Dispatches from the CSBA Annual Education Conference

This past week, I attended the California School Boards Association (CSBA) Delegate Assembly and Annual Education Conference here in San Francisco. CSBA is the professional organization for the roughly 5,000 school board members elected to the 950 or so school boards across California. I had meant to post notes in shorter form from the conference, but the long days and intermittent access to an Internet connection meant I am only just getting to write up my notes from sessions now.  So apologies for this long post, which I recommend skimming for the parts that interest you.

This is an interesting time for CSBA, which has been seen as the “middle ground” between the state’s teachers’ unions and the professional associations representing Superintendents and other school administrators. Last summer, CSBA’s executive director resigned amid questions about his use of the organization’s credit card and annual compensation in excess of $600,000 — a scandal that made national headlines. 

Despite this black eye, I have found the district’s membership in CSBA to be valuable. In my first year as a Board member, I attended their New Board Member Institute, an essential training for any new school board member (many districts require their new Board members to attend this Institute, and I believe SFUSD should as well).

This year I attended the following sessions:

  • Urban School Districts luncheon;
  • General Session address by Dr. Pedro Noguera
  • Autism, Learning and Education: Where we are and where we’d like to be
  • ESEA Reauthorization: Looking Ahead with Richard Rothstein (former NY Times Education columnist)
  • Data for Direction (with Christopher Maricle of CSBA)
  • Legislative Network luncheon
  • Second General Session with Ian Jukes
  • Facilitating Data Conversations to Drive Achievement
  • Third General Session: State of the State

Each session was valuable, for different reasons. Below are summaries:

Urban School Districts Luncheon  — Speaker Kevin Gordon, a lobbyist with School Innovations and Advocacy, gave an overview of the state’s education budget outlook, which was enough to stifle most appetites. Sacramento watchers might remember that last year, the Governor announced cuts of $1.7 billion in 2010-11, which most districts enacted. However, once the legislature passed the state budget, the $1.7 billion in cuts turned into $1.7 billion in deferred revenues, payable in July of 2011. Most recently though, the Legislative Analyst has recommended making the $1.7 billion cut permanent (revoking the deferral) AND “maintaining” Prop 98, which would represent another $3 billion or so in cuts to education. Ugh – I had indigestion.

Third General Session with Pedro Noguera — Pedro Noguera is a former school board member (Berkeley Unified) and a well-known thinker on issues of race, class and education. His talk focused on the necessary “culture” of successful schools — which he defines as schools that are meeting the needs of all children. This culture includes things like strong principal leadership, a sense of shared accountability and vision, testing that is used for diagnostic purposes rather than ranking purposes, and a discipline philosophy that doesn’t disproportionately punish the students with the most needs.  More details and highlights from the talk are available on my Twitter feed, using the hashtag #csbaaec.

Autism, Learning and Education —  This was a wonderfully informative session conducted by Dr. Peter Mundy, PhD, the Director of Education Research at the MIND Institute of UC Davis.  Dr. Mundy talked about the growing success with interventions for preschool children with autism, and about research that shows an additional intervention windows for children ages 8-11 and 12-15. Specifically, Dr. Mundy discussed research that is zeroing in on the academic and social challenges of middle-school-aged students with autism, and finding that the interventions needed are very different from those that are effective with preschool students — older students struggle mightily when confronted with the more complex social cognition tasks of the upper elementary, middle school and high school classrooms. Experiments with virtual reality environments are promising, but no specific interventions have resulted yet. After the lecture, I approached Dr. Mundy about giving the presentation again in San Francisco, because I think parents and teachers would be very interested in all he had to say.  He agreed, so once we work out where and when I’ll post further details.

ESEA Reauthorization with Richard Rothstein — Richard Rothstein, a former education columnist with the New York Times who is now a researcher at the Economic Policy Institute, is always thought-provoking. No one is more convincing on the negative effects of standardized testing on curriculum and learning – “a dangerous narrowing of the curriculum has happened most dramatically in schools serving disadvantaged children.”

Worse, Rothstein says, “the notion that you can set challenging standards that all children can meet is absurd and defies everything we know about human psychology and abilities . . . The achievement gap cannot be closed [because] it is a function of social class differences.” There is a difference, Rothstein points out, between high expectations and high standards, and schools should adopt the former and make the latter more flexible — he says all the focus on closing the gap as measured by standardized testing is making educators and policymakers more cynical about their work . He is not particularly optimistic about the Obama Administration’s plans for the ESEA authorization but says there is almost no chance it will be re-authorized this year anyway.

