In decades past, education in California was a top priority for government, and the state’s schools were “the cutting edge of the American Dream.” Today, spending per pupil in the state has fallen to 47th in the country. Due to deep budget cuts, California school districts have been laying off teachers, expanding class sizes, closing some schools, and canceling bus service and summer school programs.
As for future funding of public education—the state of California is caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. The current dilemma stems from a provision in California’s Education Code that can be interpreted as ruling out the use by state officials of test scores to evaluate teacher performance and compensation. On the one hand, the Obama administration has informed state officials that this provision represents an unacceptable “firewall between students and teacher data” and must be removed if California is to be eligible to receive an educational grant from the administration’s $4.35 billion Race to the Top stimulus fund. On the other hand, California teachers are making it clear through their unions that the use by state government of student test scores to evaluate teachers would be detrimental to education and is an idea that must be rejected.
Taking up this issue has been the Senate Committee on Education, which held a hearing on Aug. 26 chaired by Senator Gloria Romero. The Committee is considering amending California law to ensure that the state qualifies for federal funding. “It is my goal,” Romero says, “to do everything possible to ensure that the Golden State has access to precious federal dollars that can help provide our students the best possible education.”
Another member of the Committee, Senator Loni Hancock from Berkeley, concurs with this aim, but said during the hearing that what we need is “effective support to teachers and principals.” Hancock is concerned that using test scores to evaluate teachers may provide misguided incentives: “Why would any effective teacher want to teach in a low-performing school if the evaluation model is tied to student scores?”
The Obama administration’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is putting the nation’s public schools on notice that their effectiveness is going to be scrutinized and measured. At issue, though, is Duncan’s method for improving public education: “I am a deep believer in the power of data to drive our decisions. Data gives us the roadmap to reform. It tells us where we are, where we need to go, and who is most at risk…. In California, they have 300,000 teachers. If you took the top 10 percent, they have 30,000 of the best teachers in the world. If you took the bottom 10 percent, they have 30,000 teachers that should probably find another profession, yet no one in California can tell you which teacher is in which category. Something is wrong with that picture.”
At the hearing in Sacramento, critics of Duncan’s plan to connect teacher evaluation to student test scores acknowledged the problem of failing schools. But they argued that a one-time infusion of federal funds is by no means a solution. State government has cut $17 billion out of the budget for public education. The Obama administration’s Race to the Top will restore only $500 million in funding, half of which can be held back by the Governor.
Gregg Solkovits of United Teachers Los Angeles says that “We spend 13 percent of our teaching time giving tests.” He testified that tying teacher evaluation to students’ test scores will only worsen public school education, “We are creating environments that are not going to keep teachers. That’s why we have the high turnover in teachers ... We are destroying the profession with all the stuff we are doing, ironically enough, to improve schools.”
“It takes more than the ability to fill in bubbles to be considered an educated person,” says Marty Hittleman from the California Federation of Teachers. He testified at the hearing that the test regimen in schools is not helpful to most students. “We believe that the emphasis on standardized tests is misplaced and destructive. Multiple-choice tests in math and reading do not address the real goals of education. Teaching to the test not only narrows the curriculum but attempts to destroy any love of learning. When tests drive the curriculum, instruction suffers.”
Hittleman acknowledges that the existing ways of evaluating teacher performance, including classroom visits and peer counseling and review, can stand improvement, but he believes that they are working pretty effectively. What needs much more attention, he argued before the committee, is the social context of education: “Any effort to close the achievement gap in our schools that does not address the conditions children grow up in is doomed to failure.… Until this country and this state close the gap in job opportunities at a livable wage, healthcare, and affordable housing, efforts for improvement in the schools will have limited success.”
Secretary of Education Duncan has stated that he wants to preserve only the positive contributions of “No Child Left Behind” to education. But witnesses before Senator Romero’s committee, including Patty Scripter and Debbie Look representing the California PTA, spoke of their concern about a possible continuation of policies that were so harmful to education during the Bush years. Just prior to the hearing, Scripter expressed her view that “Evaluation of teachers and students should be done at the local level and should be based on multiple criteria.” She and Look are skeptical about the use of test scores to get rid of incompetent teachers.
Senator Romero’s hearing has been only a first step in addressing the requirements being imposed on California schools by the Obama administration. Legislators in Sacramento will have to craft a federal grant application that reconciles—if that is possible—these new requirements with the critique being voiced by many California teachers and their allies.
Raymond Barglow, Ph.D. (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the founder of Berkeley Tutors Network (www.berkeleytutors.net) and tutors high school students to take the SAT and ACT exams.