Getting Down to Facts, Again

by Jeff Camp | November 16, 2018 | 2 Comments
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The Role of Facts in Education Policy

California recently received a big, nerdy gift: a set of 36 high-quality, coordinated studies about education in California, involving over 100 top researchers. Collectively known as the Getting Down to Facts II project (GDTFII), the studies point out many areas worthy of concern and action, but their net message is solidly hopeful: California is finally on the right track.

Steady on, now — it's time to lean in.

It's Personal

I attended public school in California in the slash and burn period of the late '70s and early '80s — the era of polyester shirts, stagflation, desegregation, re-segregation and the reading wars. At my school, in a growing suburb, teachers walked out on strike over salaries withered by inflation and undercut by Proposition 13.

When I left California for college in 1985, America was feeling grim about public education. The report A Nation At Risk warned of a "rising tide of mediocrity." The public response was complex, but included a sense of commitment. Whitney Houston's remake of the George Benson hit The Greatest Love of All seemed to capture the mood: "I believe the children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way." After a few more years of frustration, voters passed Proposition 98, which obligated the legislature to commit more of the budget to schools.

Public opinion about education matters. Constituents' concerns about schools don't always transcend partisan divisions, but they can. When enough political leaders agree that something should happen, it does. Facts don't always drive opinion, but they matter. When the moment for action comes, it's important for policymakers to get it right.

Getting Down to Facts

The first Getting Down to Facts (GDTF) research project, conducted about 11 years ago, was commissioned by Governor Schwarzenegger to inform the work of the Committee on Education Excellence, an appointed panel that I served on. The research was enormously helpful in the discussion. Among the committee's unanimous recommendations was a plan to radically simplify education finance and make it fairer by providing more funds for the education of students with greater needs. Though dismissed at the time as impossibly idealistic, the recommendation became reality in the form of the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), California's main system of school funding today.

Many of the committee's other recommendations remain unfinished business. For example, the committee called for a significant expansion of investment in public education, but today funding is still about as skimpy as it was when the committee made its recommendation. The committee also suggested measures to improve the support systems for teaching and leadership, to build a robust and transparent data system, to invest early in the education of all children, and to create a sequence of "sunset" provisions for the state's Education Code to systematically clear the accumulated red tape. All of those remain substantially unfinished business.

New Facts

Maybe research findings can influence wise policy choices simply by being true.

The new 2018 GDTFII project differs in some important ways from from the first one. For example, no specific committee has been charged with converting the findings into an agenda for policy action. The research work was again organized by Stanford and PACE, a nonprofit education policy research organization without a political axe to grind. The theory of action appears to be that maybe research findings can influence wise policy choices simply by being true.

We are steadily incorporating the GDTFII research into as we refresh and revise our lessons. Because of the enormous scope of the research, we aren't rushing it. Generally, the researchers' findings echo themes from the first round of studies. Here are some important highlights that we have already incorporated:

Invest More in K-12 Education

California's funding for public education dramatically lags other states and nations. Low funding is a big, bad problem, but how much more would be needed to reach "adequacy?" Research led by Jennifer Imazeki for GDTFII provided a clear answer: “In 2016-17, California public K-12 schools reported about $66.7 billion in actual operational spending was used to educate their students. The main results of this study suggest that an additional $25.6 billion — 38% above actual spending — would have been necessary to ensure that all students had the opportunity to meet the state’s goals.” Ed100 Lesson 8.9 puts this figure in context.

Ed100 Lesson 8.9

Invest in Early Education

Research about early education has piled up, and no reasonable doubt remains: early education for every child is essential. According to Deborah Stipek, the primary researcher on this topic for GDTFII, "Much of the large achievement gaps in California are evident at school entry, in part due to an early education system that is underfunded, fragmented, and inefficient." Gavin Newsom has made it clear that, as Governor, he intends to make access to quality early education a key priority. There are many barriers, starting with the significant short-term costs, which EdSource has estimated in the billions.

