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Education Awards Plan Suspended

Times Staff Writer

The Davis administration has suspended its much-touted education awards program for this academic year, apparently stiffing more than 2,300 high-performing campuses and their teachers out of millions of dollars in bonus money.

Administration officials acknowledged Thursday that the state’s budget crisis has made it impossible to fund the awards -- a key element of the state’s accountability program -- which have slowly been scaled back as economic woes have worsened.

“It’s frustrating, because you see people here put tremendous effort into their work,” said Principal Sue DiJulio of Carson Street Elementary School in Carson, which qualified for an undetermined amount of award money this year. “None of us are doing it for the money, but when you’re promised it, you want to get it.”

The bad news came as state officials released the latest round of scores for the Academic Performance Index, which is based on standardized test scores and indicates whether schools meet state-mandated targets for improvement each year. The data, drawn from more than 6,400 campuses this year, also determine whether campuses face sanctions or qualify for awards.

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This year’s results showed that California’s public schools are improving at a slower rate than in the past and that, had rewards been available, fewer schools would have qualified compared to the last two years.

Gov. Gray Davis originally envisioned the bonuses as an annual incentive for schools and teachers to improve student performance. Previously, schools earned tens of thousands in extra cash, and individual teachers reaped bonuses of up to $25,000. Since the awards programs were launched in 2000, the state has paid out nearly $822 million.

But the budget crisis forced the state to scale back the ambitious--if controversial--awards. Davis had proposed $207 million in school and teacher awards this year but in negotiations with the Legislature agreed to cut the funds to preserve other important education programs, said Hilary McLean, a spokeswoman for the governor. No replacement funds have been found.

“We had to make a lot of tough choices, including deciding not to fund a program that is near and dear to his heart,” she said.

Davis, who is seeking reelection next month, will provide schools with certificates honoring their progress, McLean said. “The governor is every bit as proud of schools that have made significant gains as he has been each and every year that we’ve had the API as a tool to measure improvement,” she said.

State Education Secretary Kerry Mazzoni said one possibility would be for the Legislature to allocate money in a special session; another would be for Davis to include new funding when he submits next year’s budget in January. But she said prospects for that are uncertain.

The only money currently available in the budget for awards--$144 million--is going to retroactively pay last year’s winning schools, she said. The separate $100-million bonus system just for teachers was dropped last year for lack of money and is not expected to be funded retroactively.

The loss of award money has dismayed some educators.

“This is not good news at all,” said Crystal Whitley, principal of Fontana Middle School, which had planned to use award money for new furniture, overhead projectors and textbooks.

“We’re talking about losing basic things that kids and teachers need.”

Some teachers and principals, however, said they won’t miss the award money, calling huge bonuses for individual teachers divisive and unnecessary.

Many teachers and lawmakers said it was unfair to reward some and not others.

“I am glad we’re not getting the money,” said Nancy Sassaman, an English teacher at Diamond Ranch High School in Pomona. “I would rather students improved, not because schools got money, but because they genuinely learned more.”

John Wilber, principal of Fillmore High School, said the money is irrelevant to the more pressing goal: ensuring that all students pass the state’s new high school exit exam.

“I don’t see any difference in how hard our school tries on these tests each year, with or without the economic rewards,” he said. “It’s always nice to have extra money, but it doesn’t make any real difference.”

The API scores released Thursday are based on results from the Stanford 9 exam and other standardized tests linked to new academic standards in English-language arts.

The results showed that 53% of schools statewide met their test score targets this year, down from 58% last year and 72% two years ago.

To meet their targets, the schools must show improvement overall as well as among separate racial and ethnic subgroups of students. Thirty-seven percent of campuses would have qualified for awards this year, down from 48% last year and 69% two years ago.

Mazzoni and other educators said they had expected progress to slow as schools found it harder to raise test scores year after year. In addition, educators said the state English-language arts standard test--which was factored into API scores for the first time this year--is much harder than the Stanford 9. The language arts test, based on California’s new academic standards, made it tougher for schools to improve over last year.

“I would say to everyone, ‘Don’t sit back on your laurels saying you’ve done everything you can,’ ” said Charles Weis, superintendent of Ventura County schools. “There’s work to be done.”

The Los Angeles Unified School District defied the statewide trend: 72% of its schools met their API targets this year. Last year, the figure for the same schools was 67%; it was 70% two years ago. L.A. Unified’s elementary schools led the way, with 86% meeting their growth targets, up from 81% two years ago. This increase was expected, given the district’s improved Stanford 9 test results this year.

District officials credited the positive showing in the elementary grades to regimented instruction in reading and math, ongoing coaching for teachers, regular testing to evaluate student performance and demanding academic standards.

“This is very strong evidence that we can get this job done if we really focus,” said Supt. Roy Romer. “What we are doing is paying off. I’m really pleased.”

L.A. Unified’s results, however, were not complete. It did not receive API scores for about 80 schools, most of them elementary campuses, because they are correcting demographic information needed to calculate the results. The missing information is not expected to change the district’s overall results dramatically.

Statewide, more than 1,000 schools did not get scores because they are correcting demographic information or because of testing irregularities.

The state data revealed that most of the schools in California at risk of state sanctions will escape that fate this year because they showed at least marginal growth in test scores.

Only 22 schools--out of nearly 400--will face some discipline, from having to be evaluated by outside experts to having teachers reassigned to letting independent managers take over.

State officials will decide over the next three months what action to take with each school.

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Contributing to this report were staff writers Erika Hayasaki, David Pierson, Jenifer Ragland and Daniel Yi, and Times Director of Computer Analysis Richard O’Reilly and data analyst Sandra Poindexter.


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