George Lucas Educational Foundation
Education Trends

Legislation Done Right Can Drive School Improvement

January 5, 2011

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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