50 percent to 44 percent) trails the eight percentage point decline experienced by Florida (from 37 percent to 29 percent); but it beat the four percentage point decline nationwide (from 37 percent to 33 percent) in that period. Meanwhile the gains for black and Latino children resulting in part from accountability has been even more impressive. The 16 percentage point decline in the number of black fourth-graders struggling with literacy (from 63 percent to 47 percent) beat both Florida’s 14 percent decline (from 60 percent to 44 percent) and the nine percent national decline (from 50 percent to 41 percent); the nine percentage point decline in the number Latino fourth-graders reading Below Basic (from 67 percent to 58 percent) was greater than the seven percentage point national decline (from 56 percent to 49 percent) while trailing the Sunshine State’s stunning 12 percentage point decline (from 45 percent to 33 percent).
Young men in the Golden State have particularly benefited from accountability, testing, and standards. The 12 percentage point decline in the number of young black men in fourth grade reading Below Basic (from 64 percent to 52 percent) in the eight-year period beat the eight percentage point national average (from 65 percent to 57 percent), and barely trailed Florida’s 14 percentage point decline (from 66 percent to 52 percent). California’s nine percentage point decline in the number of Latino fourth-grade young men struggling with literacy (from 71 percent to 62 percent) barely edged out the eight percentage point nationwide decline (from 60 percent to 52 percent) and slightly trailed Florida’s 10 percentage point decline (from 50 percent to 40 percent). Even with the Golden State failing on many accounts when it comes to systemic reform, the work of state officials during the 1990s and the first few years of the 21st century on accountability and standards have helped lead to 41,731 fewer fourth-graders being functionally illiterate in 2011 than eight years earlier, according to Dropout Nation‘s analysis of enrollment data submitted to the U.S. Department of Education.
Reformers in the Golden State will have to strongly challenge Brown, Torlakson, and company in the next few years. This starts now with rallying candidates to take on Brown and Torlakson, both in the Democratic primary next year as well as in the general election. Marshall Tuck, a former education reform czar for Antonio Villaraigosa during his tenure as mayor of Los Angeles, has already declared his intentions to run against Torlakson. If not for his damaged reputation for his mishandling of the City of Angels’ fiscal affairs, Villaraigosa would also make a prime challenger to the aging Brown in the gubernatorial race. But it isn’t just about the top offices. Reformers must elect allies to the state senate and assembly in order to stem the tide against traditionalist forces. Connecting education issues to the other concerns California residents have about the state’s economic and social conditions would help bring more reformers to the legislature. And reformers must build stronger support on the ground. Save for Parent Revolution, school reformers in the Golden State have stumbled badly in growing grassroots support that can force state legislators, as well as Brown and Torlakson, to stop doing the NEA’s and AFT’s bidding. Doing this must include aggressive ad campaigns that connect clearly the consequences of Brown’s decisions to the futures of black and brown children.
You can’t solve an education crisis in the dark. You can’t help all children succeed without knowing what they need. The steps Brown is taking to eviscerate testing and accountability in the Golden State will all but ensure that many kids in the state will become part of another lost generation. And for that, Brown and his colleagues should be ashamed.