The semi-shutdown of California’s social, economic and institutional life, that was ordered to arrest the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, seems to be working — albeit at immense cost.
Nowhere is that cost more evident than in the abrupt closure of public schools, sending their 6 million students home to continue their educations, as best they can, under the tutelage of teachers on computer screens and bewildered parents.
Under the best of such awkward circumstances, learning is difficult, and for many students, particularly those in poor families, it will be another setback that widens the state’s already embarrassing “achievement gap.”
A nationwide debate has begun on how catch-as-catch-can schooling will be officially recorded — whether students will continue to be graded, will be assigned arbitrary grades just to fill in blanks on their records, or will have grading suspended altogether, long a goal of some educators.
Enika Ford-Morthel, San Francisco Unified’s deputy superintendent for instruction, told school board members this month that the COVID-19 crisis is an “opportunity now to start to use feedback instead of grades to empower our students as learners,” saying, “in a regular situation grades can sometimes be dehumanizing and disempowering.”
Grading students fairly serves two important purposes — revealing holes in individual students’ knowledge and skills and telling parents and the larger public how well schools are doing their jobs.
The Request Drew Sharp Opposition From Civil Rights and School Reform Advocates
The elimination of grades, as Ford-Morthel proposes, would not only hurt students, but help the education establishment avoid accountability for outcomes, its long-sought, if never explicitly expressed, goal.
That brings us to the Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP), California’s awkwardly named system that’s supposed to reveal how schools are using money allocated to close the achievement gap.
The California School Boards Association and the Association of California School Administrators asked Gov. Gavin Newsom to suspend the annual LCAP process for a year. Writing the annual LCAP report for the 2020-21 school year by June 30, they said, would be impossible since they would not know by then how much money they would have to spend.
The request drew sharp opposition from civil rights and school reform advocates, who complain that many districts siphon off money meant to help poor and English-learner students on the short end of the achievement gap.
Last week, Newsom issued an executive order setting a new LCAP deadline of Dec. 15, but decreed that by June 30 districts will have to report how they have been conducting distance learning, providing meals for poor students and caring for the children of first-responders and essential employees.
New Wrinkles in the Long-Running Debate Over Accountability for Educational Outcomes
Newsom’s action pleased members of the “Equity Coalition” that had opposed the school districts’ suspension request.
“By fulfilling their responsibility to create LCAPs, districts will have an opportunity to address sooner, rather than later, the profound consequences of the pandemic on the education opportunities of more than 6 million young Californians and set a course that prioritizes their needs,” John Affeldt, managing attorney at Public Advocates, said in a statement.
The battle over accountability in a crisis is not over, however.
While the LCAPs are supposed to reveal how money will be spent in the future to close the achievement gap, another device, the California School Dashboard, is supposed to reveal how well schools have performed in the recent past.
The state Department of Education is asking the Legislature to suspend the color-coded School Dashboard, saying that the cancellation of annual standardized tests due to the pandemic has made the dashboard invalid.
Pandemic-induced wrangling over grading, LCAPs and the School Dashboard are merely new wrinkles in the long-running debate over accountability for educational outcomes.
CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.