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Staff Analysis of the Student Learning Working Group Final Report

The following analysis sets forth the specific recommendations contained in the final report of the Student Learning Working Group, organized by the categories contained in the report. The staff comments that follow each section are intended to illuminate those recommendations, the deliberations that led to those recommendations, and/or important information that should be considered in evaluating those recommendations. 

Goals of the Working Group

The Joint Committee to Develop a Master Plan for Education established the Working Group on Student Learning and charged it with providing specific recommendations that will allow the State to attain two major objectives: guarantee that all students who participate in the public education system receive a high quality education; and establish a more cohesive system of education that will be responsive to students' increasingly diverse needs.

From this primary charge, Working Group leadership, in consultation with the Joint Committee, developed a set of seven specific goals to guide its work: 

  • Define a "high quality" education.
  • Identify and examine the factors that promote (and inhibit) access, opportunity to learn, and success for all students.
  • Identify key K-16 transition points and specify the needed system, professional, and student performance accountabilities for successful transitions.
  • Establish greater coordination across grades/segments by aligning K-16 curriculum and assessments.
  • Ensure that supplemental instructional services and resources (including so-called remediation) lead to genuine opportunities and success.
  • Re-examine the eligibility criteria and admissions practices of four-year colleges and universities, and facilitate transfers from community college to four-year institutions.
  • Establish an accountability system that applies to participants at all levels of the K-16 system.
The Working Group also adopted an additional principle to guide its work: California's PreK-University Master Plan must result in education policies that ensure quality and choice for all 

The Student Learning Working Group proposes ten major recommendations for California's educational system. The first concerns establishing ambitious learning goals and curriculum. Recommendations two through six focus on guaranteeing equitable opportunities to learn for all students. Recommendation seven describes essential components of a fair and useful assessment system. Recommendations eight and nine deal with systemic accountability and review. And recommendation ten offers a short-term, immediate intervention to increase access to the University of California. For brevity, certain sub-recommendations are paraphrased in this analysis and immediately follow the recommendation. Those sub-recommendations variously provide expansion on the primary recommendation or constitute a strategic plan for implementing the recommendation.

