Can California close its ‘achievement gap’?

The biggest issue facing the nation’s biggest public school system – California’s, with six million students – is a stubborn “achievement gap.”

That’s the term educators use to describe persistent differences between what white and Asian students learn, as revealed by academic testing, and what Latino, black and poor students are getting from the public schools.

The differentials eventually result in much higher rates of high school graduation and college attendance by the former, thus preparing them for success in an increasingly complex and technology-driven economy.

California’s response to the gap has been to spend more money on what has been described as “high needs” students through the Local Control Funding Formula. It directs additional state aid to districts with large populations of those youngsters on the assumption that it will be spent to enrich their educations and thus close the gap.

The LCFF was the brainchild of former Gov. Jerry Brown and his successor, Gavin Newsom, continues it in his first budget.

However, so far, there’s scant evidence that LCFF is having its intended effect and, in fact, we cannot be certain that the extra money is even being spent on its intended beneficiaries. The controls over the extra money are weak and Brown resisted tighter monitoring, saying he trusted local school officials to do the right thing.

This is no small matter because under the criteria governing LCFF outlays, about 60 percent of California’s K-12 students qualify by their poverty or lack of English skills for the extra help. If they continue to lag behind, not only will their individual futures be at risk, but the state will be deprived of the educated workforce that its economy needs.

So is there something else that California needs to be doing to close the achievement gap?

Newsom has embraced the concept that poor and English-learner students start school without the advantages that other kids have, so need a comprehensive array of pre-kindergarten services, from childcare to elementary instruction, that would level the academic playing field.

Early childhood education has a strong constituency among professional educators, school unions and civic groups. Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, who was an early childhood education advocate before entering politics, has appointed a special commission to design a program and it’s issued a preliminary draft.

Such a comprehensive program would be very expensive, and the draft does not contain a financial component, although the commission promises one will be in the final version.

So would early childhood education finally turn the corner on closing the achievement gap?

Studies about its efficacy disagree. Some indicate that while it has benefits during the first few years of elementary school, they tend to wear off and the achievement gap reopens as students move into middle and high schools.

A new nationwide study, conducted by a team of academics and just published in Education Next, offers a cautionary tale about closing the gap.

“We find that the opportunity gap – that is, the relationship between socioeconomic status and achievement – has not grown over the past 50 years. But neither has it closed. Instead, the gap between the haves and have-nots has persisted,” the team concluded.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that closing the gap is impossible, but it implies that we shouldn’t be terribly optimistic that early childhood education will be any more successful than LCFF.

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