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Will Reforms Defy the Past?

April 04, 1999|Les Birdsall | Les Birdsall, a school reformer and curriculum designer, has been a teacher and principal. He co-chaired the Early Childhood Education Committee in 1971 and directed the California School Improvement Network

Last week, Gov. Gray Davis began signing his education-reform package into law, proclaiming, "We are sending a signal, loud and clear, to every student, parent, teacher and principal that success is now our standard and failure is no longer acceptable."

Will Davis' message reach every nook and cranny of every school classroom in the state? Will the four programs that comprise the reform package make a difference? The history of school reform in California is not encouraging.

Significantly increasing student achievement requires systemic reform. Instead, the governor and Legislature have given us some new programs and ways to measure their effectiveness. Accountability in the form of peer review has been added to the mix, though it's highly unlikely that a teacher will ever be fired. And the expectations bar has been raised, as it should be.

There is some danger in all this. If the reforms fail to produce discernible results fairly quickly, an impatient electorate may turn to such divisive alternatives as vouchers. Wouldn't it be ironic--and tragic--if one legacy of the reforms was a revitalized voucher movement?

California's current education system is the result of systemic change undertaken at the turn of the century. Reformers, led by business leaders, successfully pushed for the redesign of school governance, curriculum and instruction. School governance was taken out of the hands of politicians and placed in the hands of professionals. A uniform, fixed curriculum was developed, same-age learning groups established and age-based performance standards agreed upon. As the century unfolded, more and more children attended school and graduated. California's education system was the model for the rest of country.

Yet, beginning in the 1950s, it became evident that more and more students lacked proficiency in certain skills, concepts and academic content. Reversing this deficiency became the primary goal of education reform, especially after Russia's successful launch of Sputnik. Reading, science and math curriculum programs were expanded. No effort was made to change the overall system of schooling, however. In the mid-1960s, the federal government got involved by funding state and local programs--Head Start and bilingual education, among them--that sought to increase the academic achievement of children from low-income families, in particular, and to improve K-12 curriculum and instruction, in general.

For reasons ranging from teacher hostility to lack of integration into the regular curriculum, these reforms never lived up to expectations. Poor children did better in school, but their achievement levels remained far below those of high achievers.

Davis' reform efforts fall squarely in this tradition of top-down program augmentation, coupled with tests that incompletely measure success. Among other things, his plan would:

* provide some teachers with additional professional development in reading;

* fund summer reading academies for a portion of the state's children who are not proficient in reading;

* create a state high-school exam in reading, writing and mathematics for the year 2004 and beyond;

* assess school performance based on an index that combines student performance (60%) with nonperformance factors (40%);

* establish a teacher peer-review system for 2001 and beyond, in which mentor teachers assess, assist and contribute to the evaluation of other teachers.

Even the most systemic component of these reforms--improving student reading skills--lacks a comprehensive approach. To improve students' reading ability, the plan relies on limited instructional training and out-of-school assistance to bolster regular school instruction. But it does not require any school to develop a program on-site to assure that all students receive the instruction and practice they need to become proficient readers. Strikingly, the plan does not even require a school, as an organization, to pursue the mission of universal student proficiency in reading. Without such a mission, few schools are likely to develop the programs and instructional capabilities needed to improve their students' reading skills.

Another critical omission in the reform package is its indifference to reading comprehension. A major factor in low reading scores is student inability to recognize, attain and understand concepts. Studies suggest that two-thirds of California's students may not comprehend the textbooks assigned to them. Textbooks are written in technical, concept-based languages. If students cannot recognize and absorb concepts, they are doomed to underachievement.

Similar studies also suggest that two-thirds of the state's students lack the skills required to write a proficient report. The new reform plan is silent on this, too.

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