Study calls for major overhaul of California schools

L.A. Cicero Jorge Ruiz de Velasco and Susanna Loeb

Jorge Ruiz de Velasco and Susanna Loeb, who direct the Institute for Research on Education Policy and Practice, stood next to the full report, “Getting Down to Facts,” which is made up of 22 studies by more than 30 researchers from U.S. universities and institutions. The institute coordinated the 18-month effort.

Stanford researchers, led by education Associate Professor Susanna Loeb, have headed an unprecedented investigation into California's troubled K-12 education system. Their findings reveal that millions of students will be able to attain the state's high achievement standards only if what they describe as California's irrational, complex and restrictive school finance and governance system is overhauled from the bottom up.

"The conclusion of the report is that California is in real trouble," Loeb said. "The students aren't performing well relative to other states; they're not learning what they need to learn to be successful later on in the labor market. That's bad for individuals, but it's also bad for the state as a whole, especially a state like California that relies on innovation."

The state education system's structural problems are so deep-seated that tinkering around the edges with incremental reforms is unlikely to have any effect, Loeb said. Instead, a wholesale commitment to sweeping change is needed.

But even if a better-functioning financial system is adopted, researchers estimate the state's education budget would have to jump to $60 billion in 2004 dollars—significantly more than the $43 billion spent that year. Even that would only cover the cost of raising test scores to state-mandated levels in half of California schools.

A labor economist, Loeb is the lead researcher of "Getting Down to Facts: School Finance and Governance in California," a report made up of 22 studies by more than 30 researchers from premier U.S. universities and institutions. The report, released March 14 and 15, was requested by a bipartisan group of policy-makers, including State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, former Education Secretary Alan Bersin and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's Committee on Educational Excellence.

The 18-month project, coordinated by Stanford's Institute for Research on Education Policy & Practice (IREPP), which is directed by Loeb and Jorge Ruiz de Velasco, represents an unprecedented attempt to synthesize what is already known about California's system as a basis for understanding what should be done to fix it, Loeb said. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, The James Irvine Foundation and The Stuart Foundation funded the $2.6 million effort.

Unlike earlier research projects that investigated California's educational woes, "Facts" does not spell out detailed policy recommendations, Loeb said. Instead, it aims to provide common ground—a nonpartisan roadmap—for understanding the current state of affairs in California's public schools and to provide information to help consider necessary reforms. Loeb said the research addresses three broad questions:

1. What do California school finance and governance systems look like today?

2. How can existing resources be used more effectively to improve student outcomes?

3. To what extent are additional resources needed so that California's students can meet the state goals required of them?

According to Loeb, a number of areas have been identified that could help to improve the system in a relatively short amount of time, although the solutions may be politically difficult. Such changes include reducing restrictions placed on district and school administrators as they try to make improvements, Loeb said. Personnel policies must be designed to help attract, retain and support school teachers and administrators, she said. The report also identified ways to improve what Loeb described as the state's "irrational and complex" school finance system. In addition, the system needs better information about what works and what does not so that good policy choices can be made in the future, she said.

"Even if we do put more money into the system—it probably will take more money to make the changes that we want—they'll only be effective if we use the resources well," Loeb said.

The difficulty administrators face in firing poor teachers came up time and again in the research. "The one thing that they wanted more than anything else was more flexibility to dismiss teachers who weren't effective," Loeb said. "This came up so much that it was really difficult to ignore."

Unlike earlier studies of California's school finance system, "Facts" was not the result of a court case. "Because of that, [those studies] tend to be responsive to one side or other," Loeb said. "We don't have that. Our goal was to provide information to Californians so that we could get a common understanding in which to move forward and create better policy."

In addition to Loeb, Stanford researchers who contributed to "Getting Down to Facts" include education Professor Linda Darling-Hammond; education and business Professor Anthony Bryk; law Professor William Koski; political science Assistant Professor Rob Reich; education Professor Emeritus Michael Kirst; Hoover Institution Senior Fellow Eric Hanushek; IREPP affiliate Eileen Horng; Jason Grissom, a doctoral student in the Graduate School of Business; and Nicole Arshan, Luke Miller, Stelios Orphanos and Katharine Strunk, graduate students in the School of Education.

Researchers from the following universities and institutions also contributed to the project: the University of California at Davis, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles; Syracuse, Tufts and Quinnipiac universities; the University of Southern California; San Diego State University; Consortium for Policy Research In Education; American Institutes for Research; EdSource; School Services of California; Policy Analysis for California Education; Public Policy Institute of California; RAND Corporation; and SpringBoard Schools.