How California Flipped The Education-Reform Script

Jeff Bryant

Politicians from across the political spectrum have made public schools and schoolteachers the favored whipping post of the day.

In blue state New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has vowed to “bust up” public education “monopolies” and has bullied through new laws that unfairly evaluate teachers based on wildly unreliable measures. These actions recently drove thousands of New Yorkers into the streets to protest the new mandates.

In red state Kansas, Gov. Sam Brownback has made massive budget cuts to that state’s public schools, spurring parents and school children to openly protest his plan. Another conservative leader, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, has taken a meat cleaver to higher education budgets, igniting a strong backlash from voters.

In virtually every state, there’s a massive resistance to standardized testing that now dominates education practices. And rollouts of new Common Core standards continue to spark strong anger from teachers and parents of all political persuasions.

However, at least one state seems to have missed the war on public schools.

Instead of taking massive budget cuts to public schools, California is flowing more money into schools and has taken steps to ensure school funding is more equitable. Instead of tormenting teachers with shoddy evaluations, many California school principals are resisting the policy of using standardized test scores to judge teacher performance. And the state recently refused to include a teacher evaluation system based on student test scores in its application for a waiver from the mandates of No Child Left Behind laws.

Although the state is implementing the Common Core, the adoption has proceeded relatively problem-free. Recently two education experts that don’t always agree – Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond and Paul Hill of the Center on Reinventing Public Education – took to the pages of The Hill to declare the Golden State had reached a satisfactory “consensus” to “education accountability.”

What’s going on in America’s “Left Bank?” Could it be that California is solving the raucous education debate? Has the state found an alternative to the “reform” path that has created so much discontent elsewhere?

To answer that question, Salon tracked down an expert on California education policy, former State Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig.

Honig, who now heads up the Consortium on Reading Excellence (CORE), served as California school chief in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In a state that was still under the trance of Reaganism, Honig was odd man out in insisting on higher levels of education funding. He frequently sparred with conservative governors George Deukmejian, then Pete Wilson, who were intent on slashing state education spending in a state that used to rank in the top 10 in financial support for public schools. In 2013, the state ranked 49th on school spending.

In addition to shoring up support for education, Honig was determined to implement reforms – including new curriculum frameworks, more robust student achievement assessments, and innovations in teacher professional development that became national models.

Honig’s relations with Republican state leaders reached their lowest point during the Wilson administration when the State Board of Education actually took Honig to court to dilute his powers.

Then the state put Honig on trial for conflict of interest over $337,509 in state Department of Education contracts connected to his wife. A judicial hawk presiding over the case refused to allow the defense to present its case and instructed the jury in such a narrow way to practically assure conviction.

Honig’s conviction automatically barred him from serving in state office, so he resigned. He eventually had the felony convictions reduced to misdemeanors. But he never completely left the education scene, tirelessly pushing the education ideas he believes in.

Now, it appears state leaders in California may be listening to those ideas. So we asked Honig if California is on an education path that is an alternative to what the rest of the nation is doing.

For quite some time, most federal and state education policy has been dominated by what’s often called a “reform” agenda. Anyone opposed to that is accused of supporting the “status quo.” How do you see the debate?

That accusation is a transparent debating ploy. People opposed to the “reforms” understand the need to improve our schools but contend that the high-stakes, test-driven accountability measures being advocated haven’t worked. What currently passes for “reform” has caused considerable collateral damage to schools and teachers. There are better alternatives that are based on a huge amount of research, scholarship, and evidence from schools and districts. Why “reformers” don’t look at these other models as exemplars, I don’t know. California has, and the state is taking this alternative path to improve schools that I believe is more promising.

What is California doing that is different?

In 2010 Jerry Brown was elected governor in 2010, Tom Torlakson was elected State Superintendent, and a new State Board of Education was appointed by Brown under the leadership of Michael Kirst. California’s education policy shifted as it followed a different path from many other states and different from the federal government, especially under U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the Obama administration. Those policy makers have been pursuing a “Test-and-Punish” policy primarily relying on tests as a way of holding schools and teachers accountable and using threats to pressure schools.

Under Governor Brown, California has adopted an alternative approach which relies much less on testing. The California model believes educators want to do a better job, trusts them to improve if given proper support, and provides local schools and districts the leeway and resources so they can improve. We also put instruction – what goes on in the classroom and the interactions between teachers and students – at the center of our improvement efforts. When you do that, the question becomes, how do you build support and structures to increase the ability and capacity of teachers, not how do you scare them into improving. That’s why we call it a “Build-and-Support” approach.

