AFTER three years of modest education reform, California’s student test scores have risen modestly.
That doesn’t make for much of a surprise, but it does hold out a great deal of promise. If tinkering around the edges can help bring the state’s schools closer to respectability, then serious, bold reform could propel them to excellence. For the third straight year, the state’s and Los Angeles Unified’s performances on the Academic Performance Index have improved. The gains have manifested themselves at all levels, from elementary to high school, with the biggest strides made among the youngest age groups.
But after decades at or near the bottom of the nation’s education rankings, California still has a long way to go.
In 1999, Gov. Gray Davis set an API score of 800 as the benchmark for education success. By that measure, the state’s schools are still suffering. Even after three years of improvement, only 17 percent of the state’s schools have attained that level. That means that more than eight out of 10 schools still aren’t up to snuff.
Still, 17 percent is an impressive increase over the pathetic 12 percent of schools that achieved the 800 API goal in 1999. Real progress has been made, but there is obviously room for much more.
To what does the state owe its recent educational success?
At the top of the list must be Proposition 227, the 1998 ballot initiative that put an end to bilingual education. Because children learn English better and faster through immersion, test scores among immigrant students have improved the most. Reading scores of limited-English second- graders, for example, shot up 12 points, or 63 percent, in the first three years since 227’s approval.
Other reforms are also playing a key role in buoying test scores. Chief among them are reduced class sizes, more stringent standards and a state incentive program that awarded cash bonuses to teachers at schools posting the most dramatic gains.
On a local level, the Los Angeles Unified School District’s increased commitment to classroom instruction has paid dividends in the form of educational gains. And for the first time in a long time, the district is demanding results from principals of failing schools, and replacing those who fail to deliver.
Statewide, there are signs the educational establishment has figured out how to spell accountability. Instead of making excuses by blaming educational failure on demographics, state and local officials have begun to demand more of administrators, teachers and students alike.
The results speak for themselves.
Still, the modest gains reflect the modest efforts at real reform. In the LAUSD and elsewhere, social promotion continues, and diplomas are handed out regardless of actual academic achievement. Statewide, teachers are still managed like factory workers and not the professionals they are, with salaries based on fixed pay scales, not merit.
Now that incremental reform has proved successful, state and local leaders should embrace a bolder approach – from merit-based pay to more charter schools to vouchers – to engender a competitive spirit among schools.
All that we’ve seen so far proves that kids can learn if given the help they need. Now, if the grown-ups can learn from success, we may be able to take some giant steps toward giving our children the educations they deserve and need.