Which school do you want to support?
Few parents, even "active" ones, understand the massive California school system accurately.
Many think they do — after all, they lived through their own education — but a dose of humility is in order. The education system as a whole rarely changes much from one year to the next, but it has changed quite significantly since the Great Recession of 2008. Myths and outdated ideas have a funny way of sticking around.
Millions of students. California is home to 40 million people, including about 6.7 million students in K-12 grades. About one of every six people in California is a K-12 student. Each grade level enrolls roughly half a million students.
Thousands of schools. There are about 10,000 California schools — more schools than Starbucks.
Thousands of teachers. Throughout the USA, there are more teachers than soldiers, or doctors, or lawyers, or police officers. There are about 300,000 teachers in California.
Billions of hours. Each K-12 student spends about 1,000 hours in school per year, for an annual collective total of 6.7 billion hours. For perspective, that's more than the cumulative hours spent over a decade to launch the Apollo mission. It's about 20 times greater than the total hours spent to build the pyramid at Giza.
Billions of dollars. California has a giant economy. Expenditures for K-12 education account for about 3% of it. (This isn't impressive in context, which we'll discuss later, in Lesson 8.1. For now, the point is that the system is big.)
There are sound reasons why this mammoth education system has to be complex. Like Texas and Florida, California's population has grown rapidly.
The students in these growing states have all kinds of different needs. To serve those needs and balance among them, the education system must be simultaneously massive and personal, which makes complexity unavoidable. To work for all students, it has to work for each student. That's an authentic challenge.
In California, about one student in five lives in poverty. About a fifth are learning English. Some kids come to school ready for kindergarten, but most don't. About a tenth have special learning needs. All students need teachers that can teach complex material. And effective leaders. And access to the arts. Which takes money. And...
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Getting education right requires getting lots of things right. It's too much to think about all of them at once, so Ed100 breaks it down. You can make sense of the system, if you take it one topic at a time. Ed100 explains California's education system, busts myths, and explains what you need to know.
Why go it alone? See our tips for creating an Ed100 Learning Group
Wait, you might ask — do I really need to understand the system that governs California schools? Is it even possible? The answer is yes and yes.
Understanding the system is helpful for the sake of your own kids, of course, and the point of Ed100 is to make the system learnable. But there's something bigger: like it or not, you, as an involved parent or community member, are the heart of California's education accountability system. There is no independent watchdog in the system. You are it. The system literally depends on the vigilant support of local, active, informed constituents to speak up for what's right and what's needed.
To wield influence when you need it, you have to know what you are talking about. Ed100 can help with that.
California school results have improved a lot over the long term. But they are still pretty mediocre.
The core content of Ed100 is a set of short lessons, including this one. (We have a blog, too, and a resource library — but the lessons are the core content.) You are reading Lesson 1.1, the first lesson of the first chapter. At the bottom of each lesson you will find a simple quiz that reinforces a main point. Pass every quiz and you become an Ed100 Graduate.
You can do this. It's free, and it matters. If you complete all of the lessons you will become, in the words of one state leader, "intimidatingly well-informed." (She wasn't being tongue-in-cheek. Informed parents aren't easy to dismiss.)
Here's the main point of Lesson 1.1: California's K-12 educational results have improved a lot over the long term. But they are still pretty mediocre.
Each year, some of America's 4th and 8th graders take tests for the "Nation’s Report Card." Education insiders rarely call it by that name. To insiders, these tests are known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP. (It's pronounced "nape." So now you know.)
Very few children actually take the NAEP tests.
Very few children actually take the NAEP tests. These are not the tests that all students are required to take each year. (Those are called the CAASPP, or the "Smarter Balanced" tests.) NAEP is separate, and its purpose is purely statistical. Very few children actually take these tests. Designed to be consistent from place to place and from year to year, it evaluates how well students know the basic academic content associated with their grade level. Scores on NAEP, though imperfect, enable researchers and policymakers to monitor the overall education system, comparing student achievement between years, states, grades, and student "subgroups" (for example by race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic factors like family income).
NAEP scores don't tend to change quickly. Frankly, almost nothing in the education system changes quickly — and this is a recurring theme of Ed100.org. Each year, scores bump up or down a point or two, but the best predictor of next year's score tends to be last year's score. It makes sense, right? The education system is like an armada of giant ships, each rowed by thousands of little oars. Each year the people rowing have a lot in common with those who rowed the year before. The underlying currents surrounding a school community tend to change slowly, too. Books and tools might change a little. Teachers evolve their lessons, or move, or retire, or shift grades. But on the whole, change tends to happen slowly in each school system.
