It Takes a Village: Ten trends the past decade brought to California schools

by Andy Shapiro, Santa Cruz Sentinel

As we transition to a new decade, it is worth reflecting on some of the educational trends of the recently completed decade. Here is my list of the top 10 trends in California’s schools.

1. High-stakes Testing: With the passage of "No Child Left Behind" early in President George Bush’s term and the implementation of California’s High School Exit Exam later in the decade, it is clear that the trend toward high-stakes testing increased dramatically during this period.

2. Total Recall: California adopted and implemented standards that focus disproportionately on recall of a vast amount of information. Critical thinking skills such as analysis, synthesis, evaluation and application were given a much lower priority by the California Board of Education, the body responsible for establishing our standards in each academic discipline.

3. Race to the Bottom: Even as California increases its expectations of students and teachers, the state has failed to adequately fund its schools. As of January 2009, California ranked 47th in per pupil spending according to Education Week Magazine. California is dead last in its ratio of counselors, librarians and nurses to students.

4. No Corporation Left Behind: Effective lobbying by corporations dramatically reduced their overall share of the tax burden to approximately half of what they paid in the 1970s. Even with California’s $42 billion deficit a year ago, new, permanent tax breaks were given to multi-state and multi-national corporations that will cost the state approximately $1.5 billion a year, according to Richard Holober, executive director of The Consumer Federation of California. That money would make a big difference in our schools.

5. Fast Food Nation: Childhood obesity has reached epidemic proportions in our state and country. Out of that cloud, a silver lining is emerging as some school districts are finding ways to serve healthier, more nutritious food. Additionally, a renewed emphasis on physical education is taking hold in many schools.

6. Charter Schools: The growth in the number and popularity of charter schools was an important development over the last decade. While some charter schools failed due to poor management and lax state regulations that have since been revised, others thrived when given some flexibility regarding state mandates and rules. Other schools have argued that they could be more successful if given the same degree of freedom and support as charter schools, but thus far, they have not been granted such flexibility.

7. Back to the Future: One of the most surprising developments of the decade is how little some of the outdated ways of doing business have changed. From obsolete technology and old classroom furniture in some schools to archaic funding mechanisms and a school calendar based on an agrarian society, the pace of change is far slower than would be ideal to ensure our students receive the best possible education. To be fair, there are a number of schools that are modernizing their technology, infrastructure and business practices.

8. More about Technology: A healthy debate about the potential advantages and disadvantages of extensive use of technology in our schools deepened over the past decade. Recent technological advances have the potential to transform the way in which teaching and learning occur in our schools. As such, how we use technology should be carefully considered and prudently implemented. Many educators are finding ways to thoughtfully integrate new technology into their instruction, though California schools have the worst computer-to-student ratio in the country.

9. Reduced Attention Spans: With students spending so much time using computers, iPods, cell phones and other such devices, there has been an increase in multi-tasking and a decrease in the average student’s attention span. The advent of social networking sites such as Facebook, My Space and Twitter have exacerbated this situation. While the use of such technology has benefits, there is also reason for caution here.

10. The Rise of Consultants and Textbook Profiteers: Due to the requirements of No Child Left Behind and other accountability measures, the number of highly-paid consultants is expanding rapidly, especially in "Program Improvement Schools" that have not met their targets on standardized tests. Similarly, textbook publishers have substantially increased their influence and their profits by successfully lobbying the state and federal governments.

Here’s to a better decade ahead for our students.