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Davis Gets So-So Marks in Education

The governor is going to have to work a lot harder to assist schools.

September 04, 2002|BRUCE FULLER | Bruce Fuller, professor of education and public policy at UC Berkeley, is co-director of Policy Analysis for California Education.

Gov. Gray Davis promised in 1999 not to run again if his school reforms failed to boost children's achievement. With scores up four years running--even in sluggish urban systems like Los Angeles--the governor should be riding high.

Yet many front-line teachers claim that Davis is more focused on testing and looking tough on schools than on providing the resources needed to meet his higher standards. And evidence mounts that the system still reinforces achievement gaps, favoring kids and teachers in suburbs.

Here's a report card on Davis' efforts to improve schools.

* Raising student achievement (B+). The governor has earned bragging rights when it comes to learning gains.

The latest scores show that 44% of all L.A. second-graders now read above the national average, up from 25% four years ago. Math performance also has jumped markedly.

By raising the bar and tracking school performance, Davis has spurred local educators to experiment, such as hiring teaching coaches for inexperienced teachers.

Other gauges are less upbeat. Smaller gains in the new test items linked to the state's learning standards, released last week, suggest that test preparation, not deeper learning, explains part of the earlier rise in scores.

High school students have shown few gains; graduation rates remain flat. Yet teenagers' aspirations are rising: The number taking Advanced Placement exams has climbed 25% under Davis' watch.

* Fresh resources to schools (B-). California spent about $5,900 per pupil when Davis took over from Pete Wilson. Davis' current spending plan allocates just over $7,000 per pupil, still $800 below the national average.

Davis' fiscal infusion equals less than 4% in real-dollar growth annually. Teacher salaries have risen overall, but the average teacher still earns only slightly more than $40,000 annually.

* Motivating teachers (C+). Sit with any group of teachers and you will get an earful of opinions regarding the Davis program. Many feel their profession is being dumbed down, forced to follow lock-step teaching scripts in classrooms. A few, resentful of Davis' carrot-and-stick approach, have turned down his monetary performance incentives, which are based on test scores.

* Equalizing school quality (C+). Black and Latino children now score at the 34th percentile in L.A., averaged across elementary grades; white youngsters score at the 67th percentile.

But Davis prefers a trickle-down approach to school equity, largely ignoring the system's structural inequalities, especially the huge gap in working conditions and wages paid to teachers in poor versus affluent communities. This forces urban schools to rely on what are euphemistically called "emergency credentialed" teachers. Almost 30% of L.A.'s teachers are not fully credentialed, compared with just 3% in suburban schools.

Davis has funded efforts to recruit new teachers and improve teaching, but unions must give ground so teachers who remain committed to inner-city schools can be rewarded.

* Sparking civic involvement (D-). Governors in Kentucky and North Carolina have mounted vigorous efforts to spur discussion of state-led reforms among parents and teachers. Davis has centralized policy talk within a small circle, strengthening alliances with corporate leaders. Four pro-education barons have given Davis almost $1 million since 1999, according to a Times analysis. The governor has thanked two by appointing them to the state Board of Education. In contrast, the state's largest teachers union has declined to add to Davis' campaign war chest.

Without broader civic engagement, sustaining and deepening the reform strategy will become untenable.

Davis has come to personify the "Little Engine That Could": With steely determination, he's crisscrossing up a steep mountain. And it's going to get tougher: The new standards-linked tests are proving more challenging for students, just as Davis is forced to slash teacher incentives. More hard climbing is ahead if Davis is to revitalize reforms in ways that truly empower teachers and advance equitable results for all children.


Emlei Kuboyama and Sandra Park, researchers at PACE, contributed to this article.

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