Challenging Goals and Curriculum

  1. Set ambitious learning goals and provide all students a challenging K-12 and postsecondary curriculum (Sub-recommendations include: ensure that all schools provide the curriculum that enables students to develop oral and written fluency in two languages, master algebraic thinking and problem solving, and prepare for college entry without need for remediation by the end of secondary school; strengthen community college courses that prepare students for transfer to CSU and UC; and retain high quality career and technical programs at the community colleges.)
Staff Comments
  • In considering how the state can define a high quality education, the Working Group examined the question: What should all students know and be able to do to be successful in the workforce or postsecondary education? The Group determined that there exists little difference in that which constitutes preparedness for entrance into the workforce, versus entrance into postsecondary education of any form - including the ability to learn, problem solving skills, and mastery of basic academic competencies - and recommends aggressive learning goals for all students to achieve that preparedness. Over the past several years, the State has adopted academic content standards for K-12 students in four subject areas. The Group acknowledges those standards as academic competencies that should be mastered by all students but concludes that they are not a complete expression of what California students should know and be able to do. What would be an appropriate process for revisiting the standards, now and on a periodic basis, to ensure that evolving competencies are recognized and related learning needs met? The Group recommends initial expansions of: requiring all students to develop oral and written fluency in a second language by the end of secondary school (extending the recommendation of the School Readiness Working Group of dual-language learning for all young children); and requiring a rigorous college preparatory curriculum (embodied in the current "A-G" courses) as the default curriculum for all students. Is the A-G course sequence, in fact, an appropriate proxy for preparedness, even on an interim basis? 
  • The Working Group considered how the State could provide a clear and consistent message to students and families that all students will be prepared to select from a full range of choices after high school and that all colleges and universities and the workforce expect similar preparation. To do so, it recommends that a rigorous default curriculum be adopted for all students, thereby eliminating the tracking of students into more or less rigorous curriculum based on their preferences for transition to work or college. To what extent would the K-8 curriculum and its delivery need to be retooled to ensure that all students are ready to begin and succeed in a college preparatory curriculum? How can these new curricular expectations be met in a manner that mitigates potential increases in dropouts? What will be the likely impacts on the current teacher shortage of the need to prepare, employ, and retain highly qualified teachers to teach "A-G" courses in all high schools, as well as in the foundation courses in grades K-8? The report recommends that students be allowed to opt out of the "A-G pattern, providing only that those students receive counseling and follow a personalized learning plan that ensures basic academic competencies. What would be the appropriate options for those students, and what would be the impacts on educational personnel needs of these options if large numbers of students choose it?
  • The Group examined the question: How can the State capitalize on California's linguistic diversity to promote success in a global economy? It recommends requiring oral and written mastery of at least two languages by graduation from high school. To achieve this, how can the State prepare, employ, and retain teachers with second-language proficiency in sufficient numbers to meet the needs of six million students to master a second language? Although the final report does not specify that one of the two languages would be English, the deliberations of the Group made clear that that was its intent. Which language(s) among the many spoken by California public school students will be offered in public schools? Should the State or local districts make that determination?
  • The Group considered the question: How can the State improve the numbers and diversity of students prepared to succeed in university settings? Its sub-recommendation to strengthen transfer programs notes the need for improved articulation among the community colleges and UC and CSU to achieve this objective. As revealed in the Joint Committee's October 2000 hearing on articulation, the existence of thousands of individual campus-to-campus articulation agreements does not serve well the interests of students who are unable to pre-determine either their specific course of study or the specific system and campus to which they wish to transfer. Should articulation be made state-wide and apply comprehensively across systems?
  • Although the Group explicitly acknowledges that many students do not complete high school, have not experienced initial academic success in school, or choose not to pursue a college education, it points only to the high quality career technical education opportunities that should be available to students in community colleges. To what extent should career technical education continue to be provided in high school settings for students who opt out of a rigorous college preparatory curriculum?

Guaranteed Opportunities to Learn

  1. Provide adequate and equitably distributed resources. 
  2. Establish a high-quality system of Pre-Kindergarten care and education that enables all students to enter school ready and able to learn. 
  3. Recruit, prepare, develop, and retain a high-quality educational workforce. Redouble state efforts to diversify the educational workforce.
  4. Guarantee high-quality learning conditions and opportunities for every student. (Sub-recommendations include: enacting legislation to ensure a full range of opportunities, conditions, and authentic diagnostic assessments to assure learning; providing additional funding to meet the needs of low-income, English Language Learning (ELL), immigrant, and disabled students; and requiring colleges and universities to ensure conditions that enable students to succeed.)
  5. Provide flexible time and instruction that support learning and insure successful transitions between schooling levels. (Sub-recommendations include: targeting learning support through the use of classroom-based diagnostic assessments; providing additional learning support at key transition points in students' educational careers; developing mechanisms to grant college credit to high school students based on demonstrated learning; using authentic assessments to measure students' accomplishments; and mandating development of transparent and sustainable articulation and transfer processes.)
Staff Comments

2. The Group cites the inadequacies in state resources made available to public schools that currently account for the very uneven conditions within which students attempt to learn. It defers to the Working Group on Finance and Facilities to offer specific recommendations on remedying this situation but calls for differential resources to be made available to improve teaching and learning opportunities in the state's neediest communities. What would those resources buy that differ from current services? The Finance and Facilities Working Group has examined various "adequacy" models of funding throughout the year; based on its Chairs' presentation to the Joint Committee in October, it is expected to recommend a fiscal model that includes such differential resource allocation.

3. The Group recommends that young children receive rich pre-school experiences that have significant influence on their future learning. It also urges that school readiness include promoting and maintaining children's home languages in ways that supplement and enhance their learning of English. They defer to the Working Group on School Readiness for specific recommendations on the ways that California should pursue these goals.

