Photo: Sydney Johnson

In the annual fall ritual that accompanies changing of the leaves, student test scores are out again. In California, state tests show students making slow and steady progress toward mastering learning standards: there was a 1 percentage point increase since last year in the proportion of students meeting or exceeding the standards in both English language arts (ELA) and math. Now 51 percent of students are meeting or exceeding the standards in ELA and 40 percent are doing so in math.

CREDIT: LPI

Linda Darling-Hammond

Student scores have incrementally increased every year that California has administered the online Smarter Balanced Assessments — called the CAASPP tests. In both areas the share of students meeting California’s more rigorous learning standards has increased by about 7 percentage points since 2015.

These standards focus much more explicitly on higher-order thinking and performance skills than the state’s earlier tests.

Underneath the averages, though, there is both good news and bad news. The good news is that achievement gaps are narrowing between white and Latino/Latina students, between economically disadvantaged and more affluent students and for children who started school speaking a language other than English as compared to native English speakers.

These gains may be in part a function of the greater funds that have come into the system as part of the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) and Propositions 30 and 32, with greater allocations targeted for students in poverty and English learners.

Research backs up the relationship between equitable funding and improved student outcomes: A study by UC Berkeley professor Rucker Johnson with Learning Policy Institute researcher Sean Tanner found that LCFF “led to significant increases in high school graduation rates and academic achievement, particularly among children from low-income families.” Students in the highest-poverty districts showed greater academic gain, the authors reported.

At the same time, academic progress tends to flatten in middle and high school. Achievement gaps are not narrowing for African-American students or for students with disabilities. Math performance is stuck at a disappointingly low level.

So while California is trending in the right direction, the overall pace of progress is sluggish and uneven. And it is critically important for a state whose economy is rooted substantially in STEM fields that we figure out how to make much stronger headway on learning in these fields — and that we do so for all students. This points us to the serious work that needs to be done.

Where achievement is not rising, we know that teacher shortages play a role. A recent study on “California’s Positive Outliers: Districts Beating the Odds,” found that the qualifications of teachers were the No. 1 in-school factor in the success of students who outperformed other similar students across the state and were most important for students of color. Positive outlier districts tended to have fewer teachers on emergency permits and substandard credentials and more with greater years of experience.

However, more than 75 percent of California districts have been hiring underprepared teachers in the major shortage fields of mathematics, science and special education. A recent report noted that half of new math teachers and two-thirds of special education teachers have been entering without full credentials for the last several years.

Furthermore, these underprepared teachers have high rates of attrition from the profession, creating high levels of churn in the schools where they are concentrated — disproportionately those serving students of color.

Perhaps not surprisingly, we are making little progress in math at the middle and high schools levels and even seeing some groups of students lose ground. And students with disabilities, taught by a growing number of teachers without preparation, are falling farther behind their peers at many grade levels.

Moving forward, we need to build on foundational changes made over the last 10 years and continue investments aimed at easing the teaching shortage and building the capacity of educators to improve the quality of curriculum and instruction.

To address the shortage and other teacher learning needs, Governor Newsom included $147 million in state and federal funds in the 2019-20 budget for teacher workforce investments. This includes $89.9 million to provide up to 4,487 grants of $20,000 for college students enrolled in professional teacher preparation programs that will commit to working in a high-need field at a high-needs schools for at least four years.

The budget also includes money for professional development related to subject matter instruction, English Learners, social-emotional learning and inclusive practices for special education teachers.

In addition to better prepared teachers, California needs to recruit and retain more teachers of color, whom research shows help close gaps, especially for African-American students. Diversifying our teacher workforce is also an important strategy to advance greater cultural understanding. Financial aid for preparation is a key to this recruitment. Greater support once on the job is also needed for retention.

Directing well-qualified teachers to high-need schools is also critical. Among the strategies for doing so, California once supported National Board certification and provided sizable stipends for Board certified teachers who worked in high-need schools.

These and other accomplished teachers are particularly needed to provide mentoring to the over-supply of novices who are often struggling in these schools. As part of the state’s commitments under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), California has pledged both to find strategies to equalize student access to well-qualified teachers. We will need to make headway on this agenda if we want to close achievement gaps.

Finally, we know from research that high-quality curriculum and instructional materials matter greatly for teaching and learning. Common Core math demands that students do much more than memorize multiplication tables or algebraic formulas: Students must deeply understand mathematical ideas and how to apply them to solve real-world problems.

To support teachers’ work, the state is taking a fresh look at our mathematics curriculum framework — guidance for teachers as they help their students master standards. Once a new framework is adopted, the state will adopt new instructional materials aligned to the guidance.

As a state, California has been making progress in recent years, but we also have great needs. Improving achievement requires a clear-eyed analysis of where we are not yet succeeding and taking concrete steps to improve educational opportunities for the students who are furthest from opportunity.

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Linda Darling-Hammond is president of the State Board of Education in California. 

The opinions expressed in this commentary represent those of the author. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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  1. Ann 6 days ago6 days ago

    The link to the Learning Policy Institute from which we are supposed to see evidence of improved performance for students taught by teachers of color links to no such evidence and instead is at treatise in how to attract such teachers with incentives of various kinds. What happens by the way to the Black students being taught by Latino teachers or vice versa or Asians taught by Blacks or....I could go on. This, I suspect, is … Read More

    The link to the Learning Policy Institute from which we are supposed to see evidence of improved performance for students taught by teachers of color links to no such evidence and instead is at treatise in how to attract such teachers with incentives of various kinds.

    What happens by the way to the Black students being taught by Latino teachers or vice versa or Asians taught by Blacks or….I could go on. This, I suspect, is not grounded in any true research and is just another racial identity social “justice” policy that will not improve student performance. It is not the color of the teacher’s skin that make him/her competent.

