Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, California’s likely next governor, is calling for an all-out assault to change the state’s educational outcomes, one that starts before birth and extends through school, college and into the workplace.
This cradle-to-career strategy is the central organizing principle of Newsom’s education platform, bringing together parts of the educational system that are not currently connected and linking them seamlessly.
What’s needed, said Newsom in response to a set questions from EdSource, is a “new way of thinking about education as a lifetime pursuit.”
“Our role begins when babies are still in the womb and it doesn’t end until we’ve done all we can to prepare them for a quality job and successful career,” he said.
Among Newsom’s proposals include expanding pre-natal care, introducing universal preschool for 4-year-olds, starting college savings accounts for every kindergartner in the state and guaranteeing two years of free community college tuition. He calls the approach the “California Promise.”
But to deliver on that promise will require sweeping change. Such an integrated, holistic approach is, by its nature, complex, demanding and, at times, messy. To be effective, it will have to address multiple fronts, knitting together all segments of education and weaving in outside partners — teachers and social workers, health care and housing, the public sector and the business community — with little history of close collaboration.
One indication of how important this cradle-to-career strategy is to Newsom — and the likelihood that it will be a central part of his governing agenda — is that he has made it the focus of his first post-primary election campaign ad released last week. “To renew the California dream,” he says, amid images of him reading with grade-schoolers and meeting with teenage apprentices, “we need to renew our promise to our children.”
Newsom has so far not come up with any dollar costs for implementing his vision and some of his proposals are short on specifics about how many children or students would be served. Nor is it clear who would lead such an effort — would it be an existing official, like the superintendent of public instruction? A new education tsar? Or the governor himself?
And while such a broad-based approach is beginning to gain traction in other states, counties and cities, California’s size and scale would make any effort here stand out.
For one, they say, the current segmentation of the education system into early childhood, K-12 and higher ed is artificial and de-emphasizes the ways in which learning is interconnected and cumulative.
One of the surest predictors of high-school graduation, for example, is the ability to read on grade level by third grade, says Bruce Atchison, who is head of early learning at the Education Commission of the States, a multi-state forum for education policy. A student who isn’t proficient in reading in elementary school is four times less likely to graduate on time, yet interventions to help prevent dropping out often come during the high-school years. “When you look at who is dropping out,” Atchison says, “they’re pretty much set on that trajectory by the time they’re eight years old.”
Likewise, Atchison notes the push for universal pre-school, something Newsom has called for. Pre-K can be highly effective in preparing children to enter school ready to learn, he says, but that progress can be squandered if a student ends up in a kindergarten classroom where the class size is too big, the curriculum is ineffective, or the teacher is inadequately trained in childhood development. Typically, there is no communication between a child’s preschool and kindergarten teachers.
Segmentation of the education system also creates cracks students can fall through. Take the phenomenon known as “summer melt” — nationally, one in five low-income students who plan to go to college never actually enroll in a college class. Often, they’re derailed by relatively minor administrative hurdles, like properly filling out financial-aid forms, but don’t know where — high-school counselor or college adviser — to turn for guidance.
Some components of Newsom’s plan, such as a longitudinal data system that tracks Californians from early childhood through college, are aimed at getting the state’s different educational systems to work in concert. But other elements focus on expanding work beyond traditional service providers. For instance, Newsom embraces community schools, a model that bring together health care, social services and after school programs on a single campus.
Paul Reville, director of the Education Redesign Lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, says three decades of “rigorous” education reform have led to only modest changes in educational achievement, with troubling gaps for low-income and minority students. It’s clear, he says, that focusing only on schools and curricula will not be enough to move the needle.
“Schools alone are not enough,” Reville says, noting that the average public-school student spends just 20 percent of his day in class. “Our siloed approach does not get the job done.”
Harvard’s Education Redesign Lab is working with a half-dozen communities across the country, including Oakland, to build a broad-based approach to child well-being and educational success, some of which is echoed in Newsom’s proposals.
And Reville’s past experience offers one window into the ways in which a state can start breaking down walls when it comes to education — before he founded the Harvard lab, he was Massachusetts’ first Secretary of Education, overseeing the Departments of Early Education and Care, Elementary and Secondary Education and Higher Education.
The super-secretary was begun in 2008 to help articulate a coordinated vision for education in Massachusetts. While the education secretary isn’t responsible for day-to-day operations, Reville and his successors have helped set priorities across the commonwealth, says Chad d’Entremont, executive director of the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy, a nonprofit think tank in Boston. That leadership has been especially helpful in areas that require different sectors to work together, such as instituting an “early college” program that allows students to take college courses while still enrolled in high school.
Despite the more-consolidated structure, challenges remain, d’Entremont says. There is still competition between the sectors — and between individual institutions — for resources and Massachusetts continues to develop a system that more easily and robustly shares data across the entire public education system and with other agencies, like the Department of Children and Families.
