The Problem and the Solution: Public Policy


With all the noise around K-12 education, we can lose sight of how many of California’s children aren’t getting the education they need and deserve. According the federal achievement tests, 30% of California’s 8th graders can’t read basic texts.1

California’s 8th Grade NAEP Performance, Reading


Sadly, we know what usually happens to essentially illiterate 8th graders. They end up dropping out of high school, leading difficult lives, and being a burden on their families and their communities.

We simply must do better by our children. But how exactly?

Some people whose jobs are tied to our school districts will tell you that the main problem, if not the only problem, is that they need more money to improve student outcomes. They will point to the fact that California, which hosts one-eighth of the country’s public education students, has below average per pupil spending.2

Education reformers like Student Success California appreciate the need for adequate resources, but more money can’t solve all the problems. There are systemic problems in how we manage our schools, and those demand systemic solutions.

Systemic problems aren’t easy to address. It’s easier to blame the system’s results on the students and their families, or on teachers, or on politicians. The problem is the system itself – along with those who protect the system from needed change. It simply isn’t designed to encourage continuous improvement or to universally educate children to be ready for college and career.

Student Success California and our allies believe our children would be better off with the following systemic changes to our K-12 education system:

More choice and competition

Too many families still have limited and low-quality choices when it comes to educating their children. Too often they’re confined to one choice, and not a good one. They would benefit from school choice.

While choice benefits students, it can create competition for the traditional system. For people whose jobs are built around children being compelled to attend schools they control, competition can make things very uncomfortable. That’s why so many school administrators and teacher-union leaders try to quash the growth and development of public charter schools.

But competition isn’t all bad, because it can inspire innovation and improve productivity for all our schools. Several charter schools have already dramatically improved student learning and attainment, especially among our most difficult-to-educate children. That’s why Student Success California thinks we need more choice, more competition, and more innovation.

By the way, the last thing children need are more low-performing schools popping up under the banner of “choice and competition.” That’s why Student Success California wants strong charter school authorizers that would be good filters to who is allowed to open and operate charter schools.

More accountability for performance

Our current system is largely blind to the performance of its leaders and teachers. Instead, seniority drives everything from compensation to decisions about teacher placement and reductions in staffing. No sector or system in the world has ever thrived without having the performance of its employees drive its human resource decisions.

In a performance-based system, there is no room for anyone to have a guaranteed job for life. Unfortunately, because of how the rules around “permanent status” or “tenure” have evolved, it has become impossibly complicated and costly to dismiss bad teachers. True, there aren’t that many bad teachers, but it’s harmful to the whole system when good teachers see that incompetence, sloth and criminal behavior is tolerated.

There’s also no room in a performance-based system for LIFO – a process where teachers are terminated during economic down-turns based entirely on seniority, with the last hired being the first terminated. When districts use LIFO, they inevitably end up keeping low-performing senior teachers and firing high-performing young teachers. How is that good for students?

More transparency about performance

Our current system naturally wants to hide or obfuscate its weaknesses, perhaps with the good intention of quietly handling the problems out of the public spotlight. But as the saying goes, there’s no better disinfectant than sunshine. Student Success California and our allies support all efforts to help families, students and policy-makers understand clearly how individual schools and teachers are performing. Multiple factors should be evaluated and reported, but nothing is more important than sharing how schools and teachers impact student progress toward mastering core subjects like English, mathematics and science.



1 In the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), California’s 8th graders, who are about 14-years old, ranked 44th in the nation. 30% scored “below basic” in reading. Another 42% scored “basic.” Only 29% scored “proficient” or “advanced.” Test scores don’t capture everything, but it’s shameful and dangerous that so many children aren’t learning to read proficiently. The scores in math were even worse, with 32% of our 8th graders scoring “below basic.”

2 According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the country’s average current spending in FY2015 (which includes no capital outlays) was $11,009 per student. California’s per student figure was $9,595, ranking 35th nationally. The Census Bureau also reported that, of the 48,349,251 public K-12 students nationwide, 6,224,685 (13%) are in California.