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Lengthy Pandemic Closures Weakened Already Low-Achieving California Schools
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Published 10 months ago on
July 5, 2023

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Gov. Gavin Newsom is fond of rattling off statistics that prove, he claims, California’s enviable status as a national, or even global, leader in all things wonderful.

He tends, however, to cherrypick his numbers rather than provide a full picture, as a recent Sacramento Bee analysis of his economic assertions on national television demonstrates.

Dan Walters with a serious expression

Dan Walters

CalMatters

Opinion

However, there’s one aspect of California society – perhaps its most important – that Newsom excludes from his episodes of braggadocio: how the state is educating nearly 6 million public school students.

The sad fact is that California’s students fare poorly vis-à-vis those of other states when it comes to basic skills in language and mathematics, as underscored in a newly published report by the Public Policy Institute of California.

California kids were lagging behind even before Newsom and other officials shut down schools during the COVID-19 pandemic and, the PPIC studies show, educational proficiency plummeted during the closures.

‘Significant Declines in Proficiency’

When state academic testing resumed in 2022 after being suspended during the pandemic, it showed “significant declines in proficiency rates.”

Before the pandemic, 51% of students met standards in English language arts (ELA) and it had dropped to 47%. In mathematics, proficiency declined from 40% to 33%.

“Only 35% of low-income students met state standards in ELA and 21% were proficient in math,” PPIC reported, “compared to 65% of higher-income students in ELA and 51% in math.”

Furthermore, PPIC noted, the nationwide test of reading and math proficiency “shows that California has consistently lagged behind most other states … 38th in math and 33rd in reading.”

Since Newsom is particularly fond of comparing California to other states, particularly Florida and Texas, one might wonder how we fare in educational attainment. The answer is, PPIC says, that “Florida ranks much higher than California.” However, the state “is ranked just above Texas in reading but far below in math,” although it does best New York in reading and math.

While school closures loomed large in the overall erosion of educational achievement during the pandemic, there were significant differences within the state because closures were not uniform.

“Most of California’s public school students spent the majority of the 2020–21 academic year fully online – longer than students in other states,” PPIC’s research found, but “the return to in-person instruction varied across the state.” Rural counties tended to return to in-person schooling more quickly than schools in urban areas. By June 2021, San Francisco, Sacramento and Los Angeles counties had fewer than 10% of their school systems returned to classroom instruction.

PPIC did not mention that in urban school districts – Los Angeles Unified most notably – teacher unions often refused to return to the classroom without concessions from their employers, thus continuing online classes for additional months.

Newsom advocated reopening schools and his own kids quickly resumed classes at their private school, but he refused to intervene in districts that were lagging behind in returning kids to the classroom, apparently unwilling to confront the unions.

Variations in reopening meant that “districts with more Black, Latino, low-income, and English Learner students tended to reopen later than other districts,” and “learning gaps widened the longer students remained remote and may have worsened longstanding achievement gaps between low-income marginalized students and their peers.”

The statistical picture painted in the PPIC research confirms what was obvious to many at the time, that closing schools and forcing at-risk children into haphazard online classes while lacking internet access, tutoring and other resources would make the achievement gap even wider.

California’s economic and social future depends on having a well-educated workforce and citizenry. We were falling behind before COVID-19 struck, and we are even further behind now.

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. CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more columns by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

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