Adult education’s existential crisis

This is the second of a two-part series on adult education in California.  Click here to read part 1.

Adult education in California is nearly as old as the state itself. Today, the program that has helped millions of people learn English, earn a GED, and receive job training for 156 years is facing extinction. A new report released today by EdSource concludes that these schools, which provide second chances for the state’s most needy adults, “are as much at-risk as many of the people they serve.”

The report, aptly titled At Risk: Adult Schools in California, surveyed the state’s 30 largest school districts and found that 23 had made significant cuts to their adult education programs. In many cases, they lost at least half their funding. One of them, Anaheim Union High School District, shuttered its 73-year-old adult school.

“The important thing to remember is that these adult school programs are serving a population that really falls through the cracks,” said Louis Freedberg, Executive Director of EdSource. “This is a population that needs basic education in basic skills, that needs help with English as a Second Language, and for whom there is really no other place to go to get these basic services.”

Adult ed cuts in 30 largest districts.  (Source:  EdSource)  Click to enlarge.
Adult ed cuts in 30 largest districts. (Source: EdSource) Click to enlarge.

These draconian cuts have taken place in just the past three years. Until 2009, adult education funding was protected as a categorical program, meaning districts could not use the money for any other purpose. But that February, faced with a massive budget shortfall, the Legislature and Gov. Brown removed 39 programs – including adult ed – from this restriction and gave school districts flexibility to use the funds wherever they were most needed.

A survey of several hundred school districts conducted by the adult education program in Montebello Unified School District found that about 40 have closed or are planning to shut their adult education programs, and estimated that, statewide, districts have redirected about 60 percent of the $773 million in adult education funds to the K-12 system. At the same time, enrollment dropped from 1.2 million students to about 700,000.

“We were actually growing before the cuts started,” said Pam Garramone, principal of Sonoma Valley Adult School, which closes at the end of this month. Garramone said there were six adult school agencies in Sonoma County before flex started; now there’s only one, Petaluma, and it doesn’t have the capacity to accommodate the 10,000 people who have been shut out.

Farewell message on Sonoma Valley Adult School site. (click to enlarge).
Farewell message on Sonoma Valley Adult School site. (click to enlarge).

Garramone said her district has always been very supportive of adult education, but was placed in an untenable position. “Our budget situation was just so drastic that every single thing that was on the list to be cut was painful for them, and they’re looking at even more cuts next year, so the decision to finally close adult education they just felt had to be made,” she said. “And I really don’t blame them; I didn’t necessarily agree with it, but I certainly don’t blame them for the decision.”

She blames the Legislature. Adult education should never have been flexed, said Garramone. Even though categorical flex is supposed to end on June 30, 2015, few people expect to see the money again. Indeed, Gov. Brown’s proposal for a weighted student funding formula would make categorical flexibility permanent.

Paul Hay, the superintendent of San Jose’s Metropolitan Education District (MetroED), told EdSource if weighted student funding is approved, “adult education is dead, gone, over, and will never come back in the state.”

MetroED’s enrollment plunged from 10,000 to 2,000 after it closed more than 50 programs, two major campuses, and all its community outreach centers except for a program for disabled adults.

Societal impact

The adult education program in Oakland Unified School District was among the hardest hit without being closed.  It has been cut by more than 90 percent since the start of flex, losing $11 million of a $12 million budget which necessitated shutting two campuses and canceling English as a second language courses as well as its high school credit recovery program.  The GED classes are still thriving, however, and graduated 95 students last year.

“When we were cut our numbers were at the highest they’ve been, this would have been our best year ever,” said Chris Nelson, director of the district’s adult education programs and president of the California Council for Adult Education.  “It’s ironic now that the economy is so bad because it’s during times of high unemployment that people seek education programs.”

Donita McKay standing outside the Oakland adult ed computer literacy RV. (Click to enlarge).
Donita McKay standing outside the Oakland adult ed computer literacy RV. (Click to enlarge).

Donita McKay is studying for her GED and taking a computer literacy course through Oakland’s adult education school.  McKay is 49 years old, a single mom with four children, and a ninth-grade drop out.   She said being back in school has opened her mind and given her a different outlook on life.

