Discussion with Mike Petrilli on the Future of Reform July/August 2018

An August/September dialogue  between some respected members of the reform community and me on Mike Petrilli’s Where Education Reform Goes From Here https://fordhaminstitute.org/national/commentary/where-education-reform-goes-here and, Sandy Kress’s and Peter Cunningham’s comments. I found much to support in Mike’s piece although there are still a few areas of disagreement or emphasis needing further discussion.  

To M. Petrilli, S.Kress, and P. Cunningham,

Based on your collective comments, I think there is a good chance for reconciliation and a working consensus between “reformers” and those of us who have had major problems with reform policies, implementation, and assumptions. There seems to be a common emphasis on the following approaches to improving student and school performance:

  • the centrality of curriculum and instruction;
  • high-quality materials;
  • building the processes schools and districts (or CMO’s) for school improvement such as improving the capacity at each school for continuous improvement;
  • attracting higher caliber teachers, improved induction, career ladders and leadership, and a continued attention to improving performance for all;
  • alternate pathways for high-school graduation to include career/tech and CTE;
  •  increased funding;
  • striking a balance between school and local control and district and state expectations and support;
  •  avoiding the harsher anti-public school and teacher rhetoric; and
  • looking to both traditional public school and charter for models of high performance.

These ideas also drove our efforts in California to improve performance. For those who are interested, I’ve attached a short paper (found below) on that subject.

Your willingness to be honest about problems with the reform movement and your display of a sincere attempt to find common ground is to be commended. Both charters and traditional public schools need to improve and there is a growing agreement on what that takes.

Here are some specific comments on the points which have been raised—points of agreement and areas needing further discussion because of disagreements or differences in emphasis.

  • Thank you, Michael Petrilli, for adding preparing students for democracy to the purposes driving any improvement efforts. There is a growing interest in civics and civic engagement in the country and excellent exemplars by both charters (Democracy Prep) and traditional public school efforts now exist.

My only caveat is to add one more important purpose of education: the classic goal of a liberal education to help enrich each student’s life, reach individual potential, and develop character and a high moral stance. You do mention in passing literature, history, and the humanities as helping to find out how the world works and a glancing reference to character development in the service of citizenship. Yet, I think this goal of broadening individual perspectives to lead a more fulfilling life should be explicitly expressed. For a discussion of this point see http://www.buildingbetterschools.com/the-three-goals-of-public-education/

  • Kudos on promoting broadening the job preparation goal to include alternative rigorous CTE pathways for those students not bound for a 4 year college. For a school, district, or state, the preparation for work goal should be to maximize the number of students prepared for a 4yr college or a transfer pathway, and all others prepared for a specific career or tech/prep strand. Presently, the country is preparing about 40% for 4yr colleges. Even if we increase that to 50% (a formidable goal) that still leaves a large number of students not served. Most current policy at state and district levels basically ignores these students and assumes almost all can and should be prepared for a 4yr college.

I do agree with those who are wary of an early placement test because of the danger of a premature choice as we should give some students the chance to change perspectives in later grades. As one alternative, schools in San Diego Unified have a Linked Learning college (A-G UC requirements) program combined with a career path in which students who follow the career path early on are able to shift to the 4yr college track at a later time.

  • Many of your comments on literacy are spot on. The importance of early foundation skills and then content and vocabulary as the major driver of improving comprehension as opposed to over-emphasis on “comprehension skills”. One of the major deficiencies of annual statewide literacy tests is the lack of connection to content and the resulting default to comprehension strategies.  Louisiana is attempting to correct this situation.
  • From our perspective, too many reformers are still too wedded to a strict accountability model based on a faulty theory of change. The initial reform paradigm was a simple structural leverage approach:  define student performance standards (mainly for accountability purposes not to inform instructional improvement), assess whether the standards were being met, publicize those outcomes, and provide consequences for results bad (and good), get out of the way of individual schools, and let pressure from harsh consequences and competition especially from charters and parents force improvement.