4. The Group emphasized the importance of ensuring that all students have the opportunity to be taught by qualified teachers and attend schools staffed by a professional workforce with the knowledge and skills required to create and sustain a stimulating teaching and learning environment. The Group defers generally to the Working Group on Professional Personnel Development (PPD) recommendations for specifics of how best to ensure that such teachers are present in all public schools. However, the Group offers a listing of several education workforce characteristics that are essential, and that are not specifically addressed by the PPD Group. These include preparing all teachers, as well as counselors, with knowledge regarding college preparation/success and financial aid, in order to support a school-wide culture of high expectations and support for students.

5. The Working Group considered the question: How can the State's guarantee of a high-quality education for every student be met? The Working Group provides extensive detail on the conditions that should be in place at every public school to assure that all students have an equitable opportunity to learn and master the academic competencies expected of them. These conditions support not only instruction, but the development of a school-wide culture, among all personnel, of high (and clear) expectations and the support necessary to meet them. Consistent with the vision that the Master Plan apply to all students, the Group argues that the State must commit sufficient additional resources (including funded additional instructional time) to ensure that low-income, English Language Learners (ELL), and disabled students receive the supplemental services they require to fully meet the State's learning expectations. Although the report does not contain a methodology for determining the additional resources needed by schools serving large numbers of high-need students, it does introduce the concept of an Opportunities-to-Learn Index that would provide specific information over time on the school conditions in which students learn and that would enable the state to determine the adequacy of the resources being provided - a concept discussed in greater detail in accountability recommendations.

The Group cites conditions that should be in place in every college and university for all students to succeed. These differ fundamentally from those for K-12 in at least two respects. Why do faculty expectations include disciplinary expertise, but not pedagogy? Historically, this lack of pedagogical expectation has subjected the UC and CSU to criticism that their teaching mission is subordinated to other missions. Second, recommendations of student support apply only to faculty. Why is the concept of a campus-wide culture of expectation and support - including counseling and other student support services - not explicitly addressed for postsecondary? 

6. The Working Group examined: What supports are necessary to ensure that all students will meet the higher expectations? Its recommendation describes a more learner-responsive educational system, listing multiple ways schools should modify instructional delivery and support to meet the varied needs of individual students. Two shifts of focus are described. First, that educators focus on critical transition periods in students' educational progression to reduce impediments to their transition and subsequent achievement: (1) From Pre-Kindergarten to grades 1-3; (2) from 3rd to 4th grade; (3) into and through middle schools to high school; and (4) high school graduation and beyond. The critical characteristics of teaching and student learning described in this section of the report reflect a growing body of research on factors that are most influential at these transition points in promoting or impeding the achievement of students, especially those traditionally at risk of dropping out or underrepresented in college.

A second shift would have educators use diagnostic assessments more frequently and effectively and redirect learning resources to support students currently described as "at risk." The Group strongly urges that schools, utilizing this information and information regarding students' progress in meeting career and college objectives, become more flexible in allocating time to ensure that all students meet graduation and college preparatory requirements and that classroom-based assessment be used more extensively to guide learning support. How is this flexibility reconciled with the imposition of more uniform higher expectations? What would be the additional need for qualified counselors/advisors in public schools, as well as significant professional development regarding the use of assessments by teachers, to meet this objective? 

At the postsecondary level, the Group recommends (1) increased flexibility among public colleges and universities in developing mechanisms that grant college credit to high school students based on demonstrated learning; (2) required improvement in transfer and articulation processes through reduction of current barriers and provision of learning supports, and (3) support for implementation of the "dual admissions" program between CSU/UC and the community colleges. None of the examples cited include requiring articulation agreements to be statewide, acceptable at every campus within each system, and evaluated in similar ways. What policies are needed to better support, and maintain educational options for, students who are unable to determine their academic goals (including campus of attendance) early or who change those goals over time? 

