State education officials call for clearer directives to close achievement gaps

May 10, 2017

A kindergartner does an art project at Redwood Heights Elementary School in Oakland.

The next version of California’s plan for complying with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act may include stronger language and commitments to low-achieving students, following comments Wednesday by some members of the State Board of Education that the first draft only paid lip service to raising the achievement of struggling students.

Following a lengthy and impassioned discussion at its meeting, the board gave informal guidance that staff will incorporate into an 80-page document the board will review again in July before adopting the plan in September. A formal 30-day public comment period will begin later this month.

Among the requirements, the plan must describe how the state will use about $2 billion in federal Title I funding for low-income students to identify and fix about 300 of the state’s persistently lowest-performing schools.

The board’s discussion exposed disagreements over whether the board should only include what the law minimally requires or whether it should lay out a broader, expansive agenda for equalizing resources and narrowing academic performance disparities. In its explanation of the initial state plan, staff wrote, “Given the new federal approach to collect only what is ‘absolutely necessary,’” California’s plan “has been written to meet, not exceed, federal requirements.”

The staff’s approach reflects a desire to avoid the types of conflicts that California and other states had with the Obama administration, which imposed tight regulations and prescriptions for fixing schools under the No Child Left Behind Act. Congress gave states more flexibility and set fewer requirements when it passed the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015.

But board member Feliza Ortiz-Licon said the new state plan should clearly reflect the commitment to narrowing achievement gaps that “we say we value and undergirds” the state school improvement approach that officials have christened “the California way.” The board should not view the federal plan “as a reporting burden,” she said. “These are California students and happen to be the same students over and over (shown to be underperforming). We need to own this; these are our kids.”

 Ortiz-Licon criticized the plan’s lack of clear objectives for growth that student subgroups must achieve within five to seven years to reach the state’s performance goals under its new accountability plan. Parents and the public won’t know how to comment on a plan that’s so vague, she said. “Imagine someone not familiar with ESSA making an informed comment on how to narrow the gap.”

Credit: California Department of Education webcast

Patricia Rucker speaks at the state board meeting on Wednesday.

Board member Patricia Rucker said that for years the state has adopted plans to help African-American students, and yet the disparities remain. Holding back tears, Rucker, an African-American teacher and CTA lobbyist, added: “We have to not make the same mistakes. When I look at data and see students at the top of the list for all the wrong reasons, I am sorry we are having the wrong conversation.” She said districts should be held accountable not only for higher test scores, but also for equity in money and resources. Low-income schools should offer the same courses and opportunities that wealthy schools do, she said.

In their comments, education and children advocates also urged a more explicit plan. “I understand the resistance to too much detail, but this is a chance to outline an integrated state plan,” said Sarah Lillis, the director of the nonprofit EdVoice Institute.

“I’m grateful to members Ortiz-Licon and Rucker,” said Samantha Tran, senior managing director of education policy at Children Now. “Equity needs to be embedded in the plan; we need to look at resource issues.”

Other board members cautioned against setting expansive goals and commitments that could lead to federal intrusion. Sue Burr said the state has had a history of picking achievement goals “out of thin air” – some too high and others too low. “I am leery of setting them,” she said.

Burr raised a different issue that she said may be worth a confrontation with the federal government. The board has deliberately tried to create a coherent improvement system consistent with the state’s vision. But the Every Student Succeeds Act demands a different set of criteria for selecting the lowest-performing schools than the state Local Control Funding Formula requires for designating districts that qualify for county and state assistance. Districts are designated based on the low performance of subgroups of students, such as students with disabilities and English learners. Schools, under federal law, are chosen based on overall performance of all students.

And, Burr said, ESSA requires the federal government to provide assistance directly to schools, while the state’s plan recognizes that districts have the chief responsibility to improve schools and must not be left out of improvement plans.

“To suggest that schools should be selected differently from districts is wrong on its face,” she said. “We have an accountability system based on holding districts accountable. Are we going down a path because the feds tell us, or are we going to lead and resist?”

The board asked staff to apply the different state and federal selection criteria to see if the low-performing schools are also located in low-performing districts needing assistance. One option could be to seek a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education to alter the criteria for selecting schools and to direct assistance to low-performing schools through districts.

“There is research showing that trying to improve schools without improving districts generally does not work very well,” said State Board President Michael Kirst.

Eric Premack, director of the Charter Schools Development Center in Sacramento, said the state should press U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos on her commitment to local control and states’ rights. “If DeVos is true to her word, we should submit (what California wants), double down and see what sticks,” he said.

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