This strategy proved to be flawed in several respects and thus didn’t produce the results hoped for.

First, it is highly simplistic. The assumption that individual schools if given freedom from district control and spurred by competition and consequences would figure out how to improve on their own proved false for most schools. Many of you now realize that the missing ingredient in that paradigm was neglect of direct attention to and support of the nuts and bolts of school improvement—curriculum, instructional materials, professional development, team building, principal and teacher leadership, effective district (or CMO) assistance and help with getting these elements to cohere, and proper funding of these efforts. (appreciation to Peter Cunningham for asserting the importance of funding if improvement is to occur.) By comparison, the indirect method of attempting to improve performance by standards, primarily test based assessment, and consequential accountability turned out to be a much weaker way to influence school performance and produced considerable collateral damage.

Another erroneous assumption underlying this simple reform paradigm assumed educators would not improve unless compelled or pressured by fear of consequences or competition. Actually, most educators want to improve but many did not know how, did not receive proper support, or were subject to leaders who were motivated by a test and punish philosophy relying on fear instead of the more engaging build and support approach.  Appealing to teachers as professionals and engaging them in the improvement work produces results; pressuring them often backfires. Deming and Drucker still apply.

Yet, many of you want to retain or strengthen accountability with consequences and embed the more direct approach in high-stakes accountability. The two strategies conflict since they stem from two radically different theories of how to encourage professionals to improve. More often than not, pressure and competition detracts from high performance. High-stakes testing encourages schools or districts to become too fixated on test results and test items, to the detriment of deep learning and learning progressions. Campbell’s law is relevant; consequential accountability encourages educators to game the system, outright cheat, or become detached from commitment to deeper learning and long-term continuous improvement by concentrating on short term test results. Some reformers retort that teaching to the test and test prep are fine if complex skills are tested. But the tests don’t meet that standard. Dan Koretz’s, the Testing Charade or Jim Popham’s work exemplifies the problems with focusing on standardized test results which are not of a fine enough grain size to help instruction.

As an example, tests don’t reflect the emerging idea of the importance of  learning progressions such as the development of proportional thinking in mathematics. These should be driving curriculum, instruction, classroom student assessment and personalization. For a free curriculum developed by Bill McCallum (one of the authors of Common Core Math and his team for 6-8 math based on learning progressions with a top rating from EdReports see the recently released excellent Illustrative Mathematics https://im.openupresources.org/ . Many of you have advocated for a more personalized, adaptive instruction. One impediment was the Dept. of Ed’s original refusal to allow SBAC to develop an adaptive test on broader strands across grades so students could adjust to higher or lower positions on these broader learning progressions. They insisted that the tests be limited to the standards of a particular grade.

Annual test results are a useful warning light and offer useful information about subgroups, but a whole array of formative evaluations and using instructional tasks as assessments and teacher and student judgements are necessary to focus on what is needed to improve student performance.  All too often assessment from the annual test drives instruction in superficial and shallow ways, instead of being one tool in the service of deeper learning. Many charters (and traditional public schools), which live and die by annual test results, have become test prep machines, narrowing the curriculum and harming student’s future performance. Also problematical is the tendency for some charter schools to trumpet bogus results by such ploys as not backfilling open slots over time and creating a rarified cohort.  Competition and fear of consequences has similarly infected many traditional public schools with the same disease including outright cheating or fiddling with who takes the test.

