The State of California Public Education
My name is John Walker and I am a Trustee on the Modesto City Schools Board of Education in California. I have disagreed with California education policies for years. It’s why I ran for office. Four years into elected office and my fundamental worries are worse. Most troubling, I don’t believe communities are aware that your Boards of Education can take advantage of local control. The current CA education code allows a school board to make decisions based on facts instead of repeating mistakes being made in school districts across California. The mistakes being made almost always are at the behest of bureaucrats and an unelected/unaccountable State Board or Education.
State Background Summary
Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC Testing):
The California Department of Education (CDE) released annual SBAC math and English test results and for the fifth year, there is very little change. I wrote about how we got here in an article titled “Education Policies Gone Bad at Our Children’s Expense”. In the years between 2012/13 and 2017/18 K-12, CA school districts have spent over $424.7 billion trying to implement the standards and County education offices have spent an additional $27.1 billion in support of K-12 local school districts.
What is the result of this $451.9 billion, seven years of implementation, and five years of testing? Skipping the first year of test data and looking at the 4 ensuing years the state average on English Literacy has moved from 49% to 50.87% and in mathematics, the average has moved from 37% to 39.73% at or above grade level. These numbers are a nightmare by any common-sense definition. When do the facts start to matter and when do school boards begin to say no to policies, standards, and programs that have shown little, none, or negative effects on improving student academic outcomes?
The California State Common Core Standards are either the highest and most academically rigorous standards in the country which very few students can ever hope to master or they are poorly designed, cannot be implemented, & potentially represent the largest single failure in the history of modern California education policy.
National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP Testing):
NAEP results are referred to as the “Nations Report Card”. The 2019 English and math results for 4th and 8th grade have been released. NAEP is a bi-annual test. The data relevant to current California education reform is from 2015 to 2019. Keep in mind the “Common Core” wheels of change are turning from 2011 to 2013. There is not as much data here, so I focused on the early indicators I used in SBAC data above in the early years. The “Achievement Gap” based on ethnicities, economically disadvantaged and other student subgroups are growing. The only thing California could point to as a “good number” was two years ago when State Board of Education President Kirst proclaimed the amazing growth in 2017 NAEP 8th grade English scores. The current 2019 8th grade English reversed those gains. They are gone. The breakdown of the NAEP data release is being written about nationwide. The EdSource article is titled “Reading scores drop in California…”, and the Wall Street Journal article is titled “America’s Schools Flunk”. The bottom line is the problem is not unique to California other than we are at the bottom of every list, and where other states have attempted to mitigate the damage of flawed education policies California has and continues to double down. There is not a single piece of evidence available that indicates California is on the right track or had a positive effect in over 10 years. To be clear pulling up high achieving scores from Palo Alto, San Ramon, or Clovis is not evidence of effective policies it’s evidence that there are “unicorns” out there. In almost every case it’s due to demographics combined with highly engaged and educated parents.
There has been no acknowledgement from media that we are debating which school districts have a better “F” than the state average which is also an “F”. The media is too cozy with the education think tanks, non-profits (funded by for-profits), and the state legislature to acknowledge the facts as they are. The state legislature is just as complicit, and they all seem to be in a bubble that has clearly clouded judgement. No one is asking the hard questions. Why are we in a downward spiral/hover that shows no indication of reversing. Based on current data it will be 25 years before English Literacy scores will reach 75% at or above grade level, and 35 years before the math scores reach 75%. No one is acknowledging that the unelected appointed new President of the State Board of Education Linda Darling-Hammond helped create the Common Core Standards. She was also part of the creation of the SBAC which is the current state test. There is a clear conflict of interest. On the policy front, this means nothing will change other than more focus on the “touchy/feely”, “social justice”, and “identity politics” that has zero effect on academic achievement. The exact same thing can be said about the newly elected State Superintendent Tony Thurmond whose track record as a school board trustee in West Contra Costa and Assembly Member is horrid. The office he holds has little or no power without the direction of the unelected appointed State Board of Education, so expect no here. Mr Thurmond will do exactly what he is told which identical to his predecessor Mr Torlakson. The only question Mr Thurmond will ask is how high do I jump.
