The kids at the back of the pack are falling further and further behind. And that has dire consequences not just for them, dear readers, but for you.
To wit: Anaheim Elementary School students lost more than half a grade’s worth of learning during the pandemic. As did kids in Santa Ana Unified. And in Buena Park Elementary, and in San Bernardino City, and Long Beach and Moreno Valley unified districts, and so many others.
Researchers at Stanford and Harvard have produced a gut-punching data project called “The Education Recovery Scorecard.” It’s a largely tragic glimpse of learning loss across the entire nation between 2019 and 2022.
Every Southern California district examined by the Southern California News Group lost ground in math, where students were already overwhelmingly inept (in 2019, only 29% of California eighth graders were proficient in math).
The overwhelming majority also lost ground in reading and language arts, but not as acutely as in math. Five Orange County districts even managed to clock modest gains in reading — Fountain Valley, Fullerton and Cypress elementary, as well as Capistrano and Irvine Unified. Orange Unified managed not to lose any ground in reading, which, because of the pandemic, counts as something of a victory.
This is nothing to celebrate. Before the pandemic, only 30% of California eighth graders were proficient at reading. Which represents progress over earlier years. How, when public schools are guaranteed 40% of California’s general fund budget — your money, dear readers — is this acceptable?
Here’s a news flash: Achievement is inextricably tied to socioeconomic status, pandemic or no. Wealthier kids, and White and Asian kids, do better in our public schools than poorer kids and kids of color. Does this sound familiar? It certainly should. Anyone alive in the last century or so has heard it over and over and over again. Study after study after study. Yet nothing really changes.
“If a system is producing the same results year after year, we have to presume it’s functioning exactly as it was designed,” said Mark Ellis, professor of secondary education and director of the Mathematics and Science Teacher Initiative at Cal State Fullerton.
“In the U.S., we’ve seen the same results for decades in terms of inequities and in terms of overall performance, and we haven’t yet addressed it systemically. We fiddle around the edges and talk about small interventions that are not really getting at the root of the issues.”
No, schools can’t fix poverty. But they can give poor kids an education that gives them a fighting chance to break the cycle of poverty.
But first, Ellis said, they must acknowledge that something’s amiss, and be willing to make changes that are not superficial and that are, sometimes, quite hard.
“Those of us in positions of decision-making or influence need to collectively agree that what we see is not acceptable.” Ellis said. “I’m not sure we’re there yet. It’s a difficult thing to do.”
SoCal schools’ pre-pandemic performance — from 2009 through 2018 — `utterly failed to impress.
According to the Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford University:
- Los Angeles County provided “lower than average” educational opportunities, with test scores 0.89 grade level(s) below the national average, even while socioeconomic status is at roughly the national average. Scores were 1.17 grade levels lower than counties with similar socioeconomic status.
- Orange County provided “roughly average” educational opportunities, with test scores 0.14 grade level(s) above the national average, even while socioeconomic status exceeded the national average. Scores were 0.67 grade levels lower than counties with similar socioeconomic status.
- Riverside County provided “lower than average” educational opportunities, with test scores 0.92 grade level(s) below the national average, even while socioeconomic status is at roughly the national average. Scores were 1.2 grade levels lower than counties with similar socioeconomic status.
- San Bernardino County provided “lower than average” educational opportunities, with scores 1.17 grade level(s) below the national average, even while socioeconomic status was at roughly the national average. Scores were 1.17 grade levels lower than counties with similar socioeconomic status.
And the pandemic made things worse, further widening achievement gaps between high- and low-poverty schools, the researchers found.
“The pandemic was like a band of tornadoes that swept across the country,” said Harvard Center for Education Policy Research faculty director Thomas J. Kane in a prepared statement. “Some communities were left relatively untouched, while neighboring schools were devastated. The Education Recovery Scorecard is the first high-resolution map of the tornadoes’ path to help local leaders see the magnitude of the damage and guide local recovery efforts.
“The whole village needs to hear the bell ringing, not just schools. Mayors should organize tutoring efforts at local libraries. Community organizations should plan school vacation academies and summer learning opportunities. Governors should be funding and evaluating innovative pilots to provide models that everyone could use.”
Money has poured in to try to address losses, but it won’t be enough to catch kids up, the researchers found — think kids who lost a full year of learning would need a full year of extra funding —and it’s unclear just yet how effectively the money is being spent.
A confession: My first journalism job was covering education in Louisiana. “Homestead exemptions” meant many folks paid little to no property taxes. And property taxes are a financial pillar of public education.
