Is Education the Great Equalizer?
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In response to George Floyd’s murder and the ensuing protests for racial justice, I set out to examine how some of our key local systems — law enforcement, housing and education — influence individual opportunity and, more specifically, interact with race. My goal has been to identify policy changes that might promote greater equity while improving government institutions for our entire community.
Government is responsible for maintaining laws and providing public goods (safety, education, infrastructure, etc.) that help our entire community flourish. When the intent of government falls short in practice (whether manifested in abuse of force, a broken housing market, or schools that fail to prepare many of our young people for today’s world), we have a responsibility to reexamine our institutions and reform them to create better outcomes.
On law enforcement, I outlined a series of common sense reforms that are most appropriate for San Jose, especially given our unique status as a big city with a small budget. On housing affordability, I wrote about our region’s supply shortage and identified a half-dozen state and local reforms that could encourage the housing market to provide more homes at more price points for our growing population. In this post, I’m turning to education to evaluate 1) the performance of our public school system, both overall and from an equity standpoint, 2) research-based improvements we can make to our schools, and 3) how schools should respond to the new constraints posed by COVID as we enter a new school year.
I want to acknowledge upfront the challenge of writing about education. Most of us have strong opinions on the topic because we experienced over a decade of formal education during our most formative years. Those experiences are as diverse as we are and therefore reasonable people can and often do have strongly-held but conflicting perspectives on the same education system.
My perspective on education has been strongly shaped by my personal experience as a teacher. When I graduated from college, I decided to come back to San Jose to teach middle school in Alum Rock because education changed my life and I wanted to give back. I was — and continue to be — motivated to make society a fairer place with greater opportunity for all. Alum Rock is much like the community I grew up in: widespread economic insecurity, but vibrant and striving. Teaching there was a profound experience because, as an adult, I began to understand how the various inequities and dysfunctions in our society seep into the fabric of our schools and challenge their core mission. But, as I will explain, I also came away from the experience even more convinced that every child can learn at a high level and that education can have a transformative impact on people’s lives.
I believe that education is foundational to individual opportunity and fulfillment. In this post, I’m going to focus on systemic problems and solutions rather than elaborate on this point, but I will just highlight that education levels strongly correlate — and plenty of studies demonstrate causal links — with higher income, greater wealth, lower unemployment, better health, less crime, and, up to a point, higher levels of happiness.
The relationships between these variables are complicated, but at the end of the day, there is a reason parents of all backgrounds strive to access high-quality education for their kids. It’s the reason dozens of District 10 residents have told me that they moved to their particular neighborhood for the schools (and that they are now deeply worried about their children’s education amidst COVID-19). It’s the reason so many of my former students’ parents in East Side San Jose — including many who had very little formal education themselves — came to our parent-teacher meetings and asked if their child was on track to go to college. And it’s the reason I woke up at 5am every day to take the bus from Watsonville to San Jose to take advantage of a work-study scholarship at Bellarmine.
Education creates opportunities.
But does our education system create opportunities for everyone?
How Our Schools Score
As a whole, California’s public education system, which educates over 90% of all K-12 students statewide, faces enormous challenges. By most measures, it performs below average within the United States (which itself lags behind many other advanced economies around the world). From an equity standpoint, our schools do even worse, with most Latino and Black students not meeting grade-level standards. Financially, the system is under-resourced in certain important areas, and yet recent and significant funding increases have had relatively little impact on student outcomes, raising serious questions. Let’s try to untangle this story a bit to figure out what’s happening and how we might improve our education system.
Schools primarily exist to facilitate student learning. We can discuss other functions of school — socialization, character-building, childcare, for example — but at the end of the day, we evaluate schools based on how well they help students learn. California has adopted math and language arts (reading, writing, listening, and communication) standards for transitional kindergarten through 12th Grade that every child should be capable of achieving at their corresponding grade level. These standards are foundational for future learning and success in most careers. They are also baseline standards; to be college ready, students must satisfy additional requirements.