“Education is important because when you don’t have it you’re so limited,” said McKay.  “I always tell my children, get your education, because I didn’t really get all mine, so and you see where I’m at.  They hear that from my mouth everyday.”

Sitting at small workstation in an RV retrofitted as mobile computer classroom, McKay said she’s considering becoming a teacher one day, “because I always like to give back and give what I learned, because it reminds me I used to be like that.”

Oakland has all the challenges of any big city.  English is not the first language for about 40 percent of the population and in some neighborhoods the high school dropout rate is a staggering 60 to 70 percent, said Mayor Jean Quan, who spent twelve years on the local school board.

Oakland Mayor Jean Quan (Click to enlarge).
Oakland Mayor Jean Quan (Click to enlarge).

“What I really worry about is California creating a permanent underclass,” said Quan.  “This is one of the ways out; this is one of the second chances that people have, and if people don’t have at least a high school degree it’s very hard to even get a good paying blue-collar job.”

Not dead yet

Gordon Jackson is head of the Adult Education Division of the California Department of Education.  He said the mission of adult education is to advance the “economic, workforce development and societal goals by preparing adult learners for college, career and civic responsibility.”

It’s a critical goal, but one that doesn’t have critical support.  Although adult education programs are run by both K-12 school districts and community colleges, it’s not the core mission of either.  So, it’s taken some time for advocates to organize, but they’ve started considering alternatives on a number of fronts.

Several proposals are being floated said EdSource’s Freedberg.  One idea is to combine resources and establish regional centers.  Another, put forth by the state’s Little Hoover Commission, recommends turning over responsibility for adult education to community college; even thought they

Gordon Jackson, Director of Adult Education Division, CA Dept. of Education. (Source:  CDE).
Gordon Jackson, Director of Adult Education Division, CA Dept. of Education. (Source: CDE).

are facing their own massive budget cuts.  And a third plan, already underway, is to lobby the Legislature to remove adult education from categorical flex and from the governor’s weighted student funding formula.

“There are times when I would like to sit next to somebody at Starbucks and moan and groan and say I cannot believe that there are adults in this world of ours at the legislative level and other places who don’t really understand what it means to demolish an infrastructure, what it means to do this to California’s future,” said Jackson.  “I can bemoan that and have a really intense pity party for a while, until I need to focus on what needs to happen.”

Students can’t get “passed” math

Every year about 220 students at De Anza College in Cupertino voluntarily sign up for a yearlong double dose of math classes. It’s not easy to get in; about 700 students at the community college apply for the program, known as Math Performance Success (MPS). The main requirement for admission – besides applying early – is having a bad history with math. These are students who have failed a math course once or twice, or who have dropped out of the class.

Over three consecutive quarters, the program takes students from basic skills, such as elementary algebra, through college-level statistics, which is one of the required courses for students planning to transfer to the University of California or California State University. Over nine years, from 2001 to 2010, pass rates for MPS students were 18 to 28 percent higher for each course than for students in the traditional sequence.

It’s a resource-heavy program. Students get tutoring, counseling, and extra-long classes. For faculty, there’s built-in collaboration among fellow teachers and with support staff. In most California community colleges, just 55 percent of students taking college-level math classes will pass them with a “C” or better; a new report from EdSource found that rate hasn’t really changed in 20 years.

There’s been a lot of research on the sorry rate of completing basic skills classes, but the EdSource study, Passing When it Counts, reveals that even students who are deemed ready for college

Passing rates of college-level math by race and ethnicity. (Source:  EdSource) Click to enlarge.
Passing rates of college-level math by race and ethnicity. (Source: EdSource) Click to enlarge.

math are struggling to pass. Those rates vary by race and ethnicity. African American students passed 41 percent of the time; Latino students had a 49 percent pass rate; it was 60 percent for white students and 65 percent for Asian students. But those figures only apply to students who remained in the courses; between 18 and 30 percent dropped them.

“You probably find the same thing in every state, because math is a huge stumbling block,” said Nancy Shulock, director of the Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy at Sacramento State University. “I don’t know when and why this country got into such a math phobia, but it’s a terrible problem.”

