There's no question: there is a problem with California's schools. TIME magazine seems to think the problem is teacher tenure; that's why they gave this week's cover story over to the issue, featuring the extended thoughts of a Silicon Valley tech titan who never taught and never did any educational research, yet funded a lawsuit to overturn tenure in California.
The number of teachers invited by TIME to rebut his claims? Zero.
To the credit of Haley Sweetland Edwards, author of the piece, the article does explore the problems with using test-based student outcomes to evaluate teachers. But neither Edwards nor her editors ever stopped to consider why test scores might vary from school to school. What causes test scores to rise and fall in California -- and, for that matter, the rest of the world?
At this point, I may as well write: "The sun will rise in the East tomorrow" over and over again on this blog. Nearly 60% of the variation in Grade 6 English Language Arts scores in California can be explained by student economic disadvantage.
You have to get all the way up to Grade 11 to get a more moderate correlation (r-sq = 0.26), but it's still there. Of course it's there. It's impossible to deny it: poverty matters. But you know what else matters? School funding:
I often wonder why very, very wealthy Californians like Eli Broad and Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg and Arthur Rock and David Welch (sugar daddy of the Vergara lawsuit) don't ever seem to want to talk about this:Since 2008, many nations, including the United States, have struggled with the effects of a global recession. The state of California has been particularly impacted by the Great Recession. Unemployment rates in California are among the highest in the United States, and a weak fiscal environment has forced deep cutbacks to a variety of state services. This study uses California as a case to explore the effects of economic crisis on public schools and the students they serve. The study draws on survey and interview data with a representative sample of public high school principals across California. The data show that, during the Great Recession, students have experienced growing social welfare needs that often shape their well-being and their performance in schools. We also find that the capacity of public schools to meet these needs and provide quality education has been eroded by budget cuts. This study finds that schools primarily serving low-income families have been hardest hit during the recession, in part because they cannot raise private dollars to fill the gap left by public sector cuts. The Great Recession thus has undermined educational quality while producing widening educational inequality in California. [emphasis mine]
Here's the funny thing about California's school system: it's actually not horribly regressive in terms of how the money is distributed*:For more than three decades, California has funded its public schools below the national average. During the recession that started in 2008, the funding went from bad to worse.
The 2014 Education Week Quality Counts report ranked California 50th among states in adjusted per-student expenditures.* A recovering economy and a temporary tax helped to stabilize funding in 2012-13 and 2013-14, but it will be many years before the deep cuts that were made are restored. Even when the new LCFF is fully implemented, without further action, school funding in California will still lag behind other states. [emphasis mine]
Not great, but not awful. No, the problem with California isn't how it spreads out its money for schools -- it's that it spends so little on its schools to begin with, ranking 42nd among states this year in its funding level. And the recession made things even worse:
Of course, California is also the home of Eric Hanushek, intellectual godfather of the "money doesn't matter" school of education funding. It's become increasingly clear, however, that Hanushek's views aren't lining up with the latest research*:
Yes, money matters -- and California isn't spending enough.On balance, it is safe to say that a sizeable and growing body of rigorous empirical literature validates that state school finance reforms can have substantive, positive effects on student outcomes, including reductions in outcome disparities or increases in overall outcome levels. Further, it stands to reason that if positive changes to school funding have positive effects on short and long run outcomes both in terms of level and distribution, then negative changes to school funding likely have negative effects on student outcomes. Thus it is critically important to understand the impact of the recent recession on state school finance systems, the effects on long term student outcomes being several years down the line. It is also important to understand the features of state school finance systems including balance of revenue sources that may make these systems particularly susceptible to economic downturn. [emphasis mine]
Look, we all believe that we need great teachers in all of our schools. Yes, of course teachers matter -- no one who works in a schools would ever claim otherwise. But it's foolish to think that simply giving administrators the ability to fire teachers at-will is going to improve the quality of people who will consider careers in education.
Even if you really, truly believe that raising the quality of the teaching corps is critical to increasing student achievement, why would you ever think you could do so without raising more revenues to pay teachers more and incent more people to come into the profession? Why would you think churning the workforce would be enough to get all kids better teachers?
The problem with California's schools isn't teacher tenure: the problem is that too many California students live in economic disadvantage, and too many of them go to underfunded schools.
When TIME is willing to do a story on this subject, I'll consider paying for a copy. Until then, I'd rather spend my time with the blogroll on the left side of this blog. At least those writers are willing to consider a larger view of American education, and question why this country continues to blame teachers for problems whey never created and can't be expected to fix on their own.
TIME keeps on slipping, slipping, slipping...
* Bruce Baker is my advisor at Rutgers GSE.