How would you describe a Build-and-Support approach?

It’s what high-performing districts, states, and countries have done. They’ve built successful teams at the school site that have an ability to continue to improve. They provide support structures and resources to bolster the effort. They put a strong liberal arts curriculum in the center, like the Common Core, which is what we use in California. Teachers visit each other’s classrooms. Teachers and principals in these schools talk to each other about what works and what doesn’t and how to do it better next time. They tap into the vast knowledge of successful teaching approaches that has been developed in recent years. And they use information about student performance to do better. This approach is just like the strategy that industry and professional outfits have followed for years. There’s a tremendous amount of research, scholarship, and experience supporting these policies. They work.

What are the advantages a Build-and-Support approach has compared to Test-and-Punish?

The problem with test-driven reform coupled with punishments is that it causes schools and teachers to spend too much time on test-prep, to narrow the curriculum to just what is tested at the expense of deeper learning, to game the system, and even to cheat. Science, history, humanities, understanding of the world, civic education, and a broad education all suffer. And it reduces cooperation because teachers are made to compete against each other. Fifty years ago, W. Edwards Deming argued that heavy evaluation schemes based on fear don’t produce strong performance boosts. Engagement and team-building do. School districts that have used the Build-and-Support approach have gotten stellar results. Districts primarily following the Test-and-Punish strategy have floundered. This misplaced emphasis on punitive approaches has taken a severe toll on educational morale and performance.

Despite these changes, isn’t California still near the bottom in terms of academic performance, at least as it is measure by the National Assessment of Education Progress? On the most recent NAEP, in 2013, California students scored near the bottom in math and reading. Isn’t that proof California schools need some reform?

Nobody is questioning the need to improve our schools. The issue is how best to do this. The scores you report are based on many students reached proficiency levels. Naturally, in a state with huge numbers of poorer and second language children, performance levels will be lower.

A fairer measure would be whether the state scores are growing. When you look at NAEP results for 2013, California’s growth in eighth grade reading scores was the top in the nation, getting close to the national average despite high poverty and second language levels and ranking near the bottom in per-pupil expenditures. Scores in eighth math grade growth were also strong, being among the top five in the nation.

In the meantime, when you look at national NAEP results since the Test-and-Punish regime became firmly ensconced, scores have been virtually flat since 2007 and 2009. And in international assessments, this country has fallen further behind in the past several years. So I think I’d flip your question around and say the evidence is pretty clear that heavy test-driven accountability with outside pressure is not working, while the Build and Support produces results.

What other evidence is there that the California model may be working?

The change to Build-and-Support is just now being implemented statewide. But those few districts in the state that have followed Build-and-Support during the past decade are among the nation’s top scorers.  The state has some of the top-ranking districts in the nation. Long Beach, Sanger, and Garden Grove, and the Aspire charter school network are districts or networks that have applied this more engaging, supportive approach, and have experienced major gains in their student performance.

Long Beach, in fact, has been named one of the top performing school districts in the world, and it has not pursued the Test-and-Punish. It put instruction at the center of their improvement plan and built capacity to improve around it. Sanger, which had huge labor strife about ten years ago, put in place a blueprint of support and working together. Its academic performance grew practically more than any other district in the state, despite high numbers of language-development youngsters. Other districts in the nation such as Montgomery County, MD or states such as Massachusetts, which eschewed Test-and-Punish and have high NAEP scores, offer further proof of the validity of a Support-and-Build approach. By the way, Massachusetts has some of the strongest teacher unions in the country, so you can’t blame the unions, as many do, for lack of progress.

Yet despite this evidence of progress, why is California still not getting any credit from the Obama administration? For instance, the U.S. Department of Education under the guidance of Secretary Arne Duncan, has granted almost all states a waiver from NCLB regulations. But Duncan has denied California a waiver from NCLB. Why is that?

Because of the failure of No Child Left Behind, Secretary Duncan has allowed states to get waivers from the law. One of the conditions for a waiver was that states had to have a teacher evaluation system that relied heavily on test scores. California balked at that.

Of course, firing incompetent teachers needs to be done. But using existing test results to evaluate teachers is a bad idea. A teacher who is actually in the middle could score between the 15th and 85th percentile. That level of inaccuracy is extremely unfair and not appropriate for a respected profession. More importantly, teachers only account for about 10 percent of educational performance, so it’s highly unjust to single them out – as many in the “reform” movement do – as the perpetrators of low school performance. So California refused to go along with that requirement, and we were rejected on that basis.

California has adopted the Common Core. I take it you support that?

