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The Current California Context

Description of the status of education in California in A Blueprint For Great Schools report from the Transition Advisory Team dated August 9, 2011.

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The world is more economically inter-dependent than ever before. With increased globalization and the opening of world markets, jobs move from one side of the world to the other with great speed and fluidity. Those who possess the deep knowledge and broad skills necessary to apply their learning in new and innovative ways are advantaged both in terms of higher earning potential and greater job opportunities.

California, the eighth largest economy in the world and a wellspring of technological innovation, should be leading the world in developing such learners. At present, however, our state is at a disadvantage in this globalized economy. Almost one-third of California's ninth grade students drop out before high school graduation and another one-third finish high school but find they are not fully prepared to succeed in college and career. Those who are prepared for college are finding it more difficult to gain admission and secure the coursework they need, as the higher education system is battered by budget cuts. Together, these factors threaten California's position in the world economy.

California is a wholly unique state, but one that, arguably, represents the future of America. It is a state that some might say is on the edge of educational collapse, but it is also a resilient state with abundant human resources and the leadership to regain its pre-eminence in education, if there is a purposeful plan joined with public will. This statement of the context focuses especially on the overall challenges California currently faces, but it also points out resources that we can draw upon in re-building the state's education system.

Who are Our Students?

California has a vibrant, diverse student population that represents families who have had roots in the Golden State for centuries and others who have more recently arrived from virtually every nation on the globe. With high rates of immigration, California also has the highest proportion of English learners in the country.1 Approximately 24 percent of California's students are English learners (ELs) who are not yet proficient in English, and 12 percent are former English learners (R-FEP) who need educational supports to improve their English proficiency as they progress through school.2 Many immigrant families come from poor countries with few educational or economic resources. Most students in California schools (53 percent) come from low-income families.

Unfortunately, new immigrant students and students of color are increasingly racially isolated. California is one of the nation's three most segregated states for Latino students and one of the five most segregated states for African American students. Schools with concentrations of minority and low-income students are among the most under-resourced in the state, with fewer dollars, curriculum resources, and well-qualified teachers than others, although the needs they confront are greater.3

What Are Our Resources?

During the thirty years since Proposition 13 was passed, funding for schools has shrunk, and inequality in educational opportunities and outcomes has increased. While California ranks first in the nation in the number of pupils it serves, it is at the very bottom of the states in K–12 expenditures, both overall and as a share of personal income. Currently, California spends just over half as much as states with comparable costs of living, such as New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut (about $9,000 per pupil in California as compared to over $17,000 per pupil in these states).4

As the 21st century dawned, California ranked in the bottom ten percent of states in class size, staff/pupil ratio, library quality, and most other school resources.5 Beyond the low levels of per pupil funding, districts are challenged by the fact that an extraordinarily high proportion of their resources comes from a large number of restricted categorical programs, especially if they serve high-need students. This makes it difficult to spend enough resources on fundamental needs, such as an adequately supported teaching force, and creates enormous reporting burdens.

Furthermore, the resources the state has are allocated inequitably, with some districts spending only $6,000 per pupil and others spending as much as $20,000 per pupil.6 The gap gets even larger when spending is adjusted for cost-of-living differences, reaching a ratio of nearly 4 to 1. Such differentials might be justified if the highest spending districts were in urban areas with higher costs of living or in districts with greater pupil needs. However, this is far from the case. Most of the state's cities spend just at or below the state average, and poor rural districts spend even less. The highest spending districts serve much more affluent students. This makes California one of the most unequal states in the nation in terms of the resources it provides to its students.

Who Are Our Educators?

California has some of the most committed, hard-working, and talented educators in the nation, and some of the most innovative educator preparation programs. However, not all students have access to an experienced, high-quality educator workforce. As resources have shrunk, the State has lowered standards for teachers entering under-resourced districts that experience shortages.

