‘Getting Down to Facts’ revisited

The principal author and other contributors to the massive research project on California education known as Getting Down to Facts are marking the fifth anniversary of its release by examining its impact and discussing what still needs to be done.

Clearly, a lot.

“Our initial optimism was clearly unwarranted,” wrote Susanna Loeb, Stanford University professor of education and coordinator of the 23 studies, in the preface to a policy update published last week by Policy Analysis for California Education, or PACE. The researchers and foundations that funded the projects hoped that reams of information would lead to policies “to streamline governance and to simplify and rationalize school finance,” produce smarter use of data, and more effectively develop teachers and administrators.

None of that has happened to any degree; any momentum for acting on recommendations was sidetracked by an economic downturn that walloped school budgets and by the indifference of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who raised expectations by creating the Committee on Education Excellence and hyping the Year of Education, and then ignoring it all.

But in a conference that PACE held on Thursday in Sacramento, Loeb also offered a dose of optimism. “Even though we haven’t come very far, we may be at a particularly promising moment,” she said, with Gov. Jerry Brown proposing significant finance reform and a “positive indication in recent polls that suggest public support for meaningful reform.” An online poll by PACE and the USC Rossier School of Education found that two-thirds of Californians agreed that the state should provide more money to poorer school districts even if it resulted in decreased spending in wealthier districts. A majority (55 percent) still favored higher spending in low-income schools even if it meant less spending in their neighborhood schools.

For those favoring significant changes to the system, that’s heartening. Getting Down to Facts and the Governor’s Excellence Committee were explicit in saying that K-12 under-resourced schools needed reforms and more money. In early 2008, before the recession, the state was projecting Proposition 98 increases of $5 billion over several years. Instead, since then, K-12 spending has been cut more than that.

Wtih budget cuts, state approrpriations this year are about what they were in 2004. Source: Getting Down To Facts: Five Years Later (Click to enlarge.)
With budget cuts, state K-12 appropriations this year are about what they were in 2003-04. Source: Getting Down To Facts: Five Years Later (Click to enlarge.)

So groups in the Education Coalition are resisting finance reform, which would reallocate money to disadvantaged students, and are wary – as is Brown – of new programs, mandates, and expenditures. As Rick Simpson, deputy chief of staff and education adviser for Assembly Speaker John Perez, commented at the PACE conference with a note of aggravation, “Back in 2007, we were looking at a huge windfall. Now schools have been cut billions and billions of dollars, and the conversation is, ‘You’re not going to get that money back until you do all these reforms.’”

But the researchers of Getting Down to Facts continue to argue that the state cannot sit still and wait until money owed to schools is fully restored. As Heather Rose, an associate professor of education at UC Davis, wrote in the Getting Down to Facts update regarding finance reform, “Without a stronger finance system, reaching California’s academic goals will be an uphill battle. Pouring more money into the current system is akin to pouring a concrete foundation without putting the form boards in place. It consumes substantial resources, makes a mess, and doesn’t improve the stability of your house.”

Rose and others contributed sections in the 36-page update on governance, finance, personnel, and data. Here’s a summary of their findings:

Governance

Getting Down to Facts concluded that legislative dictates, a phone-book-thick education code, and conflicting lines of authority in Sacramento inhibited sound policy-making and frustrated local districts. “California has one of the most hierarchical rule-bound school institutions in the country,” Bruce Fuller, professor of education and public policy at UC Berkeley, told conferees.

Not much has changed, concluded Richard Welsh and Dominic Brewer of the University of Southern California. All-consuming concern over passing a state budget has “hijacked any real conversation about policy reform,” quoting an expert they interviewed. Manipulations of Proposition 98’s funding formula by the governor and Legislature have made it difficult for districts to predict revenues.

Brown did eliminate the Office of the Secretary of Education (actually moving it onto the shoulders of Sue Burr, executive director of the State Board of Education), but there remains overlapping and competing policy authority among the State Board, the Legislature, and an elected Superintendent of Public Instruction. There’s no talk of changing that.