How should schools be held accountable? Rothstein endorses the “Broader, Bolder Approach”  to education laid out by numerous educators and teaching experts, which among other things would create a system of state-funded inspectors who would go to schools and take a more qualitative approach to evaluating school quality.

Data for Direction with CSBA’s Christopher Maricle — Chris Maricle is a CSBA consultant who works with school boards on strategic planning issues and is developing a “data dashboard” with reams of indicators for boards to use to monitor the health and trouble spots in their districts. Discussions like this remind me again that our Board could have a much more systematic approach to oversight that would allow us to revisit our strategic priorities (seven for 2010-11) more frequently and effectively.

Second General Session with Ian Jukes — I hadn’t heard of Ian Jukes, but he’s an author and educator who gave an entertaining presentation on the “exponential” times we are living in and the implications for education. Schools have failed to keep up with the rapid acceleration in technology and information, and are not turning out graduates who have the skills to keep up with the technological and knowledge demands that are coming, let alone those that are already here.

Facilitating Data Conversations to Drive Achievement — This was an interesting presentation from the Superintendent of a small, high-performing southern California school district (Las Alamitos in Orange County) along with two of his board members and a principal. Our district is in the process of implementing benchmark assessments to inform instruction (and make sure that expectations are uniformly high across schools), so it was interesting to hear this district’s experiences three years after implementing their own benchmark assessments. The initial concern about these assessments are first, more testing and second, whether they reduce teaching to “drill and kill.” This has not happened in Las Alamitos — the district developed the assessments in-house, and teachers spent a lot of time debating what topics to assess and how. Superintendent Greg Franklin called this work “some of the best professional development there is,” and said teachers have found the assessments (conducted three times a year, about 90 minutes of class time each) to be a major help in both supporting needier students and challenging those that are more advanced.  After each assessment, teachers are given a detailed report of their students progress and support in writing an action plan to address any red flags in the data — the district has spent most of its professional development money in implementing the program and training teachers on how to access, interpret and implement changes based on student data.

State of the State – Third General Session — The annual “State of the State” roundtable conversation always closes the annual conference and it never fails to disappoint. Experts on California school finance and politics conduct a free-wheeling, informal conversation on what to expect for the coming year — this year, the experts were lobbyist Kevin Gordon of School Innovation and Advocacy, analyst Janelle Kubinek of School Services of California, and Rick Pratt, head of Government Relations for CSBA. The conversation was moderated by John Fensterwald, who writes and edits the Thoughts on Public Education (TOP-Ed) blog.

Much of the speculation this year centers on the new Jerry Brown administration’s approach to both the budget and to education policy. The good news: Brown appears to agree with school districts that local control and flexibility are a good thing, but school districts need to do a better job explaining how flexibility helps us actually serve students better — right now the conversation is about getting budet flexibility in exchange for annual cuts.

The really horrible news remains the budget outlook. There is just no data on the horizon to indicate that the state will be out of its financial crisis anytime soon, and in fact the “structural problem” of spending too much and taking in too little is so established that an improving economy might not improve our economic fortunes much.

The panelists made an interesting observation on education cuts vs. those made to other social services — that our cuts “stick,” as opposed to cuts made to say, the prison system or other state agencies. In other words, when education is cut, the legislature reduces our appropriation and expects districts to reduce spending accordingly. With prisons or other social services, the legislature itself is expected to make the hard political choices and they never actually happen.

It remains to be seen whether the new Governor will really be able to make the hard choices and fix the budget problem once and for all — everyone agrees, however, that the problem is too big to fix in just one or two years: there will have to be a multi-year solution and putting it together will take time.

(Update: This Dec. 6 article from the SJ Mercury News is a fuller account of the budget outlook for education– not for the faint of heart.)

Finally, I am happy that my SFUSD colleague Jill Wynns was this week elected President-elect of CSBA, a post that will keep her in a leadership position at CSBA through 2013. Jill’s long experience as a school board member and CSBA member will be valuable to our district and to the organization’s statewide advocacy efforts.


