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EdSource Conversation Reflects State's Exceptionalism

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By David Menefee-Libey

EdSource, the non-profit begun in 1977 to provide authoritative, unbiased information about K-12 education in California, held its annual conference at the Los Angeles Convention Center Wednesday with more than 500 in attendance.  The conference coincided with the annual meeting of the California Parent Teacher Association, which started that afternoon.

I was struck that the EdSource meeting confirmed our views here at 'On California' about the state's exceptionalism.  The conversation diverged sharply from many national conversations about "school reform."  There was no talk at this meeting about "a system in crisis," using standardized test results to decide which teachers to retain or fire, or a need for charter schools to rescue public education.

On the contrary, the consensus from the podium and my conversations with a dozen people was that the public education establishment is driving the state in very positive directions, and that the two big stories in the state now and for years to come are 1) the state's sweeping new school finance reform, and 2) the implementation of Common Core of State Standards (CCSS) and the Smarter Balanced tests aligned with them.

1) The Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) reform, which begins to roll out this year, consolidates numerous targeted streams of money for districts and schools into a weighted formula that returns budgetary flexibility to school districts along with the requirement to account for how school budgets contribute to student outcomes.  The law also reinvigorates local democracy by requiring broad local participation in developing and monitoring new Local Control and Accountability Plans (LCAPs).

International school reform wonk Michael Fullan told attendees that the law has turned California into "a living laboratory," and that "we should accept the fact that the next two years are a period of ambiguity."  He offered guidance and encouragement for district and school leaders as they face major organizational change.

Robin Avelar La Salle, CEO of the Principal's Exchange Foundation, echoed the mix of optimism and caution expressed by several school superintendents and non-profit leaders from the podium.  On one hand, she described school districts' aggressive work adapting to the new law.  On the other hand, Avelar said, "Can we mess this up?  Yes, we can.  So let's not, okay?"

2) David Conley of the Educational Policy Improvement Center (EPIC) in Oregon and Linda Darling-Hammond of the Stanford Educational Leadership Institute led off the conversation about Common Core and California's transition to new tests and accountability systems.

Darling-Hammond, who has participated in the development of the Smarter Balanced tests being piloted this year to assess students' learning in Common Core subjects, spent much of her time describing that work.  She shared research findings on the emerging tests, and her optimism that the tests' emphasis of critical thinking and understanding will help to guide reform of curriculum and teaching.

Conley praised California policy makers for getting rid of the 15-year-old Academic Performance Index (API), which assigned each school a score between 0 and 1000 based primarily on bubble-tests.  "We created a set of measures that correlate very closely with income, and schools and students can't do anything about that.  All that happens when you create measures that schools cannot do anything about is that you recreate the system.  The measures are not actionable, they're not measures that schools can have some effect on."

He said the new CCSS curriculum and tests, by getting into higher order thinking and opportunities to apply knowledge, will encourage, recognize, and reward more valuable teaching and learning by all students.

Conley's added what seemed to be an odd criticism of California state policy makers for their inability to sustain a consistent approach to school reform.  But, in fact, the state has been highly consistent in its standards-based approach to reform, one that began before the No Child Left Behind federal law and which will transition into the CCSS era.  While one can argue that standards are or are not a good thing, California certainly has stuck with them.

David Menefee-Libey is a professor of politics at Pomona College and a co-author of "Learning from L.A.: Institutional Change in American Public Education.

 

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