Her own research found that how well and how quickly students complete college-level math in community college turns out to be a strong predictor of success. Steps to Success, a 2009 report that Shulock co-authored, found that students who passed college-level math within two years after enrolling in a community college were nearly three times as likely to earn a certificate or degree or transfer to a four-year college as students who didn’t finish in that time frame.

Schools matter

In addition to the gap by race and ethnicity, EdSource also found a significant disparity among colleges themselves. At 21 of the state’s 112 community colleges, less that half the students who were enrolled in college-level math passed the classes. At 26 colleges, more than 60 percent passed. (Click here for an interactive map showing pass rates for each college.)

Variations in passing rates by community college. (Source: EdSource). Click to enlarge.
Variations in passing rates by community college. (Source: EdSource). Click to enlarge.

Although the study didn’t explore this inconsistency in detail, researcher Matthew Rosin writes that “possible reasons for this variation include students’ backgrounds and how long it has been since they last took a math course, the quality and ongoing evaluation of instruction, and how students are placed into these math classes.”

It may also be a factor of geography. In communities hit hard by the economic downturn, students may also be working full time and dealing with the stress of earning enough to pay the rent, feed their families, and pay for child care.

Sacramento State’s Nancy Shulock suggests something else at play: how math is being taught. De Anza’s program is one example of an innovative method. Nationally, there’s a movement toward contextualization, incorporating math into career programs and other subject areas. “Nationally, there’s a lot of effort going on about the ways to teach math,” said Shulock.  “The research is showing that students can engage more if there’s something that makes them see this is not just a math problem.”

Charter failure prompts scrutiny

The bankruptcy of a one-year-old charter school in West Sacramento has underscored difficulties with state and federal funding of startup schools and raised questions about the State Board of Education’s long-term capacity to oversee dozens of charter schools that it has approved.

There are probably practical fixes to the funding issue that could reduce the odds that millions of dollars would be squandered on bad-bet charter schools. The issue of the State Board’s oversight of charters raises a deeper question: Who should approve and monitor charters ­– local districts, the State Board on appeal, or perhaps independent agencies and universities, as in other states, with the expertise and a disinterest in the charters they would regulate?

Louis Freedberg, the new executive director of EdSource, writes about both developments in a two-part blog posting that ran Wednesday and today. He details the cautionary tale of the California College, Career and Technical Center, which came up at the State Board’s September meeting.

Before declaring bankruptcy this month, the charter had spent nearly a million dollars funded through a federal startup grant, a state loan, and standard state tuition payments. CCCTEC had encountered setbacks from its opening, when delays with its facility led to a sizable defection in student enrollment, contributing to escalating financial problems that led to a default in payments and loss of government money.

Richard Zeiger, Chief Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction, told the State Board that CCCTEC’s failure was symptomatic of other charter school defaults, which happen “with great regularity,” and over two decades totaled “easily into the tens of millions of dollars, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it went higher.” Zeiger didn’t elaborate further at the meeting and didn’t provide Freedberg with specific numbers, saying the Department of Education is doing the research. It’s presumably a small portion of the 1,400 charters that have been granted over two decades, including more than 900 currently operating.

The federal Department of Education is already paring back grants to California and setting aside more money for proven charter management organizations. On Wednesday, it announced multimillion-dollar startup grants to Palo Alto-based Rocketship Education ($1.9 million), San Francisco-based KIPP ($9.5 million), and Los Angeles-based Alliance College Ready Public Schools ($3.1 million).

However, Eric Premack, executive director of the Charter Schools Development Center in Sacramento, which provides technical advice and training for charter operators, acknowledged that the state could cut funding losses by tightening procedures for awarding grants and tracking attendance.

Charter operators run on thin margins and need advance money to get rolling, especially first-time charters that start with one or two grades and are projected to break even when they reach full enrollment. That’s why the federal government started the Public Charter School Grant Program, with grants of up to $600,000, and the state started a revolving loan fund, repayable over five years. Throw in deferrals of state tuition payments and unexpected encounters with fire marshals, and new charters can find themselves in precarious spots.