Ed100 Lesson 4.1

Improve Education Data Systems

Under Governor Brown, California invested very little in data systems, leaving the state notoriously hobbled in efforts to improve education. Gavin Newsom has pledged change: "Overarching all of this work — from prenatal to college and career — is my promise for California to reassert itself as an education data leader. The public deserves to know whether all students, regardless of background, have access to good schools and equitable funding." Following through on this promise would represent a major change, explored in several GDTFII reports (See here and here). Ed100 Lesson 9.5 explains why this matters, and what improvement will require.

Ed100 Lesson 9.5

Continue the Local Control Funding System

Under Governor Brown, California's legislature massively restructured the state's education finance system. The Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) swept away "categorical" funds (money narrowly reserved for specific uses), instead directing additional funds to districts with more high-need students. Under the LCFF system, school districts have considerable freedom to use resources as they see fit. Evaluating the effects of LCFF was an important part of several studies included in the GDTFII project. (See here and here.) One key study found evidence that "targeting money to districts with the greatest student need through the Local Control Funding Formula has led to improved student outcomes." That's research-speak for "it's working."

Ed100 Lesson 8.5

Engaging Parents Is Critical But Hard

The new "designated bad guy" is the PTA.

Not so long ago, the "designated bad guy" of the education system was the Federal Government. If schools weren't working, under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), it was the federal government's job to say so. Federal law set the minimum requirements for student improvement on tests. Schools and districts were shamed if their students' test scores did not meet rising expectations, and they had to allow their students to enroll elsewhere. In extreme cases school leaders could be dismissed or the school could be shut down or restructured.

The Federal role in education is now far gentler. Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), Washington has hung up its brass knuckles and delegated the enforcement work to the states. Sacramento, in turn, has mostly delegated the enforcement role to school districts, which under the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) are now accountable to themselves, with light oversight from County Offices of Education.

The new "designated bad guy" is the PTA.

This is not literally true, of course — but it contains a grain of truth. Under LCFF, the accountability system for school districts is very diffuse. Districts and charter schools are required to annually prepare a lengthy, detailed three year plan (the Local Control Accountability Plan, or LCAP). They are also required to "engage" parents and the public to seek feedback about it. For traditional public schools, that's kind of it. If the plan is no good, it's up to parents to notice, and to demand better.

A key research priority for the Getting Down to Facts II project was to examine whether, where, and how this accountability system is working. Stated politely, this research revealed plenty of room for improvement. The findings make the obvious official: LCAP reports tend to be long, technical, intimidating and dull.

Districts have found it hard to engage the public in these documents. According to the GDTFII research summary The Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF): What Have We Learned After Four Years of Implementation? "the LCAP is trying to serve too many purposes simultaneously. The resulting document is too long, too confusing, and all but unreadable for even the most sophisticated educators, let alone parents and community members."

There have been exceptions. Some districts simply dumped the template, working instead with third party organizations like EdTrust-West, Pivot Learning Partners and regional PTA organizations to facilitate conversations, which seems to have worked better. Effective discussions about complex issues are difficult. They require planning, effort and investment.

Ed100 Lesson 7.5

More to Come

The headline of the Getting Down to Facts II studies is that California's education system, despite its challenges, is well-positioned for improvement.

As we work through the GDTFII studies we have been revising the lessons of, updating and tweaking. Our work is unfinished, but that's always the case. California's education system is always under construction, but the blueprint is clearer today than it has been in years.

Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Steven N November 23, 2018 at 11:17 am
ah - designated"bad guy" is not PTA, but the School Site Councils (SSC) and the DELAC and ELAC (English Language Advisory) parent groups. You know that these three groups, in every district I know, are official Board Advisory Committees [open government & Ralph M. Brown Act]. They VOTE on the LCAP plans for their schools (and the District).

If the parents on these official advisory committees ROAR (majority Vote of NO Acceptance) - the Boards will have to pay attention! (I don't know if these committees, elected by the school parents can legally force change of LCAP parts before they get to the County Education Office). Check the LCAP Regulations of the State Board of Education.

The PTAs locally have absolutely no 'legal' effect on LCAPs. The California State PTA is, of course, a very real 'moral force' in asking for effective parent-power.

SN is a retired member of a Bay Area School Board.
user avatar
Diane C November 20, 2018 at 6:06 pm
Jeff, they should ask you to write the LCAP so parents can understand it! Or maybe that is what you are doing by breaking it down on the Ed100 site.
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