Teacher strikes across California have focused much-needed attention on the overwhelming challenges facing public education. While the state economy booms, teachers are asking why they haven’t received the salary increases they deserve. Others are wondering why extra education funding for vulnerable students hasn’t produced more services.
Some are pointing fingers at charter schools, others at the financial impact of declining student enrollment. Most are ignoring the elephant in the room: billions of dollars in unfunded pension costs.
Our politicians must confront this crisis. Besides raising more revenue for education, they need to make some tough choices about how to invest the funds they already have. Our neediest communities must be empowered both to support their teachers and to increase critical services for low-income students, foster youths and English learners.
The Big Squeeze, a recent report from Pivot Learning analyzing the budgets of nearly 100 school districts, documents the impact of rapidly rising pension costs on teachers and students. It also offers solutions that would begin to stabilize the crisis and increase equity.
In 2014, to help close the staggering $75 billion funding gap in its teacher pension system, the state directed school districts to significantly increase their contributions. At the time, districts spent an average of $500 per pupil on pensions; in 2020, they’ll be contributing an average of $1,600 per pupil.
To stay afloat, districts are deferring maintenance on school buildings, increasing class sizes, delaying textbook purchases, and cutting crucial programs and services such as art, music, nursing and counseling.
I’ve played plenty of Scrabble in my life, but I’d never heard the word “subsidiarity” until it was used as a way to explain Local Control Funding Formula. According to Wikipedia, subsidiarity is a principal of decentralization originating in the Catholic Church that, “in its most basic formulation holds that social problems should be dealt with at their most immediate (or local) level consistent with their solution.”
By decentralizing California’s funding system, LCFF gave responsibility to deal with “social problems” to local authorities. However, as I’ve watched the implementation of LCFF, I’ve started to wonder whether local control and subsidiarity are actually the same thing.
My question was reinforced when I listened to the Pope address a joint session of Congress. At one point, he said, “Building a future of freedom requires love of the common good and cooperation in a spirit of subsidiarity and solidarity.”
Moral Imperative Needed
I’m not Catholic or a theologian, but I don’t think you can replace his reference to subsidiarity with local control. In fact, I don’t think it’s possible to directly translate a religious concept into a secular setting without some of the moral elements that give it meaning.
I thought about this when Pope Francis called for compassion for Syrian refugees. He was using his moral authority, like many other religious and civil rights leaders, to send a message to his followers and local leaders about the type of response he expects to a crisis.
There is nothing preventing political leaders from sending similar messages about our education system. Like medicine, education is a sector where ethics and morality are deeply entwined in the work. In my twenties, I was inspired by political leaders, such as Senator Edward Kennedy and Congressman George Miller, to join the school inclusion movement for students with disabilities. In my thirties, I was inspired to teach reading to at-risk students. Both political and educational leaders drove a single message that reading could give kids the tools to succeed academically and thus could transform their lives.
Now, I will grant that during the NCLB era, this imperative often strayed into painful didacticism and moral superiority. But now the pendulum has swung so far the other way that the state-level reaction to the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) focused almost entirely on the rates of improvement than the actual results.
Those test results were sobering. Half our students are below standard in English and two thirds are below standard in math. Far too few are ready for college level work and there are huge achievement gaps. But instead of provoking concern among our political leadership, deep discussions on the “why” and calls to action, there’s been silence. Why wouldn’t our political leaders label this a crisis and threat to our state’s future? Given the stakes, wouldn’t it make sense to establish vigorous state-level targets for improving academic achievement and post-secondary success, knowing that local leaders pay attention and direct their investments accordingly?
No ‘Thou Shalt Nots’
This brings me to the second difference between the religious and secular applications of a concept. Many religions have commandments, a basic set of rules that identify right and wrong. There are no “thou shalt nots” for LCFF. Districts say they are following the rules as they interpret them. Advocates for families and youth call them out for violating the rules as they define them. Everyone gets confused and no one is satisfied. Most problematically, in the absence of commandments, superintendents and board members who try to apply a moral imperative—for example, spending money on student supports instead of using it all for salary increases—are left hanging, with a choice between political expediency or martyrdom. Having a few clear commandments on the appropriate use of supplemental and concentration grants, especially in areas such as salaries, pensions and benefits would clear up confusion and provide a basis for financial transparency on how these funds are spent.
