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Will California’s New School Data System Really Work?

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California's ambitious new education data system, called Cradle to Career, is about to launch. (Shutterstock)
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Gov. Gavin Newsom habitually oversells the policies and programs he advocates, claiming that they are groundbreaking and will have transformative and positive impacts on Californians’ lives.

It is, therefore, with a healthy dash of salt that one considers his announcement in December that California’s “Cradle-to-Career Data System” (C2C) is being formally launched.

System Available in Most Other States

The system, some months in the making, will — at least theoretically — provide Californians with comprehensive data on how well their massive public education system, all the way from pre-kindergarten to college, is preparing students for productive careers.

Dan Walters

CalMatters

Opinion

Newsom said “California is now poised to launch a transformative system that will enable us to both learn more about how — and do more — to serve students and families in an equitable way.”

California is one of only eight states that lack such a system, which researchers and education reformers say is needed to gauge the efficacy of the state’s many educational programs, particularly the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) that’s supposed to close a yawning academic achievement gap in elementary and high schools.

While Newsom’s predecessor, Jerry Brown, persuaded the Legislature to adopt LCFF nearly a decade ago, increasing state aid to schools with large numbers of poor and English learner students at risk of failure, he was reluctant to have the state oversee how the extra money was being spent.

Multi-Year Roll Out

Monitoring LCFF and other targeted programs would require the comprehensive collection of data and Brown would not embrace such a system. However, Newsom supported legislation to create not only a data collection system but extending it into tools to help educators, students and parents navigate the education maze.

It won’t happen immediately.

The C2C project has been lodged in the state’s Governmental Operations Agency and Mary Ann Bates, a data maven who most recently worked for the White House Office of Management and Budget, is its first director.

Under the current timeline, it will take four years to build the complete system, although the early stages will involve merging current data from various sources and releasing initial findings on educational and career achievement.

The proactive tools, such things as electronic transcripts to aid college enrollment, would come later.

As much as such a system is needed, some healthy skepticism is warranted.

The state’s track record on implementing digital technology is, putting it charitably, poor. As the state’s auditor has frequently reported, efforts to digitize governmental operations have often either failed or faced years of expensive delays. They are launched with promises of more transparency and efficiency — just as C2C is being touted now — but rarely deliver such benefits.

Educators’ Resistance to Oversight

The second caveat is about how the data would be utilized once it is available — if it is. California’s education establishment is not fond of oversight. Its attitude is that taxpayers should provide the money and trust educators to spend it wisely.

Brown’s hands-off posture on LCFF is a case in point, as is the obfuscating “dashboard” published by the state Department of Education, supposedly telling the public how its schools are doing but merely adding to the confusion.

It’s one thing to collect data, but using it productively is another. In theory, the new system will identify what’s working and what’s not as millions of kids cycle through schools and colleges, and persuade those in charge to change what needs to be changed.

Newsom should get credit for trying to create more transparency and accountability in education, but whether it pans out will not be known, most likely, until he’s joined the ranks of ex-governors.

About the Author

Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times. For more columns by Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He has written more than 9,000 columns about the state and its politics and is the founding editor of the “California Political Almanac.” Dan has also been a frequent guest on national television news shows, commenting on California issues and policies.

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