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Education Reform

September 3, 2001 at 12:00 AM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: Now the education reform debate as seen from the trenches. Joining us are Roy Romer, the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District and three state education superintendents: Elizabeth Burmaster of Wisconsin, Jaime Molera of Arizona, and Linda Schrenko of Georgia.

Well, guests, I’d like to start with your general impressions of the bill assuming that the broad outlines can be seen in the House and Senate versions. Let’s start with you, Superintendent Molera.

JAIME MOLERA: Well, I think it’s very heartening as to what’s happening. For the first time in a long, long time, if ever, the President and Congress are starting to make education at the forefront of a national policy. We need a good, strong national policy but that’s balanced between what states need and what states should be doing and what states are doing versus what the federal role should be which is I think to set a broad policy about why it’s important to have standards based reform. I think that’s what’s happening. I think President Bush is doing an excellent job keeping in the public forefront.

RAY SUAREZ: Superintendent Burmaster.

ELIZABETH BURMASTER: Well, I believe that the best part of the plan is that it has bipartisan support, but the problem is that both parties have agreed on a plan that is less about leaving no child behind and more about leaving no child untested. The White House made it clear that the testing provision was really the heart and soul of the plan. And here in Wisconsin where we have a great educational system and are at the top of the class in testing, we really feel it’s more an issue about how we invest our time, resources and energy in best serving children. We believe it’s best to invest in small class sizes and quality teachers and strong reading programs, really emphasizing early learning opportunities and parental and community involvement. That’s the heart and the soul of the plan in Wisconsin.

RAY SUAREZ: Superintendent Schrenko?

LINDA SCHRENKO: Well, Georgia is not at the top of the nation, and we definitely need the testing to be able to disaggregate the information and find out what we need to do to help our children. I think the thing that concerns me the most right now is that there is a plan, there are good parts to this plan, but we need for it to be passed. We do need for it to be on the President’s desk to be signed because for every delay in education, if we don’t start at the beginning of the school year, we get another year’s delay. So we desperately need for them to act.

RAY SUAREZ: Finally, Superintendent Romer?

ROY ROMER: You know, first they have to put enough money in here to make it work. The House and Senate needs to reconcile it — need enough money. Secondly testing is a good thing. I think that we need to be very careful about it being authentic testing. But the consequences are, I think, the thing we need to really focus upon in this bill.

They could over micromanage it from Washington. I think that, let me give one concrete illustration. In both bills they expect states to reach a state of proficiency for 100 percent of students within either 10 years or 12 years and then they’ll measure annual yearly progress toward that mark.

The problem is you’re never going to get 100 percent of students to proficient. If you look at the NAEP, which is the national test now, we do well if we get 30 to 40 percent proficient. What I’m saying is if you set a standard that is unrealistic ever to reach, then people will simply dumb down the definition of proficient and you will have lost something that’s very valuable.

In summary, we need to have testing and we need to reach for really high stakes but we ought not have the consequences so severe that you force people to dumb down the definition of what proficient is.

RAY SUAREZ: Superintendent Molera, what do you think of Governor Romer’s suggestions? It’s hard to know when you have a diagnostic tool like a test what you’re supposed to do with the data once you’ve got it.

JAIME MOLERA: That’s why I think it is important for every state to craft comprehensive test policy around what their state standards are. There’s no question about that. I think it would be an inappropriate role for the federal government to come in and say this is how you’re going to do it in each and every state. But I think there’s a balance there because if you’re committed to standards base reform, everything that goes along with that — teacher preparation, curriculum design and assessment — has to be a part of that. And you have to have a way of measuring student progress. It’s not penalizing the school because they have a lot of kids that might be limited English proficient and they might be at a very low level versus a more affluent school. It’s measuring how they gain on a yearly basis.

RAY SUAREZ: To themselves in effect.

JAIME MOLERA: Absolutely. So you’re not penalizing them for having students that might have more socioeconomic problems, more societal problems and the things the teachers have to deal with every day. But it’s really showing how you can get kids to move up, not penalizing them when they come in but showing how much they progress. And I think from a policy perspective that will change a lot of mind sets out there. At least in Arizona folks are starting to work towards that. Republicans and Democrats alike see that as a starting point for real reforms.

RAY SUAREZ: Superintendent Burmaster, do you agree with your colleague from Arizona that the testing regime would allow that or has the government put some requirements on what to do with that information once you’ve got it that doesn’t allow you to treat different schools in different parts of the state differently?

ELIZABETH BURMASTER: Exactly. I think I want to go back, too, how much testing is too much? Now, in Wisconsin we currently test at the third, fourth, 8th, 10th and we’re looking to a high school graduation test. And the plan would require every child every year in grades 3 through 8 to be tested through a standardized state testing. I think that where we see, and testing is important, and we do have to have a measure of accountability to know that we are reaching our state standards — but the standardized testing shouldn’t ever replace that everyday, ongoing assessment and evaluation that goes on between teacher and student in the classroom and really prepares our students to be productive and contributing citizens in their community. We’re not trying to raise a generation of good test takers. We want our children to take their knowledge and apply it in the real world. So I believe that we have to go back even to the basic question of how much standardized testing is appropriate? How is that standardized testing being used to drive good instruction? And those, to me, are the very basic questions.

