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Edsource Op-Ed: To Fix Our Education Crisis, Let’s Focus on Educating

By Arun Ramanathan
PUBLISHED: February 17, 2022.
There’s been a lot of coverage of people leaving California because of high taxes, house prices, crime. You name it. But if you’re a parent of a student of color, there’s another reason to leave. Our education system can’t educate Black and Latino kids.
If you are a Black parent in California and want your child to read, move to Massachusetts, Colorado, New Jersey, Florida or Mississippi. I’m serious. They are the top five states on the 2019 fourth grade National Assessment for Education Progress, or NAEP. What’s California’s rank for Black students? Thirty-fifth out of 40.
The outcomes aren’t any better for Latino students. Florida and Mississippi are tied for first. We rank 30th. But wait. There is a bright spot. Turns out that we’re great at teaching white kids. We rank sixth. Put that on a bumper sticker!
This data was pre-pandemic. Given the inordinate length of distance learning in California, the current situation is far worse. The data from our state’s annual assessment of reading and math, shows sizable achievement drops for Latino and Black students.
Responding to this crisis will take the strategic leadership and innovation that California was once renowned for. It is no accident that Florida, Mississippi and Colorado joined the longtime leader, Massachusetts, in the top ranks of the NAEP. Each of these states developed and executed a multiyear plan for improving reading achievement.
In 2012, the Colorado legislature passed the Colorado Read Act. In 2013, Mississippi started a multiyear reading initiative under the leadership of Kymyona Burke. These efforts have been mirrored in many other states, most recently Connecticut, where state Sen. Patricia Billie Miller and the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus led the passage of the 2021 Right to Read Act.
These examples are instructive because they run counter to the habit of dismissing a reform based on the political party in control or the race of the reformer. Mississippi is a dark red Republican state; Colorado, a purple swing state; and Connecticut, a blue Democratic state. What they have in common is that state leaders recognized that reading achievement had to improve, literacy instruction had to be aligned with the latest research, and state government had a major role.
Not so long ago, California’s leaders implemented nationally recognized reforms. The recent passing of former State Sen. Gary Hart is a poignant reminder of that. During the pandemic, large-scale reform was challenging. But as our focus shifts to pandemic recovery, California has an opportunity to reset our education system to focus on educating.
Set statewide learning goals and require spending transparency
We can start by shifting our focus back to classroom instruction and student learning. Despite being flush with federal and state funding, it’s unclear how districts are spending that money on learning recovery vs. Covid testing, offsetting financial deficits or salaries.
To change this dynamic, state leaders should send clear messages about the importance of student achievement. They should set state-level goals on the NAEP, overall and for Black and Latino students, and publicly report on our progress. They should redesign the California School Dashboard that displays school performance to emphasize academic indicators and, after this year’s state assessments, set learning recovery goals for English and math. In the near term, they should require districts to transparently report how they’re spending recovery money and set a minimum threshold for spending on staff recruitment, professional development and student supports.
Adjust the Local Control Funding Formula to incentivize districts to improve student outcomes
Beyond setting achievement targets, state leaders should prioritize specific student outcomes and incentivize districts to achieve them. LCFF succeeded in making our education funding system more equitable. But because of a lack of accountability for student results and financial transparency, it’s been impossible to assess whether the money improved student learning. Over the past two budgets, state leaders have been chipping away at local control with the introduction of restricted grants like the recent Community Schools Partnership Program. Like most pre-LCFF grants, these investments may produce some quality programs, but they won’t improve student outcomes at scale.
Instead of rebuilding the old model, state leaders can forge a middle path and adjust LCFF to incentivize student outcomes aligned to long-term educational success. For example, in 2019, Texas passed House Bill 3, a comprehensive education finance reform that allocated district funding based on census tract poverty (in contrast to LCFF’s less targeted free and reduced-price lunch approach) and created financial incentives for multiple state priorities such as dual-language learning and graduating students who are ready for college, career or the military. A Texas district now receives $3,000 for each college, career and military-ready graduate over a specified baseline; $5,000 for low-income graduates; and an additional $2,000 for students with disabilities. California policymakers could build on this approach by creating incentives for third grade reading achievement, eighth grade algebra proficiency and other metrics. With this approach, districts would still have local control over strategies, but state leaders would be able to see the student impact of their investments.
Build statewide capacity to improve classroom instruction
Recently, the governor and Legislature have made important investments in dyslexia research and instructional practices. The challenge is scaling these investments from research centers to classrooms. Other states addressed every aspect of the education system, from teacher preparation to professional development, and built statewide capacity to support educators such as the newly created Center for Literacy and Reading Success in Connecticut. California’s leaders should expand the scope of their literacy investments while also designing and executing a similarly comprehensive strategy to improve math results.
California has no shortage of money. Our shortage is the lack of urgency and a coherent strategy to address our education system’s needs. It is shameful that we are so far behind Mississippi and Florida on something as important as the academic achievement of Black and Latino students. We can never call ourselves national leaders and innovators until we fix that.
Arun K. Ramanathan is the CEO of Pivot Learning, an Oakland-based nonprofit that works to raise academic achievement in public schools.
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