As California overhauls schools, America watches for lessons

As bells ring and lockers echo, the faces of children scurrying to their first classes at George Washington Elementary here reflect suburban America at its most diverse - at least 14 nationalities represented.

In many ways, it's a snapshot of California education today. Statewide, more than 130 languages are spoken, and one-fourth of all students have little or no command of English.

For years, California has struggled to deal with the challenges created by its changing character and phenomenal size - it's home to 1 in 9 American students - making little headway.

This year, however, California has passed a raft of education bills, ranging from mandatory student testing to peer review for teachers - making it a laboratory for education innovation.

But the whirlwind overhaul is creating problems of its own. Some officials say the new laws have made an administrative morass, adding that the best reform path may be a slower one.

"California is learning the lesson that local districts only have so much capacity to change so many things at once," says Michael Kirst, an education professor at Stanford University in California. "So many people are coming at this from separate angles, all who want to fix the system. But they are not anticipating the effects of all the interaction."

For this reason, reformers in other states are watching California for clues to how to amend their own districts.

"The sheer size of California, its increasing diversity, and the public's deepening anxiety over public education make it the perfect microcosm to study new ideas in American education," says Kati Haycock, director of Education Trust, a Washington-based think tank. "How the state deals with its problems is helping the nation to figure out the issues, too."

Big state, big problems

In terms of sheer statistics, the state is a national leader. State enrollment is adding about 100,000 students each year, meaning that California will be home to one-fifth of all US students in a few decades. As a result of this growth, an estimated 300,000 teachers will be needed here during the next decade - even as the nation is in the middle of a teacher shortage.

Against this backdrop, the state earlier this year passed four reform bills that aim to improve schools and build a stronger education foundation for the future.

Providing more than $470 million, the package establishes the nation's first statewide peer-review program for teachers, the state's first high school graduation exam, and first statewide accountability program for schools.

"I don't know if we've ever seen measures of this substance passed as quickly and with as much bipartisan support as most of these enjoyed," says Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, who convened a special session of the legislature to create the laws.

Most educators say the reforms are necessary but cause problems because they're coming on the heels of recent moves to reduce class size, dismantle bilingual education, and end social promotion. Each of the measures has reverberated into other areas, they say.

"There are a lot of things happening in a state system where a lot needs to happen," says Wayne Johnson, president of the California Teachers Association. "It just seems that many of the ideas are being brought out by politicians and bureaucrats who are often acting more politically or philosophically than efficiently."

For instance, local teachers and administrators say the smaller class size creates the need for more classrooms and teachers. The classrooms have to be built, and the teachers need to be paid and trained.

California's test scores suffer, they say, in part because schools are forced to hire so many unqualified teachers. By way of example, they note that 10 percent of all state teachers in the 1997-98 school year were in classrooms under emergency credential permits.

Moreover, a study of the state's $1.5 billion effort to reduce class sizes in elementary schools concluded that test scores rose slightly, but schools had to lower standards in the push to hire uncredentialed teachers and rely on makeshift classrooms.

For Bill Baker, financial director of the Visalia, Calif., school district, the new laws have led to chaos. "When it comes to applying all the things Sacramento is asking us to do, it's nuts," he says. "They are slow to get out new program guidelines, and though there seem to be lots more money and lots more programs, they are all so restricted. You wonder if anyone is steering the train."

Grading performance

One controversial measure in Governor Davis's four-bill reform package is an elaborate statewide "performance index." In it, schools are ranked according to how their kids perform on standardized tests.

Participating schools that meet improvement goals will get additional funding. Those failing to improve will face funding cuts or even closure.

"I'm very concerned about this provision because all schools and their schoolchildren do not start out equal," says Joan Baca, principal of George Washington Elementary here. "You could almost assess these kids adequately just by using their ZIP Codes - those from poorer districts will be behind, and those from richer districts will stay ahead."

To better prepare for these tests, California school administrators are trying to develop ways to help teachers assess what children should know for each grade level. But the state has left little time to teach teachers how to do this, officials say. Instead, it has raised the number of school days teachers must spend with children.

"The standards-based effort is a good one, but so far the state hasn't factored in the additional support to keep teachers up to speed," says Lisle Staley, director of assessment for the Santa Barbara School District. "Instead, they develop more policies and hand them a binder."

There are other complaints by local teachers and schools. The dismantling of the state's bilingual education program - mandated by a citizen's initiative last year - has disheartened those who had developed successful programs. In addition, the return to emphasis on phonics, mandated by a law three years ago, has made teachers bristle. They had abandoned phonics when the state directed them to use whole-language teaching.

"The biggest problem in these reforms is that politicians who don't know what teaching requires ... are mandating everything from afar," says Bobbie Kavanaugh, a kindergarten teacher at George Washington. "We're taking all this input from those bureaucrats who don't know sometimes it's good to mix a little of the old with the new."

State has improved

For all its fits and starts, though, both reformers and critics say California education is far better off now than it was 10 years ago. Partly as a response to recent criticisms, a legislative committee is looking into designing a master plan for state education. And a citizen's initiative is being prepared for the March ballot that will make it easier for localities to pass school bonds for repairing school facilities.

"A decade ago, it was hard to get anyone in Sacramento interested in education," says Gary Hart, Davis's secretary of education. "We are light years ahead of that now.... It's definitely a front-rank concern."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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