Finally, radical decentralization did not produce the results as advertised. The theory was based in part by the idea that districts were a main part of the problem of low performance. They were either consumed by politics, stakeholder resistance, and bureaucratic inefficiencies. Districts were thought to be ineffective as top down compliance oriented, or incapable of or not interested in improving results but in protecting turf. They couldn’t or wouldn’t change. Decentralizing to individual schools, preferably charters, however, did not solve the problem of district effectiveness or individual schools and teachers needing support.  Districts (or the central support structure in CMO’s) turn out to be crucial players in improving schools. Instead of end-running them, efforts should be made to improve their performance modeled after what our best districts have done. Contrary to the argument that districts were incapable of change, there are a growing number of districts in this country which have significantly improved their ability to support school improvement

Districts such as Long Beach (which only has a handful of charters), Garden Grove, Elk Grove, and Sanger in California and comparable districts in the US were able to engender school-site improvement by re-orienting their management philosophy. They made the difficult shift from compliance orientation to support and engagement, but still insisted on high expectations which if not met initiated discussions on how to improve. They placed a solid curriculum and effective classroom instruction at the center of improvement efforts and built a supportive structure and processes to facilitate instructional improvement with impressive results. That strategy should guide improvement policies. Instead of giving up on districts, we should agree on and support approaches and polices geared to help the laggards improve.

  • Bravo to your suggestions that teacher quality and teaching is not the only determinant of high student performance. Curriculum, good materials, support processes, money and community efforts are all also crucial. While reformers are now stressing the importance of curriculum and instruction, they and many traditional school leaders have not thought deeply enough about the complex school processes necessary to improve classroom instruction. Michael alludes to “professional development” but an effective improvement strategy is much more complex than that. Educators and policy makers need to concentrate on how to develop coherence among coaching, professional development, team building, use of instructional materials, a broad array of classroom formative assessment techniques, teacher and principal leadership, support for struggling students, and what districts must do to support those efforts. I will send more specifics on this issue in a future email.
  • It is also gratifying to see many pro-public school reformers  become sensitive to and willing to oppose privatization forces high-jacking their rhetoric to drastically cut funding for public schools, seek to replace them, or use the reform movement to squelch teacher unions as has happened in many Republican led states or at the national level. Most of you now resist the canard that the choice is between reformers policies favoring students or the status quo favoring adult and union interests. Both pro-public education reformers and the anti-reform camp want to improve the quality of our schools, the debate is over which policies or strategies are best to accomplish that goal.
  • Many of us agree with many of your proposals to concentrate more on the front end of the teacher pipeline. Suggestions to increase the quality of new teachers by higher entry standards for  preparation programs, strengthening teacher ed., lengthening the initial time for granting tenure with streamlined due process protections as part of career ladder progressions are welcome.

For existing teachers, many of you have criticized the almost exclusive reform emphasis on firing the worst teachers by test-based and intricate principal evaluations. The effort was not only ruined by the use of faulty assessments and processes but the policy detracted from more positive efforts to raise the performance of all staff. Moreover, concentrating on the worst often neglected supporting the best through such approaches as embedding the most effective teachers in a learning community and expanding their influence

Rewarding excellent teachers with more cash has not worked and has caused collateral damage by lowering morale and jeopardizing team building. There is a simple way out of this. Pay the best teachers more but have them take on additional supportive roles. Career ladders and teacher leadership positions need to become much more prevalent as some of you have argued. Convincing a top teacher to stay in the profession has much more dramatic effect on student and school performance than firing a laggard.

That’s not to say that the worst teachers should not be fired or counseled out. There are some excellent examples of effective teacher evaluation strategies such as those in San Jose Unified or San Juan Unified in California where teachers have helped design and implement the programs. When there is teacher buy-in and evaluation is embedded in a comprehensive school improvement effort and the participation of teacher leaders at the school, the rates of dismissal or resignations of the weaker teachers is actually higher. Incompetent teachers can’t hide in group efforts—those who can improve do so and many just resign. Conversely, having principals spend an inordinate amount of time and paperwork conducting multiple classroom visits of every teacher for purposes of formal evaluation severely hampers their more productive role of organizing a learning school. Even the best teachers are willing to accept improvement advice as part of a collaborative improvement effort, but tend to shut down, narrow their teaching, or resist when it is part of a formal evaluation process especially from one whom they don’t believe is more skilled than they are.