California's children tend to score poorly on the NAEP tests. The chart below shows the overall rate at which children in each state have scored at the level deemed "proficient" or better over time. (It averages fourth and eighth grade math and reading scores.)
Unfortunately for California kids, these stubborn scores appear to matter. Most education researchers reckon that a ten-point difference in NAEP scores represents about a year of difference in academic learning. If true, California's students are years behind those in top-scoring states like Massachusetts.
Perhaps these tests aren’t quite fair to California students. For example, administration of the test may vary a little by state. Some states provide extra testing time to English learners. Texas exempts students from the test if they are so new to English that they would bomb it. These small differences in administration probably matter a bit; small differences in state scores shouldn't be taken too seriously. Also, maybe the rule of thumb is wrong. Maybe ten points of difference isn't equivalent to a year, but more like nine months. Or six. Anyway, tests don’t tell the whole story, right? There are many ways to measure Success.
California’s children are not within quibbling distance of the skills of children elsewhere in the country.
These quibbles miss the point. The fourth grade reading assessment evaluates whether children can read short passages and understand them. The math questions are similarly basic. Year after year, the big picture is clear: compared to other states, California's students aren't within quibbling distance. They are behind.
Ask a family that has moved to California from the east coast for their perspective. At minimum, they will almost certainly tell you that class sizes in California schools are much, much bigger.
Does it matter if California children start off slowly, one might ask, so long as they catch up later? Unfortunately, most don’t. For many years, research has shown that children not reading at grade level by the end of third grade are at serious risk of never graduating from high school.
Are poor results somehow better for California, or for kids, if they can be “explained...?”
It's important to acknowledge that most of California's NAEP scores look less bad if you "disaggregate" them, looking beneath the average. Some groups of students tend to do better than others. In 2017 California's white students in 8th grade ranked 23rd in math, for example — about average.
The 2018 report, A Portrait of Educational Outcomes in California reveals that there is little difference between affluent districts in California and affluent districts nationally. “The disparity between California and the nation is concentrated in average and disadvantaged districts where California students score nearly a full grade level behind their national counterparts. These patterns are consistent when the same comparisons are made within each racial/ethnic group.”
Wait, some might ask — does this mean California’s lackluster NAEP scores can be explained by demographics? This question begs another in return: should it matter? Are poor results somehow better for California, or for kids, if they can be "explained" by the state’s larger numbers of non-white children and children in poverty? Is it useful to imagine it as their fault? The children in our schools grow up to become the workers and leaders of our communities. If we want California to have a bright future, can we afford to accept demographics as an excuse for bad scores?
In any case, the data leave little room for denial. California’s children in poverty generally score starkly behind those in other states, as do California's Latino students. But California's white children aren't exactly leading the parade, either, and neither are Californias kids that don't qualify for the lunch program.
These results are not accidental or surprising. They do not zigzag from one year to the next or change quickly in response to small changes in policy or practice. They are the long-term output of a large, complex system. One important finding from the "Portrait" report mentioned above is that California's system underperforms partly because it is designed as a K-12 system. The disparities evident at every grade level reflect differences in school readiness present at the start of kindergarten. Kids that start off behind are at real risk of never catching up, and California's system does little to prevent it.
Some Themes of Ed100
|California's education system is massive, but education is personal.|
|Easy answers are tempting, but usually wrong.|
|For education to work well, many things have to work well at the same time.|
|Money isn't magic, but it can buy things that sure help. On the other hand, the lack of money can really hurt.|
|Not everything of value in education is denominated in dollars.|
|Reforms have a shot at making a difference if they change who is in the room or how time is spent.|
|Prevention beats cure.|
|The long-term trends are almost all good. Better to be impatient than pessimistic.|
|People working in education almost always have good motives. Listen harder.|
|Punishment rarely builds capacity.|
|Public education ultimately relies on public will, measured in taxes.|
|Not all research is good research. Be suspicious of counterintuitive findings.|
|When in doubt, look at what rich families do for their kids.|
Perhaps you found your way to Ed100 because you want to help make things better. There are many approaches to change, and we will explore them one by one. It's important to lay the groundwork first, so let’s broaden the context a bit. The next lesson examines how California compares not just to America, but to the world.
Scroll down just a little more to take the quiz for this lesson. Pass it, earn your ticket and keep going!
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