Education Reform Relies on Tests and Acronyms, But Kids Say It’s About Relationships

Education Reform Relies on Tests and Acronyms, But Kids Say It’s About Relationships

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Above: Left to right: Students Reginald Quartey, Yasmin Noriega Barragan, Naukida Williams, and Silas Wilson are interviewed at the 2016 EdSource symposium. (Image courtesy of Californians for Justice)

OAKLAND, Calif. – What makes a good school? If you ask young people, it boils down to one thing – relationships.

While policy-minded conversations about education reform often veer into the mind-numbingly complex, kids cut right to the chase. When they go to school, they don’t want to feel alone. Even just one caring adult can make a difference.

Reginald Quartey is a 17-year-old senior at Oakland High School. Quartey, who is on track to be the first person in his family to go to college, says, “Every day I deal with the stereotypes of being a young black kid in Oakland.”

But, he says, he’s had adults, one teacher in particular, who have made him feel capable and who have had high expectations for him academically. “Knowing that others want me to succeed gives me the drive to break through the stereotypes assigned to me,” he says.

Yasmin Noriega Barragan, 18, who graduated from Independence High School in San Jose and is now a freshman at the Art Institute of California in San Francisco, says her life was changed by having teachers who believed that she would go to college. Barragan says that for Latino students like her, having teachers who think that way is often not the norm.

Silas Wilson, 18, who graduated this year from Ralph Bunche High School in Oakland, recalls a teacher reaching out to him about his desire to work on music and showing him around the music studio at school. “Making students feel like they want to come to school,” Wilson says, is the most important thing.

“If there’s a school climate where school feels like home, then students won’t have to go to school thinking it’s like prison,” adds Naukida Williams, 17, a senior at Oakland High School.

The students spoke to an audience of more than 500 at the annual symposium of EdSource, a nonprofit education news organization based in Oakland. The youth panel was convened by Californians for Justice, an advocacy organization that works for racial justice and equity in schools.

The young people also discussed the two main pillars of education reform in California in recent years – the Common Core, a set of curriculum guidelines designed to make education more critical-thinking based and relevant to the real world, and California’s Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), which gives more budget decision-making power to local communities and allocates more resources to schools with greater numbers of high-needs students.

The students gave high marks to LCFF. Williams said that in leading her school’s student advisory committee, soliciting other students’ opinions and turning them into budget recommendations made her feel “part of the process.”

Barragan added that LCFF helped her get a subsidy to pay for an Advanced Placement exam. “I come from a low-income family, so it really helped us to be able to get that subsidized,” she said. “[Otherwise] I wouldn’t be able to challenge myself without it being a burden on my family.”

With regard to the Common Core, there was more criticism, especially when it came to testing. With regard to the Smarter Balanced assessment test that’s aligned with the Common Core standards, Williams says that students in her class “didn’t take it seriously. It was extremely long. We didn’t understand the material. I’ve been able to breeze through tests my entire life but that was the first time I gave up … There was a lot of material where students really didn’t understand how [the questions were] phrased.”

“It was [administered] around the time that we were already being pressured to study for other assessment tests,” she adds. She does appreciate that the new standards encourage her to think more. In English class, she says, “We have to think more critically about what is happening in the story, what the author is trying to convey.”

Wilson says it was his impression that in certain classes, a lot of work was computer-based and overly reliant on technology. “It’s a computer. It’s not a teacher. It can’t really help you,” he says.

Arun Ramanathan, the CEO of Pivot Learning Partners in San Francisco (an educational nonprofit that works to improve public schools), says that the state is very good at coming up with acronyms like LCFF, but reformers can end up missing the forest for the trees. He adds that bigger questions about what the educational system ought to be accomplishing are still going unanswered.

“We have work to do in terms of just rationalizing the Local Control Funding Formula, and all the different indicators and outcomes that districts and schools are trying to get to,” he says. “If we’re going to get to the big, overarching outcomes – closing the school to prison pipeline, making sure that all kids are college and career ready – we actually need to have an explainable system for our educators as to what the interventions mean,” he says.