There are many more issues which could be discussed, but I hope that this commentary helps illuminate areas of agreement, areas needing further discussion, and areas that are still in dispute. In addition to a follow-up comment on comprehensive and coherent strategies to improve classroom instruction, I’ll also send out some thoughts on agreements and disagreements about charters.

Second comment by Bill Honig to Mike Petrilli.

A Comprehensive and Coherent Approach to Improve Schools

It is nearly impossible for schools and teachers to effectively teach the ambitious and active curriculum and instructional shifts envisioned by common core and its cousins if teachers are isolated in schools and not members of effective school teams. Getting good at questioning, conducting discussions and simulations, supporting student teams, and incorporating a fair bit of  student projects takes time, expertise, and work. Of course, teachers must make individual efforts and receive support to improve their craft. But, even more important, schools need to become cooperative learning institutions which are continuously getting better at getting better. Our best practitioners, educational leaders, and researchers are beginning to address coherence issues and what can states or districts do to encourage a comprehensive approach centered on instructional improvement.

Yet this crucial element of improvement strategies–the potential power of the school-site team focused on instructional improvement–has been under-emphasized by many reformers. That is changing in many charter organizations and traditional public schools where professional learning communities have become wide-spread. John Hattie’s book  Visible Learning reviewed thousands of interventions and found those with the highest effect size (more than a standard deviation or 1-2 years additional student growth) were effective programs aimed at teacher efficacy, engagement, building teams, as well as involving students in the improvement process. (Hattie found that charter schools, teacher evaluation, and merit pay strategies all resulted in minimal effects many multiples lower than these high pay-off engagement activities.) Organizations such as LearningForward, the Learning Policy Institute, SERP, and the Center for Innovation and Education and advocates such as Linda Darling-Hammond and Marc Tucker have been emphasizing this approach based on what the most productive schools organizations world-wide are doing.

Unfortunately, at present only a small percentage of school-site teams are effective by being highly-focused on instruction and are bolstered by teachers displaying a willingness to change classroom behavior.  Further, not many schools and districts pursue a coherent approach. Making teams productive by being part of a more comprehensive strategy is essential but complex. Educators and researchers are just beginning to appreciate these next necessary steps in school improvement (Implementation 2.0).

Moreover, developing state and district policies to promote coherence is in its infancy. Many traditional school district leaders still follow the dubious approach of heavy reliance on test-based accountability by top-down pressure, are hampered by bureaucratic inertia and politics, adopt single-shot strategies, or are not willing to shift management philosophy and organization to a more balanced approach. Many charters follow a simplistic model of instruction, philosophy, or management which relies on churning through lower-paid new teachers and neglects long-term team-building. Some are under the control of martinets, or have terrible working conditions for staff and suffer extremely high attrition rates and low morale.

To their credit some CMO’s and individual charters have identified deficiencies, shallow learning, or excessive attention to test prep and have undertaken corrective action. For example, some have recognized the problems of a harsh “no excuse” approach and became more supportive of students and staff; others such as the Kipp organization have found problems of performance by their graduates in college and revamped their programs.

For an excellent example of what needs to happen at schools and districts or CMO’s) with supportive state policies see Paul Cobb et al.’s book, Systems for Instructional Improvement. This book is a must read for what it actually takes to improve instruction at the school and district level and where things go wrong. It also includes the latest research on these issues and suggests further avenues of investigation. Even though the context is middle grade math using a more constructivist math program, the lessons learned apply to any proposed strategy for improvement or use of materials. Cobb’s conclusions are supported by findings from a large number of improvement initiatives such as the Math in Common folks (a large, foundation funded math improvement effort in California) and many of our most insightful researchers.


There still seems to be a strong commitment by reformers to charters as a major and necessary component of improvement efforts. There are some excellent charters (my favorites in California are the Aspire network and High Tech High). Charters should be an important element in school improvement efforts—as centers of energy for ambitious practitioners, as lighthouses for innovation, and as providing parents with more choices. Yet, they are not a panacea capable of single-handedly improving or replacing traditional public school and often become the exclusive recipient of reform fervor to the detriment of other essential strategies. On the whole they do no better than traditional public schools and even when some subset performs better, the effect size is minuscule. 

