Accountability plans should start with focus on Common Core

Picture of Arun Ramanathan

Arun Ramanathan

A couple of years ago, I began getting calls from my daughter’s school asking me to pick her up from the office. She would tell her teacher that she had a tummy ache, get sent to the office and ask the school secretary to call her daddy to come pick her up before she threw up.

When the call came, I was usually in the middle of some “important” meeting. But I would jump in my car and drive over to the school as quickly as I could. Over the years I have learned that hell hath no fury like a school secretary whose office has been just been puked on.

When I picked her up, my daughter would grimace and groan like she’d just eaten a rotten egg. But by mid-afternoon the tummy aches would miraculously disappear. So when the next call from the office came, I asked the secretary to give her a glass of water and send her back to class.

Turns out that I had fallen victim to the fake tummy ache trick. After a series of strenuous denials, she eventually spilled the beans. “Daddy, I was so bored,” she said. “Everything we were learning was something I learned in preschool. I just wanted to get out of there.”

Her comment reminded me of a basic fact about human nature. Behavior is the most fundamental form of communication. Some kids express their boredom externally – by acting out. My daughter just wanted to escape, and when we moved her to another public school with more enriching academics, the behavior disappeared.

We often talk about negative student behavior as a barrier to academic success and prescribe interventions like counseling as the solution. But this is a fairly one-dimensional perspective. I spent most of my early career working with children with mental illness and significant disabilities.  After getting hit one too many times, I immersed myself in behavior management practices from Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) to Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS). The first thing I learned from this work was that finding the source of a behavior is the first step in fixing it. Kids who struggle academically may act out. But giving them therapy to improve their behavior when they have an academic need may actually make it worse because it doesn’t address the root of the problem.

Second, academic success, well-organized classrooms and great teaching are the most effective behavioral interventions for the vast majority of students. It’s far better to begin with the assumption that the student’s behavior is a rational response to their educational experience than the result of some external trauma such as the violence in their community.

That’s why well-designed district- and school-wide intervention systems (Response to Intervention and Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports) begin by focusing on those aspects of schooling that impact every child, from effective classroom instruction to consistent behavioral expectations. They then provide targeted services and interventions for a smaller percentage of at-risk and high-risk students.

Over the past year, as California implemented the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), the state’s new public school financing law, there’s been a lot of talk about how to spend the money on programs and services for high-needs, at-risk students. Some folks wanted to restore programs that had been cut during the budget crisis. Others wanted to add specific mental health and other services for boys of color, English learners and foster youth.

But strangely, in my view, there wasn’t sufficient talk about the overall investments necessary to improve teaching and learning in our classrooms and schools. In fact, last year, during the whole Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP) planning process at the district level, the other major education initiative, the Common Core State Standards, seemed to be an afterthought.

Part of the problem was the design of the Local Control Funding Formula. After five years of budget deficits, many school districts were told to take their limited LCFF dollars and apply them to not one but eight different state priority areas. The creation of eight areas was a necessary political bargain crucial to the passage of the Funding Formula. But on a practical level, it moved some of the more dysfunctional aspects of the previous system of program-specific “categorical funding” from Sacramento down to the local level.

Instead of guiding the community discussions to focus on the fundamental educational mission of schools, many district leaders appeared compelled to treat all of the state priorities, including the one focused on Common Core implementation, and their related interest groups as equals. In order to comply with the letter of law, some of them funded or restored a program in every priority area.

Based on Pivot Learning Partners’ examination of multiple district plans, we concluded that this “shotgun-style” compliance approach resulted in Local Control and Accountability Plans that exhibited the same incoherence as the previous system of categorical funding. They directed too little attention to investments in the large-scale shifts in teaching and learning necessary for implementation of the Common Core, the set of new academic standards adopted by California and most other states.

There is too much at stake for this to happen again. After years of budget hell (a period I call the dominion of the chief financial officer), we are at a pivotal time when curriculum and instruction should be on the ascendency. With the implementation of new English, math and science standards, the development of promising school reform approaches such as Linked Learning and blended learning, and the large-scale rollout of online assessments, we have the opportunity to hit the reset button on our education system. The LCAP should be a district’s strategic plan to improve student learning and close achievement gaps instead of a meaningless annual compliance document.

In this critical time, district leaders shouldn’t be afraid to work with their communities and advocacy groups to prioritize investments of their limited Local Control Funding Formula funding on building the capacity of teachers, leaders and parents to implement the Common Core standards and address the educational needs of their students.

