Nan Austin

Civil rights fights focus on public results, watching the money and keeping Common Core

Several conversations on civil rights converge on education right now. The first focuses on keeping the teeth in federal No Child Left Behind mandates to show all kids are doing better. Another focuses on state funding for high-needs students, parsing out how much is really being spent on those kids. A third links best practices in Common Core to closing the achievement gap.

At their core: The first seeks to keep measurements in place, keeping on the pressure to improve; the second wants to put money behind the mission; the third seems to be a plea not to go backward, to use this change to fix what was not working before.

The last gained scholarly traction in an Education Trust-West report, Changing the Equation. In it, researchers conclude the higher standards of Common Core matter most for poor and minority students, those measured furthest behind under the old standards.

Only 15 percent of low-income eighth-graders in California can do passable eighth-grade math, compared with 45 percent of their middle-class and above classmates. By ethnicity, those making the grade in eighth-grade math include 42 percent of white students, 15 percent of Latinos and just 11 percent of black students.

How do we know those numbers? Because the No Child Left Behind Act made states test all their students, under whatever standards they used, and report the results, separating out children by income status, ethnicity and special education status. Those are the 2013 results for California.

How well are homeless kids or gifted students doing? No clue. NCLB did not measure those groups.

This is why it matters if the next federal education funding law mandates testing and mandates reporting the results, broken down by the groups.

When they get the testing technology right, the vision is to fold that seamlessly into the midst of class life, just like chapter tests and pop quizzes. The state testing would be the final, in other words – not a separate teeth-gnashing week that kids see no practical point in doing.

But that is still just the vision. The reality is this year’s computerized testing had some hiccups, a whole lot of outside political push and the results will not be available until August – just like the paper version it almost has replaced (districts have a couple of years to get their tech in gear).

The change to computerized testing, like the change to Common Core, comes with a need to upgrade. For testing, it is wider bandwidth and more devices. For Common Core, the upgrades are in teacher training and networking, and in instructional methods.

Common Core’s emphasis on doing things such as art projects, science experiments, history plays and group discussion sounds a lot like the way gifted kids are taught in the best prep schools. For the first time, low-performing students in all schools are being given those same enriched learning programs. The hope is to replace spoon-feeding information with a buffet in which kids take charge of filling their plates.

Most, however, will need some extra pointers and stronger skills to get the most out of those projects. That takes experienced and highly trained teachers, extra materials, aides with translation skills and other supports. That takes money.

Which is why it matters if money to help high-needs students is spent on those needs. Districts this month are all holding public hearings and passing their spending priority plans that lay out how they will spend that money.

The balance to watch is between adding services for needy kids and serving district needs, such as raising pay for existing staff and beefing up lean administrative staffs.

Also watching will be advocates for low-income and minority students. “We’re hoping that those resources are really going to reach the students who need it the most,” said Jeannette Zanipatin, staff attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund in Sacramento.

Zanipatin was among many social justice advocates who came together behind Common Core as an equity issue.

“I think for Latinos, Common Core is very important,” Zanipatin said. “For too long, the school system has been very inequitable. With Common Core, we are able to rebuild and address that equity gap, and ensure they close that gap for English-language learners and low-income kids,” she said.

The pluses she sees are more practical learning, across the board training for teachers and the even-handedness of having the same test given to so many kids that researchers can start to sort out what works.

“There’s more of the hands-on, more of experiential learning – the skills they need to do college level work,” Zanipatin said. The need to be ready, and not stuck taking remedial classes that do not give credit in college, is especially acute for Latinos, she said.

“We don’t have the luxury of time in our community to spend six years at a community college just to transfer to a four-year college,” she said.

Hers was among 500 groups listed by the nonprofit Children Now as behind Common Core as testing started to support the new standards. The groups cross a lot of territory: Central Valley Education Association, United Way of Stanislaus County, Boys & Girls Clubs of Fresno County, California PTA and the California Chamber of Commerce, to name just a few.

“When you look at the facts, updating our education standards is a no-brainer,” said Children Now President Ted Lempert.