I appreciate the statements by some of you supporting stronger accountability for charters—transparency, prohibitions against self-dealing, and even eliminating for-profits as is evident in Marshall Tuck’s (a reform candidate for California State Superintendent) platform. A steady stream of embezzlement and self-enrichment stories cannot be good for the charter movement.

One continuing area of contention is whether or how much districts and the state can take into account the financial burden on a district of extensive charter expansion. It may be that charters receive less money from the state than traditional public school students (there is conflicting research on that issue) but, whatever they receive, at some point the financial pressure on districts harms the education of the remaining students. Additionally, the closing of schools to be replaced by charters doesn’t necessarily improve student performance, but does cause considerable collateral damage to the community and families.

Another contentious issue is some members of the reform community’s recent emphasis on choice as the primary value in educational policy (now that is clear that performance doesn’t favor charters). Parental choice should be one element in designing policy, but so is society’s interest in citizenship, scientific understanding, and the health of traditional public schools (which educate 90% of our students). As important is the public interest in giving each student the choice in how they are going to live their lives by offering them a broad course of study to expand their perspectives regardless of a more restrictive view of their parents (such as anti-evolution, anti-democratic values, or anti-vaccination views).

Moreover, one choice available to parents should be enhancing their local school. Most parents, even in low-performing schools like their local school as an important community asset, and want the choice of improving that school and not being forced to apply to a charter. Many charter advocates focus on parents who want to leave but ignore the needs of parents who want to stay. Finally, there are many ways of enhancing parent and student choice—magnet schools, schools within schools, etc. In Los Angeles Unified, for example, magnet schools substantially outperform charters. A fair policy should seek compromises in these various and often conflicting points of view.

A final area of dispute is the efficacy of recovery districts or a massive shift to charters and vouchers. Some of you now agree that the alternative approach of achievement districts or state takeovers converting low-performing schools to charters such as the one in Tennessee has not been successful. Other highly touted experiments such as the Recovery District in New Orleans remain contested (overall test score growth on one hand but a two-tiered system with low and declining performance at  segregated schools and community disruption and lack of involvement in schools on the other) and the heavy investment in charters and vouchers in Milwaukee or Michigan has been a bust.

At any rate, it is gratifying to see a willingness of the reform folks to look at both excellent charters and excellent traditional schools as exemplars of quality. One of the most galling attitudes of many reformers was a tendency to only use excellent charters as exemplars (regrettably, sometimes using bogus examples) and neglect the large number of excellent traditional public schools, districts, or states who exhibit the same qualities. Both types should be exemplars for the rest.

From: Michael Petrilli


Sent: Monday, July 30, 2018 8:40 AM
To: Bill Honig; Brandon Wright; Chester E. Finn, Jr; Robert Pondiscio
Subject: Re: FW: RE: New from Fordham: Where Education Reform Goes from Here

Very well said Bill. Can we post this on our blog? With some edits for style and such?

Keep in mind that reformers, in general, sit “outside” the system. As such, we don’t know how to compel, or even encourage, the kind of good work that you describe happening inside the system, in a few places. I can’t even figure out how to make it happen in my own kids’ school! So then what? For every Elk Grove and Long Beach there are a 100 complacent districts, it seems to me. That’s the rub.

On Mon, Jul 30, 2018 at 1:35 PM, Bill Honig <billhonig@comcast.net> wrote:

Mike, thanks for the kind comments. You can post this and edit it. I’m not sure that most of the 100 districts are really complacent and not able or willing to change given the right conditions. Most want to do better but are hampered by the wrong philosophy, management style, or lack of know-how. The new Gates project is attempting to put them in networks devoted to improvement and improvement science. We also need some deep thought on what states (or someday at the national level) can do from a policy perspective to help push them in the right direction. To the extent that policy people across the board and key educational leaders legitimize the comprehensive and coherent point of view I described we will attract more converts. I am sending you and the group a short, more detailed statement on what needs to be done which you probably will like. I am also going to send out a short statement on charters which will may be more controversial . Both are additionally listed below. Bill


From: Michael Petrilli


Sent: Tuesday, July 31, 2018 5:40 AM
To: Bill Honig
Subject: Re: FW: RE: New from Fordham: Where Education Reform Goes from Here

Thanks Bill. I do like the idea of focusing more on winning converts. 