These investments could include teacher professional development, support  for teachers and parent education. State and county leaders can promote this work by viewing their accountability plans as a strategic education plan rather than a compliance checklist. They should focus far more attention on whether their accountability plans clearly explain and account for all funding, including supplementary funding for high-needs students, than on the number of new programs created in each priority area.

This doesn’t mean that district leaders should ignore critical health and wellness needs. But instead of funding an illogical grab-bag of programs in their accountability plans, it makes far more sense for districts to consider where these programs fit in tiered systems of academic and socio-emotional interventions such as Response to Intervention and Positive Behavior Intervention Systems.

These intervention systems can be also be funded with a broad array of sources (including federal Title I and special education funding) and should be integrated with existing district efforts to promote English proficiency and prevent students from being inappropriately identified as disabled. That way we don’t drown our educators and school leaders with multiple new initiatives but instead figure out how new and existing programs can work together to support every student.

Now, it may seem strange to folks who have considered me an advocate for a more bottom-up community engagement approach toward the Local Control Funding Formula to hear me argue for this more focused approach where Common Core implementation takes precedence. But I am deeply worried that we are going to undermine the potential of the LCFF and Common Core unless we integrate their implementation.

We will never narrow our divisions of race and class and transform the economic conditions of our communities unless we provide far more low-income students and students of color with high-quality educational pathways into the middle class and professional ranks.

Instead of advocating for our favorite program, intervention, cause or subgroup, we should work together to invest in building the capacity of teachers to teach the new standards and then construct the system of interventions designed to help all high-needs students, from English learners to boys of color to foster youth, achieve academic success.


Arun Ramanathan is the CEO of Pivot Learning Partners.

The opinions expressed in this commentary represent solely those of the author. EdSource welcomes commentaries representing diverse points of view. If you would like to submit a commentary, please contact us.

Filed under: Commentary, Common Core, Hot Topics, Local Control Funding Formula



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17 Responses to “Accountability plans should start with focus on Common Core”

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  1. Dawn Urbanek on Dec 2, 2014 at 7:08 pm12/2/2014 7:08 pm

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    For those of you who like to complain about “Big Oil” what about “Big Education”. I don’t remember having to pay $3,000 for college Prep classes to buy an score to get into a college that is not a 2 year community college- I don’t remember having to pay tutors (often teachers at my school) to learn the material that is no longer being taught because there are to many students in a class at all different levels- and you would think that transitioning to the common core and online text books would be less expensive- but according to my Districts Board meetings we have to pay for an online textbook and a hard cover text book so textbook expenses have doubled. Public education no longer has anything to do with “what is in the best interest of students” and everything to do with what is in the best interest of “Big Education” and members of the teachers union. How sad for the future of public education. And for the record- Jerry Brown is going to go down in history for destroying the greatest public education system in the world – one that his father built- and one that he will destroy so that he can educate the world and build a stupid train rather than take care of the legal citizens of this once great state.

  2. Dawn Urbanek on Dec 2, 2014 at 2:49 pm12/2/2014 2:49 pm

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    why are my comments from today taking so long to be moderated?


    • el on Dec 2, 2014 at 3:12 pm12/2/2014 3:12 pm

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      Comments with links frequently have to be moderated by hand, especially multiple links. Don’t take it personally. Spammers suck.

      • Dawn Urbanek on Dec 2, 2014 at 3:28 pm12/2/2014 3:28 pm

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        I responded to Jonathan who called me ignorant of what goes on in the Capistrano Unified School District with a link to my research that clearly proves that is false.

    • Don on Dec 2, 2014 at 3:31 pm12/2/2014 3:31 pm

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      Dawn, If your comments include a web address they while automatically be flagged for moderation to avoid spam and such.

      While I’m writing I’d just like to say that I am 100% in agreement with you. Parents like you are few and far between and your considerable efforts to educate parents in your district are not lost on me. Keep up the good work, Dawn.

      I’d just like to know why unlawful residents have more rights than citizens. You may live in a conservative part of the state, but what you are experiencing is the end result of far-left quasi-socialist ideology in the form of radical public school policy engendered by era of extremist elected leaders like “we have to pass it to find out what’s in it” Pelosi and a Governor who encourages illegal immigration to our state.

