Coincidentally, Jack O’Connell, State Superintendent of Public Instruction, was also in San Diego Feb. 10, the same day as Alan Bersin, to deliver an abridged version of his state of education speech. Many of O’Connell’s points – on teacher quality, the high school exit exam, the state’s testing and accountability system – are consistent with Bersin’s and Schwarzenegger’s views.

“His perspective on these matters is fully in accord with the governor,” Bersin told me.

This is the first year high school seniors are required to pass the two-part California High School Exit Exam to receive a diploma. The inevitable uproar has resulted, predictably, in lawsuits contending that the requirement is unfair.

But so far, both O’Connell and the Schwarzenegger administration are holding firm, resisting efforts to water down the exam or toss out the need for CAHSEE to graduate.

“The governor is completely onboard with the view that says the high school exit exam is a minimal standard, calling for eighth-grade mathematics skills and 10th-grade literacy skills,” Bersin said. “We have an obligation to our community as well as to our students to see to it that our students who are certified as high school graduates at a minimum possess those gateway skills.”

However, all those who profess to be rigid about CAHSEE, including Bersin and O’Connell, have signed on to the settlement in the Chapman case, which agrees to delay the requirement to pass the exit exam for certain special education students for one more year.

“It gives us a year to more fully understand the impact of CAHSEE on special needs,” Bersin justified. “Yes, it’s a stop-gap solution, but when we look at the longer term solution, we’ll have better information on which to make judgments. It provides an opportunity ? to gather more information about what the impact is on special needs students.”

O’Connell and Bersin are working together on another front, to find a resolution to the problem of having two very different testing and accountability systems – one devised by the state and one imposed by the federal government. Both – the state’s Academic Performance Index system and President Bush’s Adequate Yearly Progress program under federal No Child Left Behind legislation seek to measure school and student academic performance, but they do it using different yardsticks for success.

“We’ve been working very closely on attempting to develop a more harmonized accountability system,” Bersin said. “The existing system is counter-productive ? because it is difficult for our school communities as well as the general public to understand how a school could be classified as making progress under one system and needing improvement under another. There is no logical inconsistency, but there is a practical communications problem that needs to be addressed.

“The governor and [U.S. education secretary] Margaret Spellings have created a work group which I chair that Jack O’Connell sits on.”

The goal, he said, is to produce “an accountability system that is fair and understandable and permits us to make judgments about which schools should need intervention.”

Bersin was quick to clarify that the result will not be a third, even more confusing system.

“The purpose ? is to produce a harmonized system that will permit clear communication of a single set of results in ways that are understandable and functional,” he stressed. “That is, they can be used by school communities to make judgments about instructional programs, [and] they can be used by parents to make judgments about are how good their schools are – without having the considerable cognitive dissonance that the two parallel systems now create.”

Currently, under the federal program, more than 1,800 schools in California are classified as Program Improvement, Bersin said. “Everyone needs to improve, but formal classification actually communicates the wrong message,” he said. “And frankly, we don’t have the capacity at the state level to make any meaningful intervention when our pool of schools subject to intervention numbers up to more than 25 percent of the total schools in the state.”

Bersin believes both systems have their strengths and weaknesses, but he prefers the state’s API system because it measures and rewards progress over time. In contrast, the federal AYP system sets a minimum standard for achievement that is not based upon previous performance. This is why some schools get credit for improving annually based upon the state’s API system, but are classified as under-performing under the federal system if they don’t reach pre-determined AYP goals.

“The [API] growth system that measures progress from year to year is a better guide because it permits you to look at schools across the achievement spectrum and see schools that are low-achieving but high-performing,” Bersin said. “That is to say, their absolute level of achievement may be low, but their growth year to year is actually more than satisfactory.

“By the same token, you have schools at the high-achieving level – in places like La Jolla and Del Mar that may in fact not be serving subgroups of students or who are not moving their schools as rapidly as they should.

“So the API needs to pay more attention to closing the achievement gap, and AYP needs to pay more attention to honoring schools that are making progress at accelerated rates.

“It’s a balance as usual ? So much of the way we look at the world in education is dichotomous, polarized, when in fact, as in most areas of life, it’s an issue of balance.”

The Budget Spin

Bersin called this year’s education budget “an extraordinary recognition of the governor” to the need for more education funding. He said $4.3 billion was added to the budget, which he said resolves much of the dispute that caused so much of the rancor last year.

“This is an enormous increase in resources and one that provides money in the most flexible form to school districts so that it can be applied to fill many of the holes that were created by the dramatic decline over the previous four years,” he said.

The education coalition continues to ask for more, Bersin said, but “inadvisably so, given the fact that there are many other needs in the state. The continuing disputes over money that is argued to be owed on a one-time basis from previous years is not something that could reasonably be paid this year without wrecking the budget. And I think fair observers recognize that.”

The governor’s budget offers maximum flexibility to school districts, Bersin said, specifically earmarking funds only for teacher quality; art, music, and physical education; support for CAHSEE; and continued expansion of career technical education.

Schwarzenegger says he is proposing close to $11,000 per pupil in education funding this year – an all-time high for California. But many education leaders and research organizations throughout the state dispute this number.

Although EdVoice recognizes the proposed increase in education funding and applauds the governor for his efforts, the statewide education-reform organization’s president Christopher Cabaldon issued a statement saying that the amount is “far from the $10,000 per student that other prosperous states are investing in their children’s learning.”

EdVoice staffers say the actual amount is closer to $7,000 per student, near the bottom in per-pupil funding in the country. The disparity between their numbers and the governor’s, they say, is because the governor’s calculations include federal and local funds earmarked for specific programs that are not normally included in state spending reports.

“But all of that is part of what goes to education,” Bersin said, defending the governor’s numbers. “If you take the total amount of money – it’s well over $60 billion – divided by the number of students in California, you get a measure that’s a per capita figure. I think the way to say it is you have to define your terms.”

Bersin agreed that the funding system is too complicated. “That’s part of the difficulty in our budget and part of the way in which we publicly finance education,” he said, calling the current system “far too opaque to be understood by many professionals inside the education world, let alone by the general public. In a democracy, when a financing system becomes the province for interpretation by a handful of insiders, it’s not healthy.

“The governor is clearly in favor of transparency, but it takes the legislature, the governor, the education coalition to not only gather the data but communicate it clearly,” Bersin said. “It’s a goal that we have to continue to work on.”

Read Part One of the interview with Alan Bersin, California’s Education Secretary.

Marsha Sutton writes about education and children’s issues. She can be reached at marsha.sutton@voiceofsandiego.org.

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