Wednesday, September 21, 2005

The Governor and Prop. 74: Peter Schrag

Peter Schrag, as he often does, has it mostly correct. I might disagree with parts of this, but he has all of the basic facts correct.
Unlike his colleague Dan Weintraub, he does not have a endless anti union agenda.

Peter Schrag: School 'reform' in state: More nibbling at the edges

By Peter Schrag -- Bee Columnist
Published 2:15 am PDT Wednesday, September 21, 2005
California hardly needed another reminder that its least experienced teachers are nested in the schools serving the neediest children - the schools with the highest proportions of poor and minority students - and that the most experienced and highest paid are concentrated in the schools serving the most affluent.
Last week, the Education Trust-West provided still more evidence - not just for the state generally but each individual school. With some significant exceptions, the gaps, as measured in average teacher salaries, are large and sometimes huge, running to $10,000 a year per teacher and sometimes more.
On almost the same day, the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development issued a report showing that American schools were rapidly falling behind many other nations in high school graduation and college attendance rates.
A half century ago, according to the OECD data, the U.S. high school graduation rate led all nations. In the period between 1985 and 1995, the U.S. was ninth among the 21 OECD countries in high school completion.
By 2003, the United States, where just over 70 percent of students graduated more or less on time, was 16th, behind Germany (with well over 90 percent), Greece, Norway, Japan, Ireland, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Denmark, Poland, Finland, France, Italy, Ireland and Sweden. And as the OECD unnecessarily reminded us, for a nation that hopes to maintain its knowledge economy leadership, that's troubling news.
The two sets of data, of course, pointed to the same thing because it's the poor performance of poor and minority students that's the prime cause of the low national school completion rates and the low level of achievement that goes with them.
But as those numbers were being released, California's leaders were battling over two ballot measures, one, Proposition 74, to increase the probationary time for teachers from two years to five, the other, Proposition 76, capping state spending and restricting growth in education funding. Given the scope of our educational problems, they're worse than irrelevant.
Both are part of the governor's "reform" agenda; neither addresses the challenge of bringing better teachers and other resources to the neediest students. If anything, Proposition 76 will make it harder.
And in seeking to raise the probationary period for teachers, California would leave the company of states such as Connecticut, Vermont, Maryland, Maine, Illinois and Washington that have probationary periods of two years or less, and join Indiana and Missouri, the only states that require five years for teachers to get permanent status.
What remarkable educational success have they achieved?
Meanwhile the gremlins in the Legislature are hard at work trying to weaken, defer and generally confuse the standards, tests and other accountability measures that, however flawed, have been the most important forces in getting schools to pay more attention to the state's underserved kids.
Nor have the California Teachers Association and its allies been exactly helpful. Getting better teachers and resources into high poverty and high minority schools is going to require far more flexibility in class size, working conditions and differential teacher pay than the CTA, still stuck in its industrial union model, has been willing to accept.
In his quick, unplanned transition from January's demand for merit pay to his embrace of Proposition 74, the governor flitted by what he called "combat pay," an unfortunate phrase that revealed the barrenness of the governor's education planning. But it came closer to the real needs of the state's neglected schools than anything he's proposed.
If "combat pay" meant additional resources to bring teachers who are genuinely well qualified to high-poverty schools, both with better pay and by providing lighter teaching loads, more support from counselors and reading specialists, even safe parking, it would almost certainly make a difference.
That probably would take more money, but just as crucially, it requires a more efficient allocation of resources. Increasingly, school districts are facing explosive retiree health costs that will eat even more into classroom spending, a problem that the unions and the Democrats continue to duck - probably expecting that in a crisis, the state will bail the districts out.
Similarly, the state's across-the-board class size reduction system is throwing nearly $2 billion into a politically popular program that, at the very least, requires more flexibility so that funds can be concentrated where they're most effective.
There's no reliable data so far showing that the nearly $2 billion that's spent annually on CSR is generating commensurate gains in achievement.
Probably the most encouraging thing the governor's done is the creation of a committee of distinguished educators and community leaders - it's headed by Ted Mitchell, former dean of the UCLA education school - that, with foundation funding, is trying to determine how much the state really needs to spend to create an adequate education system, and how to spend it, and not spend it.
That in itself is an enormous task. Getting the state to adopt any such system will be even tougher. So far we're just fiddling at the margins.
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