You wouldn’t know it from reading the paper or watching the news, but California’s schools are not failing. Schools are making strong academic gains despite a fiscal starvation diet. And school budget expert John Mockler has the data to prove it.
“Every year I trundle around making speeches about this and people say it can’t be true,” says Mockler, who recently released a report titled “California’s K-12 Public Schools: Great Results With Diminishing Resources.”
Mockler crafted the state’s constitutional minimum-funding guarantee for schools (Proposition 98) and has held the positions of state secretary of education, executive director of the State Board of Education, and aide to former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown. From his Sacramento outpost, Mockler shared data, his outlook on public schools and wry sense of humor with the California Educator in an interview that focused on his new report showing that schools are anything but failing.
Why do people think schools are failing?
Studies, like Getting Down to Facts and a multitude of other so-called studies, have pronounced California schools to be failures without looking at the data. Nobody looks at achievement tests in California except to deprecate schools. They look at National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) scores, even though these data sets are not aligned to our grade level academic content standards. In California, more than 60 percent of our eighth-grade students take algebra; NAEP does not test algebra in eighth-grade math tests. There are other problems when you compare us to different states. For example, California tests English learners the first year they are in school; Texas tests English learners after they’ve been in school three years. Yet even NAEP shows rapid academic growth over time. This is especially true in fourth- and eighth-grade math. Here, African American and Latino students’ academic growth is at a rate faster than all students.
How are schools succeeding?
Judged by the state’s Academic Performance Index, California’s public schools have been on a steady path of academic growth for 10 years. All groups of students are increasing their achievement, and traditionally lower-achieving students are doing so at a faster pace. Latinos, African Americans and educationally disadvantaged students have an improvement rate nearly three times that of white students. All of the 10 deciles have increased, but initially low-performing schools have grown the fastest. Our lowest-performing schools in 2011 scored higher than our average schools in 1999.
Why haven’t the media reported that schools aren’t failing?
Not putting out information about the positive things in schools is a dereliction of duty by the media. If a kid goes out and steals a lunch, you’re going to hear about that. But how about a headline saying 93 percent of students went to school today and got along just fine? You’re not going to hear about that. Education coverage in the media seldom lapses into logic; good news doesn’t sell.
If schools are succeeding, is the status quo OK?
No. Our schools can and should be better than they are today. There is a lot they need to do. Most but not all of those things cost money. Achievement for traditionally underachieving students started quite low and is still not high enough. The last nine years of rapid achievement increases provide strong evidence of major change for these students. We all want more for our children, yet we have essentially eliminated art, music, counseling, librarians, etc. But we are doing OK on measurable tests. Unfortunately, it’s not in-depth learning, which is what we really want for our kids.
Why is there so much talk about failing public schools in California?
I attribute this to the consistent drivel of the CSSI - or the California Schools Suck Industry, which has profited by declaring that public education students are not making sufficient academic gains and that public schools suck. You have people from business roundtables and chambers and big foundations criticizing public schools who are in favor of privatization. They are wealthy and successful people whose anger about schools borders on hysteria, even though most of these people have kids in private school. They say certain things are “facts” when there is no evidence to support what they have to say. For example, they’ll say massive teacher evaluation results in better teacher instruction, or strong teachers unions impede achievement. But there is no evidence to support any of these things, and the states with the weakest teachers unions have poor achievement. They say they won’t give schools more money until achievement goes up. And then achievement goes up and they are still not writing any checks - and still making a lot of noises that schools are bad.
What about finances?
Our schools in California are substantially under-resourced in funding and personnel compared to our fellow states. The typical school in America has 30 percent more teachers and 30 percent more school administrators per student than schools in California. The average high school in America has 77 percent more teachers per student than the average California high school. Let’s not even talk about counselors or librarians. So, put another way, if California education was a baseball team, we would be playing the other 49 states with six players and they would have nine. Who do you think would win?
Who funds your research?
Nobody. I do it by myself, and sometimes I make speeches and get funding for that. Nobody ever gave me a grant and said “Do this.” A 14-year-old could take data and do in one hour on a computer what takes me three days to do, since I use an adding machine.
What would you like to say to teachers?
As a group they are magnificent. I haven’t met them all, but I can see that from data. Considering the substantial reduction in real resources over the past decades, it is astonishing how dedicated California’s educators are including teachers, administrators, nurses and cafeteria workers. You might say they are a six-person baseball team kicking the bejesus out of other teams playing with nine or more players.