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Themes in the News

A weekly commentary written by UCLA IDEA on the important issues in education as covered by the news media.

Our Last IDEA “Theme,” But Stay Tuned

  • 07-12-2013
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Week of July 8-12, 2013


Every Friday, for almost 200 Fridays, UCLA IDEA has produced an education “Themes in the News.”  IDEA staff, supported by suggestions from our many organizational partners, has tried to place the headlines and “breaking” education-related events in larger structural contexts; that is, we looked for relationships, consistencies, and sometimes ironies between education and the larger social, political, and economic landscape.  Today’s commentary is our last for a while. After a hiatus this summer, we plan to return with a new blog format and a sharper focus on how economic inequality shapes and is shaped by learning in k-12 public schools.  

The archive of our “Themes” ( offers more than a quick reference—a linear summary—of California education news.  Upon reflection we can draw from the archive some overarching themes that penetrate all aspects of California education since our first theme in March 2009. We might abbreviate these larger themes as economic crisis, distracting reforms, and activism and resistance.

First, IDEA “Themes” chronicled education during the great recession from which some sectors of the state are now recovering.  Our first “Themes” was written as California entered its second consecutive month of double-digit unemployment.  Districts had begun issuing massive numbers of pink slips on March 15—a practice that was to become an annual ritual.  The pain and dislocation of the economic crisis had taken root, and analysts correctly predicted that it would last a long time.  California’s families and California’s public schools, colleges, and universities were in crisis.  We wrote often about how instability and insecurity outside schools made young people’s lives harder and created new challenges for California educators. We also highlighted the many ways that cuts to California’s (already substandard) education budget diminished learning opportunities and supports, particularly for the state’s most vulnerable children.

A second major theme that emerges is the rash of new reforms that promised dramatic improvement in educational outcomes, even as the state pulled dollars from its underfunded public schools.  Charter schools, teacher evaluation systems based on student test scores, school turnaround models—these initiatives consumed the attention, energies, and resources of California educators and California’s public. The momentum of these reforms is striking given the lack of evidence in their favor, especially when viewed alongside the meager policy attention given to California’s core, structural education challenges behind the state’s disinvestment in public education and the inequitable distribution of learning resources. 

A third major theme is seen in the resistance of many Californians who refused to accept an inevitable decline of public education in the state.  Teachers questioned the misuse and overuse of standardized tests.  Young people, mostly college students, joined mass rallies protesting diminished services and rising tuition.  Unions, community-based organizations, and parents forged an unexpected and powerful electoral coalition supporting reasonable tax increases to bring desperately needed funds back to California schools and colleges. All were propelled by a deep sense of hope—a belief that our state can be better, but only if we invest in our collective future through public education.

In these “Themes” we have tried to uncover patterns in the education news that revealed if public schools were, week-by-week, becoming more capable, fair, just, and democratic; we looked for evidence and trends of a public that was informed and engaged. We tried to honor news of hard work and tangible achievements that have made public schools better; and at the same time not ignore the bitter disappointments that school betterment is too weak, too slow, and too unfair for so many students. In sum, the past four years have confirmed to us that accepting the status quo is a sign of despair while critique and resistance are the hallmarks of hope.  

Thanks to all those who have contributed to the “Themes” …  Melanie Bertrand, Gary Blasi, Claudia Bustamante, Sophie Fanelli, Julie Flapan, Martin Lipton, Jared Planas, John Rogers, Marisa Saunders, Arif Shaikh, Claudia Vizcarra.

Take No Vacation from Making Schools Better

  • 07-03-2013
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Week of July 1-5, 2013

Many adults carry memories of “the last day of school.” After an excruciating wind-down of tests and ceremonies, we walked out of our last class and emptied all thoughts of lessons. Of course, some would start up right away with summer school—reluctantly to make up a class or voluntarily to take an “enrichment” course. But still, there were at least some unencumbered weeks for sports, play late into summer nights, and sleeping in; and for the more fortunate, travel or camp.

