California overflows with education reform

PDK_97_2_Ferguson_74_Art_554x350pxCalifornia has a bundle of education reforms and almost none of the controversy over the Common Core. Its secret seems to be pushing education decisions down to the local level.


On a hot summer day in July, Mike Kirst, professor emeritus at Stanford University and president (for the second time) of the California State Board of Education, spoke to a group of D.C.-based policy makers about California’s education agenda. A veteran education leader, Kirst talked openly and expansively about what his state was doing and not doing to improve instruction and lead change for a large and diverse population of students.

To set the stage, consider the sheer number of students in some California school districts. Los Angeles alone has over 1.5 million students — almost 10 times that of the entire state of Rhode Island. California has over 6.2 million students in over 10,000 schools. More than 500,000 of those students are in charter schools, which are growing 10% annually. The demographics behind these numbers have changed so much that conventional thinking around what constitutes a racial group is no longer germane. Kirst joked about some of the federal forms he is required to fill out that are still premised on the notion that the majority of public school students in the state are white. In this and so many other ways, California is a brave new world for educators.

The many reforms happening in California center on several key focus areas. To improve instruction, the state made a strong investment in the Common Core State Standards and the aligned assessments developed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortia; the state also is implementing the Next Generation Science Standards. California has avoided much of the angst and turmoil associated with the Common Core in other states largely because there is a robust coalition of key supporters, including teacher unions, the higher education community, and the public. The state has tried hard to avoid what Kirst called a “policy overload” so as not to overwhelm teachers and school leaders, and there has been a focused effort to support training and capacity building. California’s own Linda Darling-Hammond helped develop the Instructional Leadership Corps, a joint effort between the California Teachers Association and Stanford University, to provide teachers and administrators with training in the new standards.

Some of the most immovable silos, which have long hindered change (budgets), are now interacting with more mercurial silos (policy), which live for change.

Unlike so many reform-minded coalitions, the state has tried hard to manage expectations and timelines, which so often can undermine ambitious endeavors. Finally, the state benefits from the homegrown mojo that comes along with using the Smarter Balanced assessments. Kirst mentioned a solid West Coast base of support and commitment to Smarter Balanced, which he characterized as more of an instructional tool than an assessment. California also is tackling the holy grail of education policy: accountability. The state’s CORE  (California Office to Reform Education) districts led the way in 2013 by being the only districts to be granted a federal NCLB waiver (the rest have gone to states, with the exception of one tribal school in Florida). With that waiver, the CORE districts developed their own accountability system that measures student achievement using the School Quality Improvement Index, a 100-point rating system that stands in direct contrast to accountability systems that rely solely on student test scores. The index is composed of measures of academic achievement (60%), school climate and culture (20%), and socioemotional factors (20%). Although some policy makers and researchers are skeptical of the validity of measuring social and emotional factors and other nontraditional indicators, CORE districts are maintaining momentum and have strong support.

The California State Board of Education also began to rethink how the state holds schools accountable for student achievement and began to redefine accountability for all districts in the state. The state’s approach focuses on local control over accountability goals based on multiple measures of school performance. Similar to the CORE districts, these measures include test scores and indicators of school climate and college- and career-readiness. Stakeholder engagement has been an important and robust part of this locally centered approach to accountability.

Parent support

Parents and community groups have been re-energized to support the effort, and the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence, which Kirst described as a “quasi-state entity,” supports local education leaders in their efforts to define and achieve their accountability goals. Kirst was quick to emphasize that the state has made a point of giving districts the time they need to meet their goals. “Patience, persistence, and humility,” he said, were important parts of the state’s strategy. But managing so many local accountability programs clearly has its challenges, and Kirst talked about the need to make some changes to the current program.

The state has tried hard to manage expectations and timelines, which so often can undermine ambitious endeavors.

Undergirding all of these reforms is perhaps the most wonky but important reform of all — the state’s new Local Control Funding Formula, which has given local communities unprecedented flexibility around their own budgets and resources. The new formula embraces the idea of decentralization. It virtually eliminates categorical programs and gives local school districts budgetary power to spend education dollars as they see fit. It also provides much-needed additional funding for students most at risk. This flexibility demands that local stakeholders be involved in decisions related to education policy and practice. “Resource allocation is policy,” Kirst said.

Despite all this innovation and effort, the state remains beset with challenging concerns. The 2014 Vergara vs. California decision held that California’s teacher tenure and dismissal laws violated the constitutional rights of the state’s most needy students, and it remains a point of controversy for many. The cast of characters involved in both sides of the debate certainly will have more to say as Vergara makes its way through the courts, the U.S. Supreme Court no doubt being its final destination.

California is also facing a very real teacher shortage. According to EdSource (an incredible resource for all things related to California and education by the way), the number of state credentials issued to new teachers decreased for the 10th consecutive year in 2015. This trend mirrors what other states are experiencing. The DC-based organization Third Way reported a similar trend in recent polling data on younger Americans (millennials as they’re known in demographic circles) and their interest in pursuing teaching as a career. Kirst agreed that for a state as large and diverse as California, this trend is a serious concern. To his credit, Gov. Jerry Brown has budgeted state resources to strengthen teacher recruitment, but with the number of students increasing every year, it will no doubt take more than that.

Lessons from California

The biggest takeaway for me from this rich discussion about California’s new state of education was that these changes make the state a prototype for Education Governance 2.0. By embracing the inherent “local control” aspect of the U.S. public education system and aligning it with the heart and soul of local school systems — the budget — California has redefined the traditional governance model. The state also has challenged other actors in the system to stop talking about local control and actually be in control. Parents, community-based organizations, local businesses, foundations, and any other entity that claims to be an education stakeholder now has a role to play, should they choose to engage. And perhaps most important, some of the most immovable silos, which have long hindered change (budgets), are now interacting with more mercurial silos (policy), which live for change.

This new local authority does not come without risk or revelation: Any new governance model is bound to expose some of the weaknesses of the old model. California will have to manage those risks and revelations to maintain the forward motion of these important changes. With its broad coalition of supporters and a political and economic climate that appears well-suited to the changes being made, California may just be ready for its education close-up. As Mike Kirst wrapped up his comments to the group, I couldn’t help but reflect on the irony of a state parched dry and thirsting for water, yet so fertile in reform and innovation.

 CITATION: Ferguson, M. (2015). WASHINGTON VIEW: California overflows with education reform. Phi Delta Kappan, 97 (2), 74-75.


MARIA FERGUSON ( is executive director of the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University, Washington, D.C.

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