Funding disparities lead to large inequalities in teacher and principal salaries and working conditions, which have produced staffing problems in high-need districts. Controlling for costs of living, as well as education and experience levels, teacher salaries vary across the state by a ratio of 3 to 1. For example, a teacher with 10 years of experience and a bachelor's degree plus 60 additional credits (about the median salary), could earn from $41,000 in one district to $117,000 in another.7

Not surprisingly, low-salary districts serve predominantly students of color and low-income students, and have more than twice as many English learners as high-salary districts. They also have nearly twice as many teachers who are uncredentialed and inexperienced, and who have lower levels of education. The result is a dramatically unequal distribution of teacher quality, with poorly resourced schools staffed by a revolving door of inexperienced and, often, untrained teachers and principals, while other schools have a highly trained and experienced educator workforce. Some California districts serving low-income students of color have as many as 50 percent of their teachers uncredentialed, and as many as 60 percent inexperienced. Some districts have as many as half of their teachers newly hired in a given year, suggesting extraordinary rates of teacher turnover.8 Schools staffed in this way cannot provide a stable, coherent school experience for children or adequate mentoring and support for a revolving door of teachers.

After two decades of dwindling resources, teacher preparation programs and candidates now receive little support from the state. In some high-need fields, like special education and the teaching of ELs, there are too few high-quality programs to meet demand. As a result, California is now the only state in the nation that hires most of its special education teachers without teaching experience or pre-service preparation, leaving many of these teachers seriously underprepared for one of the most challenging and important tasks in education. California is also the only state that licenses principals without preparation on the basis of only a paper-and-pencil test. Most of these principals are also hired in the highest need schools.

Funding for high-quality professional development, such as that offered by the Subject Matter Projects, the once pioneering California School Leadership Academy, and many other excellent learning opportunities, has been substantially reduced or zeroed out entirely. As a consequence, the knowledge base for skilled teaching and leadership is not readily available to many of California's educators, especially in poor districts.

What Are Our Outcomes?

Given these challenges, it is not surprising that while there have been some gains, in reading, California students ranked 48th in grade 4 and 49th in grade 8 among the 50 states on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2009. In mathematics, 4th and 8th grade students ranked 45th and 47th, respectively. In science, California students ranked 49th in both 4th and 8th grades, besting only Mississippi. Graduation rates were just 79 percent in 2010, with African American and Latino students graduating at rates of only about 60 percent. And college-going has fallen below that of most other states, at only 28 percent of students now graduating from 4-year colleges, far below the national average, and about half the rate of the most highly educated states.

What Are Our Opportunities?

Despite these challenges, there are many opportunities in the Golden State. California has rich resources on which to draw, including many expert practitioners, a number of high-quality teacher, classified staff, and leader education programs, and some excellent professional development providers, that could be leveraged to improve instruction on a broad scale. The state has parents who have repeatedly demonstrated their support for public education and a public that has, in every poll over the last decade, indicated its willingness to invest in the system. It has unsurpassed technological know-how and an innovative, entrepreneurial spirit. And it has new leadership that is forging a more united agenda among the Governor's Office, the State Board of Education, and CDE. All of these assets can and must be marshaled to succeed in the critically important work ahead.


1. Dataquest: Statewide English Learners by Language and Grade 2009-10.

2. Dataquest: Selected Statewide Data for 2009-10 on English Learners.

3. Oakes, J. (2003). Education Inadequacy, Inequality, and Failed State Policy: A Synthesis of Expert Reports Prepared for Williams v. State of California [] External link opens in new window or tab. (PDF).; Adamson, F. & Darling-Hammond, L. (2011). Speaking of Salaries: What It Will Take to Get Qualified, Effective Teachers in All Communities. Washington, DC: Center for American Progress.

4. Bruce Baker, David Sciarra, and D. Farrie, "Is school funding fair? A National Report Card" (Newark: NJ: Education Law Center, 2010).

5. EdSource (2001, October). How California Ranks: A comparison of education expenditures. Palo Alto, CA: EdSource.

6. Education Data Partnership, Salary data for 2008-09. Available at: Ed Data [Note: The data is no longer available]

7. Adamson & Darling-Hammond (2011). Speaking of Salaries, op. cit.

8. Adamson & Darling-Hammond (2011). Speaking of Salaries, op. cit.

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Last Reviewed: Friday, June 25, 2021