Which school do you want to support?
A “Theory of Change,” stated alone, can be misinterpreted as a magic answer: “Just do this one thing, and all will be well!”
Of course, it is a mistake to think about change in this way – and especially so when it comes to education.
Learning is fundamentally human work, and humans are complicated. To improve learning requires getting multiple things right at once. Even then, not all changes produce results. The history of education innovation is littered with efforts launched with great hope. To test the potential of any idea meant to improve learning consider this razor: “Will this idea change who is in the room, or how kids and teachers use time?”
This "razor" cuts through the clutter:“Will this idea change who is in the room, or how kids and teachers use time?”
Because the education system is so large, it has tremendous inertia. Changing it even in small ways is hard; changing it materially can seem impossible. It is often said that there are two competing approaches to changing education: top-down and bottom-up. This is a false premise. Schools in California are experiencing a strong combination of top-down direction and opportunity for bottom-up innovation.
Top-down direction in goals
Educational standards are a relatively recent idea. The 1983 report A Nation At Risk popularized the idea that standards should exist; the No Child Left Behind Act established that they should be taken seriously; and the Race to the Top competitive grant program provided states with a “carrot” to update them and make them consistent.
Bottom-up innovation in means
At the same time, states have passed charter school laws to cultivate schools that are managed separately from the rest of the education system. One argument for this separation, as discussed further in Lesson 5.5, was for these schools to serve as “laboratories” to test and develop new approaches.
The way public education works in California has been dominated by state-level policies for decades. The passage of Proposition 13 centralized budgetary power in Sacramento. In 2014, however, the state legislature passed the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), which shifts more budgetary power to school districts. This opens the possibility for more “regular” schools to serve as “laboratories,” too. This was a big change, reversing the decades-long trend toward centralization.
It was not at all obvious that LCFF could be passed into law. How did that happen, and what can be learned from it? How does a big change like that happen in education?
From dusty reports... The ideas behind LCFF were not new, of course. Policy analysts and academics had advised for years that the system needed re-thinking, particularly in the area of education finance. One panel had declared that California’s education finance system was a mess, calling it a “crazy quilt” and comparing it to the Winchester Mystery House.
...to coordinated research... In the early 2000s, a coalition of philanthropic organizations decided that the road to change would need to be paved with persuasion, and that persuasion would require information. They jointly funded Getting Down to Facts, an extensive, coordinated research effort to document how the California education system actually worked. Philanthropists also supported the costs to convene a new advisory committee, the Governor’s Committee on Education Excellence, charged with making policy recommendations based on the research.
...To One Report, apparently DOA. The committee released its long-awaited report in 2008. It recommended a suite of changes, including significant increases in funding, to be implemented on the basis of student characteristics rather than on programs. The recommendation for additional spending was dead on arrival; as if on cue, the Great Recession buried any chance of increases.
Leadership... The proposal to base funding on students was well received, though most viewed it as idealistic and far-fetched, particularly in the context of falling state revenue. It was in this context that Governor Brown appointed Mike Kirst, a Stanford professor who had played a key role in the Getting Down to Facts project, to serve as President of the State Board of Education.
...and Timing... When the Governor placed a tax measure (proposition 30) on the ballot to provide sustaining funding for the state’s hard-hit budget, Kirst advised the Governor and legislative leaders that this infusion of money, though limited and temporary, might actually provide the right moment to fix the system. Like Mary Poppins with her spoon full of sugar, perhaps the tough medicine of LCFF could go down easier in bad conditions that might get better.
It was not at all obvious that LCFF could be passed into law. How did that happen, and what can be learned from it?
Against most expectations, the strategy worked. Voters understood that education funding was in crisis, perhaps partly because there were two education funding measures on the same ballot. Proposition 30 was the smaller of the two measures.
...Led to action. Passage of Prop 30 didn’t fully fill the revenue pothole created by the recession, but it blunted the impact. The subsequent budget act established a lengthy but clear timetable for a complete shift to Local Control funding based on defined student characteristics.
Why did it work? Was it the tightening belt of falling revenues that made passage of LCFF possible? Or was it the lifeline of sustaining revenue offered by passage of Prop 30? Political conditions of the moment were unusually straightforward: one party (the Democrats) held secure majorities in both houses, with clear leadership from Jerry Brown, an experienced Governor of the same party.
Perhaps the Getting Down to Facts research itself persuaded the policymakers to act; certainly it created an unusual level of unity among the academics advising the legislature. Journalists, as well, may have felt the idea had unusual support; most academic research makes for heavy reading, but Stanford's Center for Education Policy Analysis prepared short summaries of the research and worked to make them readable for a general audience. (Disclosure: the authors of Ed100 were deeply involved in the Getting Down to Facts work.)
Whatever the combination of factors at play, the passage of LCFF was a top-down policy change that has presented local leaders with new power. If local leaders use that power to change who is in the room or influence how they use time, it may make a difference for students.
This change was such an unexpected and dramatic outcome that the Stuart and Kabcenell Foundations commissioned documentary research about how it happened.
Meanwhile, another top-down change has the potential to unleash change from the bottom up:
California has joined a large consortium of states adopting new standards. These new standards require new tests, new lesson plans, and new classroom materials.
The bottom-up potential of the Common Core standards comes from the challenges and opportunities of implementing them. The new standards are less specific than the old ones, leaving room for local leaders, especially teacher leaders, to use the moment to shake things up. New choices in instructional materials and lesson plans will change how teachers and students use time.
The promise of LCFF and Common Core are real, and important. One of the key messages of Ed100, however, has been to remember that education is a complex system. There is no one magic answer.
Educational success drives economic well-being, and vice-versa.
In fact, if there is one truly vital point to take from all of the research about patterns of educational success, it is this: education and wealth are strongly tied. It does no good to imagine otherwise. In nations, states and communities where families are struggling hardest to get by, educational results and economic prospects suffer concurrently. In nations, states and communities of plenty, educational prospects are generally bright.
In places where miracles seem to have occurred that beat the odds, it pays to look closer: not all poverty is alike, and statistics usually make grainy distinctions. This is not to say that exceptions never occur: we should celebrate and learn from them. But the connections between economic advantage and academic success are so incredibly strong that they often overwhelm the effects of other factors or programs.
The broadest driver of educational success is economic well-being, and the broadest driver of economic well-being is educational success. If you want to boost a community, it is easier standing on two legs than on one: find ways to lift academic success and also address human needs.
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