Worried About Future
Without any moral imperative and a clear set of rules, I’m worried about the future of LCFF. We live in an increasingly racialized environment with high levels of distrust of government. How will LCFF survive if outcomes for students of color and English Learners didn’t improve and people find out that the money didn’t provide critical academic and counseling supports? View that result through a racial lens and imagine the impact.
California’s old system of funding education was irrational and inequitable. LCFF is a monumental change for the better. It can and should be an enduring part of the current administration’s legacy. While there have been numerous reports and recommendations on how to fix it, I’m increasingly of the opinion that the fix isn’t just mechanical – changing the LCAP or refining the accountability rubrics. It’s inspirational and foundational. Our elected leaders should articulate an inspiring vision for student success. Their vision should ensure that subsidiarity means more than just local control. In the end, the legacy of LCFF will not be measured and determined by the way it changed local decision-making but by its impact on student’s lives.
I wish that discussions of education data were as interesting as my conversations on baseball statistics. Contrary to my reputation as an Ed Dork, I do not wake up every morning, grab my phone and check out EdWeek, EdSource and Eduwonk for the latest Ed news. I wake up, grab my phone and check out two pretty amazing baseball blogs: crashburnalley.com and fangraphs.com.
The first was created by amateur statisticians and hardcore fans of the Philadelphia Phillies. The second is the online bible for baseball statistics junkies nationally. Both sites view the game through the lens of numbers. The movement of those numbers up and down reflects the performance of ballplayers. The beauty of these sites is that they’ve taken the numbers that were once the province of baseball lifers and general managers and democratized them. This has resulted in the proliferation of metrics such as OPS (On-base Plus Slugging),WAR (Wins Above Replacement), BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play), and countless others. Over the past decade, as these metrics have proliferated, it’s hard to know which ones have been created by professionals and which ones by amateurs. In fact, the stats revolution has moved beyond baseball, taken over basketball and started to change football.
So, why is education still so old school?
Take the debate over testing. At one extreme, you have people bashing standardized testing of any kind. On the other, you have people supporting testing, but typically focusing on just two data points (English and math). The first perspective just seems silly. It’s like saying that we shouldn’t measure batting average and instead just look at hitters to see whether they’re good. The second seems insanely limiting – as in, we should only measure batting average and runs batted in (which is basically what baseball did for most of its history).
It would be much more productive to have a 21st century conversation about how all data are good. Instead of just two data points, we should use as much data as necessary to paint a complete picture of student performance. This means accepting student data beyond academic measures, like social-emotional learning, and investing in new ways of assessment such as portfolios and exhibitions. In combination, all of these data can present a far more interesting and realistic picture of a student’s strengths and needs than just grades and tests. Indeed, the proliferation of multiple data points in baseball has highlighted the potential of players who would have been overlooked or completely ignored in earlier times.
The other lesson that baseball can teach education is that the people who have always been in charge of the numbers are not in charge anymore. Anyone can now become an amateur statistician. Some reports about district accountability, continuous improvement and the state’s role in determining school quality could have been written 20 years ago. They presume that the state is still in charge of all education data and their presentation. That may still have a little truth now but it won’t be true much longer. Statistics, particularly those paid for by taxpayers, are in the public domain. And smart people are going to come up with their own presentations of those data for public consumption, especially if they can make a buck off it.
This means that discussions on coming up with the latest policy innovations like “dashboard presentations” of districts and school performance vs. using a single indicator like the Academic Performance Index (API) will soon become moot. The state may come up with dashboards. Private companies and education stats junkies may come up with dashboards. But if they are too difficult for the average consumer of this information to use, stakeholders ranging from parents to homeowners will find an alternative more similar to the API that bundles and weights all of these indicators into a composite score. Again, when you look at baseball, it’s only really a small percentage of the baseball fans who have the inclination to delve into Fangraphs and the glories of Win Probability Added (WPA). To resolve this, the stats geeks created a composite metric called Wins Above Replacement (WAR) that is increasingly used by the average fan. Now, I might not like the API. I might believe that it’s the wrong way to look at the complexity of schools. But I also know that I live in a world that ranks everything with numbers or grades, from my restaurant, to my Uber driver, to my graduate school.
