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Accountability Rises, Scores Fall

School reform requires rewards, not just blame.

August 22, 2004|Bruce Fuller

Maybe it's the teachers, or it could be the kids -- but someone inside our schools has grown tired of the tough-love, No-Child-Left-Behind reforms pressed by President Bush and Sacramento officials.

After a steady four-year climb in student achievement, the push for accountability in education -- via higher standards, more frequent testing and penalties for schools whose students don't improve -- has stalled. The latest round of test scores, released last week by state schools chief Jack O'Connell, confirmed that a majority of California's schools have hit a plateau or worse. Just under half of the state's elementary schools suffered declining levels of student proficiency; an additional 10% saw no change in basic reading and math skills.

In Los Angeles, just 30% of third-graders proved to be proficient readers, down three points from a year earlier. Achievement by eighth-graders fell more dramatically. Their last three years of gains evaporated in one year. This despite escalating political rhetoric and proliferating rules aimed at holding educators' and students' feet to the fire.

The downturn is not surprising to some. "It's like the stock market; you can't keep going up and up every year," said Alan Lewis, principal of Glenwood Elementary in Burbank. His students enjoyed double-digit gains in reading before nose-diving last year.

Backing up his observation is the fact that other states have experienced faltering achievement levels as well. The push for higher standards and strict accountability in Florida, Michigan and Texas yielded notable gains for much of the 1990s. But scores have barely budged in recent years, the same sort of fade-out now seen in California.

All this spells bad news for President Bush, who claims his policies are working. The count of schools deemed "failing" by Washington continues to rise. One in four schools nationwide -- including almost 1,000 in California -- faces the prospect of federal sanctions in the coming school year. Based on last week's data, many more California schools will be on the next failing-schools list.

In California last week, leading educators were pleading to stay the course, brushing aside questions over the efficacy of California's accountability regime. L.A. Schools Supt. Roy Romer insisted that the state was on the right track: "We have a course of action; we need to stay with it."

Romer is right to warn against jettisoning the foundations of a hard-won accountability system. But the current reforms are clearly insufficient.

What must we do? To start, let's acknowledge that the causes of flagging test scores remain a mystery. Some observers, looking for an easy answer, instantly blamed the cuts in school budgets. Yet former Gov. Gray Davis and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have protected per-pupil spending levels throughout the state's budget crisis.

Others argue that the earlier rise in scores was sparked by good reforms whose biggest boost is behind us: reduced class sizes, simplified curricular materials and more days dedicated to test preparation.

What else can be done? The next frontier, as yet unexplored terrain, is encouraging teachers and principals to trade in threats and rules for pedagogies that provide positive incentives and then rewarding gains rather than merely punishing failures.

Rising test scores inadvertently reinforced didactic teaching habits, according to Glenwood's Lewis. "All we're doing is talking at students," he said, because "we have so much to throw at them."

A new UC Berkeley study confirms that many teachers appreciate the crisp learning objectives and curriculum guides linked to accountability, but they also yearn for professional discretion and more effective pedagogical methods.

Politicians and educators must think boldly about a new generation of policies, especially given scarce dollars. Careful investment in full-day kindergarten and community preschools, for example, could close disparities in early learning and pull parents into the process. New findings show that two-thirds of the gap in fourth-grade reading scores between Latino and white children is apparent when they start kindergarten.

More enlightened reforms should focus on teacher quality. Schwarzenegger is wisely urging the Legislature to consolidate funding for teacher-upgrade programs. But more research is needed on which training strategies lead to stronger classroom teaching. And determined efforts -- against unions in this case -- are required to move strong teachers to weak schools rather than allowing teachers to choose their schools based on seniority.

The key is to keep demanding more from our schools, to track their progress and to clearly reward those principals and teachers who rise to the challenge, not simply blame or punish those who don't.

Bruce Fuller, professor of education and public policy at UC Berkeley, is author of "Inside Charter Schools" (Harvard University Press, 2002). Alejandra Livas contributed to this analysis.

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