Raising Educational Achievement

Continuing our series, former State Assemblymember and Los Angeles Unified School Board Member Jackie Goldberg gives us her take on how we can raise achievement in our schools. Focusing on our under-performing schools, here’s her take on what we should be doing in California to improve learning in a way that measures more than rote performance on standardized tests and gets to the heart of learning and education.

How to Raise Achievement (and maybe Low Test Scores)
I was at a middle school in Compton this week, and I overheard a conversation between a parent and an Assistant Principal. The parent wanted to know how her child could do so well on the STAR test in Reading and Math, and yet so poorly on the diagnostic tests given the child at the school. The Assistant Principal said that well, everyone teaches the specific skills required needed for the STAR state tests, but that authentic diagnostic materials required critical thinking skills and problem solving, and that neither was particularly emphasized on the state’s standardized tests.
So, from that little story we can guess that some school administrators think the placement tests require greater knowledge and mental effort than the isolated skill-oriented tests we give each year to students. I agree with those who believe that. As a State Assemblymember, I had a chance to review all of the state’s standardized tests. And I can tell you for a fact that rote memory is the most important skill needed for our California standards’ tests.
But most Californian’s, in the 21st century know that a “thinking curriculum” is what we need. And most business people in our state want students who can think, discuss problems in small work groups, and to be able to learn new tasks all the time on the job. Our economy needs people who can solve problems and think creatively, but our testing system discourages such results.
Be that as it may, let’s talk about what would help our California students learn more, especially those who are far behind. Well, we’ve already talked about class size. It should be based on the achievement level of students. But no student who is academically below grade level should ever be in an academic class with more than 25 students per teacher. Those dreadfully behind may need a quarter or semester in classes of 5-15 to begin to catch up. But class size is the most critical change we need to make if we truly want to all students to succeed.
Time on task is the second element. But I don’t mean how the current bunch of goofs are using that phrase. They mean that if one hour of instruction isn’t working, then do two hours. So many California students in grades K-8 are not receiving instruction in science and history because they are getting double doses of Reading and Math. Well, one reads in every subject, so if one could develop cross-disciplinary reading skills to be infused into science and history courses, then for three hours a day, each student could be improving his or her reading and thinking.
If there is a group of students within a school who are very far behind, sometimes a school-within-a-school is a good model. This would be a model that would allow a few teachers to work with those students in a highly intensive way until those students get caught up.
Also, students learning English as a second language often need materials for their regular course work that are designed to accelerate and deepen their knowledge of English. In secondary schools, such students must be mixed (if at all possible) with native English speakers so that they can continuously interact with those who already speak English fluently. But they need special materials. But the State Board of Education has decided that the “regular” English/Language Arts books for grades K-8 are OK for students learning English. Their view is that one size does fit all. And all teachers need to do is use the Teacher’s Edition which tells them how to adapt the book for English learners. Phooey! The majority of the State Board of Education, appointed by Governor Schwarzenegger, does not understand that even in the same family, two children don’t learn to do things the same way. We need the State Board, and the Governor, to get rid of this calcified, cement-like regimentation that acts as if there is only one way to teach and one way to learn for each subject. I think one set of standards is a great idea. But there should be many paths to reaching those standards, so that teachers can have materials that fit the needs of the students.
We in California have stopped having a child-centered approach to curriculum. Teachers who try to meet the needs of their students often have to hide their efforts, since it is increasingly the case that districts are also imposing one-size-fits-all materials and strategies on very diverse student populations. And yet we are stunned that after six or seven years of the so-called “perfect” curriculum and materials, not every student seems to be doing well.
Probably the two “easiest” and quickest ways to improve the achievement of low-income kids would be to raise the minimum wage, and to provide all families with school-age children with health and dental care. Yet when we talk about improving achievement, these two items are rarely on the table, and even when they are, they are not seriously discussed.
So here it is: lower class size; focus time on task, but teach the entire set of courses to all students; provide a diverse set of strategies and materials all which lead to acquisition of knowledge and skills based on California standards; make sure that there are sufficient counselors and health professionals to ensure that students have the opportunity to learn; and make sure there is a clean, safe school for every child/youth in our public schools.
That would do it. Do we have the will to make this happen? Or will we continue blaming teachers, parents, students, local school board members, or television?