A Fair and Useful Assessment System

  1. Develop an integrated and coherent assessment system that monitors programs as well as student learning and guides the provision of additional learning support. (Sub-recommendations include: state monitoring and reporting of student performance; requiring local districts to develop their own assessment systems for guiding instruction of individual students; establishing a state Quality Assurance Panel; modifying reports of student performance to describe how many students can actually perform specific tasks and at what levels; developing and implementing a non-voluntary longitudinal student data system; and developing a system to help educational personnel, students, and families understand the meaning of test results.)
Staff Comments
  • The Group examined the question: How can assessments be used fairly to improve instruction and learning. It recommends that a coherent system of assessment be developed to monitor academic programs as well as student learning and to guide the provision of additional learning supports. Although current practice utilizes numerous disjointed assessments for various purposes, this proposal is consistent with the current development efforts of the State Department of Education and California's broader education community. The Group developed a list of goals for assessing students, and built its recommendations for assessment on those goals (see p.24 of final report). Are these goals appropriate to California's educational needs? 
  • The Group strongly advises that no single measure be used to make high stakes decisions about students. This recommendation departs from the State's current implementation of the Academic Performance Index (API) and current conception of a high school exit exam. Should high school graduation be based on demonstration of competency that is measured by both a statewide exam and a locally determined student portfolio?
  • The Group advocates the use of local assessments for decisions regarding individual students, citing as a benefit the engagement of local educators and the public into the dialogue about local curriculum. What evidence supports the Group's assertion that local assessments are "more accurate and fair to students?"
  • The Working Group also recommends that California develop and require participation of all public schools and districts in a K-16 longitudinal student data system, to enable the State to evaluate student progress toward meeting learning standards and identify and examine factors that promote increased achievement of all students. The recommendation is consistent with those already received from two other Working Groups; taken as a whole, a system could be developed which would allow an understanding of the programmatic context in which student outcomes are achieved and could support communication strategies that help education personnel, students, and families understand test results and ways to use that information to help students with their learning and education/career decisions. How should the State develop commonly accepted protocols for sharing or matching data across districts and sectors? At the K-12 level, participation in the current data collection system is voluntary; a foundation currently exists for postsecondary education institutions in a database maintained by CPEC. How can privacy and cost issues be mitigated to successfully implement a data collection system as envisioned by the Group for all students and educational factors?
Systemic Accountability and Review
  1. Establish a system of regularly reported indicators for accountability and improvement. (Sub-recommendations include: expanding the K-12 Academic Performance Index (API) to include indicators such as dropout rates, grade promotion, and multiple measures of student achievement; creating and reporting a K-12 Opportunities for Teaching and Learning (OTL) Index; developing a long-term strategic plan for meaningful use of accountability data and indicators to improve learning conditions and outcomes; requiring K-12 schools to provide annual reports to teachers, counselors, students, and families on students' progress in meeting CSU and UC eligibility; developing interventions to increase capacity to promote student learning in schools of greatest need; and requiring public colleges and universities to develop and report a set of accountability indicators that monitor quality and access for all postsecondary students, and explore the benefits of a series of indicators of postsecondary students' learning.)
  2. Ensure ongoing, intersegmental coordination and review. (Sub-recommendations include: augmenting the membership of the Intersegmental Committee of Academic Senates (ICAS) with faculty from K-12 schools; developing policies and funding initiatives on a regional basis to support the successful transition of students; expanding the faculty reward systems to support faculty involvement in intersegmental activities.)
Staff Comments

8. The Group considered the question: On what indicators can the State measure accountability for all participants in the education system? It recommends that California adopt a coherent accountability system that tightly links learning outcomes with the conditions that are provided to support learning and that monitors all levels of the educational system (students, personnel, school, district, state agencies, Legislature, and Governor). Specific recommendations on how to go about developing such an accountability system acknowledge that several steps have already been taken in this regard with development of the Academic Performance Index (API) and the School Accountability Report Card (SARC) for public schools, the performance indicators identified as part of the Partnership for Excellence Program (PFE) in the community colleges, the partnership agreements between CSU, UC, and the Governor, and CPEC's commonly defined indicators of postsecondary institutional performance. However, in several instances, implementation has lagged behind the broader conception, due to insufficient data and other factors. The group recommends that the API be expanded to incorporate such measures as dropout rates, grade promotion, and other measures of student achievement and that a new Opportunities for Teaching and Learning Index (OTL) be developed to complement the API to provide a consistent measure of the conditions for learning with which to interpret measures of student achievement. The Group also recommends that interventions based on a review of accountability data should focus on building institutional capacity to improve conditions for teaching and learning.