Yes, I do. The new Common Core standards for mathematics are based on what our best teachers have been saying for years. Math instruction following those standards still teaches procedures – like multiplication facts and how to multiply – but also teaches conceptual understanding and application. The math standards envision a more active, engaging classroom and incorporate mathematical practices such as modeling and explaining more fully. The math standards also call for the teaching of fewer topics while going into greater depth. This is what the best systems in the world do.

In reading and language arts, there is more emphasis on being broadly literate, language development, writing and communication and classroom discussion of both literature and informational texts. So we’re getting huge buy-in from teachers. Putting the standards in place will be a work-in-progress for five to ten years and of course will necessitate some adjustments.

But why has adoption of the Common Core been so fraught with controversy and anger in many places?

Many states botched the implementation of Common Core by moving too fast and tying Common Core to harsh accountability systems. The first thing we did in California was to divorce Common Core from heavy test-based accountability. We wanted instruction, not testing, to drive the effort and for Common Core to be a catalyst for collaborative efforts to improve instruction at the school site. The state also is developing an accountability system that has broader measures than just annual tests and will be primarily aimed at feeding information back to improvement efforts at the school and district. We also gave teachers breathing room by taking a longer view and postponing any accountability measures for several years.

But wasn’t the point of the tying Common Core to tests and teacher evaluations to ensure schools do right by the large number of students who often get neglected in the system? Wasn’t that the civil rights argument for Common Core and high-stakes testing?

That was the argument of some civil rights groups and some political and business leaders. The idea was that unless you put pressure on schools, some youngsters would continue to get shortchanged. But it didn’t work, and the fear and pressure generated has actually harmed the educational process.

California is using a Common Core aligned test, called SBAC. So we’ll continue to get information on how student sub-groups – such as minority populations, dual language learners, and students with learning disabilities  – are performing, but we aren’t tying those tests to harsh consequences for schools and teachers. Feedback from the tests will go back to our parents and schools, so they will see how their students are doing. But it’s going to be part of a much broader assessment and accountability system that includes other measures, such as graduation rates, engagement levels of teachers and students, attendance issues, and reclassification for second language youngsters. We call it a dashboard approach.

Another reform approach that is often touted is to create more charter schools and give parents vouchers so they can have more choices of where to send their kids. California, in fact, has more charter schools than any other state in the country. Will this work?

California has some excellent charter schools such as the Aspire charter network, which relies on an effective collaborative effort at the school site focused on strong instruction. But the problem with choice as a main driver of school improvement is, first, charters only educate about 6 percent of students in the nation.

Also, whenever a nation or district has gone to a broad choice system, performance has actually gone downhill. A generation ago Chile shifted to a voucher system and the country plummeted in international assessments. Same thing happened to Sweden.

In the U.S., at the district level, Milwaukee has had school choice and vouchers for 20 years and remains one of the lowest scoring urban districts. New Orleans, after Katrina, dismantled its public schools and went nearly full charter. Yet that district’s schools are still at the bottom of the barrel. Most of their charter schools get Ds and Fs by state rankings, and a low percentage of graduates qualify for four-year colleges under Louisiana requirements.

Most importantly, evaluations of charters nationally show them to score about the same as public schools.  Some charters are excellent, some a disaster, and most do not differ from their public school counterparts.

So are you for or against more choice?

Giving parents choices and having different kinds of schools available is a good thing and widespread. But the idea that charter schools are going to replace public schools or that you can find educational excellence only in charter schools is pernicious. Our best charter and non-charter public schools should be lighthouses for the rest.

I actually taught in what was then considered a charter school. We worked at collaboration, and our students scored among the highest in San Francisco. So I’m not hostile to charters. But the belief that they are the Holy Grail for improving public schools is misplaced. Finally, California has tougher regulations on charter schools, so we don’t see as much of the financial and educational shenanigans that other states suffer with charters.

Today, most states are funding schools less than what they did before the recession in 2008. So we’re in a time when governments are cutting education, particularly schools that serve poor students. Is California also challenging that trend?

Yes. First, we elected a governor and a state legislature that believed school funding was a top priority. Governor Brown has been very good about putting money back into schools. The Governor and the legislature also passed a local control funding bill which gave local districts more say in how they are run but also gave more money to districts that have a higher proportion of low-income students or second language kids.

There is a broad consensus in California which backs a Build and Support alternative approach to improve our schools. Our path forward is what the best educational and management and educational scholarship has advised, irrefutable evidence has supported, and the most successful schools and districts here and abroad have adopted.


This article was originally published at Salon.com.

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