A handful of other states, including Idaho, New York and Rhode Island, also have some sort of umbrella agency linking pre-K, elementary and secondary, and higher education, although the systems vary in their degree of oversight and hands-on governance.
It is not clear, however, that as governor Newsom would establish a formal pan-education department. His platform calls only for the creation of a new higher education coordinating council, bringing together the California Community College, California State University and University of California systems.
A number of policy experts and advocates say there is a strong argument for having an official body created through legislation for all of public education — perhaps even including early childhood programs that are frequently overseen by other social services agencies. Such a body could create an internal infrastructure and incentives, including financial, for the different sectors to work together, says Patrick M. Callan, a former president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. “I’m not suggesting you have to have a tsar,” Callan says, “but does the current system have the capacity for collaboration?”
Having a government entity responsible for coordinating policy could help spur action, says Avo Makdessian, who leads the Silicon Valley Community Foundation’s Choose Children campaign, an effort to bring attention to early childhood issues. “Right now, all the pressure to act has to come from the outside,” he says, from groups like his.
This, however, is not the first time there have been broad-based efforts focused on education. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, 38 of 50 states, including California, created what were known as P-16 or P-20 councils that attempted to align early childhood through high-school graduation or college.
Though well-intentioned, many of the councils proved only modestly effective. Often, they lacked clear mandates or the budgetary teeth to see policy through, says Jennifer Zinth, principal for high school and STEM policy at the Education Commission of the States. Accustomed to competing for appropriations, the various sectors could be wary of one another, worried that joint efforts could come at the cost of their individual authority. In California, in an effort to be inclusive, the council ballooned to an unmanageable 65 members, says Andrea Venezia, executive director of EdInsights, an education research center at California State University at Sacramento.
Councils do remain active in a handful of states. One is Hawaii. Stephen Schatz, executive director of the state’s P-20 Partnershipfor Education, says he thinks one reason for the group’s longevity is that it isn’t just a convening body but also a “shop, with boots on the ground,” such as serving as the lead organization for the statewide “55 by ‘25” campaign, an effort to ensure that 55 percent of Hawaii’s working-age adults have a two- or four-year degree by 2025.
But Schatz, who worked for several years in Compton Unified as a teacher and principal, acknowledges that doing such work in Hawaii can be more straightforward than in states like California. Los Angeles Unified, for example, serves more than three times as many students as does the entire state of Hawaii. Unlike California, which has three public university systems, Hawaii only has one.
Several California counties have adopted an explicit “cradle to career” strategy which could serve as a jumping off point if Newsom carries through on his promise to introduce it statewide.
One such effort is San Diego County’s Partnership for Children, a collaborative effort of multiple organizations, including child care agencies, the police department, the United Way and San Diego State University. Among its successes is a program to stop the “summer slide,” when elementary-school children, particularly from poor families, lose ground on reading comprehension when the school year ends.
The group worked with some of the usual suspects, like libraries and summer care providers, to give students more opportunities to read. But they also worked with the local low-income housing developments to set up summer literacy programs on site. In the last year, 85 percent of children maintained or improved their literacy over the summer, says Tia Anzellotti, vice president of partnerships for the United Way of San Diego County, which helps run the partnership.
The Ventura County P-20 Council, which includes early education, K-12 and higher education leaders, elected officials and parent and business representatives, has developed what it calls a “cradle to career roadmap.” The council meets every other month to identify priorities and chart progress, says Stan Mantooth, the group’s chair and superintendent of the county’s public schools. The council’s collaborative effort has helped generate $120 million in grants received by area organizations in the past dozen years.
Newsom could also look beyond the California’s borders for local efforts as possible models for statewide action. For example, a pilot program started by a community group in Albany, NY, to screen children three and younger for developmental delays has been adopted throughout the state through the Medicaid program.
In Minnesota, state officials recognized the efficacy of such work, setting up a small grant program to help launch local initiatives, says Jennifer Blatz, president and CEO of StriveTogether, a national nonprofit supporting a network of community-based partnerships.
It’s not just a matter of more funding. California’s governor could do more to set statewide standards to promote more integration of different parts of the education system, says Ann Mathieson of Marin Promise, another community-based “cradle-to-career” partnership. These could include establishing a standardized kindergarten readiness assessment which would help link early childhood programs and the K-12 education system, or mandating that the K-12 data system known as CALPads be linked to higher education data systems.
The challenge for California’s next governor, observers say, will be how to encourage local innovation while devising statewide strategies that harness all the good will and best intentions and get disparate players, both inside and outside education, to work together to improve outcomes for the next generation.
“It’s the right vision for a governor to have,” Callan says. “The question is, how do you put the meat on the bones.”