Friday, August 15, 2014




          For many years, it was valid to urge that students take a good look around as they entered high school in the fall – because more than one-third of their opening-day classmates would probably drop out before Graduation Day four years later.

          Dropouts remain a big problem, but the rates have been cut substantially, down from the disastrous 34 percent of several years ago to somewhere between one-fourth and one-fifth of entering high schoolers.

          Vocational education, special efforts to keep disaffected youngsters interested and to involve English-learners can be credited for much of the improvement. So can a computerized system that tracks students far better than before when they move from district to district, so not nearly as many simply “disappear” during their school-age years.

          But that doesn’t mean this year’s entering pupils will experience stability during their public school years. Changes are assured, if not so much via disappearing classmates, then through coming changes in curriculum, testing and the rules affecting teachers.

          For one thing, Common Core standards should take hold substantially in California during the school year just opening.

    Despite attacks deriding them as a socialist plot or worse, these are simply standards set by the state Board of Education for subjects like math and English, so that students emerging from all schools in California and the other 44 states that have adopted them can be assumed to have learned the same basics.

    Students will also see their teachers subjected to more flexible dismissal rules this year than they have been in more than half a century. After years of wrangling and repeated sex and cheating scandals involving teachers in many districts, legislators last spring passed and Gov. Jerry Brown signed a new law streamlining the dismissal process.

          Teachers can now be let go when merely suspected of serious offenses like attempted murder, sexual misconduct or drug abuse. School districts can now act before a teacher has been convicted, once they determine through a hearing process that an employee is unfit for the classroom.

          That’s separate from the controversial court decision in the case of Vergara v. California, in which a Los Angeles Superior Court judge struck down state laws that in effect allowed teachers to get tenure after just 16 months of work, laws that have resulted during typical years in just over two dismissals of teachers for incompetence – out of more than 275,000 public school faculty statewide.

          But the Vergara decision has not yet taken effect, and probably won’t for several years even if it’s eventually upheld by appeals courts.

          So the bill Brown signed, plus another requiring increased pension contributions from teachers and school districts will be the two major changes for teachers in the 2014-15 school year.

          Changes in testing emphasis also will come this year, as Brown’s chosen state school board president, Michael Kirst, told an education blog this summer.

          “In the past,” he said, “the Academic Performance Index (API) was the be-all and end-all and now…people need to move beyond the API.”

          The API has long been the final word in state evaluations of how schools are performing, but under Brown’s pet Local Control Funding Formula for schools – passed along with the state budget in June – districts will develop local plans to show how they are meeting state goals in eight areas including pupil achievement, parent engagement, rigorous curriculum and matching state standards. In the meantime, API ratings will be on hiatus.

          The state school board has another 14 months to come up with a new method for evaluating student strengths and weaknesses, to be used along with a reconstructed API.

          Most of these things will not much affect students’ lives and academics this year, but by the time entering high schoolers finish up in 2018, they can count on things being very different in education.

          And maybe, just maybe, the dropout rate will have been cut even farther than it already has been. That, after all, should be a major result of all these changes, if they really are the big improvements their backers claim.


    Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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