How are California’s schools doing against these student learning standards? Overall, not well, despite some incremental improvement over the last five years. According to the state’s data, across all grade levels at all public schools in the state’s K-12 system, just one half (51%) of our students meet or exceed the grade-level standards for language arts and even fewer (40%) meet or exceed those for math:
State-Wide Percent of Students Meeting Grade-Level Standards
Breaking the data down by race exposes vast disparities:
Note that the scale in the previous chart does not go to 100%. While Asian Americans, in aggregate, are learning more than other groups, the data indicate that even so, nearly 1 out of every 4 Asian American students in our K-12 system is not on grade level for reading. This is true for over one-third of White students. For Black and Latino students, the figures are truly tragic: roughly two-thirds and one-half, respectively, are not on grade level for reading and other language skills.
The disparities are even more pronounced for math:
Just 1 in every 5 Black students is on grade level for math. For Latino students, the figure is 1 in every 4 students. Asian and White students in aggregate are doing better (3-in-4 and 1-in-2 are on grade level, respectively), but even here, huge numbers of students are not on grade level.
Like race, household income and learning are also closely correlated, but importantly, both race and income have independent correlations with learning. In other words, even isolating students who are economically disadvantaged and those who are not, clear racial disparities persist, implying that income alone does not explain disparate learning outcomes for Black and Latino students (below I will reference some of the barriers students face including a system that expects less of some students because of implicit bias).
I want to reemphasize that these are grade-level standards, not college readiness standards. According to the state’s own criteria, just 44% of students who exited our public school system last year were college or career ready. This is not good enough, especially for a state that boasts one of the world’s most skill- and knowledge-intensive economies and highest costs of living.
Some readers may respond that “college isn’t for everyone.” While I strongly support vocational training, apprenticeships and other pathways to career success, I think that every child deserves a K-12 education that makes college an option as they approach adulthood. Giving every child this choice is especially pressing in an economy and broader society in which college-level education is generally well-rewarded and life is often harder for those without it.
Indeed, when surveyed, 90% of students say that they want to attend college and 70% of high school students have career goals that require a college degree. Today, in contrast, our K-12 system graduates roughly 60% of students who are simply not prepared (and, for state institutions, not eligible) for college. That is hardly a choice. In fact, it is misleading. Students who advance from grade to grade and receive a high school diploma ought to have earned — and often incorrectly believe that they have earned — an education that has prepared them for college if they choose it.
Even in Silicon Valley, one of the wealthiest places in the world, our public schools in aggregate do not show markedly better outcomes. A few of our smaller and better-resourced districts in cities like Palo Alto and Cupertino achieve strong student outcomes (74% and 81% of graduates are college/career ready, respectively), but most schools in Silicon Valley are not adequately preparing most of our young people. In fact, San Jose Unified School District (SJUSD), the largest district in Silicon Valley with over 30,000 students (which also happens to overlap with most of District 10) is below the state average for college/career readiness at just 38.6% of students in last year’s cohort.
We’ve just scratched the surface of school performance data (and I haven’t discussed challenges faced by many subgroups of students, including those with special needs), but the high-level data illustrate the severity of the challenge. While test scores have their limitations in terms of evaluating student learning, we do not have any other standard measure by which to assess this learning. And assessment is essential, both for understanding how different subgroups of students are being served by our school system and also for holding ourselves accountable to a minimum standard of learning for the next generation.
Ultimately, the data tell us that most of our young people are not being prepared for the technology-enabled and globally-competitive world into which they will enter upon graduation. This is tragic for the millions of young Californians who will find it harder to achieve their full potential (including financial independence and psychological well-being) as they enter adulthood. It also poses a huge, long-term risk to our entire society. Education is not just important for individuals — it underpins societal health and stability as well.
Of course, backwards-looking analyses of school performance are based on life as it was prior to COVID-19. The pandemic threatens to greatly exacerbate existing inequities in our public school system as learning continues for students whose parents have greater time, resources and know-how to supplement schools’ reduced services while less privileged students have diminished access to instructional time, curricula and feedback. As we saw in our analysis of the housing shortage and its impacts, vulnerable members of our community are most likely to suffer when systems — whether private marketplaces or public institutions — break down.
Let’s turn to why so many of our schools have been failing to meet our expectations in past years and what the research says about improving our schools before looking at COVID-specific implications.
Can We Improve Schools?
The inequitable results we’ve just reviewed are not a new phenomenon, but they are better understood and acknowledged today. Standardized curricula and assessments give us greater insight into how much learning is happening at specific schools and for specific subgroups of students, including those who face particular barriers and require greater support to achieve their full potential.
