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.