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California Lawmakers Racing Back for Race to the Top


If you live in California, you may have a front row seat for the most tense showdown in education policy this fall.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, is calling a special session to make sure the state can get a slice of the $4.35 billion Race to the Top grant money.

As I'm sure you'll recall, California, New York, and Wisconsin were basically eliminated from the competition at the starting gate because they have laws that prohibit linking student and teacher test score data.

Now it looks like Schwarzenegger is ready to scrap the law so that his state can get much needed funds. By early October, he wants to see legislation that would:

*Link student achievement and teacher performance data

*Repeal California’s charter school cap – which his statement calls "an unnecessary barrier to innovation"

*Expand public school choice

*Step up turnaround efforts at the 5 percent of schools in the state that consistently fail to meet benchmarks

*Give extra pay to "teachers who are consistently doing the toughest jobs. Alternative pay schedules highlight effective teaching practices and create incentives to improve our education system."(Hard to say whether that means merit pay or extra money for working with the neediest populations or in hard-to-staff subjects.)

*Change how the state uses data to measure student, teacher, and school performance. (The specifics on that should be interesting.)

Schwarzenegger may face an uphill battle. The California Teachers Association has been staunchly in favor of the law, because it doesn't want to see student test-score data used as a factor in teacher evaluations. And it'll be interesting to see the union's reaction to some of the other proposals, such as alternative pay and lifting the cap on charters.

From Schwarzenegger's statement, it looks like the political positioning has already begun. He's using the Obama administration for political cover. That might help give his proposals a boost with the Democratically controlled legislature and with voters in one of the bluest states in the country.

Here's a snippet from his statement:

I stand with President Obama and Secretary Duncan in pushing these education reforms not only to ensure California is eligible and competes for billions in Recovery education dollars, but because I believe they will help provide a better education for California’s children. California and its education system have felt the effects of the economic downturn and with every child in every classroom depending on us – I call on the legislature to ensure California leads the Race to the Top.

Lesli Maxwell, our resident California expert, said special sessions in the Golden State don't happen often, so lawmakers tend to stay focused on the task at hand. They don't have to abide by all the pesky rules and deadlines that govern regular sessions. And, perhaps most importantly, all legislation takes effect within 90 days, not by the end of the calendar year, as during a normal session.

I'm sure Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who has been bemoaning the state's data "firewall" for months, and Rep. George Miller, the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, a California lawmaker who has been very disparaging of his home state's law, are high-fiving as we speak.

UPDATE: Miller put out a statement calling the move an "important step forward to push for real reform for every child in California and, if done correctly, to provide more transparency that will end the educational inequities and improve classrooms all across the state."


I enjoyed reading your blog!

It would be appropriate to point out WHY the CTA doesn't want test scores used to judge teacher performance. The reason is that research studies suggest that doesn't work, even using value-added measurements. I know it seems logical to think the test results prove the influence of the teacher, but in fact, especially at the secondary level, the test results have more to do with the overall quality of the school and a whole host of other factors that influence education. Because students are not assigned to teachers randomly and because the sample sizes usually are too small to avoid a large margin of error, trying to measure one teacher's performance by one test is a poor excuse for evaluation. I'm a high school English teacher; most of my students arrive with very high test scores, but are increasingly burnt out by all the testing and other pressures of high school. Bottom line - many of them don't take state testing seriously at all. Furthermore, while reading is linked to English scores, the fact is that non-fiction reading skills are part of almost every other subject area. Despite the fact that researchers and policymakers have no way to separate these factors, there are political forces at work here insisting that the test scores tell us something that they just simply do not tell us. It's shameful that Duncan and Obama are overstepping the proper federal role and engaging in this kind of arm-twisting, and sad that Democrats like Gloria Romero and George Miller are helping them. It's shameful that California's budget has been allowed to reach this point where we'll do almost anything for money - including rushing to undo our policies that were presumably enacted after hearings and studies of the issues.

What is the time frame for the legislature to enact these suggestions into law in time to be eligible for RTT funds? Is it likely to happen within this time period?

Hi Jonathon,

Thanks for the comment. I think that if California does pass the legislation by the governors deadline, they would be eligible for phase two of RTTT and possibly Phase I, depending on how the Department views what transpired in the legislation session.

Hi David,

Thanks for writing in. It's great to get a teacher's perspective on this. And you're right that there is a great debate over whether student test score data is a fair way to evaluate teachers. A lot of folks agree with you that it isn't...I'm sure both sides of the debate will be represented during the special session.

David B. Cohen,

Whether or not test data can be objectively used to measure teacher performance is beside the point. It is any imposition, regardless of merit, on the CTA's government granted privilege that must be opposed militantly.

David: can you cite the research for your claim? The research I've read suggests that teacher effectiveness *does* have a measurable impact on student achievement.

Even as they lay Senator Kennedy to rest, it is important to note that the school accountability and educational standards movements had been progress through the schools voluntarily for decades. All No Child Left Behind did was to narrow the accountability to a single and frankly unreliable measure that has failed to improve learning for most students as it narrows choice. Now, instead of returning to some measure of sanity with an improved accountability model with NCLB renewal, RttT just makes it worse.

Although a member of CTA and a local chapter president myself, I am not a big fan of this union or any other. What I am a fan of is instructional innovation and of localism, neither of which are supported by NCLB or quite frankly RttT. Both claim to be and yet fail in the attempt because too much Federal intusion gets in the way of instructional innovation and of local curriculum control.

Even as Governor Schwarzegger "Races to the Top", I teach in a subject area (High School Foreign Language) whose state standards are so new (http://www.clta.net/standards/standards.pdf that they are not even officially linked to the state educational website (http://www.cde.ca.gov/ci/fl/cf/). Yet they are nothing new to those of us Foreign Language teachers who have stayed on top of the standards movement throughout the last 25 years or more.

And while those standards give hommage to high stakes accountability, no one has yet brought elective university preparatory courses, such as Foreign or World Languages, under the general umbrella of school accountability. We face all of the harsh realities and consequences of school "failure" without having any actual role to play in helping our schools to achieve their accountability goals.

In fact, neither NCLB or RttT are structured to account for the single-subject, departmentalized nature of secondary education. High Schools are left to more or less adapt to a process aimed primarily at elementary education. Yet high schools are the institutions left with the task of bridging the gap between elementary school and college. Hmm. What's wrong with this picture?

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