Over­com­ing the school achieve­ment gap

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Opinion - BY DAN WAL­TERS CAL­mat­ters Colum­nist CAL­mat­ters is a pub­lic in­ter­est jour­nal­ism ven­ture com­mit­ted to ex­plain­ing how Cal­i­for­nia’s state Capi­tol works and why it mat­ters. For more sto­ries by Dan Wal­ters, go to cal­mat­ters.org/ com­men­tary

Cal­i­for­nia has poured tens of bil­lions of ad­di­tional dol­lars into its pub­lic schools this decade on the as­sump­tion — or hope — that they would close the state’s stub­born aca­demic “achieve­ment gap.”

For­mer Gov. Jerry Brown cham­pi­oned the Lo­cal Con­trol Fund­ing For­mula (LCFF) that gives school districts with large num­bers of poor and/or “English-learner” stu­dents ex­tra funds to im­prove their ed­u­ca­tional out­comes. Fresno Uni­fied is one such dis­trict.

Brown, how­ever, was un­will­ing for the state to closely mon­i­tor how those bil­lions of dol­lars were spent, or whether they had at least be­gun to close the gap. He said he trusted

lo­cal school boards and ed­u­ca­tors to spend the money re­spon­si­bly and ef­fec­tively.

There’s al­most no ev­i­dence that the statewide gap has nar­rowed, but we may fi­nally get some real data on how the LCFF money has been spent and whether it’s ac­com­plish­ing its stated pur­pose.

The Leg­is­la­ture has given State Au­di­tor Elaine Howle the task of delv­ing into how LCFF is work­ing in “three large, ge­o­graph­i­cally dis­persed districts” with sub­stan­tial num­bers of at-risk stu­dents, de­ter­min­ing how the districts are spend­ing the ex­tra money and how they are mea­sur­ing their progress.

Mean­while, Brown’s suc­ces­sor, Gavin New­som, wants to cre­ate a sys­tem of col­lect­ing “lon­gi­tu­di­nal ed­u­ca­tion data” that will “pro­vide a clear pic­ture of how stu­dents ad­vance from early child­hood ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams through K-12 schools to post­sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion and into the work­force.”

Sen. Steve Glazer, an Orinda Demo­crat, is car­ry­ing leg­is­la­tion, Se­nate Bill 2, to cre­ate the data sys­tem New­som sup­ports and it’s cleared its first com­mit­tee hear­ing.

“It would in­clude re­forms to be mon­i­tored, gaps in the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem to be iden­ti­fied, and spe­cific changes to be made,” Glazer told the Se­nate Ed­u­ca­tion Com­mit­tee.

“In ad­di­tion, these sys­tems would en­able de­ci­sion-mak­ers to de­velop an early de­tec­tion sys­tem that would trig­ger in­ter­ven­tions when needed and a place­ment sys­tem that would bet­ter as­sign stu­dents into ap­pro­pri­ate cour­ses in high school and col­lege.”

The state au­dit and a new data sys­tem could shed light on the most frus­trat­ing as­pect of Cal­i­for­nia’s achieve­ment gap — why it’s so wide in some lo­cal school sys­tems but much nar­rower, or even non-ex­is­tent, in oth­ers with equally daunt­ing so­cioe­co­nomic pro­files. A re­cent ar­ti­cle in The Fresno Bee high­lighted the re­mark­able achieve­ment in the Cut­ler-Orosi Joint Uni­fied School Dis­trict, which serves two small San Joaquin Val­ley farm towns.

The Bee notes that “the dis­trict has the third­high­est rate of poverty of any uni­fied school dis­trict in Cal­i­for­nia, a fac­tor re­peat­edly linked to low test scores, high dropout rates and more.”

The dis­trict’s stu­dents come mostly from farm­worker fam­i­lies, many of them with un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grant par­ents.

How­ever, “in spite of these fac­tors, the dis­trict’s high school pro­duces grad­u­ates who are ready for col­lege at rates com­pa­ra­ble to schools with half as many stu­dents liv­ing in poverty…” The Bee found. It quoted Su­per­in­ten­dent Yolanda Valdez as say­ing, “We want to be the place where peo­ple come and see what poor kids can do when given op­por­tu­nity,” she said. “Poverty is not an ex­cuse.”

One key fac­tor is that with 97 per­cent of stu­dents liv­ing in poverty, the dis­trict re­ceived nearly $13 mil­lion in ex­tra funds un­der LCFF, about $3,250 per stu­dent, “which was spent on coun­selors for low-in­come youth, par­ent ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams and more.”

Cut­ler-Orosi isn’t alone. Other poverty-stricken districts, es­pe­cially those in ru­ral farm towns, have had sim­i­larly re­mark­able records of aca­demic achieve­ment.

They prove that poor kids can learn. Per­haps the new ac­count­abil­ity sys­tems will point the way to repli­cat­ing their suc­cess in districts, es­pe­cially big ur­ban districts, that have shown abysmal re­sults to date.

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