June 2 2012
Vicki E. Alger
Five years ago a Stanford-led consortium of national education experts concluded that California’s school system was essentially an expensive, ineffective train wreck.
The original 1,700-page collection of reports collectively referred to as Getting Down to Facts (summary link), concluded what research and common sense have shown for a long time: pouring more money into California's dysfunctional public education system won’t improve student performance. It found that the state’s system of public education governance stands out as one of the most micromanaged yet least informed systems in the country since the state does not gather even the most basic education performance and spending information. The system of finance is illogical, inflexible, and inequitable, driven more by special interest politics than hard data. The inability to fire bad teachers also remains a major obstacle to school improvement, and the system is plagued by “regulationitis” (p. 15). Moreover, report authors were clear that:
Past experience and the research we review here indicate with some certainty what will not work if our goal is to make dramatic improvements in student learning. It is clear, for example, that solely directing more money into the current system will not dramatically improve student achievement and will meet neither expectations nor needs. What matters most are the ways in which the available resources and any new resources are used. [Emphasis original] (p. 4)
Hewlett Foundation Education Program Director Marshall Smith cautioned, “If we do not get our house in order by making significant reforms to the state’s governance and finance systems, I fear that new resources will make little difference.” Given the spin about the report from the state’s education establishment at the time I wrote, “be afraid, Mr. Smith. Be very afraid.” [To see how—and how much—California public schools are funded, see the California School Finance Center database I developed with the Educational Results Partnership]
Five years later, the Getting Down to Facts authors just released an update, in which they concluded, “We hoped that the [original 2007] Getting Down to Facts reports would help with the development of policies to streamline governance and to simplify and rationalize school finance, in addition to improving information and ensuring that schools had sufficient and excellent staff. Our initial optimism was clearly unwarranted” (p. 2)
Report authors conclude, “California’s school finance system is in disrepair to the point that it no longer meets the needs of the state or its students” (p. 16). Demands for improved teacher quality are intensifying, but since 2007 “little actual progress has been made…If anything, things have gotten worse.” (p. 25)
The Los Angeles Times has attempted to fill that void with its value-added analysis database of how effective Los Angeles Unified School District teachers have been at improving their students’ performance on standardized tests to help give parents better information. Yet more systemic troubles were exposed in April 2011 when the state auditor released a “scathing” (p. 27) report on the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CTC) that found:
One hopeful development, considered by some to be a “game changer,” is greater parental and local activism according to Getting Down to Facts, including the state’s Parent Trigger law that empowers parents to transform their children’s schools (p. 12).
In his 2012 State of the State speech, Gov. Jerry Brown singled out education reform as a leading policy issue, saying:
I want to say something about our schools. They consume more tax dollars than any other government activity and rightly so as they have a profound effect on our future. …What most needs to be avoided is concentrating more and more decision-making at the federal or state level. For better or worse, we depend on elected school boards and the principals and the teachers they hire. To me that means, we should set broad goals and have a good accountability system, leaving the real work to those closest to the students. …The house of education is divided by powerful forces and strong emotions. … I embrace both reform and tradition—not complacency. My hunch is that principals and teachers know the most, but I’ll take good ideas from wherever they come.
If the latest Getting Down to Facts report is any indication, Gov. Brown needs to start listening to parents first and foremost.