5 responses to “Dispatches from the CSBA Annual Education Conference

  1. @David, good points on language arts CST. In any event, I am not sure that filling in scantron sheets on any test measures “critical thinking” or “21st century learning.” Agreed that teachers should develop benchmark assessments and understand what they do and do not measure. I don’t know that there is any way to measure critical thinking skills other than giving students a problem with any number of solutions, each with an unintended consequence, then debating as a group the pros and cons of how each student solved it. That is the kind of problem I seem to confront every day in my personal and professional life — you need to be able to think through your solution logically, evaluate the impact(s) of the unintended consequences of your solution, then explain the solution you ultimately choose (defending any negative consequences or potential risks as collateral, unavoidable or acceptable damage). Difficult stuff and utterly impossible to grade mechanically – requires a human with . . . wait for it . . . critical thinking skills!

  2. David B. Cohen

    Rachel, I appreciate the follow up. On the question of benchmarking, I would say that it should be done judiciously, definitely teacher designed and not multiple choice. There are many ways that you could expect a teacher or school to demonstrate progress and assess results using multiple and various measures. The problem arises when we face a misguided and restrictive notion of accountability imposed from outside and far away. I would be interested in finding ways to better evaluate teachers and schools at the local level, but as long as the state instrument is singular and fatally flawed, we end up focused far too much on the least useful and lowest quality measure of our work.
    I’m glad you took a moment to distinguish among different types of standardized tests, as we often end up debating tests and not making any distinction (I plead guilty to that). However, I heartily dispute the idea that Language Arts CSTs measure what they claim to measure. Having administered hundreds of these tests to high school students for over a decade, I can tell you that students generally do not take the tests in the manner expected – nor do they need to. They look at the questions first and then use various strategies to discern the answer. Thus, any assumption on the part of the test publishers that reading comprehension is being measured following a complete reading of the passage is a faulty assumption. Furthermore, there are many ways in which the questions measure reasoning, logic, or even cultural background just as much as they measure actual reading skill. I could go on and on about what the tests claim to measure and how those claims are rather dubious, but need to wrap this up for now. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

  3. @David – Whoof. Those are challenging questions. I do buy Rothstein’s arguments on testing – he makes a ton of sense. Right now, the tests are something of a necessary evil – I don’t actually think the CST is that bad as a test, since as a standards-based test it measures achievement against an objective standard and not a “standardized” cohort. The problems with it are 1)it comes out too late to have any diagnostic value for teachers or students; 2)it is graded at a high scale. The state says that “proficient” is the lowest acceptable mark on the test, but proficient actually corresponds to more than 80 percent correct on the test. That seems like kind of a distorted curve if you, like me, interpret a “C” (OK, maybe a C+) as average. I have similar objections to the NAEP — it’s a relatively well-respected test, but it comes out too late to do any good in terms of improving instruction/achievement.
    I am becoming more and more a believer in the idea of benchmark assessments developed by teachers for teachers, measuring a student’s knowledge of the standards for a particular class/grade at several points during the year. If you are designing good assessments that show student growth across the year, then you are also developing a good idea of which students need more challenges and which students need more intervention. I would not attach any particular accountability to these assessments, since I trust teachers to use the information they elicit to do what is best for students. Under the current accountability system, my hope would be that a well-implemented system of benchmark assessments would produce enough growth on the CST to avoid the worst punishments the system has to dole out.
    But I like Rothstein’s idea of accountability — creating a cadre of school inspectors to conduct qualitative assessments of school quality. That, combined with a better system of teacher evaluation, should provide us with all the information we need to determine which teachers/schools are succeeding and which are failing. As an elected (and someone seemingly driven to share her opinions far and wide with anyone who will listen) I think my job is to try and influence the education reform debate away from high-stakes testing and towards the “bolder, broader approach” Rothstein and others espouse.
    Does that answer your question? And thanks for commenting.

  4. David B. Cohen

    I agree with Barb – thank you very much. Challenging questions for you though – if you buy Rothstein’s arguments on testing (and I hope you do), how do you strike a balance as a trustee who would support movement in another direction and still guide the district in its compliance with test-score-based policies? How do you address the valid educational concerns of stakeholders who raise those concerns based on test scores, and (gently?) suggest that test scores are the wrong metric for many of our conversations about quality education?

  5. Thanks for the great writing Rachel! I can always count on you to educate me and keep me informed with well-crafted economic use of words. Appreciate all you are doing.