What will it take to make headway on student achievement?

October 9, 2019

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.

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.


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

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