Taking stock five years into landmark changes for California’s schools, a new report calls for doubling down on efforts to deepen and strengthen “one of the country’s most ambitious equity-focused education reforms.”
The lengthy analysis by the Palo Alto-based nonprofit Learning Policy Institute is mostly positive about the policy changes that former Gov. Jerry Brown set in place, while underscoring the challenges ahead.
The California Way, as state leaders call the new directions, “is a story of both meaningful progress and significant need.” Students most in need are getting more resources but not enough to provide the opportunities they “need to thrive,” the report said.
Among the report’s many recommendations:
- Expand training for teachers and school leaders in new academic standards and practices.
- Clarify for the community how local school dollars are spent.
- Find better ways to identify and learn from exemplary districts and schools.
- Allocate more money overall for a state ranked in the bottom fifth of states in cost-adjusted per student spending.
Besides not having enough money, according to the report, obstacles in the way of reaching the state’s ambitious goals include a teacher shortage in critical areas such as math, science and bilingual education. Also complicating matters is an underdeveloped support network for districts and schools under the new system of local control, and a “silent recession” in which new revenue is falling behind rising costs of teacher pensions and expenses for students with disabilities.
One of the three co-authors of the report is Learning Policy Institute President and CEO Linda Darling-Hammond, who is Gov. Gavin Newsom’s new appointee to the State Board of Education – and his choice to become the board’s new president at its next meeting in March.
The institute’s senior writer and director of storytelling, Roberta Furger, and senior researcher Laura Hernández, are the other authors.
Elements of the new education system are new academic standards – the Common Core and the Next Generation Science Standards – and the Local Control Funding Formula, Brown’s 2013 law that shifted decision-making authority from Sacramento to school districts. The new system also provides more resources to low-income, homeless and foster youths, and English learners. In addition, the law framed a new accountability system that de-emphasizes test scores and elevates broader measures of student achievement and positive school conditions.
Advocates have cautioned that the implications of local control and self-directed improvement will likely take a decade to take root and be embraced by the state’s 1,000 districts and 1,300 charter schools. The report, coming midway through the decade and the start of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration, serves as a call for patience and for a commitment for more resources to make the system work.
“While there is much work to be done, districts are beginning to make progress in this system,” the report said. “It is important that the new administration maintain stability for schools and districts to continue to move forward.”
Getting Down to Facts, a collection of three-dozen studies on school finance and governance released last fall by Stanford University and the nonprofit research organization PACE, signaled the same message.
The authors found California schools have made meaningful progress. Results on the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress showed significant improvements by California students in math and reading, although disparities among student groups in the state remain chasmal. High school graduation rates have risen and suspension rates have fallen steadily, providing evidence that schools are focusing on school climate – a goal of the new accountability system.
Partnerships among districts on various areas of performance have taken off. The California Collaborative for Educational Excellence, a new state agency, has funded dozens of networks and received $13 million in the current state budget for a new district network on parent and community engagement. The CORE Districts’ data collaborative serves 50 districts and 1.8 million students. There are robust networks working on math improvement and implementing the new science standards.
The report heralds San Jose Unified’s staffing commitment to schools serving high needs students and Los Angeles Unified’s Student Equity Need Index, directing tens of millions of dollars to the most impoverished schools. It commends Anaheim Union High School District’s instructional supports and Palmdale Elementary School District’s parent engagement process.
But there isn’t yet an integrated way to share exemplary practices or a coordinated system to support districts with experts in county offices, universities, and non-profit organizations. California eliminated leadership academies during the recession and does little to train administrators. And to build a “strong stable” workforce of teachers, the state should consider forgivable loans and scholarships, teacher residencies and adequate mentoring for beginning teachers, the report urged.
“Continued progress will depend on deepening these strategies and investments,” the report said, “as well as a focused effort to build the capacity of everyone in the system.”