California’s Education Crisis

Coastal elite.

For anyone not familiar with the conservative lingo, it is a term often accompanied by accusations of being intellectually antagonistic. This term is slung around like an insult, although like most Californians, it’s a mantle I take no shame in bearing. If I am to be marked with a scarlet emblem, coastal elite suits me just fine.

California is an amazing place to live. Our major exports include art, innovation, agricultural goods, and social progressiveness. We play a dominant role in the world economy, having surpassed France to become the 6th largest economy in the world.  Plus, we’re the only place in the world with redwood trees.

Unfortunately, if things progress as they are, there is no guarantee that the next generation will inherit our elite rank and title. For all our natural and manufactured wonders, for all the achievements we have to boast about, there is one metric that, for all intents and purpose, we are abysmally failing.


And no, this isn’t some liberal think-piece opining about the need for free higher education (although, I can do that too if you want). I am talking about our primary and secondary public education system. Now if you’re anything like me, you’re probably skeptical of this claim. And as a teacher, this has been a particularly hard pill for me to swallow. After all, California is home to the most gold medal schools in the country, how could anyone claim our education system is anything less than stellar?

Yet, it’s true.

According to our National Report Card, California students rank among the bottom in the nation for mathematics and reading skills. Additionally, California has one of the lowest graduation rates, at just over 80%.

These statistics aren’t just alarming, they are devastating.

How is this possible? And what can be done to fix it?

When faced with statistics like these, it is natural to have a knee-jerk reaction to want to place blame somewhere, the easiest target in this case being the teacher. And while teachers are at the front lines, blaming them is like blaming individual soldiers for losing a war.

When looking at the issue of education, it is important that we do so in three dimensions, taking care to incorporate all the relevant information. For example, one reason for our dismal math and reading scores may be the fact that 23% of our students are enrolled in limited English proficiency programs because English isn’t their first language. Or the fact that nearly 90% of our students are enrolled in Title I schools might be another contributing factor. Or maybe it’s the fact that California spends nearly $1,000 less per student on instructional spending than the national average.

And while all of these things will definitely influence student performance, they are all tied into a bigger issue.

No Child Left Behind.

It’s a catchy name, but a disastrous piece of legislation. In California, huge numbers of students inevitably get left behind each year because of this act. Once they fall behind, the law makes it nearly impossible to catch back up, meaning our students are potentially missing out on up to $2 billion in federal funds.

It’s worth noting that the United States as a whole isn’t doing that much better when compared to the rest of the world. According to the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), in 2012, America ranked 27th out of the 34 participating countries in mathematics, 17th in reading and 20th in science.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe the politicians who crafted the No Child Left Behind legislation had noble intentions. But politicians aren’t educators. They aren’t interested in long term, effective education reforms. They need something flashy enough to dazzle the voting public, but loose enough in application to have bipartisan appeal. And that is ultimately why California students will continue to be left behind.

As long as our public schools are forced to pander to the political and social agendas of the rest of the country, we will never be able to affect meaningful and lasting change. The only way to disrupt this downward spiral is to eject ourselves from it completely. An independent California is the future our future deserves.

3 Responses

  • I’ve taught in the K-12 public schools in California in four different districts, and community college for 11 years. Thank you for your article, especially for noting the unique challenges the California Public Schools face. I taught at Andrew Hill High School where 26 foreign languages are spoken.

    I do want to point out one thing. Every year, the tests results come out, and we find that our sophomores rank 26-29th in the world. What they do not mention is that every other country gives their students a test between the ages of 12 and 14, which determines whether they will be going on to university, or trade school. Our 4th graders and 8th graders test in the top third. But 100% of our 15 year olds (and special ed students, and students in ESL classes are not exempt from these tests) are tested against the top 30% university-bound students of other nations, and only score 27th or so. (This is easily checked: Wikipedia includes the organization of the school system of each country.)

    So, against the top 30% of other nations, 100% of our students still come in at 27th. I think that’s terrific. There are endless attempts to undermine our public school system, No Child Left Behind, and Common Core are some of the most recent. The continuous denigration by the press (that every year fails to note that other nations don’t test 100% of their 15-year olds) is another. But in this one way, the public school system of the U.S. lives up to its democratic ideals: all students are educated as though they were going to university. Students can fail at 12, drop out at 14, come back through community college and become doctors or lawyers. This is not true in any other country.

    One thing you did not mention is the California curriculum that was developed over 7 years in the past decade, by some of California’s best educators. It is excellent. However, the fact that the national standardized tests are written in Ohio and do not recognized our curriculum, and, as you did mention, the fact that our text books come from Texas, undermines our own curriculum.

    In an independent California I envision our national text-books written by our own teachers, following our own curriculum, and distributed by means of tablets to every student. Text books could be updated every year at low cost, and the destruction or loss of text books would no longer be an issue. Text book costs would drop significantly. I look forward to the day.

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