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Improvements Cited in Reform-Funded Calif. Schools

Achievement is on the rise in low-performing Calif. schools receiving funding through the $3 billion Quality Education Investment Act, according to an analysis funded by the California Teachers Association and released recently.

But others who study California education policy are somewhat less sanguine about the results, saying that it's hard to determine whether the better achievement patterns can be attributed to the QEIA changes or other factors.

The QEIA reforms were funded through a settlement in a lawsuit that the union and other plantiffs, including state Superintendent Jack O'Connell, won against Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006. Essentially, the union said that Schwarzenegger hadn't met requirements of the state's Prop. 98, which requires the state to make at least minimum annual spending increases in education.

QEIA will put $3 billion into 488 schools over eight years to support specific improvement objectives. Planning started in 2007-08 and implementation began in earnest in 2008-09. Among other things, the reforms include the reduction of class sizes—a favored strategy of the union—the placement of counselors in high schools; support for parental involvement; and the provision of time for teachers to collaborate and work with one another.

It is also, according to CTA officials, the largest single education reform program of its kind in the nation, affecting about 500,000 students in all.

Conducted by Vital Research, a Los-Angeles based group, the report says that QEIA schools, on average, experienced about 47 percent more growth on the state accountability system, known as the Academic Performance Index, than did a comparison group of non-QEIA schools. They generally also did better raising the scores of traditionally underserved populations. (Though it's not spelled out in the report, a CTA spokesman said the performance of QEIA schools was compared with non-QEIA schools scoring in the same deciles on the API.)

In 2009-10, schools on average moved up about 6.8 points more on the 800-point API. Since the program began, they've averaged growth of 62.7 points, compared to 49.3 in non-QEIA schools.

Many of the schools still quite low-performing despite these improvements, but under the conditions of the program, they're expected to continue to meet their state-set growth goals while they receive the funding.

David Sanchez, the president of the CTA, said that the report is a sign that an approach to school reform based on collaboration and engagement of the community can help improve student outcomes.

"We took a big gamble on trying to come up with this reform idea, what kind of reform is needed to improve student learning, and ensure public schools are doing the best they can," he said. "The report shows that our schools in QEIA are doing quite well. Some have gone above and beyond the targeted projections for their scores [on the API.]"

According to some researchers, though, the design of the study isn't enough to prove that the investment of cash is what contributed to the improvements. The way QEIA was implemented, all schools in the lowest two deciles were eligible to participate, but superintendents and school boards got to create the selection criteria. Many, but not all of them, used a lottery system; some did so only after they'd made a priority list. So, in other words, the selection of schools is nonrandom.

What that means is that it's difficult to determine whether the higher scores in the QEIA schools are attributable to the QEIA reforms or to something else at work in those schools, said David Plank, the executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education, a group of scholars at Stanford University that studies education reforms in the Golden State.

"The problem with QIEA is that the way it was implemented makes it virtually impossible to do a meaningful selection of schools," Mr. Plank said. "Class-size reduction, collaboration, professional development—those are all good things, but we can't learn anything meaningful about them because there's no control [group]."

It's still early in the QEIA implementation, and one hopes it will be possible to do a more sophisticated analysis as more and more information starts to come in from the schools. Even if the data at this point are merely observational, they're encouraging.

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