More signs of school reform need

In the wake of this year’s unprecedented 22-part, 1,700-page nonpartisan analysis of California’s deeply flawed school system, two important new studies are providing additional evidence supporting the key conclusion that more money cannot create meaningful improvement unless accompanied by fundamental reforms.

The new evidence is particularly welcome now, because the debate following the release of the original research package quickly locked into a chicken-or-egg stalemate. The educational bureaucracy and teachers’ unions called for an immediate spending boost with no strings attached. Business interests and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger insisted that reforms must come before any major funding expansion.

On Tuesday, UCLA education professor John Rogers testified before an Assembly Budget Subcommittee about his findings that average statewide high school graduation rates fell 10 points, from 73 to 63 percent, during the five years prior to 2006 when passing the California High School Exit Exam became required.

Rogers argued that some 50,000 less students graduated last year than expected. He disputed state Department of Education claims that there was no dropout spike and that over 90 percent of the class of 2006 passed the exit exam. His findings were promptly denied by state school officials, who charged that Rogers’ work was based on faulty data.

However, both sides agree that California’s inadequate student database makes it impossible for anyone to know the real graduation statistics. Until the state’s promised new database goes into operation next year, any such numbers are merely estimates.

Rogers and the Public Advocates nonprofit law firm, his sponsor, are unabashed longtime critics of the exit exam, which they call unfair to low-income ethnic students in less well-funded schools. Yet even if Rogers’ agenda led him to somewhat overstate his case, he still provided a valuable service by raising doubts about the sunny optimism of the Education Department’s figures and by spotlighting the state’s embarrassing lack of an accurate student database.

Undoubtedly some California schools are worse than others, with facilities in disrepair and inexperienced teachers. But the greatest unfairness to disadvantaged students would be to simply continue giving them meaningless diplomas without trying to fix their schools, so that graduating seniors actually learn necessary 21st century skills.

Meanwhile, another new report last week grabbed fewer headlines but is perhaps even more meaningful in the long-term. Nonpartisan, foundation-funded EdSource studied 237 California schools with a high percentage of low-income, non-native English learners to analyze why some schools scored as much as 25 percent higher on state tests.

The answer was breathtakingly obvious: Higher-performing schools were simply better managed.

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