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Time runs short to join Race to the Top

George Sheridan letter to the Sacramento Bee:

Like the No Child Left Behind Act, the Race to the Top is based on faulty
assumptions about standardized testing.

In a recent report to the Secretary of Education, the National Academy of
Sciences' National Research Council detailed reasons why instructional improvement plans should not be based upon such tests.

Academic content standards are much broader and more complex than the test items. "Taken together," the experts said, "the items representing a standard may be a pale reflection of the intent of that standard." Narrowing the curriculum to what can be tested easily is the opposite of school improvement.

There is no research evidence that pay for test scores results in better teaching.

The NRC concluded that using standardized tests to measure student achievement is neither fair, reliable, nor valid for evaluating teachers and principals.

Tests cannot substitute for funds. Antonio Villaraigosa ignores the biggest factor negatively affecting achievement of California students ΓΆ€“ the continuous cuts since Proposition 13 that have driven our state to the very bottom in school funding. RTTT funding won't exceed roughly $100 per pupil, one time -- not enough to reverse decades of under-funding, especially since RTTT money will
mostly go to more administration.

NOTE: Antonio Villaraigosa is the mayor of Los Angeles.

By Antonio Villaraigosa

California's public school system needs radical change. Where our schools once ranked fourth-highest in the nation in reading and math, we now rank below 40. Where our students' science scores once were proudly some of the highest in the nation, they are now some of the lowest.

And as states all across our country are continuing to push for reforms that will keep their public schools outpacing ours, California seems to be turning a blind eye to the need for change. California's public schools are now in danger of falling even further behind.

But a new opportunity stands before us. The Obama administration has offered states $4.35 billion worth of competitive grants, called Race to the Top funds. These funds "encourage and reward states that are creating the conditions for education innovation and reform." It challenges states to fix their ailing education systems. California has a unique opportunity to earn up to $700 million from these funds, but we must compete. The race to the top has begun.

How will California do in this race? Sadly, we won't even be eligible to compete unless we change our education code. Our public schools can't compete because our state law has capped the number of charter schools; won't allow schools to use actual data to track student progress and evaluate teacher performance; and has insufficient plans to turn the lowest-performing schools around or empower parents to ask for reform at their child's school.

Precisely at the time when the Obama administration has kicked into gear to partner with states, California is stuck in neutral. While many leaders want to push for real reform changing the bureaucratic education code, other lawmakers would be satisfied with making as little adjustment as possible to protect the status quo.

California needs this funding. Our children are suffering from a lack of resources at their schools and constant teacher turnover. Our teachers are suffering from increasingly heavier workloads due to layoffs. And our local school districts are facing dire budget choices. It is unacceptable for lawmakers to do anything less than pass real reform so we can compete for all of the $700 million.

In the coming week, the state Legislature has the opportunity to join this Race to the Top and the national effort to transform our public schools. Several pieces of legislation are being debated by the Assembly, and I strongly urge our state leaders to be bold and pass meaningful education reform to give Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger a bill he can sign.

We must oppose any effort that falls short of giving our students the best odds at winning this race. We simply cannot settle for meeting the minimum criteria. We must push for change that will once more make California competitive.

Any legislation that is passed must get serious about turning around the state's lowest-performing schools. Even if there were not federal dollars at stake, rising dropout rates and declining student achievement have reached a crisis level. We need a statewide approach to this problem, one that prescribes immediate intervention for campuses that are repeatedly and egregiously failing our students.

The Legislature should remove the cap on the number of charter schools. It makes no sense to have an arbitrary cap on the number of these campuses, especially when we know it will make California less competitive. Charter schools should be held to high standards, and if they are failing their students, they should be shut down. When it comes to charters, the state should focus on quality, not just quantity.

The Obama administration has made the use of student data in evaluating teachers' performance a threshold issue. This means California needs to meaningfully connect CalPADS, the student data system, with CalTIDES, the teacher data system, and allow them to be used together. If student data can be used as a factor in evaluating teachers, not only will we be at a competitive advantage, we will have raised the level of accountability to one our students deserve.

And if California wants to be seen as a leader again, we need to empower parents with the tools to demand change at the local level. Ask any teacher, and they will tell you that parents are one of the most important factors to success. Not only would we strengthen our ability to earn funding, we would be doing the right thing. Parents should be able to organize and demand that their child's failing school be considered for immediate intervention.

The Obama administration has set high standards. Money will not be awarded ΓΆ€“ and rightly so ΓΆ€“ unless states show they are on the path to reform.

Our task is clear. The time for talking about education reform has passed. The time for taking action is now. The time to compete is now. The Race to the Top Fund is an opportunity to fix our state's education problems and once again make California ΓΆ€“ the Golden State ΓΆ€“ the gold standard in public education.

— Antonio Villaraigosa, with comment by George Sheridan
Sacramento Bee


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