Dan Walters

Dan Walters: California’s school gap wider than thought

In this April 8, 2015 photo, students are served breakfast at the Stanley Mosk Elementary School in Los Angeles. The number of breakfasts served in the nation’s schools has doubled in the last two decades, a surge driven largely by a change in how districts deliver the food. Instead of providing low-income students free or reduced-price meals in the cafeteria, they’re increasingly serving all children in the classroom.
In this April 8, 2015 photo, students are served breakfast at the Stanley Mosk Elementary School in Los Angeles. The number of breakfasts served in the nation’s schools has doubled in the last two decades, a surge driven largely by a change in how districts deliver the food. Instead of providing low-income students free or reduced-price meals in the cafeteria, they’re increasingly serving all children in the classroom. Associated Press file

For years, California politicians and educators – who are sometimes the same – have talked about the “achievement gap” that separates poor and “English-learner” students from more advantaged classmates.

For years, they have pledged to close the gap that is exposed in periodic testing.

Three years ago, at the urging of Gov. Jerry Brown, the Legislature completely overhauled school finance. The state gave schools many billions of new dollars, eliminated restrictions on existing funds, and provided extra money to districts with large numbers of disadvantaged students to attack the achievement gap.

Ever since, the awkwardly named Local Control Funding Formula has sparked nonstop infighting over how the targeted money is spent, how the outcomes are monitored and what happens in schools that fail to raise achievement levels.

Those conflicts continue, pitting education reform and civil rights groups against the education establishment, including teacher unions, without resolution in sight. And it’s likely they will wind up in the courts.

Simultaneously, the state is embracing Common Core academic standards. And the state already has administered tests based on the standards, results of which were released last year.

Before their release, state education officials pointedly attempted to lower expectations. Because so much of the underlying curriculum was new, as well as the method of testing, they warned, results would be disappointing.

The overall achievement levels were, in fact, relatively low, as educators warned. But the Public Policy Institute of California, in a new analysis, found that they were particularly so for the roughly 3.5 million “high-need” students that LCFF is supposed to help.

Some schools are showing great success in raising achievement levels of high-need students. Newhall Elementary in Los Angeles County, for example, was expected to show just 6 percent of its fourth-grade English learners meeting standards, but in fact 52 percent did.

But, as PPIC also noted, “at hundreds of schools, no fourth-grade ELs met the state ELA standard,” with the heaviest concentrations of underachievement found in the Inland Empire of Southern California, the San Joaquin Valley and Los Angeles Unified School District.

Overall, PPIC concluded, the achievement gap is substantially wider than previously thought and the results “provide an important call to action for districts and schools that are struggling to educate high-need students.”

If, as PPIC implies, the simultaneous implementation of LCFF and Common Core means schools will face an even more difficult task than previously thought, it also means we need a vigorous system of identifying schools that succeed and equally vigorous intervention for those that don’t.

However, the state Board of Education seems determined to have a soft “multiple measures” system of accountability that downplays test results, with few consequences for failure. So we may never really know whether LCFF actually meets its purported goal.

In fact, Brown, in a recent interview, seems to be backing away from that goal, telling CALmatters, an online political news site, “the gap has been pretty persistent. So I don’t want to set up what hasn’t been done ever as the test of whether LCFF is a success or failure.”

That’s a far cry from what Brown was saying when he proposed LCFF, and implies that he doesn’t want to be held accountable for its results.

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