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Dan Walters

Dan Walters writes for CALmatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

Officially, the “evaluation rubric” adopted by the state Board of Education this month is “an accountability system designed to help all schools continuously improve.”

But by grading schools that serve California’s 6-plus million K-12 students on “10 areas critical to student performance,” the system — whose precise details are yet to emerge — moves away from traditional academic standards into fuzzier areas. And that will likely make it more difficult for parents and the larger public to determine what’s really happening, or not, in the classroom.

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, articulated concerns among civil rights and education reform advocates to the board prior to its unanimous vote.

“Even recognizing that some progress has occurred regarding multiple measures,” Weber said, “I do believe that the accountability system needs to significantly focus on academic achievement, academic growth and closing achievement gaps.”

Weber has done more than talk about focused accountability. She’s authored a bill, which passed both legislative houses without a single dissenting vote, to require it.

Assembly Bill 2548, now awaiting Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature (unlikely) or veto (more likely) would embrace “multiple measures” but put more emphasis on academic achievement and comply with a new federal school law that requires low-performing schools to be identified.

Brown, taking his cue from Michael Kirst, the state school board’s president, championed an overhaul of school finance that gives districts with large numbers of poor or “English-learner” students extra money to raise their academic performances and close the “achievement gap” to which Weber refers.

Brown and Kirst, however, have been curiously reluctant to adopt tight oversight of how local schools are spending the extra billions and whether they are, in fact, having an academic effect. Brown has cited “subsidiarity” — leaving implementation to local school officials — as his mantra.

Their preferences mesh with those of professional educators and teacher unions, which dislike what they see as the punitive approaches of past state and federal policies.

Without tighter supervision, critics counter, local school officials are under great pressure to spend — or squander — the billions of extra dollars on salary increases and other items that don’t directly benefit what are called “at risk” kids, who are about 60 percent of the state’s students.

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There are already indications that the extra money is being siphoned into broader categories of spending and that the “Local Control and Accountability Plans” that districts are adopting to guide spending are wordy, confusing and ineffective.

A recent poll by the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California found that more than half of registered voters aren’t even aware that the state has changed its school finance system.

The results “raise serious questions about the implementation of one of the key tenets ... meaningful stakeholder engagement in the development of district goals and decisions around resource allocation,” said Julie Marsh, co-director of Policy Analysis for California Education, a sponsor of the poll.

Depending on local taxpayers and parents to oversee the spending, with only loose state-level accountability, may at best be sophistry and at worst a cynical maneuver to evade true accountability.

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Dan Walters writes for The Sacramento Bee.

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