But a more competitive process for grants, with check-off dates for when charters must have enrollments and facilities lined up, could catch problems. There also needs to be stricter scrutiny of attendance figures, on which advance state payments are based, made on the 20th day after the opening of a school. In CCCTEC’s case, fewer students attended than enrollment figures indicated, leading to $219,000 in overpayments last year alone, according to Freedberg.

Time for more authorizers?

Most charters are granted by local districts, but the State Board has granted three dozen – less than 4 percent of the total number of charters statewide – mostly on appeal after rejection by district trustees and county school boards. CCCTEC is one of those.

As State Board President Michael Kirst told Freedberg, “There are charter schools that are turned down by both local districts and counties that deserve to operate and so there needs to be some state appeal mechanism.” Some local trustees are unabashedly antagonistic to charters.

Whether the State Board should be saddled with oversight responsibilities – or contract out that function and leave the Board strictly with policy decisions – is a question that the State Board should confront as the number of appeals and approvals increases.

Charters pay fees, between 1 and 3 percent, to their authorizers, but, with rare exceptions, few districts do the monitoring well. It’s not clear that the State Board should have caught CCCTEC’s spending anomalies and possible misrepresentations earlier. But a review of the events leading up to bankruptcy should be part of the Board’s postmortem.

Veteran journalist to lead EdSource

Signaling a desire for a higher profile, new directions, and an interest in reaching a larger audience, the board of directors of the research and policy organization EdSource has hired veteran California journalist Louis Freedberg as its new executive director.

Freedberg is the senior education reporter at California Watch, the foundation-funded online investigative reporting news site and blog that he co-founded. He has written extensively about education policy in that job and at the San Francisco Chronicle, where he was a columnist, education reporter, Washington correspondent, and editorial writer for more than a decade.

Louis Freedberg (California Watch photo)
Louis Freedberg (California Watch photo)

What stood out was Freedberg’s experience in building media partnerships at California Watch and at the California Media Collaborative, which he also founded, and in using new social media tools to expand impact, said Carl Cohn, a state Board of Education member and retired school superintendent who is EdSource’s board president. But what also impressed the board was Freedberg’s knowledge of immigration, criminal justice, health care, and other influences that have an impact on education. “I was very intrigued by his vast knowledge of other critical issues” that have been overlooked in recent years, Cohn said. “We should be having these discussions.”

“I’ve been thinking for a long time about how to reach Californians, to see what mobilizes people and readers,” said Freedberg. “One of the challenges is to show how issues affect them. With education financing and other aspects of education policy, so much has been at a high level of abstraction. We need to be smart in getting information to policy makers and the public” through interactive tools and collaborations beyond a single website.

Both Freedberg and Cohn said that EdSource will continue to do impartial, nonpartisan, unbiased research, its hallmark. But they also anticipate that EdSource will want to present reports and information that Freedberg described as “more aligned with the decision-making cycles in Sacramento so that it can have an impact on the debate.”

And when it reaches research-based recommendations, as it did in recent middle school studies, then it should make the case for them, Cohn said. “EdSource has the historical mission of not being an advocacy organization, but could it be edgier?”

“In my work as journalist, I relied on EdSource,” Freedberg said. “It has been invaluable to me. But how media presents information is also important now.”

Located in Mountain View, EdSource has about a dozen employees and has produced an impressive amount of research on education financing, charter schools, Common Core, STEM issues, and, more recently, community colleges. Its board is a cross section of Sacramento insiders (John Mockler; Sue Burr, executive director of the State Board of Education; and Ken Hall, founder of School Services of California), Ed Coalition representatives and ed reformers (charter school funder Reed Hastings and Don Shalvey, vice president of the Gates Foundation). It is funded by the Hewlett, Irvine, Stuart, and S.D. Bechtel, Jr. foundations, Hastings, and the California Teachers Association.

Freedberg, who has a PhD in cultural anthropology from UC Berkeley, replaces Trish Williams, who’s retiring after running EdSource for the past 19 years. Williams, whom Gov. Jerry Brown has nominated to the State Board of Education, was the project lead in EdSource’s recent extensive middle school study. Freedberg starts his new job July 5.