As we all know, many children face barriers that impact their education, including: poverty (1 in 6 children in California), food insecurity (1 in 4 residents in Silicon Valley), domestic violence (1 in 15 children nationally are exposed to domestic violence), and homelessness (8% of the homeless population in our County is under 18 years of age). Roughly 35% of children in California do not live in two-parent homes, which is associated with many measures of child well-being. Finally, 19% of students in California public schools are English Language Learners.
I want to emphasize that understanding these barriers is only useful as a step toward redesigning schools to empower students to overcome them. Without keeping the end goal in mind, a list of barriers can easily turn into an exercise in excuse-making. I firmly believe — in fact, I have seen in the classroom — that all children can learn at the pace of the grade-level standards and I believe we have a responsibility to design our education system to achieve that goal.
As a public school teacher in the Alum Rock Unified School District, I saw how these challenges manifest in students’ lives and affect the energy and focus they are able to bring into the classroom. These are not trivial barriers and, to be sure, we cannot expect schools to eliminate the various forms of adversity that students face outside of school. We want schools to focus on learning, which means that other entities — public, private, nonprofit — have to do more to address the broader context in which students grow up (the same point is relevant to policing, where we often expect police to take on problems they are not equipped to address, from mental health to homelessness).
However, as a teacher I also found — and the research below demonstrates — that schools can be designed to ensure that students learn at grade level in spite of the challenges they face outside of the classroom. This is a critical and hopeful finding. If no schools were able to close the education opportunity gap we would need to solve all of the other challenges in society before we could improve educational outcomes. Fortunately, this is not the case. We can improve our schools today to provide greater educational opportunity, which can in turn help to break other negative cycles in our society.
As a starting point, schools show wide variance in student learning outcomes for different student subpopulations, including those whom the overall system serves least well today. For example, according to Innovate Public Schools (a local nonprofit where my wife works), there are currently 49 public schools in the Bay Area that perform especially well for low-income Black and Latino students. In these “Top Schools,” 93% of low-income Black and Latino students are college/career ready (vs. 30% for Black and Latino students across the Bay Area). These schools are achieving college readiness numbers that are higher than those in Palo Alto and Cupertino for a student population that districts are largely failing in aggregate.
Top Schools for Black and Latino Students in the Bay Area, 2020
Importantly, the methodology used in this analysis excludes schools with selective admissions criteria and high suspension rates, which could bias the results, and excludes schools in which fewer than 20 students fit the target population. We should examine how these schools enable low-income Black and Latino students to be college ready at rates that are higher than those in the wealthiest districts. Clearly, they are doing something right.
And it’s not just these schools. Across the country, education researchers look for variations in school performance and natural experiments that allow them to understand how some schools and teachers deliver consistently better results than others. It’s worth noting that testing data indicates that education opportunity gaps tend to be greater within schools than between them, largely due to student tracking and low expectations for certain students, which is why we should pay particular attention to schools that are demonstrating that students in all subgroups can learn on grade level.
While not a hard science (education research is more akin to economics than physics), there is a lot of evidence for what works in schools, including for the most vulnerable students who face the greatest barriers outside of the classroom. Let’s briefly look at what the research finds great schools tend to have in common:
- Quality Instruction: Researchers generally concur that teacher quality, and more specifically, instructional quality, has a huge effect on student learning. Teacher’s instructional effectiveness — and the quality of the professional development they have access to — varies widely according to many studies and can be improved by consistent instructional feedback and hands-on coaching from instructional experts. In addition to continuous feedback and training, teacher effectiveness is also positively correlated with other characteristics, such as verbal skills, subject-matter certification for mathematics and consistent use of particular instructional strategies, such as modeling and guided work, for language arts. Recent research has also found that teacher diversity is important, especially for boys and students of color, who rarely see themselves reflected in the person leading the class. Given the high stakes for students and society, the wide variance we see in teacher effectiveness, and the fact that what makes a great teacher is hard to isolate in discrete characteristics, it is especially important that we 1) grow the number and diversity of potential teachers in our teacher pipeline, 2) use data to assess teacher’s effectiveness and inform ongoing professional development, 3) extend the period of time during which teachers are evaluated prior to being granted tenure, and 4) curb policies that protect underperforming teachers and/or make high-performing teachers vulnerable to layoffs simply because of the order in which they were hired.
