In summary

California lacks a comprehensive data system to track how well its K-12 students are learning, but that may change with Gavin Newsom’s succession to the governorship.

A prudent investor would never consider buying shares of a company and then ignoring how the firm is performing in the marketplace.

By the same token, it would be foolhardy for the state to spend $70 billion each year to educate six million K-12 students but stubbornly refuse to monitor whether those kids are receiving the schooling they need to become productive members of society.

That, however, is exactly what the state’s politicians and educators have done for countless decades, spurning pleas for more data on how their financial inputs are affecting academic outcomes.

As a state Senate report pointed out this year, “Currently, 38 out of the 50 states maintain a longitudinal data system that records academic, demographic, assessment-oriented and programmatic information that follows students from early education to postsecondary education and often into the workforce.”

The education establishment, especially the California Teachers Association, and its political allies have not been willing to upset the status quo of ignorance, despite pleas from civil rights and education reform groups.

Inferentially, they didn’t want more data because it might make them more accountable for educational outcomes. Gov. Jerry Brown, in fact, vetoed legislation for a data system that would reveal whether his Local Control Funding Formula is accomplishing its stated purpose of closing a stubborn “achievement gap.”

This year, Sen. Steve Glazer, an Orinda Democrat, carried another bill to authorize a data collection system, but it stalled out – in part, at least, because of Brown’s reluctance to act.

With Brown about to depart from the governorship, the push for a new data system is being revived.

Last month, the Public Policy Institute of California issued a report on “modernizing California’s education data system,” saying that despite the need for an educated citizenry and workforce, “there is much we do not know about how students advance from K-12 schools to postsecondary education and into the workforce – and where they falter.”

The PPIC report laid out a roadmap for designing such a system to track students from kindergarten to high school graduation, into college or other postsecondary educations and finally into the workforce. Although California tends to go-it-alone on major policy issues, PPIC suggests that “other states can serve as models on governance, privacy and security issues.”

“Promoting student success and institutional effectiveness in California ultimately requires a better understanding of how prior educational experiences affect students’ subsequent academic achievement, work and earnings,” the report concluded.

The PPIC report coincided with what may be a crack in the establishment’s reluctance to collect more data on how the education system it controls is functioning.

In the wake of the Nov. 6 election, in which the establishment’s candidates for governor and the state superintendent of schools prevailed, formation of the Alliance for Continuous Improvement, co-chaired by Eric Heins, president of the California Teachers Association, was announced.

The new coalition includes some reform groups and while its major goal is more money for schools, its wish list also includes a comprehensive school data system.

Moreover, Gov.-elect  Gavin Newsom is on record as supporting a longitudinal data system. “This is profoundly important, and it gets lost because you don’t usually get celebrated for your IT upgrades,” Newsom said at a public forum in March.

The PPIC report cited the gubernatorial transition as indicating “the time is ripe” for such a system.

So it might happen after all, giving Californians a much-needed handle on whether those tens of billions of their tax dollars are doing the job.

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Dan Walters has been a journalist for more than 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times...