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RECENT TEACHER EVALUATION CHANGE WAY OVERDUE
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature realized millions of federal dollars would be withheld unless California changed teacher evaluation criteria to include student progress, so they recently changed the law. This is a good thing because the debate over teacher effectiveness in California is based largely on student achievement and has had little relevance for Black students. School districts,' (including the Los Angeles Unified School District), claims of substantial gains in academic achievement are misleading and Black and Latino students remain on the bottom. (Progress measures growth; achievement results from any number of variables.) The following is an example of skewed research that applies to the student achievement/progress debate as well:
A report by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), "School Resources and Academic Standards in California: Lessons from the Schoolhouse." examines the relationship between resources and academic achievement. (Reflecting traditional research priorities and methodology the report scarcely addresses students of color.)
Academic standards that establish the skills and knowledge California's 6 million public school students are expected to master at each grade level have been a fact of life in the state for a decade. California's standard adoption is unique in several ways. California has more public school students than any other state. Another is the fact that its standards are among the highest in the nation. (Is test scores are among the nation's lowest. All California schools are expected to progress toward, and eventually attain, an Academic Performance Index (API) score of 800-roughly equal to having 70% of each school's students perform above the national median.
The report examines a group of individual schools and school districts in the state to understand how those working in the schools on a daily basis are managing the challenge of meeting the new standards. Through in-depth interviews with school district superintendents and a survey of teachers, they found general support-mixed with relief, anxiety and in some cases, grudging assent-for California's new standards.
A financial analysis tends to confirm past findings that although the goals California has set for student achievement are high, the resources provided to meet those goals are not. The analysis also indicates that although schools who serve low socioeconomic groups are receiving additional funds, their test scores remain farthest from the state's 800-API goal.
This report focused on a group of 49 selected schools from around the state, of various sizes, socioeconomic status and grade levels. The schools were visited over several months; interviews were conducted and financial data researched and surveys administered, all with the goal of understanding how schools are implementing standards and how they are managing the necessary resources.
A fundamental tension in the standards-based error permeates all discussion about implementation: Standards are imposed from Sacramento on a uniform, statewide basis, but public schools are not uniform. Rather, each is a local, even neighborhood, institution. School districts have locally elected boards, local chapters of employee unions, and students and parents whose concerns are most closely focused on local problems and issues, even as they struggle to meet the new academic standards imposed by the state.
The report found that superintendents strongly support standards-based regimen, chiefly because it gives them more direct authority over what actually goes on in their classrooms. It also showed that teachers generally supported standards, but were also more ambivalent than superintendents. Twelve-percent considered them too ambitious and, therefore, unachievable, while 39% characterized them as "lofty". Elementary school teachers appear to be more optimistic than those in middle and high schools.
Teachers also voiced concern about the gap between the ideal of high state standards and the reality of low, achievement levels, especially at predominantly Black and Latino schools. A significant percentage of teachers pointed to a lack of student motivation, parental support, inadequate English language skills and irregular student attendance as serious impediments to student achievement. Obviously, these barriers to learning and, therefore, to attainment of academic standards, are greater at schools with poorer students of color.
Teachers were asked their opinions of the physical condition of the schools where they taught. They seemed generally satisfied, although expressed concern about excessive noise levels and unstable classroom temperatures at some schools.
Superintendents and teachers made different suggestions for how additional resources might be used. Many superintendents indicated they would use extra funds for additional teacher professional development. A primary concern of teachers was staffing shortages, particularly counseling and student health services.
The report's sparse reference to Black and Latino students is typical of both education research and school districts' negligence. Meeting the Obama administration's requirement that student growth be the chief criteria in teacher evaluation should benefit Black students, especially, because they have been unfairly assessed on their achievement but denied the requisite preparation for meeting established standards.
Larry Aubry can be contacted at e-mail