California's top education official sought Tuesday to counter federal criticism of the state's reluctance to use student test scores to evaluate teachers, paying a visit to Long Beach to highlight one of the few California school districts to make extensive use of such data.
The Long Beach Unified School District's use of student scores to assess the effectiveness of programs, instructional strategies and teachers is a rarity in California, and state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell called it a model for other California school districts during a hastily arranged round-table discussion. Other participants included district administrators and staff.
"Becoming a data-oriented culture, as Long Beach is, won't be easy, and it won't be overnight," O'Connell said. "Long Beach is ahead of the curve. . . . You're a model for this new culture of data for education."
The visit followed comments last week by President Obama and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, in which they criticized the state for not allowing such test data to be linked to teacher performance evaluations.
On Friday, Obama singled out California for failing to use student test scores to distinguish poor teachers from good ones and Duncan warned that states that bar linking such data to evaluations will be ineligible to compete for the $4.35-billion "Race to the Top" grants. That funding is part of roughly $100 billion earmarked for education in the economic-stimulus package.
The U.S. Department of Education will be awarding the money in competitive grants to states. Applications are due in December.
Duncan has repeatedly raised the issue, including during a trip to San Francisco in May, when he called California's position "mind-boggling."
"The firewall between students and teachers is bad for children and bad for education," he said. "I challenge the state to think very, very differently about that."
At issue is a 2006 California law that prohibits use of student data to evaluate teachers at the state level. O'Connell said Obama and Duncan misunderstand the law, which does not bar local districts from using the information.
"I need to do a better job making that case," the schools chief said, adding that he would be open to amending the law to clarify the matter. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has also supported such a move, though it would probably draw opposition from the state's powerful teachers unions.
O'Connell's Long Beach visit, which a district official said was not put on the schedule until Monday, was designed to show that California school districts are already able to use student data to assess teachers.
The 87,499-student Long Beach Unified School District has won national acclaim for its students' academic performance. Obama cited the district in his first major speech on education.
"The reason we have been successful . . . is because we base all of our decisions on data," Long Beach Supt. Christopher J. Steinhauser said Tuesday.
Seven years ago, the district developed a sophisticated centralized data system that allows it to track individual student achievement, attendance and discipline over time. The system also lets the district see how students are faring collectively in a particular classroom or school, and how subsets such as English learners or special education students are performing. District officials can then use the information for staffing decisions, such as where to send specialists.
Tom Malkus, principal of Lee Elementary School, said he and other school leaders use the data to spot struggling teachers and offer coaching, professional development and other support.
If that fails, Steinhauser said, the district has "courageous conversations" with teachers that can result in their leaving the profession.
The system allows teachers to look at their students' most recent work to ensure that they understand a particular lesson, or double back to concepts that are difficult for them.
"You can look at individual students' needs and you can look at the group's needs," said Christina Benson, a teacher at Lee Elementary. "It's perfect for me."