How Jerry Brown makes a case for parental empowerment

Editor’s note: This entry comes from Peter H. Hanley, the executive director of the American Center for School Choice, which last week joined an alliance with redefinED.

California Gov. Jerry Brown’s veto message for a bill that would have expanded the criteria that the state’s Academic Performance Index (API) would utilize in evaluating the quality of a school raises interesting questions about the proper role of data versus softer quality measures, such as parent satisfaction. In deriding the bill as full of “ill-defined” and “impossible to design” indicators, Brown quotes Einstein’s maxim, “Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.” He goes on to query:

What about a system that relies on locally convened panels to visit schools, observe teachers, interview students, and examine student work? Such a system wouldn’t produce an API number, but it could improve the quality of our schools.

I agree with those that say the entire assessment of school quality should not be laid on the outcomes of once-a-year high stakes tests, but for this the status quo forces in California that have so long dominated education policy have mostly themselves to blame. The 1999 Public Schools Accountability Act, which created the API, clearly mandated the inclusion of attendance and graduation rates as well as other indicators, but the resistance to and outright obfuscation of accountability has been and continues to be intense. Just a decade ago, the California Department of Education asserted the dropout rate was about 3 percent, when in fact it was closer to 10 times that level. Only in the last two years have we moved closer to accurate dropout rates. Moreover, the perfect is always the enemy of the good in any California debate about school or teacher evaluation.

Instead, we have heard incessant complaints about “teaching to the test” when in fact if you are teaching the standards and the test is aligned, that is what is supposed to be happening. If schools have devolved to rote “drill and kill” curriculum, that is on them, not the testing system. Reading and math can be taught across the curriculum and the best schools do that in engaging ways.

The largest fault with the API and the annual California Standards Tests (CST) is never discussed — it’s a high stakes test for schools and a no stakes test for students. CST results do not go to colleges or appear on a transcript. They have no effect whatever on who graduates or moves on to the next sequenced course. The state, in the 12 years since the Act was passed, has been unable to figure out how to get the results of tests taken in April and May back to the schools before the end of August, thus rendering them virtually useless in placing students in the most appropriate courses or doing any immediate remediation, either for students or for faculty that may be lacking in teaching particular standards. Although impossible to quantify, undoubtedly student performance is affected, especially for middle and high school students that have figured out that the tests mean nothing to them personally.

But Brown, probably unintentionally, makes an excellent case of why we need more parental choice in the Golden State. Not only, as Jack Coons noted in his recent post on redefinED, do parents know their children’s needs in ways that no one else can, but they can do the kind of school assessment that Brown noted in his message, visiting the school, observing teachers, and reviewing student work and then aligning those with their child’s needs. This is perhaps one of the most reliable methods of ensuring school quality.

Every survey shows that parent satisfaction in the charter school community is off the charts compared with those parents who have not been able to have choice. Like any other measurement, it’s not perfect. Some parents, particularly in our cities, define a good school as one where their child will not be shot or stabbed, but overall expanding choice options has been a strong positive for families.

California charter schools remain under unceasing attacks that attempt to limit their flexibility and make them exactly like the traditional public schools. Instead, we need to seek ways to expand parental choice and authority for their children’s education as well as increase their access to good schools with diverse methods of attaining achievement. Introducing a tax credit scholarship program could do this and would likely save the California budget some money. Clearly, this is working well in other states such as Florida. We are losing some excellent private schools, particularly in California’s urban communities, which have served those areas well for decades and which parents would continue to choose if funding were available. If Governor Brown follows his reasoning to a logical conclusion, trusting parental choice and satisfaction should become a key and leading indicator for school accountability and making more schools accessible.

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BY Peter H. Hanley

Peter H. Hanley is director of Discovery Institute’s American Center for Transforming Education, the successor to the American Center for School Choice. The Center remains dedicated to bringing school choice to the center of the political spectrum since Peter led the merger in June 2015. He successfully created the national Commission on Faith-based Schools, which continues at Discovery, to improve the understanding of the important part these schools have in American education and the need for expanding public support for parental choice. In addition, he is the board president of a charter management organization with schools in Oakland and Richmond, California, sits on a Waldorf-inspired charter school board in Oakland, and is in his fourth term as an elected board member in San Mateo, California.