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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Legislation Done Right Can Drive School Improvement

Sometimes I write about concerns with education legislation. That it doesn't always take into consideration the expertise of those in the schools -- those who are actually responsible for the implementation of the policy. That evidence doesn't always support it. That it can create perverse incentives.

But education legislation, done right, can be very positive. It can drive real, sustained school improvement. Take California's Quality Education Investment Act (QEIA) of 2006. The law, which came out of a lawsuit brought by the California Teachers Association (CTA) and California state Superintendent Jack O'Connell, among others, that the state had not met its education funding obligations.

The law established a grant program that will put nearly $3 billion over seven years into around 500 lower performing schools. Qualifying schools initially ranked in the bottom two deciles of the state according to API (Academic Performance Index, a California measure of school performance based on standardized test scores). As a group, they serve a largely disadvantaged population. Of the approximately 500,000 students who attend QEIA schools, 84 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, 79 percent are Hispanic and 41 percent are English learners.

QEIA gives schools the flexibility to develop individual improvement plans while directing money into evidence-based reforms, including reducing class sizes, hiring more school counselors, support for parental involvement and providing high-quality professional development and time for teacher collaboration.

And preliminary results are encouraging. A recent report found that QEIA schools achieved 47.2 percent more growth on the API than similar lower-performing schools in the 2009-10 school year (21.2 points versus 14.4 points). Since funding for planning began in 2007, QEIA schools averaged 62.7 points in API growth, compared to 49.3 points in similar non-QEIA schools. They have also shown more growth for Hispanic students, English learners and economically disadvantaged students.

The Transformation of John Muir Elementary

But overall results don't paint the whole picture. To really see it, you have to look at an individual school that has benefited from QEIA. One is Merced's John Muir Elementary. Five years ago, the school -- where 86 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunch -- was the lowest performing elementary school in its district. Today, it is one of the highest. The school has shown significant growth on every state test administered. In 2010, its API score was 806, exceeding the state's goal of 800 for all schools and up from just 650 five years ago.

Among the factors in the school's transformation is a culture of collaboration that has been strengthened by monthly collaboration meetings and a week-long training/collaboration session held over the summer, both made possible by QEIA. And thanks to QEIA, the school has reduced class sizes, allowing teachers to get to know students individually. Teacher Teresa Pitta calls smaller classes "one of the fundamental reasons that we have become more successful."

Of course, QEIA is not the sole reason for John Muir's transformation. The school's professional development, a different approach to data, and also a newly energized parent base have all played a large role. But QEIA has supported it over the past two years.

Lessons in a Time of Fiscal Crisis

Of course, QEIA is quite expensive. With the tight budgets most states and districts face, it is unlikely that it will be replicated exactly in many other places. But we can take some of the lessons that we are starting to learn from it (which are detailed in the report) and incorporate them into reform efforts at other schools in other places.

One broad observation: This act is working because of its focus on teaching and classroom-level changes, not governance reforms. And these are the types of reforms that educators advocate most strongly for. So perhaps it is time that we listen to those in the schools a little more closely, taking care to include them in education policy discussions.

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Donald Johnson's picture
Donald Johnson
Fired ex-Geography/Journalism/English teacher, Houston, Texas

The article makes a convincing argument for school reform then torpedoes it with the primary reason it won't work: funding. The mood for publicly financed innovation has been poisoned by Tea Partiers steeped in the conviction that capitalism can be beneficent. Perhaps a scaled-down approach might be effective, but which one? Where are the studies that show that hiring more counselors, for example, increases test scores? And exactly what does "getting to know students individually" entail? Vagarities and suppositions based on maintaining status quo hardly screams for additional funding. Perhaps it's the smaller class sizes, but then, that's can be all but proven
to improve achievement. What political factor caused them to grow anyway, and how can another in a seemingly endless stream of edu-fads such as QUIA magically gain widespread public support? This reeks of misdirection.

Anne OBrien's picture
Anne OBrien
Deputy Director of the Learning First Alliance
Blogger 2014

Donald, I'm sorry you think the addition of the "funding" component to the end of the piece lessened its effectiveness. I debated not putting it in, but I ultimately decided that to NOT mention it would invite all sorts of comments on the unrealistic a view of education reform this was, given budget constraints. Better to acknowledge the weakness and point out that lessons from the reform efforts could still be useful.

And as for your questions on evidence...This website reviews the evidence on class size and achievement: http://www.centerforpubliceducation.org/Main-Menu/Organizing-a-school/Cl.... Of course, I agree with you that once the evidence has been acknowledged the challenge comes with identifying the factors that allowed them to grow in the first place.

