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Breather Urged for School Reforms

Education: Think tank says administrators need a chance to make the existing 'jigsaw puzzle' of mandates work before Sacramento orders more sweeping changes.


Gov. Gray Davis and the Legislature should take a breather from ordering up sweeping education reforms and give school administrators a chance to make the existing jumble of mandates work, according to a new assessment released today by a think tank based at UC Berkeley and Stanford.

Sacramento's school reform packages resemble "pieces of a jigsaw puzzle just dumped from the box" rather than a cohesive, workable strategy, the researchers said. The lack of coherence, the report indicated, has sent mixed signals to principals and teachers, muddling their attempts to improve student performance.

Issued by the well-regarded Policy Analysis for California Education, the report is intended to guide lawmakers as they debate the state budget and decide which programs should be funded.

"In this time of huge surplus, we're making recommendations about how they could spend the money wisely," said Elizabeth Burr, a Berkeley-based coauthor of the report. "We're not saying all hope is lost."

The report lands as Davis continues to float ideas for solving schools' myriad problems, from tax exemptions for teachers to $300 million for classroom Internet connections to an incentive system for low-performing schools.

Davis' efforts come atop a flurry of reforms enacted during Gov. Pete Wilson's administration. Some of those initiatives have had severe unintended consequences. Among them is the popular class-size reduction program, which resulted in space and teacher shortages.

Delaine Eastin, state superintendent of public instruction, agreed with the report, calling the usual approach to reform "ready, fire, aim."

"Everybody's trying to do the right things, but too fast," she said.

The governor's education secretary took issue with the report, saying it does not consider the most recent efforts to address some leading concerns.

"Like all research, this is retrospective and doesn't take into account $10 billion in new resources, much of it focused on teaching quality and improving student achievement at low-performing schools," said Ann Bancroft, a spokeswoman for interim secretary Sue Burr. Bancroft was referring to the new education funding either in place or proposed since Davis took office in 1999.

Michael W. Kirst, a Stanford professor and coauthor of the report, said California desperately needs to reconcile haphazard policies across all levels of education, from preschool through college.

Burr added that the state must begin to address issues of poverty if it hopes to improve the education of California schoolchildren. A quarter of California children, many of them from immigrant families, live in poverty, the report said.

"Making sure families have jobs that pay a livable wage and [come with] benefits, all of those are tied to education and opportunities for kids," Burr said.

Kirst and Burr emphasized that California is wise to invest heavily in education and should not bring all reform efforts to a screeching halt.

"The political structure is under an insistent demand by the public to do something to fix education," Kirst said. "There are things they [the governor and Legislature] need to do. . . . [But] as they move forward, they need to do it in a more thoughtful way."

State Sen. John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara), who has been very involved in education issues, praised the report as thorough and smart. He agreed with its chief finding, that the state has lacked a cohesive vision of how to improve schools.

"Every year we've made reform efforts and it keeps getting away from us," he said. "It's frustrating."

He noted that he is on a panel that is attempting to develop a master plan for education that would speak precisely to the study's concerns.

At least one school superintendent was fairly sanguine about the rate and scope of reform in California and found the report unduly pessimistic.

"The education system in California is a big battleship and it's not easy to turn around," said Dave Gordon, superintendent of the high-performing Elk Grove Unified School District near Sacramento. "The state has made a good-faith effort."

The obstacles, he contended, are not insurmountable.

"From a local perspective, we need to get on with it--just do it, so to speak," Gordon said.

Dick Van Der Laan, a spokesman for the Long Beach Unified School District, echoed that view but agreed with the report's authors that the reforms emanating from Sacramento can often seem like an onslaught.

"I don't agree that it's like a jigsaw puzzle dumped on the floor," Van Der Laan said. "Maybe it's Lincoln Logs and Tinkertoys and chemistry sets and Erector Sets."

Still, like Gordon, he noted that "our job [as a district] is to sort it all out and make it work, [even if] the directions may be missing from the box in some cases."

Kirst summarized the report's view of the state's top educational needs. The state should:

* Have a clear idea of what pupils should know and be able to do and develop appropriate assessments. For the time being, he said, far too much weight is being placed on results of the Stanford 9, a multiple-choice, standardized test that is only weakly aligned with the state's curriculum.

* Restructure the school funding system so schools can ensure that all students have equal opportunities to learn and equal access to textbooks and facilities.

* Build teacher capacity.

* Figure out how to teach the fast-growing proportion of children--more than one-quarter--who are still learning English.


Copies of the report are available from the think tank's Web site:

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