RAY SUAREZ: Superintendent Schrenko, of those questions been answered to your satisfaction by the proposals now before the House and Senate?

LINDA SCHRENKO: Well, I think in the original proposal, there was a lot of flexibility for the states to be able to design their own assessment system and even further to be able to determine what adequate yearly progress is, but I agree with Governor Romer that saying that everybody’s got to reach that 100 percent is a difficult thing to do, but I also know that when I look a mom in the eye, it’s kind of like taking kids on a field trip and saying to the parents, “we’ll bring back 95 percent.” I don’t think we can say that. I think we do have to set the high goal with the understanding that we might not get everybody there but it’s worthwhile saying that it’s a goal that we do so.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, I think you’ve anticipated what I wanted to ask you about next: What to do with the lowest performing schools. Some in the education community have proposed something that’s a little less punitive. Others want to just break up those schools. What do you see coming out of the House and Senate conference that gives you guidance about what happens to those schools that, after five years, after ten years, just aren’t performing?

LINDA SCHRENKO: Well, again, I think we are children’s advocates. And I don’t know how the rest feel. I think public schools do a great job to help kids learn. But when a public school fails, I’m for doing what’s best for the child. I think this formula that’s in the bill says that first we provide additional monies, we provide resources, a school improvement team, to go in and help them. If they don’t improve, then we have some options. We can let the parents choose another public school. We can close down the school and open it under new management. I think in Georgia we’re going to have to use every school building we’ve got so we want the option to open under new management, but we know that our first goal has to be that every child learns. If they’re not learning, we need to do something.

RAY SUAREZ: Superintendent Romer.

ROY ROMER: Yes, I think that the first step of putting more resources in to try to help that school raise its skill levels is correct. I think if it fails, the second option of public school choice works in most places but it doesn’t in LA. We don’t have any space. We simply can’t use it. But I think as a substitute, reorganize the school, put total new management, new teachers in there. If you have a consistent pattern of failure, you’ve got to use the building. Clean it out. Start it over. Also, put a strategy at work, which really improves classroom practice. I think that there needs to be real consequences because, hey, if you don’t perform, we ought not be fooling people about it.

RAY SUAREZ: Superintendent Molera.

JAIME MOLERA: I would agree with that. I’m a little bit reticent to allow the federal government to dictate what kinds of remedies they would put in place. I think that has to be done as a state level.

RAY SUAREZ: But is it in there now: The federal government dictate over what you do with those schools?

JAIME MOLERA: As you know, right now it’s an ever-evolving process. Who knows where it’s at right now. I think some of the things that, I was part of a number of superintendents that met with the president about this. We urged that that would be taken into consideration. He agreed. I’m confident that a lot of members of Congress at least from Arizona that I’ve talked, they agree that you can have a good federal broad policy but ultimately the states have to take that responsibility.

RAY SUAREZ: And Superintendent Burmaster, what do you do about the low performers?

ELIZABETH BURMASTER: Well, all of my colleagues have pointed out that we must be the chief advocates for our children and their education. And that it is critical that we hold our schools to high standards. The problem that I have with the Bush plan is that we are not holding our politicians accountable to the kind of investment and commitment in the things that we know truly make effective schools. We talked about those: The class sizes and quality teachers. I’d like to see the Bush plan take more of the funding that would be going to testing and invest that in the quality teachers initiative, which is very good in the Bush plan — and the reading initiatives. Let’s put our money where we know it will be effective.

RAY SUAREZ: But that flexibility isn’t allowed under the current proposals, is it?

ELIZABETH BURMASTER: No, it is not. That’s what I believe the Conference Committee is going to have to grapple with. It’s important that we do send the message as state superintendents and leaders, we’re the ones who see what is effective in our schools and we have to ensure and speak for the children and for our public schools, so that we don’t end up with federally mandated-run public schools.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Superintendent Schrenko, your state is one that is facing some pretty severe teacher shortages. What do you think about your colleague’s idea?

LINDA SCHRENKO: Well, I think it is critical that we have a good, quality teacher initiative. I like the one in the Bush proposal. But I think that paired with that we’ve got to recognize that Title I money is for student reading. There’s a 10 percent increase in Title I. That money will be used for reading, will be used for math, and so I think it’s essential that the American public understand that they are getting their money’s worth and they’ll only know that if children’s scores improve. So I think the testing is a critical component of accountability for results.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Superintendent Molera, how long is it going to take for these kinds of things to bear fruit? When will we be able to visit Phoenix or Tucson and say, “well, here, I can see what these programs did”?

JAIME MOLERA: Or Nogales, where I’m from. I think it’s going to take a while. It will take a long time because a key element I think of this legislation and the things that many people are doing across the states– and I know what we’re doing– is really taking a long, hard look at reading because if kids do not read by the end of the third grade, you can pretty much predict their academic achievement. We have to put more of an emphasis on that. That’s something that’s frustrating because folks want to see a big bang for their buck in a year, two years or actually they want to see it in like six months but it’s a long, long process. You have to prepare teachers. You have to really analyze the curriculum. You have to make the kinds of investments in order to ensure that all children, no matter where they live, are going to have access to a quality education.

RAY SUAREZ: Superintendents, thank you all for joining us.