For what it’s worth, I think some of your statements on charters are now out of date. The evidence is very strong that urban charters–which are the majority of them–outperform their district counterparts, and are getting better over time. 

But I’d love to read more articles with strong evidence about traditional districts that are improving rapidly and getting great results. So keep em coming!


On Wed, Aug 1, 2018 at 3:11 PM, Bill Honig <billhonig@comcast.net> wrote:

Mike, I know you are on vacation but if you get a chance please give me a call at 415-383-8690 or let me know of a convenient time and number to call you to discuss what is below.

I think I’m more optimistic than you about the chances that most districts can or will adopt the right improvement strategies. If we can agree that one of the most powerful ways to engender change in district and  practitioner efficacy is to legitimize and promulgate the most effective models of management and strategic thinking until they become standard operating procedure, then many more schools and districts will improve. A broad consensus on the model would help, as many district leaders, board member and  teachers have been subject to conflicting views of how to proceed.  Thus many practitioners are given an excuse not to change, adopt a counter-productive philosophy, or are too confused to fight bureaucratic inertia.

Here is an outline of a proposed model which takes into account the many initiatives in your comments and my response and organizes them to clarify the focus of each strategy. For a full explication of this point of view see www.buildingbetterschools.com  and especially look at the How Top Performers Build-and-Support section.

The key is to make improving classroom instruction the primary objective of reform efforts. Classroom instruction covers the interaction of teachers and students in the classroom which includes such areas as;

·         teaching a quality liberal arts curriculum and the pedagogical knowledge of how students learn and do not learn that discipline:

·        use of quality instructional materials including a balanced use of technology;

·        classroom management and student engagement;

·        the effective use of on-going formative assessment which involve students in the process;

·        use of deep learning techniques such as how to lead a discussion and incorporate questions, simulations and projects into instruction;

·        balancing whole class instruction with individual and group work.

Other levels of support then focus on supporting those below them and operate in  coherence with of all other major initiatives consistent with the overall goal of improving classroom instruction. Each initiative should view themselves as part of a larger strategic approach to building capacity to improve:

·        It helps to think of this model as four concentric circles with teacher/student interaction in the classroom in the center;

·        the first circle around the classroom includes all the school leverage points which could and should influence the quality of classroom instruction  such as the quality and best use of the  curriculum and instructional materials, individual professional development, coaching, building teams that continuously address helping teachers become better at their craft and addressing problems in classrooms and the school, attention to equity issues, creating an engaging atmosphere in the school, effective discipline policies, principal and teacher supportive leadership, an accountability system which collects and uses useful data, involvement of parents, and connections to community supports. How to get all these efforts to cohere and be part of a strategic school improvement plan should be a major component of school improvement efforts in the country.

·        the second ring contains all the efforts by districts (or CMOs) and local school boards to support the school efforts and processes of improvement by developing a coherent improvement strategy at the district. This strategy should  include such topics as funding improvement efforts to provide time for school collaboration, selecting a quality curriculum and instructional materials, developing a coherent message from the various line, staff, and special support departments, selection and support of principals capable of building capacity and learning teams, creating appropriate pathways for all students, developing accountability systems that feedback useful information to the schools and encourage schools to develop a coherent improvement approach, dealing with struggling and advanced students, shifting from a compliance management style and organization to a support philosophy, a robust human resource effort including connections with the university pipeline of teachers, induction, career ladders, and the development of school site teacher leadership, and involvement of parents and the community.