The Legislature has backed into one of the reforms advocated in Getting Down to Facts: more local control over spending, though without giving locals more power to raise money. Districts have been given power to spend money on 40 categorical programs, worth $4 billion, as they wish. Most have used the money to backfill their basic budgets, raising questions about whether money previously earmarked for poor kids will end up being spent on them and whether worthwhile priorities – for teacher training, adult education, career and technical education – will be dismantled as a result of austerity.

Meanwhile, some districts have innovated on their own. Los Angeles Unified is experimenting with decentralized pilot schools; Twin Rivers Unified has turned over budgeting decisions to school sites, and the seven districts that came together for the state’s Race to the Top application have pursued a collaboration through the California Office to Reform Education.

Finance

Getting Down to Facts concluded that education funding is “overly complex, irrational, and fails to link resource allocations with student need or district costs.” Brown’s plan for weighted student funding addresses some of the criteria for a sound finance system: Funneling more money to disadvantaged students and eliminating most categorical funding would make education funding simpler, more transparent, and more equitable. But California would still lag behind most states in per-student spending, even if Brown’s proposed tax increase passes. And the administration, through the State Board, is just beginning to think about new ways of holding districts accountable for student achievement, beyond the current limited array of standardized tests, that would be needed once districts have flexibility to spend money as they choose.

Simpson expressed skepticism that Brown’s funding proposal could be made ready for passage by the end of June.

Teachers and Leaders

“At the state level, there have been no significant changes in teacher or leadership policies. If anything, things have gotten worse,” wrote Jennifer Imazeki, professor of economics at San Diego State. Districts have cut money for professional development, and layoffs have left staffs demoralized.

Getting Down to Facts found significant problems, among them:

  • Administrators with relatively poor training compared with other states;
  • Difficulties identifying and dismissing weak teachers;
  • Systemic flaws in teacher compensation and distribution, with little correlation between student achievement and a pay system that rewards teachers based on education and years of experience;
  • Reforms pertaining to the evaluation, inequitable assignment and retention of teachers that are inhibited by state policies.

Imazeki noted “pockets of progress,” with Los Angeles Unified, which is piloting new teacher evaluations based on multiple measures and San Francisco Unified, which passed a parcel tax to  fund more professional development, better evaluations, opportunities for master teachers and incentives for teaching in hard-to-staff schools. A reconstituted state Commission on Teacher Credentialing, to which Stanford education professor Linda Darling-Hammond was appointed, is focusing more attention on teacher training programs.

There’s been some action in the Legislature. However, provisions under the current version of AB 5, the primary bill proposing changes to teacher evaluations, would take effect only once cost-of-living adjustments owed to schools are paid back – a process that will take years.

Another approach that Imazeki proposes is for the Legislature to do no harm and get out of the way. “At a minimum, state policy should focus on removing regulatory barriers to these local efforts and encourage further experimentation,” she wrote, noting that these policy changes would not require additional money.

Data

Both Getting Down to Facts and the Governor’s Committee said that the development of a statewide comprehensive data system was indispensable to guide long-term educational improvement. The state currently has no idea which programs work and why; it’s difficult for the public to hold the decision makers accountable for spending without this knowledge.

After fits, starts, and mishaps, the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System (CALPADS) is running smoothly, collecting useful data on the performance of schools and students, along with accurate dropout information and graduation rates. But there is no agreement on where to go from there. Data advocates want to link CALPADS to higher education institutions down to preschools. And they want a teacher database, CALTIDES, which would link to CALPADS and include information on teacher salaries, certification programs and student results.

But Brown vetoed the acceptance of federal money for CALTIDES, and has questioned whether any more money should be spent on statewide data systems. The focus should be on locally generated and collected data that teachers, parents, principals and districts find useful, not on data for researchers and policy analysts.

David Plank, executive director of PACE, argues in the update that the state should build a state data warehouse that would compile and link data from pre-kindergarten through higher ed institutions and create tools useful to local educators to support continuous improvement. As it is now, the state imposes programs, like class-size reduction, without any way of measuring to see if they work; meanwhile, promising practices from local districts go unrecognized and measured.

“It is unarguable that for now,” Plank wrote, “that the persistent lack of useful educational data continues to handicap all efforts to improve the performance of California schools and students.”

Author: John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (www.TOPed.org), one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

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