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Understanding the “Crisis” in Basic Skills: Framing the Issues in Community Colleges

In the first of eleven PACE Working Papers, W. Norton Grubb et al, frame the issues surrounding basic skills instruction in California Community Colleges.

While increases in remedial education (or basic skills instruction or developmental education) have taken place at several levels of the education and training system, there are reasons for thinking that the issue is particularly acute in community colleges. This introductory working paper divides the problem into two. The first is the high proportion — perhaps 60 percent for the country, and 80 percent in California — of students entering colleges who assess into developmental courses. This can be explained by the pattern of dynamic inequality in American education, where inequalities among students increase as they move through the system.

The second problem arises from the evidence that students entering a remedial trajectory are unlikely to move into college-level work, so remediation has become a serious barrier to success for many students. Unfortunately, like other second-chance efforts, basic skills instructions often works under difficult conditions, and there are many hypotheses about why success rates in basic skill are not higher — most of which will be examined in this series of papers.

Since developmental education is first and foremost an instructional issue, this series of papers rests on a conceptual foundation focusing on the triangle of instruction, considering the instructor, students, and content within a set of institutional influences. The underlying research for these papers involves classroom observation, and interviews with instructors and administrators, to understand both classroom settings and the institutional setting. This framing paper then introduces the subjects for remaining papers in the series.

Understanding the “Crisis” in Basic Skills: Framing the Issues in Community Colleges

Deregulating School Aid in California: How 10 Districts Responded to Fiscal Flexibility, 2009-2010

In a new report, “Deregulating School Aid in California: How 10 Districts Responded to Fiscal Flexibility, 2009-2010,” Bruce Fuller, Julie Marsh, Brian Stecher and Tom Timar detail how leaders in 10 California school districts are responding to the deregulation of $4.5 billion in education funding. Sacramento policymakers have freed local educators from the specific guidelines that previously regulated spending on 40 categorical-aid programs. These program funds became entirely flexible in 2009, and local school boards could decide how to allocate these resources.

This decentralization of fiscal authority is the latest episode in a four-decade-old debate in Sacramento over who is best qualified to allocate public dollars to improve student achievement. This study illuminates what happened to these 40 programs (referred to as Tier 3 resources subject to categorical flexibility) in 10 diverse districts, how budget decisions were made by district leaders, and what local factors explain the various ways in which districts responded to this flexibility. The study was conducted by researchers from the RAND Corporation; the University of California, Berkeley; the University of California, Davis; and San Diego State University.

Diregulation of School Aid in California

The Road Ahead for State Assessments

The Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy and Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) have jointly produced a report that offers policy guidance for a new generation of state assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards. The report, The Road Ahead for State Assessments, aims to inform the work of the two U.S. Department of Education-funded consortia charged with developing a new generation of state assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards: the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers Consortium (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC).

The adoption of the Common Core State Standards presents states across the nation with an unprecedented opportunity to enhance the educational opportunities they provide students. States that have adopted the Common Core State Standards are now in the early stages of revising curriculum frameworks, adopting new instructional materials, developing new systems of assessment, and providing professional development for teachers to prepare them to deliver instruction aligned to the new standards.

This process has the potential to fundamentally transform public education for the majority of U.S. students. It is therefore essential that policymakers and education leaders take full account of the issues and challenges that lie ahead as early as possible in the implementation process. This report includes three papers that address critical “next generation” issues in assessment policy that can help guide the choices made about system design: computer adaptive assessments, assessment of English learners and assessing science. These three papers describe some of the critical attributes of a fairer and more accurate assessment system. The common conclusion in all three papers is that assessment policy will have to take full advantage of new technologies to provide useful and timely information to students and teachers about the quality and effectiveness of teaching and learning. The authors’ provide a vision of new assessments that goes beyond the horizon of current practice.

The Road Ahead for State Assessments

The Quality Teacher and Education Act: First Year Report

In June 2008, the voters of San Francisco passed the Quality Teacher and Education Act (QTEA) with a 69.8% majority, authorizing the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) to collect $198 per parcel of taxable property, indexed annually for 20 years. Heather Hough, Susanna Loeb, and David Plank of the Center for Education Policy Analysis (CEPA) and Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), in collaboration with the San Francisco Unified School District, have documented the passage of this policy and are now engaged in a three-year evaluation (starting in 2009-10) of the implementation and effect of QTEA, focusing on the elements that directly affect the teacher workforce (teacher compensation, support, and accountability).

This first-year report documents the implementation of QTEA and how this affects the recruitment and retention of high quality teachers, the overall improvement of the teacher workforce, and the strategic removal of less effective teachers. To study the effect of QTEA on teacher outcomes, the authors use a mixed-methods approach, combining analysis of the district’s administrative data with original data collection.

