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Getting an A in overcoming the odds

California schools are not as good as they should be, but they are significantly better than their reputation.

December 06, 2010|George Skelton | Capitol Journal

From Sacramento — Truth is, California's public schools never were all that great. And today, they're not nearly as crummy as critics claim.

In fact, they're pretty good, especially given all the problems of funding and diversity. They've always been pretty good — not exactly A-1, but not failures either.

With 1,000 districts, 9,900 schools and 6 million students — the largest K-12 system in the country — there is inescapably a scattering of winners and losers.

"We're not where we ought to be," acknowledges veteran education consultant John Mockler, a Capitol legend who wrote the complex school finance law, Proposition 98.

"But the 'California schools suck' industry is just full of it," he adds. "When these guys start talking about how California's schools used to be great and today they're going to hell in a hand basket, they're just wrong. Our students are making incredibly consistent academic progress."

Outgoing state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell says, "Student test scores have been up for eight years in a row. The achievement gap is narrowing. And that's what I'm proudest of."

The "achievement gap" is the difference between the higher test scores of whites and Asians versus the lower results of blacks and Latinos.

Mockler, a compulsive numbers-cruncher, says that the increase in black and Latino students taking algebra in the eighth grade and scoring "proficient" or "advanced" — the highest ratings — "is one of the most dramatic, positive academic changes in the history of education in this state and the nation."

I wince every time I hear some revisionist carry on about how California public schools used to be the envy of the universe and now they're not capable of teaching dogs to bark. I suspect that most of these people —the latest and loudest being Meg Whitman — never attended California schools.

I did, back in the so-called golden era after World War II. And I remember that whenever a new kid arrived from out of state, the newcomer always seemed to be way ahead of us, especially in reading.

My public schooling was in rural Ojai. It was basically cozy and comfortable. Some bright kids were teachers' pets and excelled. Some who needed encouragement and help got neither. Some of us were lucky enough to be inspired by just the right teacher or two.

The schools were good, not great. Can't believe they were the best in America.

Higher ed? That's a different story. Our excellent colleges and universities were proudly affordable and open to anyone with motivation and grades. They were a Californian's birthright. Today, they're shamefully pricey with limited space.

"We have more high school students eligible for college than ever," O'Connell says. "The bad news is we have fewer seats in college."

But this column is about California's improving elementary and high schools.

"Look at the data," Mockler urges.

For starters, one must realize that a fourth of K-12 students are English learners who go home and speak another language. "That makes it more difficult to learn," Mockler says.

Mockler has computed data comparing old test scores with the most recent. For example:

-- Seven years ago, 35% of all California students scored proficient or advanced in reading. This year, 52% did, a gain of 49%. For whites, the number rose from 53% to 69%. For Latinos, the figures doubled from 20% to 40%. For blacks, 22% to 39%.

-- During the same period, the number of math students scoring in the top two ranks rose from 35% to 48%, a 37% improvement. Whites improved from 47% to 59%; Latinos from 23% to 39% (up 70%) and blacks from 19% to 32% (68%).

-- There was a 176% increase in the number of Latinos taking eighth-grade algebra, and the percentage of these students testing in the top two ranks rose from 20 to 37. Among black eighth-graders, there was an 85% increase in algebra students, with the percentage achieving the highest rankings, rocketing from 17 to 41.

-- High school students are taking 60% more college-prep math and science courses than seven years ago, and the number testing proficient or advanced has doubled.

Credit a decade of reforms, mainly started by Govs. Pete Wilson and Gray Davis: class-size reductions, tougher curriculum, higher standards and lots of testing.

Much of that is in jeopardy, however, because of program cutbacks as Sacramento attempts to fill a seemingly bottomless budget hole. Class-size reduction is practically history.

"It pains me to see larger class sizes," O'Connell says, noting that as a legislator he wrote the class-size law and Wilson found the money for it.

"We've seen a major disinvestment in public education the last few years. Schools are operating with $21 billion less than anticipated three years ago."

Here are some other Mockler data:

-- California was spending $825 less per student than the national average two years ago. And it's undoubtedly gotten worse, he says.

-- Forty years ago, California allotted 5.6% of its personal income to K-12 schools. As of 2008, that had fallen to 3.7%.

--The average American school has 34% more teachers, 40% more administrators and 75% more counselors per student than California does.

"If California education was a baseball team, we'd be playing the other states with six players and they'd have nine," Mockler says.

Still, California's public schools have been performing far better than anyone would think from listening to the catcalls of a cranky crowd.

george.skelton@latimes.com

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