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State Board Discusses Program Improvement, Looks to New Administration in Washington

By Jeff Hudson - November 7, 2008

Tuesday night's dramatic presidential election results generated reverberations on Wednesday and Thursday at the State Board of Education (SBE) meeting in Sacramento, as the board members looked forward to the day when a new administration will be handling federal requirements under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

On multiple agenda items, SBE members mentioned that the California Department of Education (CDE) will soon be working with a new Secretary of Education at the federal level – an Obama appointee.  Expectations are running high that the new administration will revise some of the harsher aspects of NCLB.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell let slip on Wednesday afternoon that "the Obama folks" have already been in touch with the CDE. "There will be a meeting in December" to discuss possible "changes we want" in NCLB and related matters, O'Connell indicated.

"I guess the embargo on that came off (Tuesday) night" with Obama's victory at the polls, O’Connell said. But he cautioned that changes in the law won't occur until well into 2009 or 2010.  It is widely anticipated that the economy, rather than education, will be the front burner issue as the Obama administration takes the reins. And in any case, it takes time for legislation to move through Congress.

In the meantime, "You want to preserve your capacity to deal with changes" in the way the state relates to federal programs, O'Connell advised the SBE.

Several SBE members expressed frustration with the existing ramifications of No Child Left Behind, and with the Program Improvement portion of NCLB in particular.

Board member Kenneth Noonan said that when districts go into Program Improvement (PI) "they cannot move out of PI, (even when) they're making significant progress." Noonan said that the law requires districts to file "paper on top of paper" to meet federal reporting requirements, and added "I question whether we're doing the right thing. We can't continue to do this to school districts."

Board member Yvonne Chan noted that this week's SBE agenda included items relating to an initial cohort of 99 schools that went into Program Improvement Corrective Action in March, and a second cohort of 50 districts that are heading into Program Improvement Corrective Action now.

Noting that there are about 1,000 school districts in California, Chan observed that "by January, we will be identifying a third cohort. When do we stop?"

"Morale is so bad," Chan said. "You cannot get out of PI. Let's get real."

Board president Ted Mitchell, while taking a friendly view of certain aspects of the federal law, allowed that "conscientious objection to NCLB is an honorable position" these days.

Ruth Bloom, SBE vice president, said "The concept was good, but the way it's been enacted has been horrible for schools and kids across the country."

Board member Alan Bersin was the most critical. Bersin said "We've become a plan-writing exercise. . . (and) we have started a process that almost constitutionally cannot distinguish between schools making progress and those that cannot." Bersin added that "my personal view is that this board should take on the burden of resisting federal nonsense."

"This is the largest problem facing public education, dealing with PI," Bersin said.

Bersin raised pointed questions about the DAIT (District Assistance and Intervention Team) process for districts in Program Improvement, which he said resembles "a cottage industry." (DAIT teams are assigned to work with districts that go into Program Improvement, and develop recommendations for change).

Other board members took a more favorable view of DAIT (if not PI).

Noonan said he shared Bersin's concern about paperwork, but added that he's spoken with superintendents who have seen benefits from working with DAIT teams.

Paul Shirk, an assistant superintendent with the San Bernardino school district, said "I understand Bersin's frustration. The paperwork we do not enjoy." But Shirk said the DAIT team on duty in San Bernardino has "done tremendous work with our district."  Shirk urged the SBE to "stay the course" and continue to help pair PI districts with DAIT teams.

Gavin Payne, Chief Deputy Secretary for Public Instruction, said "we have fairly high faith in the quality of work of DAIT teams, and the people that comprise DAIT teams. It's a fairly rigorous process to get into DAIT."

Sherry Griffith, of the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA), said that most of the districts that are currently working with DAIT teams "have a comfort level with the process," while others are "looking forward to that collaboration. They want to know that you want them to continue this work," Griffith told the SBE.

Mitchell argued that the SBE should continue to foster the DAIT process, adding "I would not want us to be leaving one model for an entirely different model we invent on the fly. My appeal is not to 'stay the course,' but to adopt the staff recommendation – and build in flexibility to changes that we may initiate, or may come from negotiations with the federal government."

Ultimately, the SBE did indeed adopt the staff recommendations regarding the first and second cohorts of districts in Program Improvement Corrective Action.  CDE staff will now continue to work with districts on intervention plans.  But districts planning on challenging DAIT recommendations now have an additional month (until Dec. 5) to file an appeal.

Editor's Note: Jeff Hudson is the editor of EdBrief and an award-winning education reporter and writer in print, radio and television media.