Edley: ‘Several missing pieces to the current batch of reforms’

September 22, 2015

Christopher Edley, Jr.

The results of the Smarter Balanced assessments, the centerpiece of the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress, or CAASPP, were released Sept. 9 and showed the vast achievement gaps that decades of education reforms have failed to close. In a series of interviews, EdSource executive director Louis Freedberg interviewed leading experts about the continuing gap and what additional reforms are needed to narrow or close it. Christopher Edley, Jr. is a professor and former dean at the UC Berkeley School of Law.  He was chair of the congressionally-chartered Equity and Excellence Commission set up to advise the U.S. Dept. of Education on how to close disparities in educational opportunity that contribute to the achievement gap.  He was also co-founder of The Civil Rights Project, now based at UCLA. 

What is your response to the “achievement gap” on the Smarter Balanced test results?

Sadly, it confirms the premise of the Equity and Excellence Commission’s report, namely that the approach to school reform starting with “A Nation at Risk” has run its course, and left us with this yawning gap that endangers America’s future, let alone that of these kids. It let officials at all levels talk tough about educational improvement, but without pursuing evidenced-based strategies and making mid-course corrections as required.

California is targeting funds on kids who need it most. How much of a difference will that make? 

I don’t believe there is any reason the reforms championed by Gov. Brown will move the needle or narrow the gap. It will only work if there is accountability for how it is spent, and if there is capacity at the local level for spending it well, as opposed to simply restoring the recession cuts. The accounting systems in our schools don’t allow us to follow the money all the way to the classroom, to find out if the kids in the most need will get the resources, financial or otherwise, that will narrow the achievement disparities.

All the research shows a major correlation between test scores and poverty. The affluent districts are doing well, and those that are not are not. To what extent do we have to look at these other factors as part of the education reform equation because obviously schools can’t do anything about that?

We are not going to do away with poverty, but what can we do in the education space that will mitigate the effects of poverty on student learning?  There are some answers. The most important is early childhood learning. These have by far the largest effects on children’s success later on. Beyond that, there are a whole range of possibilities. Some community school designs are hugely promising, as well as extended learning time, and putting successful teachers into classrooms where they are prepared to deal with problems in that classroom. So no one thinks we can eliminate the advantages given by affluent or even solidly middle class backgrounds. Poverty is only a partial excuse because there is only so much we can do.

Regarding community schools, how can we get a variety of health, mental health and social services needs addressed in ways that are designed to support student success and that are financially sustainable? The major problem now is that access that community schools provide to these services are ad hoc and voluntary, as opposed to a system of support that is baked into the structure of these programs.

The programs you mention are not dramatically new, but are you saying they have not been an integral part of the reform agenda?  

Many well-intentioned reformers mistakenly think that successful examples will be imitated, but that is simply not the way the K-12 ecosystem operates. A major example of that is that we don’t see a strong pattern of successful charter schools being emulated. We must have intentionality not only about achievement in the aggregate, but also in attacking these disparities and holding people accountable.

There is a feeling now in California that we are going in the right direction in moving away from a punishment model, tying curriculum to the real world and targeting funds to students who need it most. But 10 to 15 years from today, will we be where we are now in terms of the achievement gap?

There are several missing pieces without which the current batch of reforms will leave disparities pretty much the same or unimproved. I am a huge supporter of Common Core. But I have not seen concerted attention to the schools and teachers serving poor kids to make sure they get the extra resources they need to implement the Common Core as effectively as it will be in affluent districts. These schools disproportionately have less-experienced teachers and a host of other challenges that will make implementation of the Common Core a lot more difficult.

But what about the supplemental and concentration grants that districts will be getting? Aren’t they getting the resources they need to successfully implement the Common Core? 

It is impossible to know how these funds will be spent and whether they will be spent in effective ways. In addition, these schools disproportionately have less experienced teachers and a host of other challenges that will make implementation of the Common Core a lot more difficult.


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