  2. Frank 1 week ago1 week ago

    We moved from a very strong school district in the Chicago suburbs, where there are many strong school districts, to San Diego and then experienced an absolutely tragic difference in math educators. It is completely unacceptable. In the last four years, among two different children, we have found only one qualified teacher. They literally knew less math than some of the students in the class. I wish this was an exaggeration, … Read More

    We moved from a very strong school district in the Chicago suburbs, where there are many strong school districts, to San Diego and then experienced an absolutely tragic difference in math educators. It is completely unacceptable.

    In the last four years, among two different children, we have found only one qualified teacher. They literally knew less math than some of the students in the class. I wish this was an exaggeration, it is not. Students who did self-study programs over the summer learned more than students who spent an entire year in a class, and this is a substantiated fact through the use of MDPT.

    Additionally, there is absolutely no differentiated learning and no acknowledgement that some students are completely lacking necessary prerequisite skills, while others are ready to move forward. The work that is being done with the curriculum is important and hiring qualified teachers should be a priority, but they can make changes immediately. California needs to make better use of adaptive learning programs. I recommend they look at ALEKS.

    Replies

    • Dr. Bill Conrad 1 week ago1 week ago

      I totally agree with you Frank. I worked in Community Consolidated School District 15 in Palatine, Illinois outside of Chicago and they had a relentless systems approach to continuously improving and aligning professional practices with regular monitoring and accountability. We actually won the coveted Baldrige Award when I was there. And we did not kill the fun in doing this work as I also helped convert a school bus into a Space Shuttle that brought quality … Read More

      I totally agree with you Frank.

      I worked in Community Consolidated School District 15 in Palatine, Illinois outside of Chicago and they had a relentless systems approach to continuously improving and aligning professional practices with regular monitoring and accountability. We actually won the coveted Baldrige Award when I was there. And we did not kill the fun in doing this work as I also helped convert a school bus into a Space Shuttle that brought quality science lessons and teaching to students at every elementary school in the district.

      In California, we are lost in the fog of education pursuing all manner of whacky baubles like personalized learning, socio-emotional learning, getting Black teachers in front of Black kids etc. etc etc. And we continue to ignore the massive deficiencies in system-wide teacher quality throwing up a few special cases as representing the system and advocating for the trope of just “Letting the teachers teach!”

      Your recommendation of parent and student use of ALEKS is right on. Parents and students must take this nasty situation into their own hands as it is your only hope. I do not recommend trying to change the system from within as the system is totally not ready as it is supremely self-satisfied! You will be smothered in charm from the Schmoozer administrators or worse you and your child will face active retribution!

      Time to hit the streets Frank. Are you up for it?

  3. Dr. Bill Conrad 1 week ago1 week ago

    We will continue to see small incremental or no improvement to student academic improvement until we address the root cause problem of poor student academic performance. The root cause problem are the colleges of education that recruit the least qualified and then train them poorly. The elementary teacher preparation course at San Jose State University includes a 3-hour course in teaching mathematics. Similarly for reading - there is a 3 … Read More

    We will continue to see small incremental or no improvement to student academic improvement until we address the root cause problem of poor student academic performance. The root cause problem are the colleges of education that recruit the least qualified and then train them poorly. The elementary teacher preparation course at San Jose State University includes a 3-hour course in teaching mathematics. Similarly for reading – there is a 3 hour course in the teaching of the critical subject of reading. There is no way that we will make headway in student academic achievement until there is a transformation of the colleges of education. No amount of school district-led professional development triage will be able to overcome this massive problem.

    This is not to say that there are not special case teachers who are superb at their craft. However, as a system K-12 will continue to be lost in the fog of mediocre to poor teaching until we begin to recruit the finest and train them well and ultimately pay them professional 6-figure salaries.

    A long with a transformation of the colleges of education, we will need to build a career ladder for the teaching profession that includes apprenticeships, residencies, journeymen and Master teachers. Journeymen and Master teachers should be paid six figure salaries. All teachers should be expected to work a full 8-hour days with time allocated for self-reflection, planning, and collaboration with colleagues. There should be an 11-month work year as well.

    Principals and District administrators should be drawn from the Master Teacher level for temporary assignments as administrators. These Master Teacher/administrators should spend 80% of their time directly supporting teachers through modeling expert professional practices, coaching, and evaluation. The goal should be to become a Master Teacher not a bureaucratic loyalty-driven administrator.

    No one has the guts in K-12 education to advocate for these transformational changes as life is too good for the current glitterati of K-12 education. Technical changes are fine thank you and incremental increases in student achievement will also be fine thank you.

    After all, it is the kids who have the problems learning. We taught them but they just didn’t learn! Or maybe they are too brown? Or maybe they are just long term English Learners? On and On and On!

    I am happy to see that the children are agitating for gun control and climate change! Maybe it is time the children start agitating for a better education!

  4. Todd Maddison 1 week ago1 week ago

    Given that "more than 75 percent of California districts have been hiring underprepared teachers in the major shortage fields of mathematics, science, and special education" why are we not solving this problem by paying higher starting wages for teachers in those subjects? Why not take the next round of teacher pay increases and weight them heavily toward teachers in those subjects, and actually move toward solving this problem - in a way that we know, for … Read More

    Given that “more than 75 percent of California districts have been hiring underprepared teachers in the major shortage fields of mathematics, science, and special education” why are we not solving this problem by paying higher starting wages for teachers in those subjects?

    Why not take the next round of teacher pay increases and weight them heavily toward teachers in those subjects, and actually move toward solving this problem – in a way that we know, for a fact, works in any other industry?