Mike McMahon AUSD
BOE Meetings Assessment Facilities FinancesFavorite Links

California schools: Decades of decline: 'First to worst' for California schools

By W. Norton Grubb -- Special To The Bee

Published 2:15 a.m. PST Sunday, March 14, 2004

Governor Schwarzenegger's budget bore the good news that K-12 education would not be drastically cut. (The California Budget Project estimates that schools will lose "only" $175 per pupil, after inflation.) But that's the bad news, too, because the status quo is woefully inadequate. Last month a PBS documentary about California schools, "First to Worst," described the decline from the '50s and '60s, when the Golden State's schools were "the cutting edge of the American Dream," to the present. Howard Jarvis, initiator of Proposition 13, promises a supporter in 1978, "Youngster, we're not going to hurt your schools."

But the portrayal of dilapidated buildings and inadequate textbooks, overcrowded classrooms and unqualified teachers, the litany of what other states have that California lacks - arts, electives, libraries, buildings rather than portables, summer schools, counselors, nurses, psychologists - are heartbreaking. "It's like you're in Calcutta", declares a former state board chairman. A middle-school student nails the right question: "How could a state so rich do so poorly?"

Spending per pupil in California is now 44th in the country (considering its high costs), down with Idaho and Tennessee. Even after class size reduction, the average size in elementary schools ranks 48th; the proportion of high school teachers with degrees in the subjects they teach ranks 34th. Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the "nation's report card," are abysmal: 47th in eighth-grade math (alongside Arkansas and Alabama), tied for last (with Hawaii) in reading, tied for last in science. In our high-tech state, only 21 percent of these students are proficient or better in math, 15 percent in science, 22 percent in reading and 23 percent in writing. We've become a low-spending, low-resource state, with low levels of learning.

Every Californian concerned about the future should ponder these realities, and consider the ways to climb out of the cellar. Here's my five-point program:

One: Funding must increase, at least toward the national average. We may have to revise Prop 13, the "third rail" of California politics, and to increase other taxes. Of course, we need to ensure that additional funding is wisely spent. But funding is necessary if not sufficient, and the educational consequences of low spending are ubiquitous and harmful to learning. Despite complaints about high taxes, California's tax effort ranked 40th among the states in 1997, before the high-tech bubble; we could increase revenues by 14 percent and still be only at the national average.

Two: Learning takes place in schools and classrooms, not district offices or Sacramento. School communities - teachers, principals, students and parents - are the basic units for reform, and to be effective they must develop their own improvements. Rebuilding school capacity in turn requires new conceptions of leadership, teachers with broader skills, novel methods of funding, more supportive districts and an end to Sacramento dictating local practices.

Three: State policy must be reshaped. The Serrano case, intended to equalize spending among districts, created "equalized mediocrity" rather than lifting poor districts to the level of wealthy ones. The expansion of categorical grants has tied the hands of schools, and made funding incomprehensible. The state has launched one expensive "reform" after another - school restructuring, class size reduction, Immediate Intervention for Under-performing Schools - with few results because of mediocre design and poor implementation. The current accountability system forces schools to think harder about learning, but it measures performance poorly and narrows what schools teach. We might need Educational Impact Statements, to compel legislators and governors to consider effects of legislation more carefully. We certainly need better implementation, with state administrators knowledgeable about how schools work.

Four: We need to invest in school personnel, particularly teachers and principals. We need stable, long-term policies targeting attrition among teachers, the large numbers of non-credentialed teachers, the lack of disciplinary preparation and inadequate staff development. The preparation of principals, crucial to school-centered improvement, has never been strong, and now the state allows principals to be credentialed through a test that encourages quick-and-dirty programs. Rather than proliferating check-lists of standards for teachers and principals, we should invest in high-quality pre-service and in-service programs.

Five: The decline has taken several decades, and so will the revival. We need a stable plan, with steady progress toward long-run goals - like a master plan. The 2002 Master Plan has many worthy recommendations, but we need an expanded plan to reverse all dimensions of decline and improve California's standing. Term limits foster short-term thinking, so perhaps they should be eliminated. And governors turn over regularly, each with new-fashioned ideas, so we should hold governors accountable to a longer-range vision.

I've hardly gotten started: For example, I haven't said anything about low-income or immigrant students, in a state where inequality is growing. But even these points suggest an enormous agenda: substantially more funding, the modification of Prop 13, a revised master plan, better approaches to equalization, elimination of term limits, constraints on gubernatorial whimsy, restoration of local control, the overhaul of teacher and principal preparation, a revised accountability system, Educational Impact Statements, civil service reform to enhance administrative competence, elimination of Prop 227 and other constraints on teaching.

That's the point: The decline of California education comes not from one cause - not just from Prop 13 - but from many independent decisions, often well-intentioned but collectively disastrous. Working our way out of the bottom will require undoing many of these.

The alternative is further decline. California would become a state where no one trusts its workers, a first-rank economy that has to import skilled employees, a republic with citizens unprepared for civic responsibility and susceptible to circus democracy, a once-mythic place that others shun for its high costs, poor schools and unequal opportunity. We can resurrect the golden promises of California, but that will require our collective efforts over several decades.

Professor W. Norton Grubb holds the David Gardner Chair in Higher Education at the University of California, Berkeley, and is the faculty director of the Principal Leadership Institute.

Send mail to mikemcmahonausd@yahoo.com with questions or comments about this web site.
Last modified: , 2004

Disclaimer: This website is the sole responsibility of Mike McMahon. It does not represent any official opinions, statement of facts or positions of the Alameda Unified School District. Its sole purpose is to disseminate information to interested individuals in the Alameda community.