As the current school year winds down at Berkeley High, it’s time to finalize plans for the new one, including the allocation of resources. It’s time as well to evaluate the year now coming to an end, and both of these tasks were on the agenda of the most recent governance council meeting this past Tuesday.
Resource Allocation. SGC members discussed how to determine the distribution of funds for the purchase of supplies ranging from art materials and sports equipment to new technology. Given the funding cutbacks that are affecting all California public schools, discussions of resource distribution become all the more difficult. The six small learning community programs (“small schools”) compete with one another to obtain increasingly scarce resources.
It was noted at the SGC meeting that the four smaller schools at Berkeley High receive funding that is unavailable to the two larger programs. Yet all of the programs are coping with shortfalls of supplies. Principal Slemp said that there are limits on changing the distribution of resources, “Private donors decide where they want to donate.”
The SGC agreed to have a development committee review anticipated needs for supplies for the coming school year. Teacher Ray Cagan will lead this committee, and the various programs and departments at the school were requested to submit expenditures lists to him.
School Plan. Parent representative Peggy Scott asked when the SGC is going to review the school plan. Her question was not answered at the meeting, but later SGC Co-chair Linda Gonzalez told the Daily Planet that the school plan will be on the agenda at the next SGC meeting in May.
According to Scott, the governing council was supposed to evaluate the school plan this spring and is in fact obligated by law to do so. The California Education Code says that “The Schoolsite council [which in the case of Berkeley High is currently the SGC) shall annually review the school plan, establish a new budget, and if necessary, make other modifications in the plan to reflect changing needs and priorities.” Consideration of the school plan, said Scott, has been postponed three times and there’s only one scheduled meeting before the end of the school year. “We still could do it,” Scott added, “if we have more meetings.”
Gonzalez did not rule out the possibility of more meetings devoted to examination of the school plan. But she takes exception to the view that the plan has not been subject to scrutiny: “It is a living document. Teachers have been using and revising the plan in their daily work.” Given the funding cuts and many pressures on school staff, Gonzalez doesn’t think it’s a good idea for the SGC to concentrate on the plan right now, “I don’t think it’s a good use of teachers’ time.” But she added, “I understand the concern. If anyone has anything they want to change, they can suggest that.”
The plan is now in its sixth year of implementation, and will receive detailed examination during the official accreditation process next year. That’s another reason, according to Gonzalez, for not spending a lot of time on it now.
Some parent representatives on the SGC disagree. They point out that the aim of the state education code, which requires annual reconsideration of the school plan by the governing council, including its community members, is to make the community an active partner in determining the priorities and the direction of the school. “Our obligation,” said Scott, “is to analyze the plan.” In her view, that is not being done.
Budgetary considerations are relevant to school plan evaluation, and one of the current problems, according to Scott, is that the school administration has not yet presented a budget to the SGC. In her view, the SGC needs that information in order to comply with the Education Code, which explicitly assigns budget approval to the school council.
Test Scores. The education code further stipulates that a school action plan “shall be based on scientifically based research and … be data driven.” Indeed the district has been making an attempt to gather relevant BHS data. Math teacher Jessica Quindel made a presentation to the SGC of results from five standardized tests that have been administered over the past two school years. That data show that Berkeley High students achieve on average substantially higher scores than those achieved by students statewide.
However, there is great variation in levels of student performance both within and between the six small schools at Berkeley High. The district data presented to the SGC over the past year confirms a large achievement gap: the test scores of white and Asian students are, on average, substantially higher than those of African- American and Latino students. Quindel said that “The gap that we experience at Berkeley High is also a statewide gap.” When SAT scores are disaggregated by ethnicity, they show that Berkeley High students in every ethnic group score higher than the state-wide average for that group. For example, African American students at Berkeley High outscore African American students statewide.
Still, the gap between higher and lower achieving students at Berkeley High is a wide one and, according to Gonzales, the school plan has been updated to address the problem. The “20/20 Vision” goals, which seek elimination of the gap by the year 2020, were incorporated into the plan last year.
Following Quindel’s report on test scores, teacher Phil Halpern and other SGC members asked about the practical implications of this information. Since the SAT, for example, presumes to test aptitude, what does it tell us about student achievement? Quindel said that she was only presenting the test score information to the SGC, not interpreting it, although she did comment that the SAT measures achievement as well as aptitude.
The Relevance of the Data. Indeed it is challenging to discern the policy implications of standardized test performance statistics. Given the different educational aims of the six small learning communities, the different skill levels that students bring to these communities when they first enter them, and the fact that many students do not take the standardized tests, the district’s data about tests and scores do not provide strong evidence regarding how well these communities are educating their students.
As well, a case can be made that the push to use standardized tests to evaluate education obscures what really needs to be done. Teachers have often testified that they need smaller class sizes, stronger support systems, and more resources to do their jobs well. Some educators ask: why look for new solutions when the old ones are staring us in the face?
Schools have nevertheless to apportion the meager resources at their disposal as wisely as possible, and to do that they must evaluate program effectiveness. Given that grading policy at Berkeley High is not uniform across the six small learning communities, test scores provide an important measure of how students in each community are doing relative to the other communities and to students at other high schools in California and nationwide. Test data are relevant as well to evaluation of the progress, or lack thereof, made by struggling students and students of color. Additional data can come directly from teachers at Berkeley High. They know from their own experience what works and does not work in the classroom, and the effort to improve education at the school should draw in a systematic way upon their experience.
SGC parent representative Margit Roos-Collins told the Daily Planet that test score results can contribute to program evaluation. She cited as an example the use of longitudinal data that track a cohort of students over time; the California Standards Test (CST) scores achieved by eighth graders could be compared to their subsequent test scores in high school to measure progress. If a program aims to improve performance for a certain category of students – those experiencing difficulties in math, for instance – then a longitudinal study that follows those students specifically could measure the effectiveness of that particular program.
By all accounts, governing a large school like Berkeley High consisting of diverse small learning communities, in an era of severe funding shortfalls, is enormously challenging. Community participation and support are vital. At the next SGC meeting on Tuesday May 25 at 4 PM in the Community Theater, the BUSD Policy Committee will explain its draft for a school site council that will replace the current SGC. Discussion of the school plan will be on the agenda as well. The public is invited to attend.