The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

" California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent."... ...Joan Didion.

Commentary of the Day - February 4, 2005:  Mississippi West.

The recent report from the RAND Corporation that chronicles in great detail the decline of public education in California has generated much commentary in the press and online.  In the view of the IP most of this commentary, which assigns the blame for the sorry state of public education in the once golden state to one or two primary causes, misses the mark.

A careful reading of either the report itself or of the lengthy summary of the report shows that public education in California has been drowning under the onslaught of a perfect storm of bad circumstances.  Some were the unintended consequences of well-intended legislative reforms, others are associated with changing demographics, some are connected to the decline in the quality of teachers over the last 30 years, and yet others are connected to well-intended but ultimately detrimental education "reforms" that have swept the country during the last few decades.

Part of the decline in California public education can be traced to chronic funding problems.  In the early 1970s California enacted legislation that substantially equalized funding for public education across the state.  This legislation eliminated the large differences in per pupil funding between wealthy school districts and poor school districts.  However, the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978 severely restricted the funds available for education from the property tax, and the legislature was slow to make up the difference from general revenues.  In 1988 the passage of Proposition 98 guaranteed K-14 education a fixed percentage of state revenues.  However, the damage already was done, and since 1987 per pupil spending in California has lagged the national average typically by $600 to $800 in constant dollars.

Although California spends significantly less per pupil on public education than the national average, it is not because California is a poor state like Louisiana or Mississippi.  Indeed, as a percentage of personal income, spending on public schools is about 20% to 25% below the national average.

Changing demographics present a problem for public education in California.  Fifteen years ago the K-12 population was roughly 50% Anglo, 30% Hispanic, 11% Asian and others, and 9% Black.  Currently the mix is 45% Hispanic, 34% Anglo, 12% Asian and other, and 8% Black.  Ten percent of Californians are recent immigrants compared to less than 5% for the nation as a whole; and, 20% of the children in California live in a household where the family income is below the federal poverty level.  Nearly 30% of California schoolchildren live in high-poverty neighborhoods.  California is the worst state in the nation in this regard.

The combination of low funding, and high levels of at-risk students, many of whom are not native English speakers, clearly strains the state's public education system.  As the RAND report notes "California continues to have the second highest ratio of students per teacher of any state" with a ratio of 20.9 to 1 compared to the national average of 16.1 to 1.

Worse yet the teaching workforce in California is in a constant state of flux.  At any given time nearly 15% of the teachers are new recruits who lack full certification, and teacher retention is poor.  The average teacher in California leaves the profession after slightly more than five years on the job.  Another disturbing trend of the past thirty years has been the declining competence nationally of the teaching workforce.  K-12 teaching has been largely a female profession; and, as career opportunities for women have expanded, the quality of credential candidates has declined.

Poor teacher compensation and working conditions have not helped the situation.  Real average salaries for teachers in California have remained flat for the past thirty years.  During the 1999-2000 academic year California teachers earned on average $47,680, which placed them in the top 10 among the states in absolute earnings.  However, rapidly rising living costs in California have eroded the purchasing power of teachers.  When salaries are adjusted to account for purchasing power, California ranks 32 among the states in teacher compensation.

The physical environment that both students and teachers work in is grim at best in many California school districts.  Many of California's elementary and secondary schools are in very poor condition.  Spending on school construction and renovation in California has lagged the national averages for more than a decade.  The cumulative per pupil deficit compared to the national average is close to $1,000.  Though some progress has been made recently to address the facilities issue through the passage of major statewide school bond measures, far too many California school children are taught in substandard facilities.

The curriculum in California schools has been pushed and pulled both by the politicians and the educational theorists over the past thirty years.  The effects of curricular "reforms" such as whole language and new math, programs that emphasize self-esteem and "student-centered" education, as well as political fights over bilingual education all have taken their toll on California schools.

All of these factors have combined to produce miserable results.  Since 1990 California has ranked near the bottom in student performance on the well-respected National Assessment of Educational Performance tests at the 4'th and 8'th grade levels.  On an absolute scale only schoolchildren in Louisiana and Mississippi performed more poorly.  But, as the RAND report notes, when the NEAP test scores are adjusted to account for the family and ethnic backgrounds of the students California comes out dead last.  In addition, California students score much worse than students from Illinois, New York, Texas, and Florida -- states with comparable student populations.  The clear implication from these results is that it's not just the students that are responsible for the poor showing, it's the schools, the teachers, and the taxpayers who are to blame.

There are a multitude of factors that have created this mess in the once golden state.  But it ought to be possible to correct them.  California is a rich state.  We can do better!

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© 2005 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.