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ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE INDEX

80% of Affluent Schools Qualify for State Achievement Rewards

Education: Only 62% of the lowest-performing campuses win money for improved Stanford 9 results. Critics say only the needier ones should receive the funds.

October 05, 2000|DUKE HELFAND and JESSICA GARRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Every school in San Marino qualified for cash awards from the state. So did every school in La Canada. And Agoura Hills.

Up and down California, the highest-performing schools found it easiest to qualify for a share of $677 million the state is doling out to reward achievement gains.

Although 62% of the very lowest-performing campuses qualified for cash awards, 80% of the highest performers were deemed eligible, many of them in wealthier communities.

"If the rich are getting richer, I don't think that's in the interests of public education," said Santa Ana Unified School District Supt. Al Mijares.

Architects of the system said they intended to spread the rewards as evenly as possible among campuses that met their growth targets on the new Academic Performance Index. At the same time, state officials set aside $100 million in incentives exclusively for struggling schools that met their targets.

Some of those who designed the system now wonder whether it has worked as envisioned.

"There's no doubt in my mind that the equity issue can be improved," said Gerald Hayward, co-director of the think tank Policy Analysis for California Education and a member of the state panel that helped design the API.

He said the intent of the program is to reward excellence and to help motivate the low-performing to improve and close the achievement gap. "The formula may need some adjustment," Hayward said.

Overall, 67% of the state's schools--more than 4,100 campuses--raised their Stanford 9 test scores enough to qualify for awards. Schools must plow part of the money back into their campuses. They also can divvy up part of it among teachers, administrators, secretaries, custodians and other staff members.

Administrators in impoverished and affluent districts alike said they were not surprised to learn that higher percentages of top-performing schools were reaping the awards. Some school officials predicted that the program would exacerbate long-standing inequities in California's schools.

Mijares said schools like those in his district--which are among the poorest and lowest-performing in the region--deserve more money than campuses in wealthier areas that enjoy a range of advantages.

"It's not fair," said Mijares, who saw 35 of his 45 campuses qualify for rewards. "They have huge, lucrative foundations. They have parents that can afford private tutoring. . . . We're all for accountability, but the funds can be used better in these environments, as opposed to sending money to communities that already have so much."

Administrators in some affluent areas were unapologetic about earning--and accepting--money for a job well done.

"The whole idea behind this program is improvement. It's not supposed to matter where you are," said John Fitzpatrick, superintendent of the Las Virgenes Unified School District. The school system serves Calabasas, Agoura Hills and other affluent communities. Its schools already were among the state's top performers. Eleven of 12 campuses still improved enough to qualify for awards.

"If you take the premise that movement is the whole point of the program, then our teachers deserve an award for the hard work they've done," Fitzpatrick said. "Whether it's fair or unfair, the powers that be are the ones who came up with this system."

Principal Arthur Fields in Beverly Hills echoed those sentiments.

"There's nothing wrong with our getting the money," said Fields, principal of Horace Mann Elementary. "I think it's fair."

Fields' school illustrated one of the many complexities of the state's ranking system. The campus gained just one point on the state's API ranking scale, which assigns each school a score between 200 and 1,000.

The higher-performing school moved from 868 to 869 but still qualified for bonus money. That's because the campus already had exceeded a statewide target of 800 before the new rankings were released. Schools above the target only had to move one point to win money.

But some experts questioned the value of such modest growth.

"Is this a good expenditure of money for the gains we are getting, particularly for higher-performing schools?" asked Michael W. Kirst, an education professor at Stanford University and former president of the State Board of Education. "Is this a good investment? That's what I ask. Am I willing to pay for one or two points? That doesn't strike me as a good investment."

Kirst and others said it is harder for a high-achieving school to raise its API score because its students already excel. Still, dozens of schools above the 800 mark managed to post 10-point gains or more.

"Our teachers work very hard to make sure the children had what they needed," said Billie Jean Knight, assistant superintendent of the San Marino Unified School District, whose four schools started above 800 but had big increases.

Still, she doesn't like the whole system of financial rewards.

"I think it is an ethical issue," Knight said. "I, along with many of my colleagues, am not so sure this awards program is the most effective way to ensure that children are learning."

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