After years of budget cuts, many school districts have eliminated or severely curtailed both summer enrichment programs and traditionally taught academic classes. Now that the financial freefall has slowed, some districts are looking to reinstate summer programs. Yet, by all accounts, any recovery of summer school programs is hit or miss, and not moving fast enough to meet the needs of the state’s struggling students.

Meanwhile, an increasing body of research shows that not giving a thought to lessons during a summer-long vacation is a seriously lost opportunity for a great many students. That research shows that the achievement gap worsens during the summer break,  and programs are often not well-enough targeted to help the most academically vulnerable. Finally, many families, rich and poor, are rediscovering summer school as a way to access creative and enriching programs (New York Times, USA Today). That these classes are the most engaging—call it fun—for students, attests to the power of breaking up schooling routines with more and better schooling—rather than defaulting to the empty days of no school at all.

The loss of summer school programs  has prompted a new statewide initiative, Summer Matters. Its mission is to create and expand summer learning opportunities for all Californians, especially those from low-income families. “Families cannot afford to be putting them in summer camps,” said Jennifer Peck, co-chair of the initiative. “You know, science camp, all sorts of enrichment programs where they are reinforcing their skills or where there’s not a lot of reading in the home or vacations aren’t happening” (KCET, Public News Service, CSBA).

Los Angeles Unified offers just 170 credit-recovery classes at 16 of its nearly 100 high schools—the smallest offering ever. They’re already wait-listed (Los Angeles Daily News). In Desert Sands Unified, students haven’t had open enrollment summer programs for about a decade. “I think just about everybody in education understands and recognizes that summer learning regression occurs, but right now, we are faced with the reality of trying to get through a budget from year to year,” said Dan Miller, district director of curriculum and assessment (Desert Sun). And in Carlsbad, a fight has erupted against a tuition-based summer program run by the nonprofit Carlsbad Educational Foundation. “School districts can’t charge fees and they can’t shift it to third parties, PTO’s and foundations. When school district affiliations charge fees, it is the same as the district charging those fees,” contends Sally Smith, who filed the complaint with the California Department of Education (Patch).

It will be interesting to watch how Carlsbad resolves its dilemma, especially since more districts are partnering with nonprofit organizations to supplement academic programs that districts don’t believe they can afford. In Southern California, districts like Beverly Hills, Claremont, Corona-Norco, Pasadena, Santa Monica and Torrance, among others, have made similar partnerships for tuition summer programs.

As always, students’ school experiences will run the gamut from exhilarating and engrossing to painfully boring—and it doesn’t matter what month it is. Schools are always searching for the inspiration and resources to assure the former and diminish the latter, and summer is a good time for that challenge. One thing is clear, though; summertime learning is necessary to maximize individual students’ intellectual development, and unequal access to it reveals the public’s slackened commitment to social justice.

Justices Bury their Heads on Diversity

  • 06-28-2013
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Week of June 24-28, 2013


On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that will make public universities take a tougher look at their affirmative action admissions policies. In a 7-1 opinion, the court said the University of Texas may consider a student’s race, but only if it can show there is no other “race neutral” strategy to achieve campus diversity.


Fisher v. University of Texas arose from a lawsuit filed by white student Abigail Fisher, who claimed she was denied admission because of her race. The university system admits roughly the top 10 percent of students from every high school, and about three-quarters of freshmen from Texas are admitted under this Top 10 program.


The remaining quarter of students are considered within a holistic review process that looks at a wide array of factors, including race and ethnicity (New York Times, Huffington Post). It’s this quarter of students, some of whom are minorities attending very high-performing schools, who are most likely to be affected by Fisher because they might miss the 10 percent cutoff even though they are well qualified. The Supreme Court’s decision did not reject affirmative action in principle, but sent the plan back to the Texas court which must now determine whether the university used all possible race-neutral methods to meet its diversity goals.


