The question isn't so much why California's school-improvement plan was sent back to the state for some major fixes, but why officials ever thought it had a chance of passing muster with the U.S Department of Education.
Or maybe they never did. California has a long history of bucking what the federal government demands of it on education. But in previous cases, mostly during the Obama administration, the state was right on the merits and the Education Department was wrong. This time, the federal government is making reasonable requests in its efforts to enforce the requirements of the Every Student Succeeds Act, passed by Congress in 2015.
Last week, Education Department officials told California that it needed to make several changes to its plan for holding schools accountable. The heart of that plan is its "dashboard" of color-coded dots that are supposed to indicate how well a school is functioning, using metrics such as scores on the state's standards tests, absenteeism and graduation rates.
The state's system for assessing the performance of schools, which for too long counted test scores as the only measure of a school's worth, was in need of broadening, but the color grid dashboard is a failed effort. It is far too complicated for anyone short of a metrics expert to parse, but far worse, it gives no clear idea of how well a school is functioning overall. Would you want your child to attend this school or that one? There's very little way to tell.
The new dashboard doesn't enable the state to determine which of its schools are among the lowest 5%, though the law requires it to identify those schools and intervene to help them improve.
The Department of Education rightly criticized the state for the dashboard and many other shortcomings. It called for a clearer explanation of whether the state is counting actual performance — test scores, graduation rates and the like — as more important than suspension rates and parent engagement, which are supposed to be the means by which schools improve their performance.
Nor does the overall California accountability plan make clear how low-income students will be provided with quality teachers or how the state will intervene at low-performing schools. The state lacks a plan for improving high schools and does little to make sure that schools don't discourage their lowest-achieving students from staying home on days when state tests are held (something that has been done in some states over the years to ensure that schools look good when the test results are in).
In other words, this is more like a non-accountability system than a plan for producing a better-educated population.
Just a week before the Department of Education told California to revise its plan, an independent, nonpartisan education group that has been rating the ESSA plans of each state gave California's proposal particularly low scores. The group, Bellwether Education Partners, measured nine factors on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the best. California's plan earned a 5 on the quality of its academic standards and tests. It got a 3 in connection with its "accountability indicators." But on the other seven factors, California was rated 1 or 2, including what is perhaps the most important factor: giving schools an incentive to improve student performance.
The point of ESSA was to give more authority over schools back to the states, and to provide states with more flexibility, after the harsh and rigid rules of the No Child Left Behind Act that it replaced. Those are good things. But the law was never intended to free states and school districts from their responsibility to improve schooling or to level the educational field for low-income students, especially students of color. Surely, there are reasonable, non-punitive ways to improve learning in California. Many public schools have already been showing the way.
California's initial response to the federal criticisms — saying that it would strengthen its plan — was the right one. Despite the nominal control that the U.S. Department of Education has to approve or deny state plans, if California decides to play rebel once more, the federal agency might not push back very hard. After Education Secretary Betsy De Vos took an overly harsh and interfering approach to a couple of early plans from other states, members of Congress essentially told her to stop, that she was overstepping her authority under the law. She backed down. They were right, and she was wrong. But since then, her department has perhaps swung too far in the other direction, approving state plans even when the states failed to heed federal requests for changes that are clearly required by law.
That shouldn't be allowed to happen in California's case. The state's proposal falls short of what the federal law requires. Whether forced by the federal government or not, the state should step up and do the right thing for its students.