      I have sympathy for children who cross the border and as long as they are allowed to stay here I believe we have to educate them for everyone’s benefit. However, why do we have to provide more for these students than for the children of Californians whose blood sweat and tears created the public school system? I live in San Francisco so I could tell you stories about redistribution of per pupil expenses. It’s sickening and what does SFUSD have to show for it’s efforts by robbing Peter to pay Paul? Despite having some of the most lucrative local revenue streams for a non-basic aid district, we still have the worst achievement gap in the state. After years of following this issue locally, I can sum it up in a question as follows: when the local public school leaders are more interested in political gamesmanship, student assignment policy, ethnic studies, suspension rate and funny hats, and as long as they rarely direct their efforts in the service of fundamental student achievement, why would anyone think that the achievement gap would narrow under such leadership?

      • navigio on Dec 2, 2014 at 3:58 pm12/2/2014 3:58 pm

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        lucrative local revenue streams and high achievement gaps almost always go hand in hand

      • Dawn Urbanek on Dec 2, 2014 at 6:54 pm12/2/2014 6:54 pm

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        I think that because I live in a “Conservative part of the State” our students (irrespective of wealth race or ethnicity) are being targeted and intentionally underfunded. At $7,002 per student + $273 for our poor- english language learners and foster children… think about the education our disadvantaged students have when they do not have the means to buy extra teachers, music, art, science camp etc.

        The real shame-

        We are one of the most underfunded Districts in the United States (yet we have some of the highest compensated teachers in the United States. Most if not all of our teachers are at the highest Step and Column and will retire within the next three years and the salary schedule just added new steps for teachers so that 2014-15 compensation will be around $98,000 per year- with pension and benefits average compensation is over $110,00 per employee. When I spoke with our newest Superintendent about the added pension cost by 2021- she said there would be plenty of money because everyone that is currently making $110,000 will retire and our new salary schedule will be closer to $50,000. No need to worry that students are crammed in like sardines in buildings that are falling down with 40 kids to a class- now we can add all young, new and inexperienced teachers. Wow what a win for students.

  3. Dawn Urbanek on Dec 2, 2014 at 6:15 am12/2/2014 6:15 am

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    In response to Jonathan who said: “It’s clear to me that you are ignorant. Your last sentence is a clear indication of xenophobia. English learners are not all “illegals” and to assume that all of those 200 students are illegal is insulting and unfounded. Anyways, have you been to the Capistrano Unified School District Office? And do you know how much it cost to build? Private tutoring for these students is a better investment for society than something like that building. Do your research, and then question the source because it seems that you are eating up all the conservative hog wash bullshit.”

    I have done my research – if you would like to read my “research” re: the Capistrano Unified School DIstrict, you can do so at the following link:

  4. Dawn Urbanek on Dec 2, 2014 at 5:32 am12/2/2014 5:32 am

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    California’s Local Control Accountability Plan intentionally underfunds K-12 Public Education (unless you happen to live in a District that has over 55% Poor and or English Language Learners). The law discriminates based on Wealth, Race and Ethnicity and should be challenged in Federal Court because it violates the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution.

    By underfunding Public Education, the State has enabled itself to use revenue that should be going to students for other programs- most of which are designed to redistribute wealth by creating new services and benefits for people who are not legally in this country.

    So tell all the UC students that the reason their tuition is going up is because the State has made the choice to underfund their education so that the State can:

    1) Create a new bureaucracy to provide Drivers licenses for an estimated 1.4 million illegal immigrants (Assembly Bill 60)
    The cost over the next three years is expected to be more than $140 million. The state is allocating $65 million in the current budget to hire 1000 new employees and open four temporary DMV offices by Jan. 1.

    2) State Sen. Ricardo Lara (who represents the City of Bell) introduced legislation late last week that would extend health-care coverage to all Californians “irrespective of immigration status.”

    3) State Sen. Ricardo Lara also introduced a bill to establish the California Office of New Americans to help immigrants better integrate into the State.

    4) In September Governor Brown signed Legislation to help unaccompanied minors with legal services

    and it goes on and on and on

    This State cares more about illegal immigrants that the students of legal residents (irrespective of the residents wealth, race or ethnicity)

    This is what the UC students should be protesting.