As for evidence that hiring more school counselors improves test scores...First, as a general rule and while it was not emphasized in this post, I don't think the only outcomes for interest are test scores. So in that regard, I think that "Students who get perfunctory counseling are more likely to delay college and make more questionable higher education choices" (a finding from a Public Agenda study from early 2010 - http://www.publicagenda.org/theirwholelivesaheadofthem?qt_active=1) is one piece of evidence on the importance of counseling. And the California Department of Education has also collected some research on the impact of counselors. The collection can be found at http://www.cde.ca.gov/ls/cg/rh/counseffective.asp.

As for findings...at Muir they found smaller classes let them know students better. But in general, the report's findings did offer some suggestions for how some schools and districts may be able to better allocate their existing funds to improve outcomes. For example (these are pasted straight from the report):
* Professional development decisions in higher API growth schools were made in collaborative teams with teacher input, leading to greater satisfaction among stakeholders.
* Higher API growth schools had more focused professional development in core content areas
* Higher API growth schools used student data to guide professional development decisions.
* Higher API growth schools engaged in more teacher collaboration to develop lesson plans, create common assessments, and analyze student data.

Certainly, a number of schools are already engaged in these kinds of professional development and professional collaboration activities. But a number of schools are not. And by redirecting existing funds into such activities (rather than, for example, professional development from an outside consultant that teachers may not find relevant), they may be able to benefit from this work.

Anne OBrien's picture
Anne OBrien
Deputy Director of the Learning First Alliance
Blogger 2014

Over on Facebook, Sarah and Manual left a couple comments I wanted to respond to...

Manual: "Well with the great history (No Child Left Behind) of legislation driving education in a positive direction. No! Because legislation is driven by Law suits (or the fear of being sued), special interest that have a detrimental effect to the whole of education. Very little legislation is driven by research or people who are in or have studied education. In other words legislation is reactionary rather than being proactive. Until this changes legislation will be the enemy of education rather than lead towards better education."

I think part of this comment is right-on. Too little legislation is driven by research or people in education. Which is one reason I think that this legislation has been so successful...it was driven by research and people in education! But I also think Manual is right that legislation tends to be reactionary rather than proactive. But in many cases of education legislation, at least people are reacting to what they perceive as a problem: the education system is not performing as well as it could. And as long as legislation "reacts" to this problem with the input of those who know about education (and is based on evidence) , I don't think it is an enemy. It has the potential to be a great friend.

Sarah makes a somewhat similar point in part of her comment (this is an excerpt - the entire comment can be viewed on the Edutopia Facebook page). "The thrust of this suggests one can have "good" legislating. But all legislating of education falls under notions that those who legislate may well not be the best and the brightest about education. Because they take out of the hands of systems decisions that local control and state systems are there to do. Additionally it carries with it enormous issues in ways that are so insidious as -just consider what happened with NCLB as funds were pulled from services across the board to set up the accountability, the monitoring systems, the consultants, the tests. In effect the legislated change took a high volume of $ that might have bought infrastructure, schools and other things. Was it the best way to improve or even mildly "effective." By it's own standard of ridding us of the achievement gap rich to poor student-it's standard mind you, no it's been a bust."

Again, I agree with this point - I just don't think that because in the past education legislation has not been as effective as desired, it does not mean that in the future it will not be.

Sarah's comment also includes: "The lawsuit on QEIA was NOT an example of "special interest" lawsuiting. It was an effort to get the governor to release the funding to ed in CA Mandated by Law. He withheld this. The union carried this forward then to get that amount back ...resulting in a legal solution that allowed the union to disperse the funds not to all Districts, as they might have, but rather considering the dire state of affairs to those districts and schools MOST at risk and neglected.

Who was the special interest there? The schools were shorted the mandated by law funds that were supposed to come to them.

This is not as far as I can see an example of legislation.

Rather it is an example of how a governor over-stepped and through court action then money went into a disbursement and was used to do some good largely by the direction of the CTA."

If I am not mistaken, this IS legislation because it was established by an act of a legislative body - the California state Senate. But it was driven by the actions (or inactions) of an elected official, leading to a lawsuit and judgment that resulted in Senate action.

Donald Johnson's picture
Donald Johnson
Fired ex-Geography/Journalism/English teacher, Houston, Texas

At the Houston-area schools where I've taught, Counselors have been paper-pushers more than anything else. Their primary task after scheduling seems to be TAKS manipulation. For a counselor to be truly effective, more imagination is necessary than typically found in institutionalized large districts where moving up (or over) is simply a function of going along with the existing system. In theory, your ideas are nice, but in practice they are mostly pipe dreams because of the systems erected that inhibit them. The micro-managers that head most of our schools exhibit little of the creative energy needed to reverse the death spiral partly caused by the Republican domination of our legislature (cuts public school funding) and from the public apathy that results from too little day-to-day involvement with their children's educations.

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