EdSource sees flaw in Algebra for all

A report by the non-partisan research organization EdSource is critical of the distinctly California trend of pushing eighth graders to take Algebra I while acknowledging impressive gains over the past decade in the numbers of low-income, minority children who are mastering the subject.

“A ‘one size fits all’ approach of placing all 8th graders into Algebra I, regardless of their preparation, sets up many students to fail,” concludes “Preparation, Placement, Proficiency: Improving Middle Grades Math Performance.” While 46 percent of eighth graders tested proficient in Algebra I last year (up from 39 percent seven years earlier, even with higher enrollment), 29 percent of students tested far below basic. Many of these students arrived unprepared, and their failure was predictable, given their low scores in the seventh grade math test.

They will be among the 38 percent of students who will repeat Algebra I in ninth grade. The EdSource study didn’t follow what happened to them in ninth grade. But, based on findings by a Noyce Foundation-commissioned study last year, at least half of these students will likely do worse the second time around.

2003: 32% of 8th graders took Algebra I; 39% were proficient
2010: 57% of 8th graders took Algebra I; 46% were proficient

The EdSource report recommends a more nuanced, consistent, districtwide approach to eighth grade math placement. Instead, policies tend vary from school to school. Only a third of districts reported having explicit written placement policies. Superintendents and principals indicated providing a wide access to a rigorous curriculum – equity – was a higher priority for placement than academic appropriateness.

EdSource said that a student’s score on the seventh grade California Standards Test should be a primary, though not sole, factor for placement. ** Based on that, it concluded that “the nearly 40% of 8th graders who scored low basic or lower in grade 7 are clearly not ready for California’s full Algebra I course in 8th grade.”

Many ended up being assigned to Algebra I just the same. They included 27 percent of students who scored far below basic – a failing grade  – on the seventh grade test and  a third of students who scored below basic. 

An unexpected – and fascinating – finding was that students in low-income schools, with parents who are high school graduates, are more likely to be assigned to Algebra I than students from middle-class schools where parents are college educated. And African American and Hispanic eighth graders were more likely to be placed in Algebra I than were white eighth graders with similar preparation. EdSource doesn’t speculate as to why, though advocates have cast universal Algebra I in eighth grade as a civil rights issue as well as the gateway to a four-year university. However, students could still complete the courses required for admission to a UC or CSU campus  after completing Algebra I in ninth grade.

The bigger dilemma is how to place eighth graders who scored high basic or low proficient in seventh grade – and foster their success. Assigning them to General Math is too low a challenge. At the same time, 40 percent of those who scored  low proficient in seventh grade ended up scoring basic on Algebra I the next year.

But these are averages. Some districts clearly do a better job with Algebra among the tweeners – the 30 percent of students in the middle – who, with support and encouragement, can succeed. Based on its previous middle school study, EdSource said that those schools that early on identify students who need extra support show better results.

Another promising option is pre-algebra summer school targeting students who scored high basic or low proficient on the seventh grade test. This summer, between 1,000 and 1,200 students from 13 districts in Santa Clara County will take Stepping Up to Algebra, offered by my employer, Silicon Valley Education Foundation, to prepare them for eighth grade. Unfortunately, every county doesn’t have an education foundation to fund summer schools, which have all but vanished because of state budget cuts.

California’s adoption of the Common Core curriculum presents an opportunity to refine the approach to Algebra, EdSource said. The Common Core curriculum for eighth grade includes a bit of geometry and puts off some of the harder elements of Algebra I, such as quadratic equations, to ninth grade. California, in its adoption, also built those back in to create a dense and overloaded set of standards.

One possibility is two eighth grade sequences: one based on the national Common Core standards, with elements of Algebra. For the 40 percent of students now taking General Math, even this would be a stretch, EdSource said. The other would be similar to the current Algebra I. There would be challenges in creating assessments and the right incentives. But in sorting this out, EdSource said, state leaders should “acknowledge that all students deserve math courses that challenge them, but that all students need not follow an identical path and timeline toward college- and work readiness.”

** Schools don’t received the results from the CST, taken in April, until August – often after the master schedule is finished – a complication for using it for placement. The State Board should demand a quicker turnaround when the contract comes up for renewal next year.