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Ed Trust-West’s Ryan Smith: It’s time for education leaders to take a knee for California’s students

Ryan J. Smith | October 12, 2017



In the historic “Is the American Dream at the Expense of the American Negro?” debate in 1965, author James Baldwin locks horns with conservative leader William F. Buckley Jr. about the significance of the American flag. “It comes as a great shock around the age of 5, 6, or 7 to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you,” Baldwin lamented.

While Baldwin’s quote may conjure up images of President Trump’s recent tirade against NFL athletes and the spirited protests that followed, Baldwin’s insight also rings true for the current reality faced by California’s 6 million K-12 students and the more than 700,000 students who attend LAUSD schools each day. Many of those students are pledging allegiance in our schools — but state and local leaders are turning their backs on California’s students rather than standing with them. California’s leaders are giving schools and districts permission to fail.  

Last month, California released statewide results that demonstrate whether California students are on track to be ready for college and careers. While we see some progress, overall, in both the state and in Los Angeles, improvement for student groups has slowed to a trickle.  For historically underserved students the picture gets bleaker. Three out of four Latino students did not meet standards in math, and more than two out of three African-American students are not meeting standards in English or math. Even more troublingly, gaps for English learners across the state appear to be widening in both math and English.

The scores, coupled with California’s recent education policy decisions, demonstrate California’s education leaders’ lack of urgency to address the racial gaps. The state’s new accountability plan doesn’t provide any guarantees that it will hold schools and districts responsible if they’re not improving. Furthermore, the state plan lacks clarity about how the system will support schools that need assistance. Parents will need a degree in analytics to make sense of the new, perplexing school dashboard report cards. If you don’t believe me, look up your local school here.

Without clear plans for identifying low-performing schools and concrete tangible steps for how the state will help them improve, we run the risk of denying our students their very civil right to education.

Years ago, California took steps in the right direction — adopting higher standards and investing in the implementation of those standards. Moreover, the more progressive funding system embodied in Governor Brown’s Local Control Funding Formula provided school leaders a way to focus on educational equity.

However, in an interview in April of last year, the governor made clear his own view that California’s achievement gaps are inevitable. When asked if the Local Control Funding Formula was meant to help marginalized students go on to college or a rewarding career, he stated, “Do you mean a career as a waiter? Do you mean a career as a window washer? Or do you mean something more elevated? Then who’s going to do all that other work that’s not elevated? Who does that? Or do we get robots for that?” 

In our governor’s eyes, it seems the state’s enormous racial and economic gaps in education don’t require closing because California needs a permanent underclass to fuel the economy. Sadly, we know that the governor wasn’t referring to the futures of rich, white children but of the poor children and students of color who constitute the majority of the students in our public education system.

We can’t call California progressive when it leaves low-income students and students of color languishing on the sideline. It’s time to focus on implementation of policies which includes providing deep, ongoing supports to educators that are needed to change culture and shift practice. It’s time to also make parents true partners in education by giving them tangible information that helps them know the truth about how students are doing. We’ve built the foundation, now it’s time to fill in the framework.

Also, we need to shine light on schools and districts closing gaps and showing rapid improvement every day. For example, in Boyle Heights, LAUSD’s Hollenbeck Middle School, in collaboration with the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, nearly doubled the number of students meeting standards in math in a two-year span by focusing on a cooperative learning model. Also, the vast majority of students at Eisenhower Elementary School in Garden Grove Unified are Latino and low-income, and the school has nearly doubled the percentage of these students who are meeting standards in math and English language arts since 2014. These schools dispel myths about what schools and students are capable of and instead show us that barriers to closing gaps are about choices more than circumstances.

Maybe it’s time that education leaders across the state lock arms and take a knee on behalf of California’s students. As California is at an inflection point, the upcoming year will bring forth a cadre of individuals vying for state-level positions, including governor and state Superintendent of Public Instruction. While we have some good happening in the state, we’ll need new leadership with a clear vision to close achievement and opportunity gaps — and individuals who believe all students deserve access to the American Dream.


Ryan J. Smith is executive director of The Education Trust—West, which advocates for educational justice and the high academic achievement of all California students, particularly those of color and living in poverty. 

On Thursday, Ed Trust–West launched a new fellowship on educational equity. Read about the first eight Senior Equity Fellows here

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