Where does this leave us relative to the facts on the table? California students by any measure are failing to meet the state standards almost across the board with very few exceptions. The “achievement gap” between historically underserved ethnic groups and economically disadvantaged students is not only not improving it’s getting worse. These are the exact same students the current policies were supposed to help, and they are being hurt the most. California has flawed weak state standards and uses an unvalidated and unverified annual state test that is essentially a data collection tool. National test data reinforces all the state test data and again virtually no positive change in over 10 years. The achievement gap continues to widen based on this data. California has given up the only positive gains with a complete reversal of scores for 8th grade reading in the 2019 NAEP test. We have a media that is more comfortable repeating the talking points from the state than reporting the fact that we are debating who has a better “F”. There is no acknowledgement from the media that we have endured over a decade of failed policies from an appointed, un-elected, and the unaccountable state board. The state board has been led by two board presidents who have conflicts of interest at best and at worst continue to push policies, ideas, standards, and frameworks that show no indication of improving student outcomes. If they had to run for election, they would not stand a chance, which is exactly how we got in the mess in the first place.
The question then is how do we as locally elected board trustees, parents, community and business leaders start taking back control of the decision-making process?
School boards in California do have the power and ability to make decisions that are not in lockstep with the marching orders issued from the hallowed halls of Sacramento. On state standards every single set issued has the following statement:
the document is exemplary, and compliance with it is not mandatory. (See California Education Code Section 33308.5)
Education code 33308.5 can be found here, and relative to reading education codes this one is quite easy to understand.
The same can be said about the State Board of Education “Frameworks”. They are not curriculums! School districts don’t have to use them, but they are certainly implying that “we should do as we are told”. A recent example would be the comprehensive sex education framework which is another example of an unelected/unaccountable state board gone mad.
Finally, for those still not convinced, there is the California State Constitution. Article IX on education is very clear. If you look at sections 7 and 7.5, the State Board of Education has “zero” authority to adopt or recommend textbooks or materials outside of grades one through 8. This does not stop the SBE or the CDE from meddling at every level and every course they can get their hands on to control what school districts are trying to accomplish.
When do the facts start to matter to the decision-makers at the local level, because at the state level no one is paying attention other than how to market or spin failed policies?
How do we empower a local school board of education to stop taking bad advice, stop adopting flawed experimental instructional material, and stop pretending that everything is going to be ok?
The answer to me as an elected school board trustee is that the public needs to start showing up at local school board meetings. The public needs to start asking hard questions of their elected representatives. If it’s not on the agenda, then use the period for open comment. When there are academic decisions being made or academic reports being given line up and make your feeling known in a respectful manner with the facts in hand. Point out that elected boards do have local control even though it is ignored or pushed away because “we don’t want to upset anyone in Sacramento or the County Office of Education”. Neither the County or the State are going to change their ways. There has been to much money poured into a decade of horrible policy decisions. This will come down to local voters and parents forcing locally elected officials to start thinking outside of the current policy box.
When these questions are being asked it is critical to understand that the first answer by “the experts” will be fancy education language to justify past mistakes or pretend to act when nothing is really being changed.
We must be vigilant, and the answers cannot be we need more time, more money, more training, more stuff, or whatever the next excuse for why the “expert advice” from the halls of academic wonder is not working so we just need to double down one more time. It is not working! What we need is accountable local control based on what’s best for our community based on local leaders making hard decisions and being accountable to the community they represent.
Current California education policy based on the facts is an unmitigated disaster that has barely reached the collegiate level yet, and there is no sign of reversal. Adults especially politicians, bureaucrats, and unelected unaccountable boards are not going to admit a $491 billion mistake. It’s not going to happen, so voters need to stop spending so much time worrying about what is going on in Washington DC and start trying to effect change where it is possible locally.
You can find your school board members, city council members, and other locally elected officials at local events. Meetings are held locally on a regular publicly posted schedule. We are your neighbours and friends which should make a difference if we can all agree what the facts are and that they matter.
School board Trustees are the only elected officials in the state of California whose sole job is to represent the children in our communities, so start holding them accountable by forcing them to stop putting in place failed policies that have resulted in the unmitigated disaster that is California public education.