This leads me to my last point. We live in a world, very different from the old world, where data are also inevitable. How many times have you checked Facebook or LinkedIn, shopped online, texted your friend, used the word “weather” in a search engine today? You may not have counted, but someone else has. Last month, I talked to a friend at one of the largest consulting companies in the world. It is now using an algorithm that looks at keywords in résumés and cover letters and screens out candidates based on words and phrases used by previous unsuccessful candidates. A similar trend is happening in sports, where every movement of an athlete is captured as a data point. One day everything we do in the digital world will paint a picture of our competency or lack thereof. Regardless of whether you support or oppose this trend, it is becoming our students’ reality.
As policymakers navigate this new world they will have to come to grips with the limitations of their power. They will have to factor in the impact of “bottom-up” solutions in areas they previously controlled, such as ratings of school performance (see greatschools.org and reportcards.edtrustwest.org) and measurements of college readiness. Instead of trying to stamp out these efforts, they will have to think very differently about issues of accountability, transparency and privacy. Otherwise, they will become just as irrelevant as old-school baseball traditionalists.
To date, the proliferation, democratization and inevitability of data in sports has been immensely beneficial. If we start with an open mind and work to guide instead of control the use of data, it can have the same positive impact in education.
As a great man once said, it’s déjà vu all over again. The State Board of Education has announced an effort to merge special and general education. On one level, this is great news. For much of the past decade, students with disabilities have disappeared from policy discussions around the big shifts in standards, instruction and funding. The SBE should be praised for making their needs a priority. However, those of us who have spent many years working in special education have seen this before. In fact, educators and advocates for children with disabilities have been trying to unify the systems for forty years.
For this latest effort to have any impact, it must extend beyond adding additional indicators in the state accountability system, a possibility being discussed in legislative hearings this week. Because the special education system emerged from the requirements of federal law, starting with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), it’s always had plenty of accountability. What’s missing is the mindset, energy and ingenuity to smash the barriers between the two systems.
Talk Differently; Think Differently
We can start by changing the way we talk about students with disabilities and the way we treat their parents. It’s no longer permissible to say “I don’t want that Latino, African-American, or Asian child in my classroom or school.” Similarly, non-English speaking parents and guardians for foster youth aren’t blamed for asking for more services for their children. The additional dollars spent to provide supports and services to boys of color or English Learners aren’t characterized as an “encroachment”. Yet, in this day and age, it’s still considered perfectly fine to treat students with disabilities and their parents as an unwelcome burden and to actively oppose their inclusion.
Changing this negative dynamic requires moral courage, energy and empathy. That change can start from the very top of our education system. But it also has to permeate every other level. Fortunately, we already have some great examples in school districts across our state. By starting with an innate belief in the potential of all children and treating parents as partners, Superintendents like Matt Navo in Sanger Unified and Richard Carranza in San Francisco Unified project their beliefs and expectations into every part of their school systems.
Carranza has long focused on the issue of over-representation of students of color in special education and building the necessary intervention systems to prevent this from happening. Under Navo, who came from a special education background, Sanger is leading the state in building comprehensive support and intervention systems (known as Multi-Tiered Systems of Support) to provide all students with the right supports and services. Both have focused on the inclusion of students with disabilities in general education.
Collect Data on Student Needs, Early and Often
Next, we need to shift the way we look at assessment and data. I’ve always found it odd that some of the most vociferous opponents of standardized assessment will just as vociferously ask for a student to be tested to see “if they are special ed”. In general, summative assessments are sources of useful information about a student’s performance level. Special education assessments, on the other hand, can lead to significant changes in the lives of students, some of which could be very negative. While special education identification can lead to the provision of essential services for struggling students, long-term outcomes from graduation to employment to incarceration rates, particularly for students in categories such as emotional disturbance, are very poor.