Like the kids trapped in Louisiana’s public school system, the experience left me deeply and permanently scarred. Wealthier White kids went to private schools, where the best teachers taught. Poorer kids of color went to public schools, where I met teachers who couldn’t string together a grammatical sentence. What chance did these kids have? The achievement gap persisted with a vengeance.
Later, I covered education in San Diego, one of the largest school districts in the nation, and one committed to addressing the achievement gap. There were magnet programs and intensive reading interventions and extra help. Things got a little better, but poorer schools still got the least-experienced teachers. Class sizes could be eye-popping. And the achievement gap persisted.
Black male children have the hardest time, poor or not, according to the latest data (and just about all the data preceding it, as far as I can tell). Shirley Weber — the powerhouse who is now our Secretary of State — was a university professor on the San Diego city school board back then, and some were outraged when she pulled her son from the gifted program at a public school in favor of a small private academy that emphasized African American culture and achievement.
The academy also had class sizes of no more than 13, allowing teachers to really teach.
Weber was unapologetic. She intended to raise a strong Black man, and there were no programs like Community Preparatory School’s in the public school system. “I don’t make political decisions about my children’s future,” Weber told me at the time. “Whether I’m on the school board or off, I’m a parent first. If I make poor decisions now about their lives, I’ll regret it for the rest of mine.”
The point here: Not all kids need the same things. Some kids need More. Some kids need Different. But, by and large, our system is set up to deliver The Same.
Former Gov. Jerry Brown pushed California in the right direction when he acknowledged this, further tying school funding to student need.
The Local Control Funding Formula, passed in 2013–14 and fully implemented in 2018–19, gives districts more money based on their share of high-need students, and greater flexibility for how it’s spent.
In an interesting analysis, the Public Policy Institute of California found that per-student spending was, on average, $1,265 higher for lower-income than higher-income students, $500 higher for English learners, $1,278 higher for Black students and $1,185 higher for Latino students (compared to White students) in 2020-21.
That strikes me as chump change, given the depth of need. But the PPIC’s Julien Lafortune reminded me that this was an average, and that, while the differences near the middle might not be so great, the differences between very high-need and low-need students is substantial.
The view from 30,000 feet is this: California’s average per-student spending is slightly above the national average —$14,913 here, vs. $13,831 nationwide — ranking it 19th among the states.
But — this is California we’re talking about. Once you adjust for differences in labor costs, California’s rank drops down to 35th, the PPIC found.
Compared to No. 1 spender New York, another expensive state, this is embarrassing. The Empire State spent almost twice as much as California, at $26,828 per child.
Since then, California’s K–12 funding has increased nearly 50% (between 2018 and 2022), with federal pandemic aid and increased state funding resulting in record K–12 funding levels last year, PPIC found.
More targeted funding hasn’t closed achievement gaps, but has made a marginal impact, Lafortune said.
“The magnitude of a lot of the differences we see are really large. Can we solve all of those differences just with school funding? Thinking philosophically, I would be skeptical,” he said. “There are deeper socio-economic issues at play — where they live, whether they’ve gone to preschool, preparation for kindergarten, conditions in the first year of life even. A lot of the gaps exist before kids even get to school.”
Of course. So here’s an idea I have floated by my teacher friends. What if we doubled or even tripled the number of teachers in high-need schools? What if we paid them a lot more rather than a little more? What if class sizes were no more than 10 for the poorest kids? What if, for those farthest behind, we provided 1-to-1 tutoring all the time rather than for an hour here or there?
This would cost a fortune, Lafortune said, and would slam into the realities of limited physical space and supply of qualified teachers. Which is not to say we shouldn’t try. There’s never going to be a silver bullet to solve every problem — but being more fiscally flexible, especially when it comes to targeting money to low-income students, does have an impact, he said.
Now, there are some very pessimistic observers who assert that the system doesn’t change on purpose, to ensure there’s an underclass that’s integral to our economy (low-wage labor, filling prisons, etc.). I don’t believe that. Inertia is the tendency of a body at rest to stay at rest, or a body in motion to stay in motion — or of a vast system to remain largely the same even as the world changes radically around it.
When enough people are outraged that only half of our kids are reading at grade level and only a third can do math at same — and demand better — things will change. Expensive, yes — but investments in effective early education pay off later in reduced costs for all sorts of social programs.
Cal State Fullerton’s Ellis works closely with the Anaheim Union High School District. Educators there are taking a fresh look at how and what they want students to learn and how to align that learning with the realities of the 21st century.
“I’ve been very impressed with that, and more of that needs to happen in our classrooms,” he said. “We really have to get serious about addressing this in ways that are not just window dressing.”
Source: Orange County Register