Sticking it to the Schools Suck Industry


Posted on 05 November 2010

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By Peter Schrag

John Mockler has rarely been timid in his opinions about education policy. But he’s never been more in-your-face than in his blasts at what he’s been calling “the California Schools Suck Industry” and the “statistical pornography” of the business groups, foundations, politicians and journalists who are its principal members.

Late last month, in a teleconference run by Steve Rees and his School Wise Press, he went at it again, contending, with a fusillade of numbers, that California schools were doing a lot better than most of us were being told. They were not categorically failing, were not deeply flawed, and that anyone who claimed otherwise was peddling “drivel.”  

Click here for a full transcript and accompanying data.

Mockler probably has more “formers” strung after his name than anyone in California education: former school lobbyist and consultant to unions and school districts, former executive director of the state Board of Education; former interim secretary of education; author of Proposition 98, the state’s minimum school funding law, and on.

But in what he sometimes insists is his retirement, he’s also become the chief critic and tormentor of the retailers of the conventional wisdom and accompanying rhetoric about failing schools.

At a time when there seems ever more unquestioning acceptance of that conventional wisdom, both in California and nationally, and when a film like Davis Guggenheim’s public school bashing film “Waiting for Superman” becomes a media favorite, Mockler’s loud demurrer becomes more important than ever.

Among Mockler’s particulars:

*Schools whose test scores put them in the first decile – the bottom tenth -- on the stat’s Academic Performance Index (API) in 2009 would have ranked in the fifth decile in 1999. In 1999, 31 percent of the state’s schools scored 700 or above on the API; in 2009 77 percent did. In the same period, schools scoring 500 or below declined from 29 percent to less than 3 percent.

*Between 2003 and 2010 the percentage of students who read at proficient or advanced levels increased from 35 percent to 52 percent; for Latino students, the gain was from 20 to 40 percent; for African Americans, the gain was from 22 to 39 percent. Math scores showed similar gains.

At the same time, far more California students are taking algebra and advanced math and science courses.  Altogether 60 percent more high school students are taking college-qualifying math and science courses than seven years ago -- geometry, algebra II, chemistry, biology, physics.

At the same time the numbers who score at proficient or better levels has increased proportionately: 232,000 were rated proficient in algebra in 2010, compared to 106,000 in 2003. In biology 251,000 scored proficient in 2010, compared to 123,000 seven years before. Meanwhile Latino and black students, while still getting lower scores, are closing the proficiency gap with their non-Hispanic white classmates.

The numbers hardly point to perfection and they beg a lot of other questions. Why, given the progress in scores and course-taking, are graduation rates still so low, particularly for Latino and black students?  Why are the schools so slow to move English learners into English-proficient classes? Why are California college-going and graduation rates still so low? Why are the scores of California students on NAEP, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, still lower than those of students in most other states?

Mockler has some answers. California is far more rigorous about who it includes in the sample of students who take the NAEP tests; Texas, for example exempts larger proportion of English learners, special education students and newcomers to the state, who generally score lower. And given the state’s large proportion of low income and immigrant students, it’s disheartening but hardly surprising that college attendance is low.

What is surprising is that the system, given the handicaps kids come with and the scandalous understaffing of California’s schools, is doing as well as Mockler’s numbers suggest. In the past 20 years the number of English learners in the system has more than doubled, from 741,000 to over 1.5 million.  

At the same time, California has the lowest staff-to-pupil ratio in the nation; we are 50th in the ratio of teachers to students, meaning we have among the largest classes; 50th in counselors; 48th in administrators.

Our spending per student has declined from 19th in the nation in the early 1970s to 28th, but when the state’s cost of living is considered, we’re near the bottom. In 1972 we spent 5.6 percent of our personal income on K-12 schools; in 2007, it was 3.7 percent, a decline of 34 percent, even as the percentage of low income students and English learners climbed. Mockler calculates that that’s a difference of roughly $30 billion.

What Mockler didn’t mention and may be most lacking in the attacks on the schools is the failure to recognize that much of school performance, however measured, is driven by forces over which schools have little or no control: poverty and health, the surrounding culture and its often pervasive disrespect for learning, and the lack of adequate pre-school preparation.

None of those things should be regarded as rationales for lack of in-school commitment, or for the relatively weak teachers who are still concentrated in the neediest schools, or for the failure of the system to provide the resources that schools desperately need. But as a new administration takes over, both in the governor’s office and at the state Department of Education, it’s hardly too soon to look beyond the conventional “schools are failing” clichés.

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Peter Schrag, whose exclusive weekly column appears every Monday in the California Progress Report, is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future and California: America’s High Stakes Experiment. His new book, Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America is now on sale. To reach Peter, email him at petersch@sonic.net.

poverty and health, the surrounding culture and its often pervasive disrespect for learning, and the lack of adequate pre-school preparation . . .

Californians had a good thing going, up until the 1960s. Reasonable housing costs, free tuition at state universities, lower crime rates, . . .

Californians made a choice, in decades past, by the decisions they made, including the election of their Federal Representatives, to increase poverty and change the surrounding culture.

Why did they make the choices they did?