By Carolyn Chun
As California prepares to elect a new governor and superintendent of public instruction in November, a study released last month has drawn attention to major challenges the state faces when it comes to education.
The study — coordinated by Stanford and conducted by the independent nonpartisan research center Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), located at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education (GSE) — is one of the most comprehensive studies on California K-12 public education conducted in the past 10 years. Among the findings were evidence of an achievement gap prior to kindergarten and an estimate that an additional $25.6 billion, marking a 38 percent increase in spending, would be required to meet state education goals.
The study is a follow-up to another report conducted by PACE on the same subject in 2007. More than 50 researchers from Stanford, Vanderbilt, Harvard, UCLA, UC Berkeley and other institutions contributed to the report.
The report indicated that there is a persistent economic and racial achievement gap in California that well surpasses the national average. While students in affluent areas in California match the average performance of students in affluent areas nationwide, students in low-income California districts are scoring an average of a full grade level behind low-income students in other states.
“We’re not failing our rich kids,” said Sean Reardon, professor at the GSE and researcher in the study. “We’re not, as a state, providing as much educational opportunity for our low- and middle-income communities and kids.”
The racial achievement achievement gap between black and white students, and between Latino and white students, is also more significant in California than in most other states, according to the study. The researchers suggest that these economic and racial achievement disparities are part of the reason why California continues to trail other states in academic testing, with average scores well below the national average in 2017.
Some of these inequities may tie back to concerns over funding expressed in the PACE report. Public schools are allotted government funding, which can then be supplemented with local funding sources such as property taxes and local bonds — funds that are in much greater supply in high-income areas.
The spending increase recommended by PACE would alter this calculus, augmenting baseline per-pupil spending and decreasing school districts’ dependence on local funding sources.
Amika Guillaume, principal at the East Palo Alto Academy charter school, said differences in government funding can translate to significant differences in students’ experiences at different schools. According to the California Budget and Policy Center, the state paid $10,291 per pupil in 2016, lower than 40 other states that year. Guillaume explained that the per-pupil funding amount is often doubled by local resources in areas that can afford them, such as in the neighboring Palo Alto Unified School District.
“As long as that gap exists in terms of what we are spending in terms of educating our students, we will constantly have this [achievement] gap,” Guillaume said. “We are woefully under-serving our students.”
Early childhood education
The importance of early childhood education was another key takeaway of the study. Reardon’s team found that achievement gaps are in large part a result of low school-readiness levels among incoming kindergarteners in low-achieving districts. Reardon noted, however, that there has been a net improvement in California students’ performance.
“Over the last ten or fifteen years, test scores in California have consistently been lower than the average in the U.S., but they’ve been catching up,” he said. “We’re still not all the way caught up, but test scores have grown faster in California than in the country as a whole.”
However, the research suggests that children in poor California communities lack substantial educational opportunities prior to entering the K-12 system, meaning that when students start school, they are already behind their more affluent peers.
“They never really catch up,” Reardon said.
Deborah Stipek, another professor from the GSE who contributed to the study, attributed this gap in school-readiness to broad issues within early childhood education in California.
“If you want to reduce the achievement gap, you are going to have to pay more attention and invest more in children ages zero to five,” she said.
Stipek noted the New Jersey model, where resources have been redirected toward early childhood education in low-income areas, as a good example of public policy that prioritizes young learners.
“Other states have really passed [California] by in early childhood,” Stipek said.
One issue she identified in California’s education system is the wide variance in experiences offered, many of which demand different levels of training and licensing for the adults working with those children. But there is also a broad shortage of people working in the field of early childhood education, which Stipek ascribes to a problem that is not unique to California.
People who work in early childhood education rarely receive the same pay as public school teachers, one product of the long-running assumption that the work is simple, akin to babysitting.
“It’s not a respected field,” said Adrienne Gelpi Lomangino ’92, a head teacher at Bing Nursery School on Stanford’s campus. The irony, Lomangino explained, is that early childhood education has not even achieved pay parity with childcare services.
“You get paid much more as a nanny than as a teacher,” Lomangino said.
While sitting in the Nursery School’s room for two-year-olds, Lomangino explained the role that early childhood education has in developing literacy, numeracy and social and emotional skills. Lomangino added that she worries poor experiences in early childhood education could sour the relationships that children have with schoolwork and learning, leading to burnout before K-12 education even begins.
In 2013, California implemented an important financial reform in education called the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF). The new policy is more targeted to high-need students, providing districts and schools that serve more at-risk students with more funding and permitting more local control over funding allocation.
PACE Executive Director Heather Hough ’02 Ph.D. ’12 explained that the state had previously used a categorical funding formula, which allocated money on the basis of how it was used.
“It really tied the hands of local leaders,” she said. “If they said that our problem isn’t tutoring, it’s local transportation, they didn’t have the money to change it.”
The reform has resulted in more investment in low-income areas. According to PACE, this investment has helped improve English and math skills as well as graduation rates in these school districts.
However, according to Hough, there is still much more work to do, much of which must happen outside the academic sphere.
“Our set of studies, by design, does not make recommendations or hypotheses about what might happen,” she said. “How we get here as a state is about if and when we have state leaders and advocates who really push for that,” she said.
Hough and other contributors to the report expressed that its release just before the midterm elections was no coincidence. The November elections in California will bring both a new gubernatorial administration and a new superintendent of public instruction, as well as some turnover within state legislature.
Hough said she hopes that the report will help the new administration take stock of where improvement is needed and to make informed decisions about California education. She also expressed a desire for the data to get to people across the system, including local leaders, who can then use the report to advocate on their own behalf to policymakers.
“Our state right now is making a really big push that is about empowering people at the local level to make changes,” she said. “I am very optimistic that the approach that we’re taking right now as a state can be effective.”
This report has been edited to reflect that there is more than one head teacher at Bing Nursery School. The Daily regrets this error.