P>The 5 million-plus students who return to school in California this week will be entering a very different educational environment than did their predecessors of even four years ago — not always better, but certainly different.

For those in the primary grades, the most obvious change is smaller classes; for their parents, the most obvious will be the elimination over the next couple of years of many of the capricious teacher in-service days that left them scurrying for child care on what would otherwise have been a normal school day. For virtually all those involved in public education — teachers, administrators, parents and students — there will be the still-to-be-defined slogan: “No more social promotion.”

There are, in addition, a whole range of curricular and standards-related reforms: the gradual shift, in one of the periodic swings of the pedagogic pendulum, from soft-focus instruction and textbooks (whole language, constructivist math) to a harder-edged orientation — phonics, the rote-learning of the multiplication table, and similar “math facts.”

There is a standardized achievement test, the SAT9, that was administered to most California students this spring and has so far produced more confusion than light. But when it’s given for the second time next year — assuming it is — it may finally provide some meaningful data, both about the progress of individual students, and about the schools they attend.

Virtually every one of those changes, instituted in a great flurry of reform over the past three years, represents the triumph of the voters and the politicians, and particularly of Gov. Pete Wilson, over the school establishment and, more generally, of faith over experience.

That should in no way suggest that the school establishment — the teachers’ unions, the fossilized schools of education, the tired bureaucracies, the state Department of Education — represent the wisdom of the ages; far from it. It’s only to say that rarely has any Republican politician staked so much tax money so quickly on social programs of such uncertain promise.

That’s particularly the case with class size reduction — now known far and wide as CSR — a program of unquestioned popularity with parents and teachers, but one that, as constituted in California, has little systematic research evidence to support it. In any case, why a rigid formula of 20 to one, when the need is obviously so much greater with some children than with others? Of course CSR seems to make common sense, even in the crude form that’s been imposed in California, but so does a radical upgrading of the teaching force.

Unfortunately the state’s new investment in better teachers, while also on the rise, is nowhere as great as the $1.2 billion a year that is being plunked into CSR, and which the governor, in the form of Proposition 8, a measure on the November ballot, now proposes to set into political concrete.

Considering the fact that five years ago, the Wilson administration was arguing vigorously that there was no evidence that money invested in smaller classes really paid off, this is a strange item to convert into holy writ.

Which brings us to the bill, passed last week, on social promotion, a measure that seems to have been designed to allow all parties to have — and boast about — their tough-standards cake and eat it, too. The politicians, from the governor down, will be able to say that they put an end to the despicable practice whereby the incompetent and the unqualified are passed up from grade to grade (something that, of course, never happens in politics). At the same time, the schools retain control over the criteria to be used, both in determining who will be sent to summer school for remediation and which of those children will be certified as having been remediated satisfactorily enough in order to move to the next grade.

Finally, there is the imminent end of bilingual education, as mandated by the voters in Proposition 227 last June, and, despite sabotage and outright resistance in some districts, its replacement by Brand-X, nonbilingual education for an estimated 1.4 million limited-English proficient (LEP) children. This, too, is a major shift from a policy whose educational benefits were, at the least, very much in doubt, to something else that has equally uncertain and undefined prospects.

No one can be certain how any of these reforms will work, let alone how they will impinge on one another: What will CSR do to the already weak and undertrained teaching force in the primary grades? Will tens of thousands of LEP kids be driven by Proposition 227 into a low-quality academic mainstream, only to find themselves driven right out again — and thus into even lower-quality remedial instruction — by the new policies prohibiting social promotion? Will we soon see a rash of bilingual charter schools or districts, as the bilingualists use one reform enacted last spring — the expansion of charter schools — to get around another?

But perhaps the most important question has to do with local schools generally: As the state piles mandate on mandate, what happens both to district morale and to any chance of real accountability?

In the past couple of years, the centralization of school control in Sacramento that began a generation ago with a pair of court decisions that sought to equalize state spending, and later with Proposition 13, has taken some huge new steps. We now have a system that may soon be local in name only. Had those steps been accompanied by some real research and thought, the prospects of the 5 million kids who started school this week might be even better.

Peter Schrag writes for the Sacramento Bee in California. He can be reached by fax at (916) 321-1996; or by letter at Box 15779, Sacramento, CA 95852-0779.

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