California Forum

Even Betsy DeVos sees through California’s dumb school dashboard. Let’s get it right.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has called California’s color-coded school assessment system “indecipherable.” (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has called California’s color-coded school assessment system “indecipherable.” (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File) AP

Editor’s note: This is one in an occasional series on educational issues for the upcoming elections.

It’s hard to be a fan of Betsy DeVos, the nation’s Education Secretary. She has stumbled again and again, largely over her ignorance of basic matters that anyone remotely familiar with education policy should know intimately. Her almost childlike, drumbeat belief in the power of school choice as a panacea, along with her unwillingness to protect college students from predatory for-profit schools and predatory loans, make her a destructive force in education.

And yet, every once in a while, she gets things right.

California has set some of the highest standards in the nation. But those standards won’t mean much if the state doesn’t outline clear ways of getting more schools up to them.

DeVos and the state of California have been at odds over the state’s plan for how it will measure academic progress and intervene at low-performing schools under the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced the justifiably reviled No Child Left Behind Act. The U.S. Education Department has so far refused to approve the state’s confusing, multicolored dashboard; its lack of a plan for providing low-income students with their fair share of effective, properly trained teachers; its inadequate structure for identifying the 5 percent of schools in the most academic trouble; and lack of a clear explanation of what it will do to help those schools.

At a March speech to state education chiefs, DeVos expressed disappointment with many ESSA plans submitted by various states, singling out one in particular: “Another state took a simple concept like a color-coded dashboard and managed to make it nearly indecipherable.”

It’s pretty clear which state she meant, and it’s true. A recent USC poll found that California parents would prefer a plan that provides a single, easily understandable grade for each school. That doesn’t mean California would have to abandon its multi-factor dashboard. But it would require one extra layer of analysis that clearly points out which schools are on target – whether because of their overall performance, or their improvement – and which ones aren’t.

The state has agreed so far to a couple of changes. The first version it submitted would have essentially hidden the performance of high schools by tucking 11th grade test scores in with other factors, and that’s being changed. The board was supposed to vote in March on some other issues, but held off until April.

The clock is ticking. The whole system is supposed to go into place this fall and it would be very nice if it weren’t a mess due to last-minute rejiggering. But California, as it often does in the realm of education, likes to go its own way. If that differs from what the federal government wants, the state will generally just hold its ground. And it hasn’t been entirely wrong.

When the Obama administration pushed states to substantially tie teachers’ performance evaluations to their students’ test scores, California flat-out refused. It may have missed out on a few federal ducats as a result, but it stayed on solid educational ground. There was precious little evidence that it would improve learning, and eventually even its big supporters grew quieter. Another quick-fix reform trend that faded away.

In fact, if there was ever an administration that was bent on interfering in schools from D.C., it was Obama’s. The current standoff between the U.S. Education Department and our state cannot be blamed on DeVos or the current federal education law, which is miles more flexible and less draconian than No Child was.

In the waning days of the Obama administration, staff in the Education Department told me they were planning to be very exacting about the state plans that came before them. Standards would have to be rigorous, even though ESSA specifically leaves standards-setting up to individual states, and reform plans would have to be highly ambitious and clear-cut.

DeVos tried a tough-on-states approach when the first state plans came before her, but members of Congress who had played major roles in writing and passing ESSA quickly sent signals that this wasn’t acceptable. She would have to abide by the letter of the law when it came to the powers that had given to states. Since then, she has been practically a rubber-stamp machine, even approving some states’ applications when their legality was questionable.

But in California’s case, the plan simply doesn’t meet the fairly minimal requirements set out by the law. It’s not about standards. California has set some of the highest in the nation. But those standards won’t mean much if the state doesn’t outline clear ways of getting more schools up to them.

Besides, the federal law is clear when it comes to such matters as identifying the worst-performing schools, devising a plan for helping them, and at least ensuring that they are staffed with a solid teaching force. DeVos has to stick to the law – and so should California.

Note: An earlier reference in this article to a USC poll on California’s school dashboard should have said the poll found that California parents would rather have a single overall grade for schools, rather than Californians in general.

Karin Klein is a veteran California journalist and commentator who has written extensively on education. She can be contacted at Follow her on Twitter @kklein100.