To fix our education crisis, let’s focus on educating

Credit: Alison Shelley for American Education

There was a lot of coverage of people leaving California because of high taxes, house prices, crime. You call it. But if you are the parent of a color student, there is another reason to leave. Our education system cannot educate black and Latin American children.

If you’re a black parent in California and want your child to read, move to Massachusetts, Colorado, New Jersey, Florida or Mississippi. I’m serious. They are among the top five states in the National Assessment of Education Progress in Fourth Grade 2019, or NAEP. What is the rank in California for black students? Thirty – fifth of 40.

The results are not the best for Latin American students. Florida and Mississippi are the first. We rank 30th. But wait. There is a light spot. It turns out we teach white children well. We are in sixth place. Put it on the bumper sticker!

These data were before the pandemic. Given the disproportionate length of distance learning in California, the current situation is much worse. Data from the annual reading and math assessment in our state show a significant decline in the achievement of Hispanic and black students.

Responding to this crisis will require the strategic leadership and innovation that California was once famous for. It is no coincidence that Florida, Mississippi and Colorado have joined the longtime leader, Massachusetts, in the top ranks of the NAEP. Each of these states has developed and implemented a multi-year plan to improve reading performance.

In 2012, the Colorado Legislature passed the Colorado Reading Act. In 2013, a multi-year reading initiative led by Kimona Burke began in Mississippi. These efforts have been reflected in many other states, most recently in Connecticut, where Patricia State Senator Billy Miller and the Black Puerto Rican Group spearheaded the passage of the 2021 Right to Read Act.

These examples are instructive because they contradict the habit of rejecting reform on the basis of the political party that controls, or the race of reformers. Mississippi is a dark red republican state; Colorado, Purple Swing State; and Connecticut, the Blue Democratic State. What unites them is that state leaders have recognized that reading achievement needs to improve, literacy training needs to be aligned with the latest research, and the state government plays an important role.

Not so long ago, California leaders implemented nationally recognized reforms. The recent death of former State Senator Gary Hart is a stark reminder of that. During the pandemic, large-scale reform was difficult. But as our focus shifts to recovery from the pandemic, California has had the opportunity to reboot our education system to focus on education.

Set state-wide learning goals and demand transparency of costs

We can start by shifting our focus back to classroom learning and student learning. Although funding from federal and state resources is sufficient, it is unclear how counties spend that money on resuming training compared to testing on Covid, compensating for financial deficits or salaries.

To change this dynamic, heads of state need to send clear messages about the importance of student achievement. They should set goals at the state level regarding the NAEP, in general for both black and Latin American students, and publicly report on our progress. They need to redesign the California School Dashboard, which reflects academic performance, to emphasize academic performance, and after this year’s state evaluations set goals to resume learning English and math. In the near future, they should require counties to transparently report on how they spend money on rebuilding, and set a minimum threshold for staffing, professional development, and student support.

Adjust the funding formula for local control to encourage districts to improve learning outcomes

In addition to setting achievement targets, state leaders should prioritize student-specific outcomes and encourage areas to achieve them. LCFF has managed to make our education funding system fairer. But due to a lack of responsibility for student performance and financial transparency, it was impossible to assess whether this money had improved student learning. Over the past two budgets, state leaders have reduced local control with the introduction of limited grants, such as the recent Public Schools Affiliate Program. Like most grants to the LCFF, these investments may lead to some quality programs, but they do not improve student outcomes on a large scale.

Instead of rebuilding the old model, state leaders can forge a middle ground and adjust the LCFF to drive student performance in line with long-term educational success. For example, in 2019, Texas passed the House of Representatives Bill 3, a comprehensive education funding reform that allocated district funding based on poverty census tracts (as opposed to LCFF’s less focused approach to free and reduced lunch) and created financial incentives for many government priorities, such both as bilingual and graduates who are ready for college, career or army. The County of Texas now receives $ 3,000 for each college graduate, career and military graduate for a certain base level; $ 5,000 for low-income graduates; and an additional $ 2,000 for students with disabilities. California politicians could build on this approach, creating incentives for third-grade achievement, eighth-grade algebra mastery, and other indicators. With this approach, districts will still have local control over strategies, but state leaders will be able to see the impact of their investments on students.

Build staff capacity to improve classroom learning

Recently, the governor and the legislature have made important investments in dyslexia research and teaching practice. The challenge is to transfer these investments from research centers to audiences. Other states have addressed all aspects of the education system, from teacher training to professional development, and have built nationwide capacity to support educators, such as the newly established Center for Success in Literacy and Reading in Connecticut. California leaders need to expand their investment in literacy, and develop and implement a similarly integrated strategy to improve math outcomes.

California has no shortage of money. Our shortcoming is the lack of urgency and a consistent strategy to meet the needs of our education system. It is a shame that we are so far behind Mississippi and Florida in such an important thing as the academic achievements of black and Hispanic students. We can never call ourselves national leaders and innovators until we fix that.


Arun K. Ramanathan is the CEO Pivoting traininga nonprofit organization from Auckland that works to improve performance in public schools.

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