Oh, what a difference a year makes. Last year at this time school districts were just finalizing their budgets – on hold since June awaiting the fate of school funding initiative Proposition 30. The switch to Common Core had barely registered outside of administrative meetings.
The year 2013 will stand as a pivot point for California education in money matters, teaching methods and testing. For next year, look to special education and teacher employment reforms to be hot topics.
• Funding changed to give priority to kids that cost the most to serve, instead of giving higher amounts to schools that spent the most in the 1980s (Yep, that was the old system.) Districts will get more equal base funding, with extra for English learners, poor kids and foster children. Central Valley districts, in general, spent less in the 1980s and have proportionally far more of the targeted kids, so stand to gain a lot under the new system.
Another change: Whether the extra money must be spent directly on target children or if showing they’re succeeding will suffice – rules due out Jan. 3 – accountability has shifted. No Child Left Behind pioneered the idea that schools could be graded using student scores, grouped by demographics.
As the outdated federal program fossilizes in the political tar pits of Washington, California has embedded that concept into its funding. Ideals embodied in a testing program will now gain teeth through a funding formula.
• The classrooms ideal changed from an excellent lecture to labs and projects. Learning by doing won out over learning by listening. Kids talking things through, instead of sitting prim and silent, became the goal. The change jumps schools from 19th century norms to workplace standards of the 21st century – a breathtaking leap from the industrial revolution to the information age.
• Online texts and testing will force schools to expand and upgrade access to technology, a reality nearly every district grappled with in 2013.
The shift to devices in classrooms instead of just lined up in one computer lab per school takes investment beyond PTA cookie dough sales. But students need to learn computer skills just as surely as state capitals and times tables — maybe more so. Technology only enables a necessary evolution to train today’s workforce and certainly tomorrow’s.
• The testing timeout: California bucking the federal No Child Left Behind testing mandate for one year gives a window of time to change gears. There will still be state science tests and a few others, but for the most part students will field test math or English exams and not get individual scores.
The other option was certain failure under the law’s rule that every child test at grade level in the coming year. That was No Child Left Behind’s selling point: Every child would succeed. It means every special-needs student does well, every English learner scores at least average on an English test and, for this year, every student grasps material not taught in that grade any more.
• Depending on schools for more than just teaching greatly accelerated during the recession. In 2013, some area schools started serving dinners as well as breakfasts and lunches under the national nutrition program. Most schools offer at least snacks in after-school programs, which also expanded to serve parents working long hours or living in unsafe neighborhoods.
Hungry children do not test well. Sick kids and homeless students tend to miss a lot of class. When families implode, children act out at school. Cuts in social safety nets, far more than most realize, shifted the consequences and therefore the costs to schools.
Health care for most in 2014 – with all its imperfections – holds hope of improved attendance and, with mental health coverage, more stable lives for an unknown number of children.
Looking into a cloudy crystal ball for 2014, I have some predictions:
First, that the sense of collaboration continues.
Teachers facing new demands with few new materials banded together, dived into training and evaluation, and took control in many ways. It appears to be something administrators back as effective. The new year may hold more systemic support for such efforts, in part to answer – or at least help shape – upcoming challenges to teacher employment rules.
Second, the way things have always been done could be undone.
On Dec. 16 political consultant Matt David submitted a state ballot measure to remove teacher seniority from consideration in layoffs.
On Jan. 27, a lawsuit seeking to overturn California’s teacher seniority, tenure and dismissal laws goes to trial. Vergara v. California, backed by the nonprofit Students Matter, says students are denied equal opportunity by such laws.
By ballot or by court case, both find ways around legislative inaction on issues of teacher employment rights.
Third, expect movement toward reform in special education.
A Statewide Special Education Task Force held its first meeting last week and is tasked with creating recommendations by late fall 2014 on the mission of special education, its funding, ways of providing services and implementation of Common Core.
Locally, some special-education teachers question the appropriateness of teaching strategies for Common Core. Having students debate theories and defend answers may work for regular education students, teachers say, but such instant analysis will be a stretch for many with special needs.