·        the third ring includes outside providers of direct  support for districts and CMO’s (some also provide direct service to teachers and schools) in how the district can best produce and implement a coherent, strategic approach to improvement centered on assisting their local school efforts for positive change. Examples of these providers are county and state educational entities, university initiatives and subject matter projects, district networks and collaboratives, professional development and district improvement providers, and direct services by union, administrator, board member, parent-teacher organizations. One goal of these providers should be to curated information about best practices to salt discussions at schools and districts so that practitioners don’t have to reinvent the wheel; and finally,

·        the fourth ring includes those organizations influencing policy and the intellectual climate such as state legislatures, governors, and state boards of education, national policy efforts, the research community, think tanks, advocacy groups, and bloggers. State and national governmental entities can provide policies consistent with a strategic build and support approach. The latter four provide information and best practice ideas consistent with that approach.

One goal is to get a critical mass of these large number of players at the different levels to adopt a similar build and support message, use best practices appropriate to their level and mission to help those below their circle. They should see themselves as part of a coherent, broader strategy and their efforts should mutually reinforce and be consistent with other initiatives and  leverage points. We need some intensive attention on how best to do all this starting with a broad understanding of how the most effective districts, schools, states, and countries have undertaken successful improvement.

What do you think?

As to your point about recent research on charters. The latest CREDO report does find that urban charters do better than the average traditional public school but the effect size is tiny overall. What it does show is that for some urban charters the effect size is strong (while for other urban charters the effect size is negative). However, there are urban districts such as Long Beach with less than a handful of charters that also do well. Both the high-performing urban charters and the high performing districts should become models for everyone else. It shouldn’t be charter versus traditional public school, but every school and district should be on an improvement trajectory and the exemplars from both sectors should help them in that task. Bill

From: Michael Petrilli [mailto:mpetrilli@edexcellence.net]
Sent: Tuesday, August 07, 2018 8:28 AM
To: Bill Honig; jmurray@edexcellence.net
Subject: Re: FW: RE: New from Fordham: Where Education Reform Goes from Here

Well said Bill. The challenge is when school districts show no interest in rings 1 and 2, or just go through the motions…

Happy to find a time to talk. Jeff can help.


ESSENTIAL ELEMENTS OF THE CALIFORNIA APPROACH                                 May 2018

I am writing as a member of a wide-spread group in California which has resisted the harsher anti-public school and anti-teacher rhetoric of the reform movement as well as many of the major reform specifics such as test-based teacher evaluation, punitive high-stakes accountability based primarily on test results, and an undue focus on the lowest performing schools and teachers at the expense of broader improvement efforts. While the state has a robust charter sphere, we have attempted to avoid advocating large-scale charter expansion as a main driver of school improvement. We also are about to address strengthening charter accountability, transparency, and protections against self-dealing. Many of you have recently made similar arguments in most of these areas.

The state’s approach has instead been to emphasize a more positive, engaging, supportive approach. For an extended argument consistent with some of your conclusions about the deficiencies in conventional reform policies, how these efforts actually influenced teachers, schools, communities, and districts and their results, unpacking flawed assumptions, and  presenting the research supporting these ideas see www.buildingbetterschools.com and a monthly compendium of more recent articles http://www.buildingbetterschools.com/forum/. The site also lays out a more positive agenda used by California based on the experience of the highest-performing districts, schools, states, and other countries. I have attached a brief summary of the California approach to this email.

Did these strategies work in California? One positive indication is provided by the large increases in the state’s NAEP results. If you look at NAEP 8th and 4th grade reading and math average score growth for 2009-2017 (the base year is just before Common Core was adopted in the state and the Brown administration took over) California posted top growthscores nationally for 8th grade reading (1st in the nation and now only 2 points below the national average), 4th grade reading (tied for 2nd), 8th grade math (tied for 2nd) compared to much flatter growth in many states. Growth was weaker for 4th grade math and a cause for concern and effort. (See the attachment for details) The gains are more impressive given that California has the most second language students, the most diversity, and high levels of low income students. This is not to say much more work needs to be done–the state still lags in performance levels.

