California’s education dilemma can be stated rather simply, to wit:
The state has 6 million kids in its K-12 public school system, 60 percent of them are classified as either poor or English-learners and as a group they trail badly in educational accomplishment.
The state’s political leaders and education officials acknowledge what they call the “achievement gap” and say they are working to close it, mostly by appropriating more money for instruction.
However, they also have minimized it by adopting an accountability system, called “the dashboard,” for schools that makes academic achievement only one of several measures of their competency, and leaves improvement largely in the hands of local school officials.
The degree of the disconnect between the dashboard and reality is demonstrated in an article last week by CALmatters education writer Jessica Calefati.
“Dozens of California school systems with some of the state’s worst test scores and biggest academic achievement gaps won’t get any extra help this year under a new support system launched recently by the state.
“The dashboard system rates districts in several categories that impact student learning. But – mirroring a nationwide shift away from a narrow focus on tests – it offers special help to ones with sagging academics only if they also suspend a high number of students or graduate too few of them.
“If extremely low, declining performance on math and reading exams alone were enough to trigger state support, the number of California districts that could expect it would almost double from 228 to more than 400, a CALmatters analysis shows.”
In other words, the dashboard, as critics had predicted it would, masks the true extent of California’s education crisis and implicitly makes the situation look better than it is.
“Under this system, districts can escape notice or attention simply by shining in categories that are less than academic and whose outcomes they control,” Calefati quoted Chad Aldeman, an education policy expert whose Boston-based nonprofit group flagged the problem in a recent report on California’s school accountability system.
This hide-the-pea strategy is quite purposeful. The education establishment shuns responsibility for low academic achievement and battles constantly with an “Equity Coalition” over accountability issues, including more transparency in how extra money allocated to help “high-needs” students is being spent.
The situation is particularly galling because there’s no inherent reason why disadvantaged kids can’t learn, graduate from high school, go to college and otherwise become successful members of society.
There are many examples of how certain schools and certain school districts have found ways to overcome poverty and other negative factors.
One, highlighted in a recent article by EdSource, a journalistic website devoted to California education issues, is Brawley Union High School in rural Imperial County, which is mostly Latino and is historically one of the state’s poorest regions.
Principal Jesse Sanchez was appalled by the writing of his students, EdSource reported, and “responded by creating a school-wide program that requires all students to write regularly in every class, including P.E., where earlier this year, students wrote about what they had learned regarding muscle anatomy and weight training.”
That sparked a “culture shift” throughout the district, including more teacher training and more emphasis on English proficiency.
“Over the past three years, the school, which serves about 1,670 students, has seen its scores soar on these tests aligned to the Common Core standards, which high school juniors take each spring,” EdSource found.
It demonstrates that what happens in the classroom does matter, that the efforts to minimize the state’s educational crisis are self-serving and cowardly, and that the extra money being appropriated for the targeted kids could be spent effectively.
Instead of covering it up with the dashboard and other tricks, the state’s politicians and educators should be concentrating on how the successes in Brawley and other school systems in educating at-risk kids, preparing them for successful adulthoods, can be replicated.
Dan Walters is a columnist at CALmatters. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.