Although Fisher is disappointing for advocates of education justice, it did not refute the legitimacy of universities’ diversity goals as laid forth in the landmark Gruder v. Bollinger ruling that claimed the University of Michigan had a compelling interest in promoting diversity (Washington Post). Thus, the Court stopped short of abolishing affirmative action as California did with Proposition 209. And as some feared it would in Fisher. It remains to be seen if the courts will allow or require Texas to take that final step.


If the rest of the country wants to know what's in store for college diversity in Texas after Fisher, California offers a sobering caution for the future. In 1996, California voters approved Proposition 209, which prohibits the state from considering race, ethnicity or sex in decision-making for public employment, contracting or admissions into public universities. A 2006 report by UC/ACCORD and UCLA IDEA found that, 10 years later, the representation of Latinos, African Americans and American Indians had decreased significantly, even as these student groups comprised a larger share of high school graduates.


And today, the numbers still haven’t recovered. There remains a substantial gap between the racial composition of California’s public k-12 schools and its public universities. In 2008, African Americans made up 7 percent of California’s 8th grade population, but five years later this cohort had shrunk to only 4 percent of students enrolled as freshman at a University of California campus. Latinos constituted more than half of California’s 8th graders in 2008, but only a quarter of first year freshman enrolled in a UC in fall 2012.


“The record shows we tried pretty much everything that seemed feasible,” said Patricia Gándara, UCLA education professor and co-director of the Civil Rights Project. “The university tried to be responsible in this. But the diversity challenge is getting more and more difficult” (Washington Post).


A large part of what makes achieving diversity in higher education so difficult is that our k-12 public schools in California and many other states remain segregated and unequal. And that point highlights the irony of the Supreme Court’s call for race-neutral strategies in admissions—an irony that was not lost on Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. As the lone dissent in Fisher, Ginsburg wrote that “only an ostrich could regard the supposedly neutral alternatives as race unconscious.” Admitting the top students from each school provides for a diverse and able student body, but it does so only because Texas’ k-12 schools are highly segregated. “It is race consciousness, not blindness to race, that drives such plans.”

A Funding Step Forward

  • 06-14-2013
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Week of June 10-14, 2013

Signaling an historic shift in the way California funds public schools, Gov. Jerry Brown and top legislators announced a budget deal Tuesday that will include the governor’s signature Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF). LCFF, which will give significantly more money to educate high-needs students, was part of a last-minute budget compromise between the governor, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Assembly Speaker John Perez, to be voted on today (EdSource Today, Reuters, Oakland Tribune). The agreement is being hailed as an important step toward more sensible and equitable education funding, but, like most last-minute compromises, it is a partial victory with many questions still to be resolved.

The new funding formula is meant to streamline California’s current convoluted system for funding public schools and to address the needs of the most disadvantaged students. Under the current system, each district receives a basic level of support for each student enrolled plus funds to implement more than 60 specific state and federal programs, or “categoricals.” 

LCFF will merge most state categoricals into a larger base amount, thereby providing districts with more autonomy in how their funds are distributed and relieving them of many reporting requirements. Districts will also receive an average $1,470 in supplemental funds for every English learner, low-income and foster student. Plus, those districts in which at least 55 percent of the population is high-needs will receive an extra concentration grant

The agreement will enact a broad set of principles originally laid out in a 2008 policy brief authored by State School Board president Mike Kirst, former Secretary of Education Alan Bersin, and State Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu. They called for an education funding system that was easy to understand, encouraged local decision-making, and distributed dollars based on student need. It is worth noting that Kirst and colleagues based their original plan on projections that funding for California public education would gradually increase from 2008 onwards. Of course, not only did this windfall never materialize, but the Great Recession led to deep cutbacks to state education expenditures.

Now, five years later, the current budget agreement will return districts’ base funding to their pre-recession levels. So, even as California’s system of education funding becomes more equitable, it continues to fall short of providing all students with what they need. “The bigger picture is that California remains near the bottom, nationwide, in terms of per-pupil funding,” said Assemblyman A. Maratsuchi, D-Torrance (Daily News).