The essential elements of the California approach are:

  • wide spread agreement on the importance of a more ambitious, engaging broad liberal arts curriculum, the development of the California frameworks (translating standards into specifications for curriculum and instruction) explicating common core reading and math, history/civics, and NGSS standards, wide spread agreement on the importance of a more ambitious, engaging broad liberal arts curriculum, the development of the California frameworks (translating standards into specifications for curriculum and instruction) explicating common core reading and math, history/civics, and NGSS standards, and the adoption of high-quality instructional materials based on these frameworks. Standards have been supported by many reformers as a crucial component of accountability, but their primary use should be to drive curriculum, instruction, materials, and professional learning. For example, the math standard “Use proportional thinking to solve problems” doesn’t tell educators how best to develop proportional thinking, where students go wrong and what to do about it, or how much time should be allotted’
  • A willingness to put this curriculum and instruction at the center of improvement efforts and a commitment by districts and educators to school-site team-building, professional development, and continuous improvement and adoption of high quality instructional materials around this deeper learning’
  • The slow roll-out of  common core (currently supported by a large majority of teachers) which resisted premature assessments with plenty of opportunities for buy-in and understanding;
  • the wide-spread political policy coherence and educator agreement in the state grounded in a positive build and support, empowering approach rather than a more punitive strategy;
  • a growing shift at the state and district levels from compliance to collaboration and support;
  • broader accountability measures besides test scores and viewing accountability primarily as assistance for instructional improvement or to inform improvement discussions not as punishment; and, finally and crucially,
  • a local control funding shift which provided significantly more funds especially for harder to educate students.

Here are the specifics of NAEP growth:

Reading: 8th grade: First in the nation. California growth +10 and now within 2 points of the national average. National growth +3 https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/reading_2017/#states/scores?grade=8

                  4th grade: Tied for 2nd nationally California growth +6  and now within 6 points of the national average. National growth +1 https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/reading_2017/#states/scores?grade=4

Math: 8th grade: Tied for 2nd nationally. California growth +6, Now within 5 points of the national average. National growth 0. https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/math_2017/#states/scores?grade=8

            4th grade: Tied for 15th in growth +1. 7 points behind nationally. National growth 0. https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/math_2017/#states/scores?grade=4

Gaps have actually narrowed in the state. White student scores have not grown as fast as Hispanic and Black children.

Another set of data from the Urban Institute app which adjusts NAEP scores for language, poverty, race, and special ed. And whether the adjustments are accurate or not,  comparisons using the same standards are legit. http://apps.urban.org/features/naep/  

I took off the age control but let the others stay. (If you look at the website be sure to refresh after looking at math to allow you to click from math to reading and when you do remember to put off the age control) These data are ranks based on average scores, and if you mouse over the state it shows the growth in rankings. It is apparent that California has made large jumps in rankings this year from the past few years. (Florida has not grown as much but is at the top or near the top nationally in all the rankings—whether from state policy or district independent efforts needs to be determined)

In 8th grade reading we are now 14th in the country up from the low 40’s as recently as 2013.

In 4th grade reading we are 19th in the country up from the high 30’s in 2015.

In 8th grade math we are 22nd up from the low 40’s as recently as 2013.

In 4th grade math (our weakest area where we need to undertake considerable work) we are 37th up from the low 40’s in 2011 and 2015.  

Some confirmation is provided by our most recent SBAC 11th grade reading scores. 60% now reach the “proficient” level—a level consistent with 4yr college work and the NAEP proficiency level which compares favorably to the other SBAC states that are much less diverse. To me, getting 60% of our diverse students to that level is impressive and a tribute to the hard work of our educational practitioners and policy direction. On the other hand, the state is much weaker in SBAC math performance at 11th grade (although improving) and math will be a major area of subsequent improvement efforts.

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