Californians May Know More About Russian Intelligence Than Their Own Schools’ Performance

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

“Getting down to Facts II: Current Conditions and Paths Forward for California Schools” is the most important report on California schools in years, probably since the original Getting Down to Facts” a decade ago. It’s produced as a part of a project that draws in a variety of top researchers and is coordinated by Stanford and disseminated by Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE).

Some of the report’s broad conclusions have been covered in the media—especially the report’s finding that, despite improvements in California education, our kids start out behind kids in other states educationally and never catch up.

That’s not surprising. What is shocking – or should be – was reading the report’s sections on how the state handles educational data. California is producing more such data, and has made improvements in its education data system.

But, maddeningly for a state that invented Big Data, “we still fall short of what other states have developed.”

Yes, in the state of Silicon Valley, our local teachers can’t access and use data effectively. Educational data isn’t tied to other kinds of data, like school financial data, or with other sectors, like preschool, higher education and social services, and there is no easy user interface “that would make it easy for smaller districts to query and use the data.”

The report points out that this is not rocket science. Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, hardly a tech hub, has managed to connect school data with social work data, which helps figure out how to get more poor kids to not miss school, to do better in school, and to not get kicked out of school for disciplinary reasons.

But that’s not where my head exploded. Here is the paragraph that did it:

“Finally, the data that do exist are unusually difficult for researchers to access. As a result, we cannot answer basic questions on the status of California education that might help inform policymakers’ and educators’ decisions, such as evaluating the effects of programs or systems such as teacher preparation.” 

Heck, Californians know more about Russian intelligence than educational researchers know about our schools. As an example, the report goes on:

“…any assessment of the supply and distribution of teachers across schools and districts should rely on individual student- and teacher-level data that enable researchers to understand what kinds of students, schools, and districts have access to teachers of different experience levels, certification and education levels, and, ideally, measures of performance and effectiveness. These types of data are often difficult to access in California.”

This is a freaking outrage!

We live in a moment when we public school parents are supposed to be making plans and working on school improvement. But what hope do we have of getting data when researchers from a massive Stanford project – Stanford! – can’t get it in a timely fashion. Those who failed to provide the dat shouldn’t just be fired; they should be driven out of the state, and left to fend for themselves in the Nevada and Arizona deserts.

The report continues on data with this passage::

“the limitations of California’s data system are not the result of technological difficulties. Modern software technology makes it possible for governments at all levels to use the data they already collect to improve service coordination and delivery, and to conduct research and evaluation to inform policymaking. California is well behind other states in taking advantage of this opportunity. Because decision makers cannot access information on California, they must rely on analyses from other states. California produces very little information on what makes an excellent education for its own students.”

This should be a scandal. The governor and the governor-in-waiting should be asked about them and not just by reporters. If you see them in public, go get in their faces.

And there needs to be a conversation about whether to continue with our state educational infrastructure – the California Department of Education and the state school board. Institutions that can’t do the basics of 2018 data work don’t deserve to exist.

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