The Quality Teacher and Education Act: First Year Report

Teacher Employment and Collective Bargaining Laws in California: Structuring School District Discretion over Teacher Employment

A new PACE policy brief, by William S. Koski, Professor of Law and Director of the Youth and Education Law Project at Stanford University and Aaron Tang law student at Stanford Law School and former teacher in St. Louis, Missouri, examines teacher employment and collective bargaining laws in California.

There is broad agreement that teacher quality is related to student achievement, but there is far less agreement about the degree to which school districts and administrators are constrained in making policies to improve teacher quality that might also affect teacher employment and working conditions. Conventional wisdom holds that state law and the collective bargaining agreements governed by state law often hamper districts’ discretion over teacher hiring, firing, evaluation, compensation, and assignment. Although California collective bargaining agreements have received some attention from researchers we know far less about whether, and to what extent, California law constrains or facilitates district-level discretion over teacher employment policies and practices. This policy brief examines that issue.

Koski and Tang focus on California and examine the extent to which the legal structure governing the employment and collective bargaining relationship between school districts and teachers constrains administrative and school board decision-making. Their strategy is to classify various aspects of the teacher-school district employment relationship into one of four categories. These categories reflect the level of discretion that districts enjoy over any given employment-related condition. They then analyze the teacher employment and collective bargaining laws in four other large and diverse states using that same four-tiered analytic framework. The authors conclude that California statutory law regarding teacher employment and collective bargaining, although quite similar to the law in those states, is somewhat more constraining of administrative decision-making in teacher employment matters. Whether this is helpful or harmful to students, they conclude, is entirely another question.

Teacher Employment and Collective Bargaining Laws in California

Effective Basic Skills Instruction: The Case for Contextualized Developmental Math

A new PACE policy brief by W. Charles Wiseley, CTE Specialist at the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office,  examines both the scarcity and the effectiveness of contextualized developmental math in the 110 public California Community Colleges (CCC) during the 2006-2007 academic year.

Recent research on students entering California community colleges found that less than one in ten students who enter at the basic arithmetic or pre-algebra math level successfully complete college-level math. Students entering at the next higher level of math (elementary algebra) are only slightly more likely to succeed in college-level math. Yet, college-level math skills are required for success in nearly all college programs including most occupationally-focused certificate programs. Overall, fewer than 20 percent of remedial math students who do not complete a college level math course earn a certificate, degree, or transfer to a four-year university within six years. Beginning in 2006, California community colleges, through changes in regulations designed to strengthen the core curriculum for the associate degree began to eliminate many occupationally-focused and “contextualized” math courses such as “Business Math” and “Technical Math for Airframe Mechanics.” These integrated courses often focus on the mathematics required in specific occupations, starting with basic arithmetic or pre-algebra and progressing into intermediate algebra topics, and have significantly higher success rates than traditional math courses. Unfortunately, the pressure for traditional academic courses has eliminated many of these contextualized courses, as they no longer meet the requirements for the associate degree. But the low success rates that are common in remedial math courses in the academic model mean that few students will be able to acquire the occupational skills necessary to complete an advanced occupational course, certificate, or degree.

Effective Basic Skills Instruction

Deregulation of School Aid in California: Revenues and Expenditure in the First Year of Categorical Flexibility

California’s school finance system is notoriously complex. Its critics have long advocated for simplifying funding streams and returning authority to local school boards. In 2009 the state partially acquiesced, giving districts significant flexibility over the funds from 40 categorical programs.  This flexibility provides an opportunity to see how districts respond when released from categorical funds. However, Tier 3 flexibility was adopted during a severe budget crisis, and most districts have been trying simply to maintain core services. So it is difficult to isolate the discrete impact of this policy change.

In this report, Jennifer Imazeki, Professor of Economics at San Diego State University, highlights preliminary results from an ongoing study of district response to this increased categorical flexibility, generally referred to as Tier 3.

Diregulation of School Aid in California

Policy Report: Costs of California Multiple Pathway Programs

There is widespread agreement that many of California’s high schools are doing a poor job of preparing their students for college and careers.  The James Irvine Foundation is sponsoring a major initiative to develop “Multiple Pathways” –– now called the Linked Learning approach –– as a strategy for improving the performance of California high schools.  To inform this effort, the Foundation asked PACE to gather evidence on the cost of linked learning programs.  This report by Ace Parsi, University of California, Berkeley, David N. Plank, Policy Analysis for California Education and David Stern, University of California, Berkeley presents the results.

How much does a good high school education cost?  This is a hard question to answer, because we do not know whether traditional high schools are using their resources in the best possible ways.  We know how much school districts spend on their high schools to achieve their current level of performance, but we do not know to what extent achieving better results could be accomplished by using current resources better or whether improved performance would require additional resources.  This makes judgments about whether reform strategies like Linked Learning cost more than, less than, or the same as traditional high school programs difficult, because we do not have a clear baseline against which to compare costs.

Costs of California Multiple Pathways Programs