Closing the achievement gap: Will California’s reforms make a difference?

In light of the continuing achievement gap, did the accountability approach to education reform work?
The accountability approach didn’t work at all, particularly since 2005, during the period when No Child Left Behind was being fully implemented. This is Newton’s third law: Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. By pushing the notion of accountability so hard, we have created all sorts of problems, which are reflected in the narrowing of the curriculum and the misbehavior of teachers who felt they had to get these scores right. As a result of this, the rate of gain has slowed down over the last decade.
There are many determinatives of this. So it is hard to be definitive about whether something has worked or not. But the notion that there is a magic bullet, that one thing can change the entire system, is probably wrong.
California prides itself on its diversity and is a progressive state. Latinos are in positions of power. But this has not translated into policies that have led to a significant change in the achievement gap.
There has been some movement. If you look at scores on the NAEP in 4th-grade reading between 1998 and 2013, white kids (in California) gained 15 points, from 217 to 232. That is almost a grade and a half gain, which is considerable. Hispanics gained 23 points, going from 178 to 201. They are still 30 points behind, but they gained 8 points (on white students). So they closed the gap by a considerable amount. That is almost a grade-level gain. Black kids went from 188 to 202. That was only a 14-point gain, which is almost the same gain that white students made, so you don’t have any closing of the black-white gap.
But most of the gains came between 1998 and 2005, and then slowed between 2006 and 2013, when the accountability reforms were being fully implemented.
To what extent do you think the accountability reforms of the past 15 years have been piecemeal, and did not deal with underlying issues?
Many of them have been piecemeal. The people who talk about reforms often don’t think in a coherent way about the overall picture. Take a reform like teacher evaluation. Those promoting it think that it is going to solve all the problems. There is no way it is going to do that. You need a system that produces better-trained teachers than we had before. That is going to happen with better pre-service training and after they are in the classroom. Being a teacher is a complicated job.
When you are dealing with a complex phenomenon and you introduce one change, you need to think about a set of changes that influences the overall effort. The notion that “let’s do one thing” like teacher evaluation or reducing class size by five students—these are marginal things that may or may not help at all. If they are pushed like the teacher evaluation idea, they may even have negative effects.
You have said there isn’t a magic bullet, and in your writing you have also pointed to the multiple strategies that are needed, including more systemic reforms. Is it feasible for schools and districts to do all of these things?
There is no question that it is not easy. It takes time—sustained, focused time. But there are examples of places doing all of these things. Places like Long Beach and Garden Grove, and to some extent Ontario (Canada) and Massachusetts, make it very clear that you need sustained attention to improve. Without that kind of attention you are not going to implement these interventions in a thoughtful way, whether it is someone coming in to do reading recovery, or getting kids motivated more, or social-emotional learning.
You have to get the organization working well in order to make the interventions work well, and that is a real trick. Without that, you can’t introduce these interventions and expect anything positive. You will be disappointed.
Is California moving in the right direction?
I think so, but it is going to take some time and effort.
Governor Brown is moving very fast. There are a lot of things happening, but there is a lot to implement, and a lot for teachers to learn. You can’t expect any real change in any of this for four years at least. You have to give him time.
The governor is not creating a lot of new requirements. We have begun to create an atmosphere in the state to give support to districts rather than telling them what to do in minute detail. That is going well. There is good planning going on for the teacher reforms that need to happen. There is the sense in the state of a commitment to continuous improvement, which is something that was never heard five years ago. A lot of people are confused about what exactly that is, but it is being talked about in Sacramento, and county offices are working hard to make this work.
What does continuous improvement mean?
It says that whatever the important things you are doing, you can do better, and you need ways of assessing how well you are doing. One of the things we have going for us across the country is that we have a better set of data systems than we ever had before.
What is happening in Fresno is a classic example of a continuous improvement effort. It is all based around data. They wanted to get more kids graduating, and more kids through the a-to-g (college prep) course sequence. They found out that it wasn’t just one thing that stopped those things from happening; it was a lot of things. You have to get out there ahead of the problem and address them systematically and as soon as they arise. With a whole system of supports and course assignments, Garden Grove did continuous improvement with their teachers. People see it working in one part of the system and then it spreads to other parts of the system. It is not rocket science. It is changing people’s behavior.
We are now in the hard work stage. Now we have to do the real hard work of implementation. If it is done in a sustained way, it will have a big payoff in California.
Marshall “Mike” Smith, former undersecretary of education in the Clinton administration and senior counselor to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in the Obama administration, is also a former dean of the Stanford Graduate School of Education. He initiated the landmark Getting Down to Facts project, which examined school finance and governance in California, while he was director of education at the Hewlett Foundation. Among numerous books and articles, he co-authored with Christopher Jencks and others the landmark 1972 text, Inequality: A Reassessment of the Impact of Family and Schooling in America.

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