- School Leadership: As most of us have likely experienced in our professional lives, leadership matters. High-performing schools benefit from leaders — not solely principals, but also other administrators and expert teachers — who create a culture of high expectations for students and teachers alike, actively participate in teacher training and development, evaluate and invest in quality curricula, and engage parents and students. According to some research, school leadership may be second only to quality of instruction in its impact on student outcomes. This is likely because leadership helps unlock or constrain progress in the other factors noted here.
- High Expectations: Study after study after study finds that schools’ expectations for their students have outsized impact on student learning. Teachers and other school leaders play a pivotal role in setting the bar for educational achievement through curricular decisions, quality of in-class and home assignments, grades and other forms of feedback. Even seemingly small and subconscious decisions, such as who is called on, how much assistance they are given in answering, and how a teacher’s tone and facial expression change when looking at different students can have measurable impacts over time. Significantly, recent research has found systematic gaps between teachers’ feedback on a given assignment (i.e. grades) and more objective measures of how well the students’ work met the relevant standards for their grade level. While it sounds obvious, a critical and low- to no-cost improvement schools can make immediately is ensuring that all teachers are consistently assigning work that is on-grade level and providing feedback that is aligned with grade-level standards.
- Student-Centered Approach: Schools that demonstrate the greatest progress in closing the education opportunity gap for Black and Latino students in particular tend to have longer school days, provide more opportunities for learning and extra-curricular activities before school, after school and during the summers. They also use targeted interventions, such as intensive tutoring, to keep students on grade level. To identify who needs what kind of support and when, they use regular assessments to measure each student’s progress. Rather than organize the school day and other internal structures around the convenience of adults, high-performing schools do what it takes to personalize instruction and give each student the learning opportunities and support they need to succeed. In some communities, this means incorporating nutrition and health services into the school experience. While I’m skeptical that schools can “fix everything,” I think that personalizing instruction and giving each child the extra support they need to be successful in school is the right approach, both morally and fiscally.
- Parent Engagement: Parents obviously play a critical role in students’ success, especially as it relates to emotional well-being (children’s ability to emotionally self-regulate, which parents can cultivate, is increasingly understood as linked to success in school and beyond). While schools face barriers to parent engagement — particularly in the critical early years prior to formal education — high-performing schools make an extra effort to involve parents in their child’s learning through persistent outreach, consistent communication about goals and progress, and sharing strategies for supporting their child’s learning. Fortunately, the evidence indicates that parents need not have expertise in academic instruction for their child to succeed in school. Parents’ primary contribution to their child’s success occurs through “academic socialization” — i.e. cultivating the attitudes, values and expectations shaped early in one’s life that are foundational to student success. Successful schools support parents in playing a positive and proactive role in their child’s educational journey, regardless of their own level of formal education.
Clearly, as this last point implies, there are widespread opportunities for policymakers to improve learning outcomes by investing in children and families in their early years (the “First Five” being especially critical) and in the various “gaps” throughout the school experience, including after school, summers and immediately following graduation. For example, one promising area for investment might be the so-called “summer melt,” in which up to one-third of graduating seniors who intend to attend college in the fall end up not starting classes due to family obligations, missed enrollment deadlines and other factors. We might significantly boost college attendance and future career prospects by strategically supporting high school graduates at that critical juncture.
But to return to our original question: Yes, we can improve schools. The research demonstrates that not all schools, teachers, instructional methods or curricula are equally effective. Moreover, we have insight into what differentiates those that perform well for different subpopulations of students. Yet we struggle to improve student learning outcomes, both overall and for the most vulnerable student populations. Why? As a former teacher and avid follower of education policy and research, I suspect the two biggest (and related) barriers to improvement are poor resource allocation and structural rigidity.
On the resource front, contrary to popular belief, the United States is a top spender on education globally. However, we spend our education dollars relatively unevenly and inefficiently (the same can be said about our health care spending). Total education spending in the U.S. is driven up by private spending on private education, especially on college. In fact, we spend more per pupil on post-secondary education than any country, save Luxembourg, while we lag the OECD average for spending on early childhood education by thirty-five percentage points and pay public K-12 teachers low salaries relative to the average income for workers with a college degree in the U.S.