    • Dawn Urbanek on Dec 2, 2014 at 5:33 am12/2/2014 5:33 am

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      I meant to say “Local Control Funding Formula”

  5. Dawn Urbanek on Nov 20, 2014 at 9:17 am11/20/2014 9:17 am

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    Upon Direction of the Orange County Board of Education, with the stroke of a pen, District Staff changed our Districts Local Control Accountability Plan to make the number one priority English Language Learners and did so without any parent or public in-put. Everyone should be aware of the following:

    Capistrano Unified School District Welcomes 200 “Newcomers” – District LCAP Amended to Accommodate English Language Learners:

    Without disclosing the following to the Public: our District is classifying unaccompanied minors as homeless which entitles them to benefits under the McKinney-Vento Act. To meet the educational needs of the 200 Newcomers CUSD has entered into hundreds of contracts for private tutoring services from all over the United States.

    Capistrano Unified is already one of the lowest funded Districts in the California (and therefore the United States) at $7,002 per student. The added financial burden that these students will place on the District’s already insufficient funding is substantial, and will result in less services for current students.

    When there is not enough money… should state and local policymakers put the interests of illegal residents ahead of legal residents?


    • Jonathan Rockafeller on Dec 1, 2014 at 12:15 pm12/1/2014 12:15 pm

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      It’s clear to me that you are ignorant. Your last sentence is a clear indication of xenophobia. English learners are not all “illegals” and to assume that all of those 200 students are illegal is insulting and unfounded. Anyways, have you been to the Capistrano Unified School District Office? And do you know how much it cost to build? Private tutoring for these students is a better investment for society than something like that building. Do your research, and then question the source because it seems that you are eating up all the conservative hog wash bullshit.


    • el on Dec 2, 2014 at 3:17 pm12/2/2014 3:17 pm

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      You realize that children who are english language learners and children classified as homeless bring with them additional state and grant funding, correct? They actually grow your budget and increase (however slightly) your average budget per pupil.

      • Dawn Urbanek on Dec 3, 2014 at 12:19 pm12/3/2014 12:19 pm

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        We get $273 per student extra for Supplemental grant and -0- concentration grant so these students will be an added drain on our resources because that is not a sufficient amount to pay for the extra needs they have.

  6. navigio on Nov 14, 2014 at 9:23 am11/14/2014 9:23 am

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    Sorry Arun, apparently I’m a critic this morning. :-)

    I think it’s mistaken to assume districts simply chose programs for their LCAPs at random (grab-bag comment). I think it’s wrong to assume just because programs were defined at the state level that districts had no idea what they were doing.

    I also don’t think that assigning the goals and actions to a state-defined priority (note there is the option to specify additional local priorities) has to imply that districts treat them equally. LCAPs I have seen have made it pretty clear in how they assigned funding as to how they are differentiating those priorities (I doubt we’ll ever see one with equal amounts in all sections). As someone once said, don’t tell me what your priorities are, show me your budget, then I’ll know what your priorities are.

    Your lamenting the LCAP becoming a mere checklist sounds EXACTLY like what many have been saying about SPSAs and their LEA counterparts for years now. Truth is, only the people who approve them have any control over that. When CoEs approve and laud LCAPs that are mere checklists then clearly that’s what we’ll get, just as we’ve been getting with plans for years..

  7. Paul Muench on Nov 13, 2014 at 8:30 pm11/13/2014 8:30 pm

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    Isn’t this just another way to say let’s focus on improving teaching? In practice that seems to he the crux of Common Core.

  8. Don on Nov 13, 2014 at 4:13 pm11/13/2014 4:13 pm

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    Mr. Ramanathan, Most parents aren’t abreast of curriculum development. They only get an organic sense of the Common Core after their children come home from school with perhaps the same kinds of concerns you cited with your own daughter. Some children may express frustration with new concepts and it is only then that parents become aware of the qualitative differences between CC and the previous curriculum. With rising opposition to Common Core I’m afraid that any attempt to link it at the hip with the LCAP is nothing more than a strategy to overcome any current or latent opposition at the local level.

    Given the brewing controversy, let’s give locals time to buy into Common Core before we make it part and parcel of LCFF, which would still exist without it.

    Regarding your comment – “They (the local leaders) should focus far more attention on whether their accountability plans clearly explain and account for all funding, including supplementary funding for high-needs students, than on the number of new programs created in each priority area.”

    While I agree with this more stringent dollars and cents accountability you are espousing, the problem is there is an assumption on your part that if the plans DON’T account for funding there is some mechanism in place for corrective action. I don’t think that’s the case at present. At least there isn’t any clear path that a local parent participant could take for resolution.

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