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Looking Beneath the Surface of Good News in California Education

August 16, 2011

What a surprise I had when I picked up my newspaper at breakfast this morning!  The front page of the San Francisco Chronicle featured not one, but two positive stories about public education!  Under the shared headline “State Schools Closer to Making the Grade,” the Chronicle had one article about improvements in our statewide test scores, and one article about a local principal whose leadership has made a positive impact at a struggling school.

CA flag

Sadly, I can’t just look at the “good news” about schools and feel cheered by what’s reported.  Let’s start with the test scores.  While the gains are of course incremental, our state Superintendent, Tom Torlakson, called attention to the fact that we’ve seen nine consecutive years of growth.  Quoted in the Chronicle, Torlakson credited that sustained growth to the efforts of teachers, administrators, other school employees and parents, concluding, “Their heroic teamwork is paying off for California.”

It’s nice to hear a public official talking about public schools in terms of heroic teamwork, but I can’t take much satisfaction in the incremental rise in test scores.  When I think about heroic teamwork in our schools, I think of teachers like Martha Infante, who has so eloquently described what it takes to keep her students and “failing school” moving forward in terms of daily battles that are much more imperative and substantial than anything the students bubble in for the sake of state measurements.  (See Martha’s posts on the topic: Month 1…, Month 3…, Month 5…, Month 9…).  I think of teachers like Larry Ferlazzo, who has literally written the book (and blog) on parent engagement, based on principles of true partnership and collaboration among parents, students, teachers, administrators, and the community.

Then, it also occurs to me that if test scores rise, that heroic teamwork is likely to be used as evidence that drastic budget cuts aren’t hurting schools.  We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.  Sure enough, half way through the article, “Still, the results could complicate the arguments put forward by teachers unions and school officials that persistent cuts to K-12 education have harmed student performance.”  I have so many problems with this statement.  First of all, the arguments are not put forward only by unions and school officials.  The inadequacy of our school funding has been “argued” by parents and parent organizations, multiple public education advocay groups and networks, not to mention various policy makers, and education policy analysts and reasearchers.  Then, there’s the problem of framing “harm” strictly in terms of student performance.  Every parent I know is interested in far more than student performance.  let's get alongWe entrust our children to schools and teachers for about 30 hours a week, and we want our children not only to “perform” but to grow and thrive in a safe, nurturing environment.  We want to hear that our children are making friends, developing social skills, interests, creativity, and flourishing as young people in a learning community.  If my sons’ test scores drop from the 90th to 80th percentile and their love of learning increases, I’ll be fine with that.  If their test scores rise from 80th to 90th percentile and they express increasing boredom or frustration with school, I’ll be deeply concerned.  I don’t think I’m unique in that regard, and so the framing of the issue here misses a much more important consideration about what constitutes “harm.”  And finally, the notion of “performance” is constrained.  The only test scores we have are for reading and math tests, and so marginal gains in these areas without any measurement beyond those areas holds little meaning for those of us interested in a well-rounded education for our own children or for the students of the state as a whole.

Which brings me to the second article.  Principal Christopher Rosenberg, now starting his second year, receives much credit for his management of San Francisco’s John Muir Elementary, labeled in the article’s opening sentence as “one of California’s worst schools.  Rosenberg’s approach?  “He turned a laser-like focus on literacy.  Science, social studies and even arithmetic took a backseat.”  The results?  Higher test scores in reading, and a slight dip in math scores, (which, the article notes, had risen by double digits the prior year).  Overall, those reading scores are taken as evidence of success at Muir Elementary.  Unfortunately, those scores are the only evidence mentioned in the article.  Not one quotation from a satisfied parent or teacher.  Not one word about improved attendance, decreased disciplinary problems, or any other indicators that a school might be improving.  To be clear, I’m not trying to raise doubts about Muir Elementary, but rather, to raise doubts about reporting on schools strictly in terms of test results.

Actually, I would question one part of their reported success.  Regarding the focus on reading and exclusion of other subject areas, Rosenberg reportedly said, “I’m very comfortable to focus on reading first.  You kind of have to start with that.”  As someone who has been misquoted and selectively quoted in a newspaper, I won’t assume that Rosenberg’s whole philosophy of education can be summed up in those sixteen words.  However, I’m skeptical about the value of focusing on literacy as a skill removed from any content.  I don’t see why students who are learning to read can’t read about science or social studies.  butterfly posterTo take an example from my own sons’ education, the silk worms in the classroom provided an opportunity to engage in scientific thinking (observations, hypotheses, analysis) and even a bit of history and social studies (the role of silk in Chinese history).  The reading and writing were embedded in this work, rather than treated as something separate.  Perhaps the folks at Muir Elementary are taking a similar approach, but if so, they have not been represented well in this article.  And if the article does provide an entirely accurate view of their instructional approach, then I have to wonder about the price the students paid in their overall education in order for the school to boast of higher test scores in reading.

And, oh yeah… there’s the small matter of the extra $5 million.  Under the provisions of a federal school turnaround effort, Muir Elementary and Principal Rosenberg “would have three years and about $5 million in federal funding to complete the job.”  I’m not sure exactly how many test scores percentage points it takes to “complete the job” – or more to the point, I don’t think test scores can be the measure of how complete a job anyone has done.  But, the portion of that $5 million spent so far has been put to use providing staffing to help teachers focus on literacy, and to help the school work more effectively with the parent community.

Now, back to the first article.  Weren’t we supposed to be wondering, if test scores rise when spending drops, then where’s the harm in cuts?  Well, it may be that more analysis of test results is required here.  California’s struggling schools are receiving an extra $69 million from the U.S. Department of Education, and since test scores are the sole measure of success, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that the schools invest that money in ways that raise test scores (regardless of whether or not those investments improve student learning in a broader sense).  It’s also worth asking: if it takes that kind of money to turn around schools, then why are we depending on the federal government to do it?  Why are we waiting until schools are in deep crisis?  Wouldn’t we be better off investing in our schools for the long term, and with greater local control, rather than relying on a few years of money with illogical and coercive conditions attached?  (SFUSD School Board Member Rachel Norton was kind enough to address these questions and others in a blog post I wrote earlier this year).

But it’s not just federal money going to our lowest performing schools in California.  As a result of a court ruling, the state of California is investing extra funds in low-performing schools under the Quality Education Investment Act (QEIA).  In ongoing collaboration with the California Teachers’ Association, schools benefiting from QEIA funding have been shielded from some of the worst effects of budget cuts, and have shown some promising results.  To the extent that we rely too much on test scores as indicators of improvement, I don’t find that any more appealing when CTA does it than when reporters or governments do it.  However, there are other indicators that QEIA has improved schools, and teachers I’ve talked to in QEIA schools have uniformly praised the program).

And finally, I’d recommend that interested readers take a look at Thoughts on Public Education, where both Kathryn Baron and John Fensterwald have done some of the deeper analysis on these test results, and both suggest some reasons to temper any enthusiasm about nine straight years of growth in California’s schools test scores.

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