California Students Need the Gift That Keeps on Giving

The holiday season finds Sacramento legislators scrambling for $700 million in Race to the Top money from the federal government. In the midst of the chaos, policy makers, parents and taxpayers should take time to reflect on what California’s six million public school students really need, starting with high expectations.

“I believe most people tend to live up to the expectations you have for them. When you have high academic expectations for students, they will work hard to fulfill those expectations,” says Ben Chavis, author of Crazy Like A Fox and principal of American Indian Public Charter School (AIPCS) in Oakland. “When you have low expectations,” Chavis adds, “students will not work and will meet your low expectations.”

In 2007-08, all students at AIPCS scored proficient or advanced in algebra, compared to three percent of students in Oakland Unified. AIPCS has discovered that maintaining California’s high standards in all disciplines and subjects is the key to a rigorous education. Unfortunately, that is not the pattern statewide.

Achievement remains disappointing, even in some affluent school districts. Worse, a full 78,369 students dropped out of high school during the 2008-2009 school year, up from the nearly 50,000 a decade ago. Boredom and lack of expectations surely played a role in their actions.

Students also need good teachers but such teachers are hard to find and difficult to keep in the classroom. Recently, many parents have told me of their child’s favorite teacher leaving not due to budget cuts but because of their lack of seniority. An investigation by the Voice of San Diego found that this is standard practice.

Teachers are moved around voluntarily and involuntarily through “a complex and sometimes haphazard system driven by seniority and the need to find classrooms for teachers displaced when schools lose students or close.” The investigation adds that “when principals do have a choice, their decisions are limited by factors that have nothing to do with whether a teacher is right for their school.”

Students also need choice. After all, students are engaged in choosing their colleges and their careers based on their interest and talents. In the same way, prior to college, students should be able to choose government-run or independent schools. Such programs are making strides across the globe, particularly in Sweden and Qatar in the Persian Gulf. There the idea of funding following the student to any school of their choice is considered the “Education of a New Era.”

Students’ schools need funding but it has already been established that spending cannot guarantee educational quality. Race to the Top involves a mere $700 million—an amount that equals the salary of approximately 11,000 teachers, based on average salary figures from the National Education Association. To put that in perspective, there are 306,887 teachers in California.

Race to the Top could have potential benefits for California students. SBX5 4, the new compromise bill now pending in the legislature, addresses teacher quality by encouraging persistently lowest-achieving schools to accept a teacher with mutual consent of the teacher and principal, regardless of the teacher’s seniority. The bill also gives parents of the lowest-achieving schools new options through open enrollment.

Race to the Top applications are due to the federal Department of Education in less than a month but the funds are not forever. Instead of one-time funding or tinkering with the system, students need lasting reforms. In 2010, regardless of Race to the Top, California should aim for high academic expectations, keeping good teachers, and universal school choice—a gift that would keep on giving.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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