Staff observe that none of the steps taken to date are sufficient to achieve the shared accountability system envisioned by the Working Group. Considerable work remains, and could begin immediately, to develop a consensus on a comprehensive, yet finite, set of indicators that can be obtained from a comprehensive state data system; that are appropriate to various levels of the state's educational system; and that inform evaluation of program effectiveness, student learning, and educational conditions provided in schools, colleges, and universities. 

The Working Group's recommendation to engage colleges and universities in an examination of the benefits of developing indicators of postsecondary students' learning is considerably weaker than the recommendations of state-imposed accountability offered for public schools. What is the rationale for exempting colleges and universities from expectations for rigorous curriculum, supporting high learning standards, and monitoring both learning outcomes and the conditions within which those outcomes occur?

9. The Working Group considered: How can a more cohesive system of education by fostered among the multiple education segments? It reaffirms the value of intersegmental coordination and collaboration and offers several recommendations to formally include representatives from K-12 education in existing intersegmental bodies that currently exist at the postsecondary education level. Should the development of standards, assessments, and eligibility and admissions criteria be shared decisions among all segments of education? The Group suggests the inclusion of K-12 faculty in intersegmental coordinating bodies (as a parallel to postsecondary faculty participation); should that participation include other personnel and policy-makers, in addition to faculty, who traditionally are involved in those decisions for K-12?

Most of the existing intersegmental coordinating bodies referenced in the report are voluntarily created entities. To ensure ongoing attention to collaboration, should these bodies be established in statute and specifically charged with promoting intersegmental activities?

An Immediate Intervention to Increase Access

  1. Increase access to the University of California for students in most educationally disadvantaged schools. 
Staff Comments
  • While most of the recommendations contained in its report focus on mid- and long-term strategies that California should pursue, the Working Group notes that a significant number of current high school students who have not had equitable opportunities to learn nevertheless have academic promise, extraordinary talent, and leadership potential, but are not eligible for admissions to UC. The Working Group recommends that UC use the existing authority it has under Title 5 of the Administrative Code to admit up to six percent of new students annually as exceptions to regular admissions requirements as a means to immediately provide access to high quality teaching and learning opportunities to promising high school graduates who do not meet UC admissions requirements. What types and extent of additional learning support would likely need to be provided to such students to ensure their success at the University?
  • Staff observes that the CSU is similarly authorized to admit up to eight percent of new students as exceptions annually. CSU has previously used this authority for pilot studies to determine whether certain student characteristics were positively correlated with success for students admitted as exceptions to particular components of its admission requirements. Should each university system be required to study the relationship among students' previous learning achievements, the conditions in which that achievement occurred, the type of gap that exists between their high school achievement and university admission criteria, their achievement at the university, and the learning support these students received, in order to better inform future policy decisions?
General Staff Comments
  • The Working Group makes an important statement at the outset of its final report: "[I]f Californians embrace the learning goals we set forth in Recommendation 1 as promises to be kept rather than demands to be enforced, the education system can emerge from a surreal world in which resources are substantially out of line with needs and requirements." The statement sets the stage for a student-focused education system that would acknowledge that different resources will be needed to help different students achieve state expectations of all students, that seeks to understand the relationships among the resources needed to create learning conditions that promote learning for all students, and that would hold the entire state and its component parts accountable for exercising their respective responsibilities for supporting high quality teaching and learning for all.
  • The Group recommends that some of the additional resource needs of public schools can be addressed by refocusing current resources dedicated to programs providing remedial services and intervention for failing students to programs and services that help student master learning expectations before failure occurs. This would require implementation of the Group's recommendation for ongoing assessment, such that appropriate information is obtained that can inform learning support services in a timely manner.