Dan Walters: Does latest school 'reform' benefit students -- or teachers?

dwalters@sacbee.comJune 30, 2013 

Periodically – albeit, not frequently – it dawns on the Capitol's politicians that the 6 million kids in California's public schools aren't learning as much as they should be, and they vow to do something big about it.

That's why, for instance, then-Gov. Pete Wilson championed elementary school class size reduction nearly two decades ago. That's why his successor, Gray Davis, pushed through the Public Schools Accountability Act, which rated districts and schools on academic improvements via testing.

The resulting Academic Performance Index is the cornerstone of California's school accountability movement, which includes a law that empowers parents to take control of failing schools and reconfigure them as charter schools. Local campaigns have sought to use the results for periodic efforts to have the competency of individual teachers evaluated.

Just last year, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg won passage of his measure to reduce the role of testing in the API and include additional factors, such as graduation rates.

More educational "reform" is in the air.

Gov. Jerry Brown's version diverts more state school aid into districts with large numbers of poor and English-learner students on the theory that more money will translate into closing the achievement gap between them and their more affluent counterparts.

Simultaneously, California has become part of a 44-state effort to adopt a Common Core of coursework and standards and, parenthetically, to change its testing system to gauge how well our students are absorbing the revised curriculum. The new state budget, in fact, contains $1.2 billion to pay for the Common Core transition.

One of the very unsettled issues before the Legislature this summer is whether California should abruptly end the current array of academic tests, or adopt a more gradual transition to a system tied to the Common Core. Two conflicting bills are headed for some kind of confrontation before the session ends.

State schools Superintendent Tom Torlakson and the California Teachers Association are backing a cancellation of all testing not required by the federal government, but their legislation, Assembly Bill 484, leaves a lot of blanks to be filled in later about new tests.

By erasing California's current testing program, the measure appears to throw a monkey wrench into the accountability movement, which is rooted in test score results. Thereby, it serves the interests of the California Teachers Association, which detests "parent trigger" laws, charter schools and teacher evaluation proposals.

Coincidence? Perhaps, but a very real side effect nonetheless. It's another indication that when it comes to school "reform," the supposed adults play political games. The effects on children and their futures are often secondary considerations.

Call The Bee's Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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