Reforms: Make Schools Run Like Businesses
by Ginger Hovenic, Bill Siart and Robert J. Flowers
The recent annual release of statewide Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) test results provides a good opportunity to evaluate how our public schools and students are doing, and also serves as a good reminder of the important standards-based education reforms currently under way to improve California schools.
Improving public schools has long been a priority of the business community. There is no question that better schools and better-educated students translate into better employees and a stronger economy and business climate.
But as many of us in the business and education communities spent years working to implement creative means of “improving” schools and turning out better educated students, an obvious reality emerged: How can we know if schools and students are doing “better” without first having a clear understanding of what we want them to know? Similarly, how can we compare one school’s progress to another if we do not have an across-the-board means of assessing progress?
This common sense recognition translated into a collaborative effort among business leaders, parents, teachers and elected officials in the 1990s to adopt a series of reforms to improve our public schools through the basic notion of increased standards and accountability.
Package Of Reforms
The standards-based reforms under way are based on proven, basic steps for success in any organization or business: set clear goals, measure progress to make sure goals are met, and establish accountability for outcomes. The package of reforms now underway includes:
– Establishment of statewide learning standards. California now has clear learning requirements for what students statewide should know and be able to do in every grade in the core subjects of math, science, English, social science and the arts.
– Development of a state testing system. In order to provide a consistent and objective measurement for student and school progress, kids in grades two through 11 are now given the annual STAR test. STAR is actually two tests. The first component is the California Standards Test, which measures how well students are doing in meeting the statewide academic standards in math, science, English and history. STAR also includes a norm-reference section, currently called the Stanford-9 or SAT-9. Kids throughout the nation take this test and it helps provide a measurement of how California students and schools compare to their peers across the country.
– Instituting a system of accountability for results. California’s new accountability standards hold educators, schools and districts directly responsible for the job of teaching kids. Schools are expected to make measurable progress each year and the state has adopted a system of rewards and incentives for schools that make improvements. Key to the school accountability package is the public reporting of STAR results. Giving parents and the public annual information about how well schools are doing creates pressure for schools to do better.
It is hard to believe that less than five years ago, California didn’t have statewide learning standards, or a consistent means to test how students and schools in communities were doing based on a common set of standards.
Before the establishment of statewide learning standards, schools throughout the state were teaching students different material and at a different pace. Not all students were given the same opportunity to learn and succeed, and the state had no real consistent measurement to determine how well individual schools and students were doing.
With learning standards now in place, teachers, parents and educators have a clear measurement of where students should be every step along the way and the ability to identify schools and students in need of extra help in mastering core subject areas.
So, as we evaluate the recently released results of the annual STAR test, it is important that we all remember that the implications and value of this test go far beyond the 2002 results.
It is encouraging to see that, while we still have a long way to go, California public school students are improving, both compared to students across the nation and in meeting core-learning requirements in the basic subjects. The real success story is that California now has in place high learning standards and a foundation for measuring our progress. Thanks to these much needed reforms, the future of California public school students and our businesses look much brighter.
Hovenic is president and CEO of the Business Roundtable for Education and the Chamber Foundation, San Diego. Siart chairs the California Business for Education Excellence Foundation and is chairman of Excellent Education Development. Flowers is president of community investment & development for Washington Mutual and vice chairman of the California Business for Education Excellence Foundation.