Assessment should be viewed as a mechanism to identify areas of strength and need for all students from the early grades, providing the foundation of a response to intervention (RTI) and positive behavioral intervention (PBIS) system. With sufficient information, educators should be able to support a student’s academic and social-emotional growth. In those cases, where a student doesn’t respond to multiple interventions, they can be assessed for special education.
By politicizing assessment, we have removed important data such as second grade performance in ELA and Math from our education system. As a result, some students may not receive early intervention and support while other students may be inappropriately identified as disabled because data showing areas of academic strength no longer exists. A unified system of education should be built on the ongoing collection of student performance data and a broad range of high quality research-based interventions and supports for all students.
Use People and Money Differently
Third, we need to make structural shifts in funding and personnel from the state down to the school level. How do you integrate a system when both funding and people function in almost two separate worlds? For most people, the special education funding system is the modern equivalent of hieroglyphics. The same can be said for the vast array of special education personnel and nomenclature – SLI, SLP, FBA, etc. One shouldn’t need a Rosetta Stone to understand who works in the system and how it functions. In addition, despite the significant investments in these specialized personnel, they are rarely used outside the special education system. We should start thinking about how to de-complexify special education and clearly map its integration with general education, with the resources, both budget and personnel used more broadly and effectively, with an emphasis on early intervention and supports. Some of these efforts may require regulatory changes but many others are just about changing long-standing practices inside school districts and charters. Others will mean recalibrating more recent initiatives such as the LCAP to ensure that districts are incentivized to account for all funding.
Finally, I believe that we should be questioning everything. We need to ask “why?” Why do we do this? What is its benefit? Do we need to keep doing this? Does this make sense? We should be asking these questions at every level of the system. As the recent special education taskforce noted, our special education has many strengths, including our tens of thousands of amazing special educators. But short and long-term outcomes for students with disabilities are depressingly poor. Just like all children, our students with disabilities are California’s most precious resource. Their parents have the same hopes and dreams for their children’s education, lives, and careers as any other parent. As we embark on this effort, our goal should be about more than building a unified system. It’s about turning those hopes and dreams into reality.
My youngest daughter asked for a teacher’s kit for her birthday. A few days later, her bedroom had been transformed into a mini-classroom. On the wall, she’d posted the classroom rules and attached a tiny blackboard. She was standing in front of a multitude of stuffed animals and describing the day’s activities using the pointer and schedule from her kit.
When I walked in, she immediately put me to work transitioning the “students” to the next activity. I picked one up and asked where to put the “fat bear”. She frowned and said, “Daddy, we not use words like…
We’ve all heard that “bigger is better.” A bigger slice of pizza is better. A bigger paycheck is better. A bigger school district is better. Actually, hold it right there: that one might not be true.
Big districts get all the attention. Their leaders make headlines when they announce their latest initiatives. They have hundreds of thousands of students and tens of thousands of teachers. What they often don’t have is the best results for students.
A few years ago, the Education Trust-West published a revealing District Report Card that ranked and graded school districts around their performance for…
I’ve been reading a lot of California district’s Local Control Accountability Plans (LCAPs) lately. After the first few, I felt this acute sense of deja vu. I knew there was a time years ago when I also sat in a dusty office, surrounded by stacks of paper covered with check boxes and objectives and targets. I couldn’t pin it down. Then, like a bolt of lightning, it hit me. It was the time when I was a special education teacher, reading through the Individualized Education Plans of students with disabilities. Reading LCAPs was like reading the IEPs of schools districts.
The similarities are striking. Both are government-sanctioned forms divided into sections that require hours of manual text and data entry. Both have an annual review process and a three year timeline. Both mandate parent involvement and collaboration with educators. Both are used for planning, resource allocation and accountability.
A Good IEP Doesn’t Equal Great Education
They also have the same problem. The greatest IEP in the world does not guarantee that a child will receive a great education. In fact, many children with beautifully written, thoroughly compliant IEPs receive just the opposite…