Transformation goal is to narrow achievement gap, promote college and career success

April 24, 2016

Michael Kirst

California’s public education system is in the midst of systemwide transformation designed to narrow the achievement gap and elevate low-achieving students to be ready for college and career success. At the core of the change are higher academic standards for all students, regardless of their achievement level, socioeconomic status, ethnicity or family background. These higher standards, coupled with our new school funding and accountability systems, improved assessments and a system-wide focus on continuous improvement, contribute to the underlying goal of ensuring more students are college and career ready when they graduate.

The focus on college and career readiness addresses two fundamental issues. Setting this aspirational goal for every student sends a clear signal to students, parents, educators and stakeholders. The policy choices made by Governor Brown and lawmakers in the last several years help to ensure that traditionally disadvantaged students can and will reach higher achievement levels and be prepared for college coursework. It also ensures that California is adequately preparing students to succeed in the job market when they graduate.

California’s new standards, not only in English and math, but also in science, require students to think critically and analytically and to solve problems. Many, if not most future jobs will require some grounding in science as evidenced by the rapid rate of technological change today.

Assessments also have an important role on the path to college and career readiness. Three years ago, lawmakers and the governor approved a new computer adaptive assessment system so students, parents, schools and the state can better measure the growth of individual students and subgroups toward college readiness.

In the new system, the progress of individual students is being measured from year to year. The new tests are adaptive so that students at very high levels of achievement can show what they know at levels that exceed standards, while underachieving students can be more quickly identified and supported. The Legislature and the governor purposely established an assessment system that helps improve instruction by providing educators quick access to student test scores as well as tools to differentiate progress among various student subgroups.

Money is another important piece of the education system change underway. Lawmakers and the governor were wise to replace an unwieldy and irrational education funding system with one that puts decision-making closer to the classroom and allocates more funding for students with the greatest needs. Thus far, the state has invested $12.8 billion in the new funding formula, which represents 90 percent of the total target through the first three years of implementation. How local school boards, education officials, parents, teachers, students and stakeholders use these dollars to narrow the achievement gaps is a key factor in determining local progress.

Under the new funding formula, we’re seeing more local programs and services to help students with the greatest needs and more involvement of educators, parents and stakeholders in goal-setting and decision-making. Increased funding flexibility and more dollars for high needs students are purposely being directed to college and career readiness programs beginning in the early grades. Schools are adding essential services such as health aides to assist with student wellness and creating programs to reduce suspensions and expulsions. Districts are reporting higher course credit completion, lower dropout rates and higher graduation rates.

While local and statewide change in education is moving in the right direction, narrowing the achievement gap will only be successful if we employ a holistic approach to reduce poverty. The substantial investments that Governor Brown and California’s lawmakers are initiating in social services, such as increasing the minimum wage, expanding health care, establishing an earned income tax credit, and increasing sick and paid family leave, will greatly contribute to the ability of public schools to bring disadvantaged students to higher levels of academic performance.

The extent of change in public education in the last several years is very encouraging. New standards, improved assessments, increased funding, more local control, and greater investments in social programs that influence achievement are all part of California’s new educational landscape. The recent actions of Governor Brown and lawmakers speak volumes about their level of commitment to all students and to our state’s standards. Such unity of purpose is unusual in politics and makes California’s approach to education policy unique in the nation.

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Michael Kirst is President of the California State Board of Education and Professor Emeritus of Education at Stanford University.

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