Multifaceted reforms needed to reach California’s education goals, research project finds

September 17, 2018

Researchers on Monday released a massive collection of education studies timed to inform the next California governor’s and Legislature’s preK-12 agenda.

Among the findings of Getting Down to Facts II:

Two years in the making, Getting Down to Facts II consists of 36 reports and 19 briefs by more than 100 authors, including many prominent researchers from California. They took deep looks into a range of long-standing and pressing issues: the teacher shortage, inadequate funding, disparities in achievement, charter school oversight and English learner achievement. They examined unmet challenges in special education, school facilities, children’s mental health and other issues. Stanford University and Policy Analysis for California Education or PACE, which is affiliated with Stanford, USC, UC Davis, UCLA and UC Berkeley, coordinated the project.

The research comes at a pivotal time, with the retirement of State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, Gov. Jerry Brown and longtime Brown confidant Michael Kirst, president of the State Board of Education. Sweeping changes they initiated have altered the K-12 landscape since the first Getting Down to Facts studies were published in 2007.

In surveys detailed in the studies, educators argued strongly that California should stay committed to the major reforms already in place. These reforms include academic standards in math, English language arts and other subject areas; a funding formula championed by Gov. Brown that targets more funding to low-income students, English learners and other high needs students; and a new school accountability system that views counties and the state as partners with schools and districts, not overseers. Three-quarters of superintendents agreed that the new flexibility under the Local Control Funding Formula has enabled their district to spend in ways that match local needs.

But the funding formula, which remade school funding and shifted decision-making over how state funds are spent, has yet to significantly narrow the wide gaps in achievement among ethnic and racial groups in California. And California students, with the exception of wealthy children, continue to lag a full grade behind the nation, according to a study led by Sean Reardon, an education professor at Stanford University.

There are some hopeful signs. Reardon did find that low-income elementary and middle school students in California have improved in reading slightly faster than low-income students nationwide. And a study led by Rucker Johnson, a professor of public policy at UC Berkeley, found a correlation between extra spending under the funding formula on poor children and improvements in their graduation rates and reading scores. That research could not document how the extra money made a difference.

But the studies underscored that the principal goal of the funding formula — to give all students the opportunity and resources to achieve their post-high school ambitions — may be unattainable without not only additional funding but also policy changes, including:

Christopher Edley, president and co-founder of the Opportunity Institute, criticized the state’s hands-off approach to overseeing spending under the Local Control Funding Formula. While state leaders say this is to encourage innovation, “aspirational goals for innovation without adequate guidance may put some of our most vulnerable students at risk of not receiving the resources that they desperately need,” he writes in a paper “Education Equity in California.”

Advocates for building stronger data systems to track student progress and greatly expanding early childhood education programs have made little headway while Brown has been governor. Getting Down to Facts II documents the case to make them the next governor’s priorities.

Reardon’s study of academic achievement of California students found that students in wealthy schools perform as well as  students nationally in affluent schools, but California’s low-income and middle-income schools lag a grade behind the national average for low- and middle-income schools in math and reading. The challenge, based on a comparison of a common kindergarten readiness assessment, is that the achievement gap in California already exists on the first day of school.

“The skills gap found at kindergarten entry suggests that California’s lag in academic achievement arises before children even enter the schoolhouse door,” Reardon wrote.

Reardon’s research doesn’t indicate whether the gap reflects less access to preschool and child care programs or the poorer quality of programs attended by low income children. But seven studies of early childhood education led by Deborah Stipek, professor and former dean of Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, conclude it’s both. They describe multiple challenges in early education in California, among them:

Just addressing one factor in isolation won’t solve the problem, Stipek said in an interview.

Better data

Expanding the use of data and linking data systems from preschool to higher education with state agencies like the Commission on Teacher Credentialing were among the key points in the first Getting Down to Facts reports a decade ago. Getting Down to Facts II not only renews the call but warns that the state’s emphasis on local control will fail without data that can inform teachers, parents and policy makers in Sacramento about what’s working in their districts and others statewide.

The state’s “patchwork” of data systems “do not provide satisfactory answers to the state’s most important policy questions,” authors of a study on data write. The California Department of Education “does not have the capacity to use the data effectively to guide policy decisions,” a summary paper says. Stanford research professor Macke Raymond, who said a failure to get access to data prevented her from updating her study on charter schools, was among the researchers who cited data limitations affecting their own work. The authors of a study on career technical education said that more than half of high schools are offering a career pathway program but it is hard to gauge their impact because of the state’s data limitations.

Adequate spending

A key question addressed by Jesse Levin, a principal research economist with the American Institutes for Research, and his fellow researchers was: How much would it cost California taxpayers to provide schools with the resources needed for students to achieve proficiency on state standards and prepare students to succeed after high school? They turned to two panels of superintendents, principals, teachers, business administrators, specialists on English learners and on students with disabilities.

Their answer is that “adequate” annual funding would cost $91.8 billion. That is $25.6 billion more than the $66.2 billion** spent by the state in 2016-17. If spending increased by that amount, it would raise average per-student spending by about $4,350 per year, to $16,800 per student — a 38 percent increase and more than that in districts with the most low-income students.

Those hoping this new research initiative will guide state policy can point to its predecessor, the first Getting Down to Facts, although it took the election of a new governor, following a huge recession, to see its full impact. One study in 2007 proposed a weighted pupil funding formula, which would allocate state education funds based on the needs of different groups of students. Michael Kirst was one of the co-authors. That idea emerged as a central element in the Local Control Funding Formula approved by the Legislature in 2013, with Brown and Kirst, who Brown appointed president of the State Board of Education, as champions. The funding formula converted money allocated for dozens of highly restrictive state programs into discretionary funding for school districts, which was another recommendation of the first Getting Down to Facts.

Many of the researchers in the current Getting Down to Facts project also contributed to the earlier effort, as did some of the current project’s seven funders: Dirk and Charlene Kabcenell Foundation, Silver Giving Foundation, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, Stuart Foundation, Haas, Jr. Fund and Heising-Simons Foundation.

Susanna Loeb, formerly with Stanford University and now the director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform and professor of education at Brown University, was the principal investigator for the 2007 Getting Down To Facts report and provided guidance and oversight for the research team of Getting Down to Facts II. Heather Hough, recently named executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education, which is affiliated with Stanford, also coordinated the release.

EdSource receives support from a dozen philanthropic foundations, including several that funded the Getting Down to Facts II initiative. Editorial decision-making and content remain under the sole control of EdSource.

Correction: On Oct. 13, researchers for the American Institutes for Research disclosed that they had discovered an error in their calculations that overstated K-12 spending in 2016-17 by $3.5 billion. As a result, the difference needed to reach adequate spending increased by $546 per student, bringing the total spending needed to achieve adequate funding to $25.6 billion and 38 percent, not $22.1 billion and 32 percent, as initially published. 

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