At the local level, education spending is notoriously unequal because — even after changes to California’s funding formula in 2013 — funding is partly tied to property values. Thus, a public school system that should ostensibly serve all students equally still funds schools at very different levels. To use a local example, Palo Alto Unified spends $23,117 per pupil — close to the State of New York’s highest-in-the-nation spending per pupil — while San Jose Unified spends $13,282 per pupil. While funding alone won’t fix schools, the current system is not fair and it’s certainly not a coincidence that increased spending consistently correlates with better student outcomes (up to a point of diminishing returns).
To make matters worse, education funding in California increasingly fails to reach the classroom. Despite large recent increases in spending (more than a 50% increase in nominal terms since 2014), school districts across the state are consolidating schools and younger teachers are struggling to get by financially. Years of underfunded and underperforming teacher retirement plans are beginning to devour school district (and other government) budgets. In fact, roughly half of the recent increase in state funding has gone to backfilling unfunded pension and health care obligations for retired teachers. This problem is going to get much worse before it gets better and it will continue to impact education spending and outcomes. I will revisit this topic in a future post because I can’t do justice to it here.
It’s also worth noting that the decentralized nature of our school system — California has over 1,000 school districts and San Jose alone has 19, each of which has its own board, superintendent and administrative staff — leads to higher overhead costs.
Beyond funding levels, there is evidence that we do not spend the education dollars that we have as effectively as we could. Countries that achieve better educational outcomes for their students, almost always with less per pupil spending, tend to spend their dollars differently. For example, many countries have larger class sizes and instead devote resources to instructional quality. This may be because the data on class size and student learning is inconclusive at best, especially as students get older.
Teachers in these countries receive intensive, on-the-job training that focuses on pedagogical skills rather than education theory, are highly paid relative to other jobs requiring a college degree, spend more time preparing lesson plans and giving feedback to students, and are more focused in their instructional responsibilities (e.g. teaching one course a few times per day vs. being split across multiple subjects and/or grade levels). Interestingly, teachers in other countries spend fewer hours teaching per year, but more time preparing lessons, collaborating with colleagues, and giving students feedback.
Our public education system would benefit from greater flexibility to experiment with practices that appear to be working in particular schools and peer countries. To that end, 33 states — California is not among them — have now established innovation programs that empower local schools to seek waivers from state laws and regulations that inhibit student-centered education approaches (such as those outlined in item #4 in the above list of what works in schools). Supporters of this approach blame rigid labor contracts (and sometimes acrimonious relationships) between districts and teachers’ unions for a lack of flexibility, which I think is at least partly true. I will never forget the day that a few fellow teachers at our school walked out in the middle of a staff meeting in mid-March because we had reached our contractually-obligated number of staff meeting hours for the year!
I think — I certainly hope — that this attitude is the rare exception in our schools, yet it is important to note that much of the research on what works that I cited above stems from analyses of public charter schools that exist precisely because they have greater flexibility to manage staff and the school day to optimize for student learning outcomes. This flexibility may be less critical in schools that serve well-resourced families or those in which the parents have high levels of formal education, but much of the data cited above indicate that it can be extremely helpful to students who face greater barriers and need greater support. All kids can learn on grade level, but not with a one-size-fits-all approach to schools.
Those of us who would like to increase investments in education — including higher pay for teachers — have an obligation to show that increased funding would translate into more learning for students. Between politicians’ negligent oversight of retirement plans, myriad state regulations, and districts’ inflexible labor contracts that limit experimentation, it is hard to make this case in California today.
Ultimately, our state legislators should work toward a grand bargain in which, over time, teachers are paid better and treated like professionals in other highly-valued sectors — akin to doctors, lawyers, business executives — in exchange for greater flexibility to achieve goals, greater accountability and greater reward for exceptional work. Like many professions, a teacher’s “seniority level” and compensation ought to be driven more by the quality of his or her instructional practice and the ability to inspire students’ growth than years of service.
By abruptly forcing distance learning on students and teachers, COVID strains our struggling public education system and threatens to widen existing gaps. Fortunately, most of the attributes and practices of high-performing schools outlined above continue to be relevant in this new reality. If anything, instructional and curricular quality, high expectations for all students, assignments and feedback that are on grade level, and personalized support for those who are falling behind will become even more important.
