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.