Nan Austin

Ed makeover more familiar ride, but driving change still goal

The school year that just ended felt like a tipping point. So much that was so foreign in 2014-15 fell into a groove. But if the goal is to drive change, getting comfortable is not entirely good.

In technology, the wow factor of getting computers has shifted to a bandwidth and budget issue. Key points for taxpayers to watch are which devices – Do teachers like them? – and how realistic are plans to manage the glitches and pay for the next ones? Bottom line: Yes, they are coming, and the focus has now turned to the wonders of what kids can do with them.

For Common Core, in California at least, the tide has turned. After a very bumpy beginning – grueling for schools that waited to implement it until the last year – the mantra of higher-order questions and hands-on lessons has gotten past the “how?” and turned to “how well?” Energy spent battling the change has moved on to mining libraries of available resources for ideas.

Even after predictions of terrible scores came true, the world kept turning. By making that a base year instead of a reckoning, those dismal numbers now have a silver lining: As kids get used to the computerized test format, scores are bound to go up this year. Also, allowing graduates to use state tests to bypass college-placement tests has taken some wind out of the anti-test movement’s sails in this state.

What test-based scoring for schools will count, precisely, is still being worked out in California. But it seems a certainty the system will parse the numbers for minorities, low-income kids, English learners and children in foster care.

Which numbers count has huge civil-rights implications. Neurological studies have found learning potential is as much effort as intellect, and schools that urge kids to aim high are beating the statistics.

New is a requirement to count homeless kids. Not so new are some states’ efforts to game the system, proposing averaging district scores to avoid calling out low-performing schools, or lowering the passing point to meet standards essentially to a D-minus.

Next on the horizon is the push for more money and the rubber hits the road on how well communities are watching how schools spend it. California’s state-leveled budgeting by attendance makes every drive to raise funding a statewide campaign, while watching its spending has become a local affair through Local Control Accountability Plans.

An initiative to extend Proposition 30 taxes appears to have qualified for November, which would raise more money for schools and speed up the funding shift to better serve higher-needs kids.

This time around taxpayers should demand the money be spent on the kids placed front and center in the advertising.

Lower class sizes, teacher training, extra tutoring, after-school activities, family-involvement programs – all of those could pay more to existing teachers while also doing more for students. Paying more to the same people doing the same thing will not make a difference.

Make no mistake, change needs to happen. As Turlock Unified Board member Barney Gordon said, “They’re making self-driving cars. That’s the world we need to prepare our students for.”

Part of the change needed is in attitudes – or to use the trendy education word, mindsets – if we are going to give more than noble best wishes to the mantra of having all kids succeed.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights this month unveiled data compiled from the 2013-14 school year showing longstanding racial gaps remain in key areas affecting educational equity and opportunity, including suspension and expulsion rates, access to higher level courses and experienced teachers, rates of retention, and preschool attendance.

“The (data) are more than numbers and charts – they illustrate in powerful and troubling ways disparities in opportunities and experiences that different groups of students have in our schools,” said U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr.

Data helps schools see beyond their good intentions and recognize where change is needed, says Anthony Muhammad in “Overcoming the Achievement Gap Trap.” He puts much down to pervasive mindsets and institutions too comfortable in that well-worn armchair.

When teachers and principals believe certain children cannot learn, those children internalize those beliefs, thus seeing themselves as unable to succeed, a cycle Muhammad has called part of “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

He posits schools are marketed as equalizing opportunity, but in fact are geared to celebrate kids already succeeding. Having kids on the other end of the spectrum, in his view, fuels the bureaucracy, an industry of interventions and, most of all, excuses low achievement. Who can blame the school? They have so many of those kids.

Davis High has a great many of those kids in its Language Institute program for new immigrants. Yet the focus from the first day is to get teens in the mix and moving forward, with a you-can-do-it message. They start far, far below kids born here in English level, and may have had no school at all. Yet they dive into the deep end and start paddling.

We need to figure out how to get everyone paddling.

A Modesto community group, Advocates for Justice, pressed Modesto City Schools for things they thought would help close persistent district gaps for African American children. It asked the district to fund more mentors, more field trips, more family involvement, and support for Black Student Unions in high schools and junior highs.

The district balked at several of its proposals, including adding a family advocate with legal expertise for suspended or expelled students. Staff bristled at AFJ taking its case directly to the school board, and the strategy backfired in part. Small missteps a collaborative effort would have avoided were cited by board members as why the entire proposal had to be rejected.

Matthew Lynch has written about such discord in “Closing the Racial Achievement Gap.” I reached Lynch by phone and posed the AFJ 10 Point Plan to him. Which points were pivotal? What else could help?

Implicit bias training for teachers – absolutely! he said, slightly incredulous this had not been done. Every group has biases and sees the world through its own lens, he said. “These differences express themselves in cultural signals that might not be clear.”

Involving parents and community members, mentoring, raising the diversity of district staff, having BSU clubs for teens were all things he strongly supported, and which Modesto has made plans to implement.

“Involving parents is a great way of moving things forward,” he said. He supports adding an advocate (with or without legal training) for suspended students of all races. “Having an advocate would help squash some of that mistrust that I think is going on between the school district and parents,” he said.

“Behavior is usually exhibited as a cry for help,” he added. “If we don’t get them counseling at this pivotal point when they’re telling us they need help, we’re really doing them a disservice.”

But among the 10 were points he disagreed with, and the line he drew was through high-profile extras expressly for one race. “That’s when you really get to a separatist mentality. That’s the danger in it, when you allocate money just for African American students,” he said.

The bottom line is, he said, we already know what works to close the gap: Empowering parents. Empowering the community. Quality teachers.

“We talk about the achievement gap as being this mystical thing. But there are thousands of school districts that have same profile Modesto has who have closed the achievement gap,” Lynch said. “It can be done.”