To adapt these practices to a remote model, however, district and school leaders need to lay out clear and ambitious goals for the transition to distance learning and define their expectations for high quality instruction, assessment, feedback, intervention and professional development given the constraints we now face.
Across San Jose, education leaders responded in the spring with differing levels of urgency and disparate expectations for student learning. As some districts — and certainly most of our local private and public charter schools — pivoted quickly to online learning and continued to provide routine lessons, assignments and grades, others left parents and students largely on their own. In fact, since the crisis began, the most common concern I’ve received from District 10 residents involve parents’ fear that their children are losing precious learning opportunities that may be impossible to recover.
I am also concerned about the social and emotional wellness of students during a time that requires a lot of isolation from their peers. We should keep in mind the value a positive learning experience can have for one’s social and emotional wellbeing. By showing students they believe in their potential, providing engaging learning opportunities remotely, and creating small group sessions where students can interact with their peers, teachers can have a tremendous positive impact on students’ wellbeing during a difficult time.
Heading into the new school year — slated to begin August 12th in SJUSD — the Governor and State Legislature have created a set of minimum requirements for all districts (summary here). The plan requires districts to provide students with devices for distance learning, take daily attendance, interact with students each school day, provide teachers with tools and professional development related to distance learning, and address learning loss from last year, among other requirements. The plan provides a statewide floor for school operations, but at this point, that floor feels too low and too vague to me.
Importantly, the state standards fail to specify a minimum bar for live instructional minutes (i.e. teachers presenting material and interacting with students live via videoconference).
Districts have until September 30th to adopt their version of the plan with parent input, which is fully 6 weeks after the start of the school year. To ensure students’ educational needs are met, it will be vital that districts and schools proactively and substantively communicate with families. Families need two-way communication about what districts are expecting of teachers, parents and students. They need clear communication about what districts will be able to provide in terms of resources, training and technology support for parents. And, crucially, they need communication about how their child is progressing and what they can do to support their child’s learning.
As SJUSD and other local districts flesh out how they will meet this set of requirements, I hope to see — and parents, if they agree, should advocate — that they go beyond the minimum bar set by the state by identifying in writing, with clear measures and target dates:
- The minimum amount of time with a teacher each student will receive each day, by grade level,
- The minimum amount of time spent on learning each student will be expected to complete each day, by grade level,
- How past learning loss due to COVID will be measured and addressed using the additional state funding available for these purposes and, importantly, without waiting for in-person instruction to resume,
- How teacher support, including class observation and continuous coaching, will work going forward,
- How all students will be able to access learning, whether through the provision of laptops and internet hotspots, or high-quality work packets and phone calls with teachers,
- How parents will be supported to learn new technologies and assist their children in using them, especially in earlier grades,
- How students who are absent, due to illness or other reasons, will receive lessons if classes will not be recorded and uploaded for future use (I believe they should be, but there has been substantial opposition to this proposal),
- How districts plan to use the inherent advantages of distance learning — flexibility around class size, ability for teachers and classes to team up, and other opportunities afforded by the lack of physical constraints — to enhance learning opportunities,
- How additional support will be provided for students with special needs and English language learners,
- What objective measures (or triggers) will be used to determine that schools can begin reintroducing in-person instruction, differentiated by grade level and other factors like special needs.
I’m sure you can add additional questions, which I would love to hear (though it is most important that your elected school board members and senior staff hear them).
Without clear and robust commitments and expectations from our school districts, all students will experience learning loss, and the gaps I discuss in the first section of this post will grow significantly larger.
We also should all be open to the experimentation this moment requires. The pandemic is pushing a system that has been reluctant to experiment to have to find creative solutions and try new approaches in real time. If our education leaders take up this challenge in earnest, we may all come away from this crisis better equipped to prepare students for what this century will demand.
Councilmember-elect, San José District 10; firstname.lastname@example.org, 408–891–9708
Matt is Councilmember-elect for San José District 10, which includes Almaden Valley and Blossom Valley. Matt takes office in January 2021 and uses this blog to share what he’s learning about a variety of local issues and his take on those issues. Matt and his wife, Silvia, are proud to be raising their two young children, Nina and Luke, in District 10. You can subscribe to Matt’s updates here: https://forms.gle/ycvcf3fbKSFU2JfA6