There is reason to be hopeful that LCFF will initiate broader changes necessary to ensure quality education for all California students. The principle at the center of LCFF—that funding should be based on what students need to learn—provides a framework for public investment that could be supported by suburban, rural, and urban communities alike. Further, the additional funds that LCFF will bring to schools can galvanize interest and public participation, particularly in low-income communities across California. This new civic energy could play a vital role in school improvement efforts as well as statewide education funding campaigns.

But, this hope is conditional, and requires some improvements on the existing draft legislation. For LCFF to work, the process for distributing supplemental dollars needs to be more transparent and needs to foster more inclusive participation. The public should be able to see how additional funds are spent in ways that make a difference for students with greater needs. Toward this end, many equity advocates are calling for legislators to include language in the final bill that requires school districts to report how new dollars are spent at the district and school level. Further LCFF should specify a clear role that parents and community members as members of school councils can play in shaping district plans for the supplemental funding.

This week’s compromise is momentous. It marks a dramatic change in educational funding in California that lifts up the ideals of equity and local control. Now, these ideals need to be supported by empowering members of low-income communities with information and statutory assurances that their voices will be heard.

LAUSD's Road to College for All

  • 06-10-2013
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Week of June 3-10, 2013


A-G RoundtableEight years ago, LAUSD passed a resolution requiring students to successfully complete a college-preparatory curriculum (known as A-G) to graduate. The new requirements start with the Class of 2016, or those students who are just finishing this school year as 9th graders.

A-G is a series of college-preparatory courses California high school students must take in order to be eligible for admission into either a California State University or University of California campus. Each letter corresponds to a subject area. High school students are required to pass a minimum of 15 yearlong (or 30 semester) courses to meet eligibility criteria.

A new report by UCLA IDEA and the Alliance for A Better Community, funded by the United Way of Greater Los Angeles, provides information on LAUSD’s progress towards graduating students with successful completion of the A-G requirement..  The report gives percentages of students who have passed the coursework, and it describes schools that are doing a better job of graduating students college-ready.

Using 2010-11 district data, The Road Ahead: A Snapshot of A-G Implementation within the Los Angeles Unified School District found a substantial gap between the percentage of students who began 9th grade in 2007 and graduated in 2011 (62%) and those who graduated with the successful completion of A-G (19%). The A-G completion rates were even lower for black (14%), Latino (17%) and English learner (7%) students who graduated in 2011.

The report also included the number of students who were on track to graduate A-G eligible, meaning they had successfully passed a certain number of A-G courses by each grade level. Thirty-eight percent of LAUSD students were on track to be college eligible at the end of 9th grade in 2011. (This figure represents a slight increase from the 33 percent of students who finished 9th grade on track in 2008.) Black and Latino students were more likely than their Asian and white counterparts to fall off track.

The district also saw steady-yet-slight increases in the percentages of students who passed college-preparatory math and science courses (with a grade of “C” or better). In 2011, about 57 percent of high school students in grades 9-12 passed a college- preparatory math course (up from 53 percent in 2008), and 64 percent of students passed a college-preparatory science course (up from 62 percent in 2008).

The numbers provide a snapshot. The landscape is different now than it was in 2011. The stakes are higher for the district, schools, students, their families, and communities as only students who fulfill the A-G requirements will receive a high school diploma in 2016. The district is moving to implement new policies and practices with the goal of addressing the current gap between the proportion of students who graduate from the LAUSD and those who graduate with the successful completion of A-G. Moving forward, it will be important for policymakers to be guided by the expectations of students and their families, who seek the skills, knowledge and abilities necessary for college access and success.

Community and district leaders, including Supt. John Deasy, board President Monica Garcia (invited), and board Member Steve Zimmer, will meet later this month for a roundtable discussion on this report and further implementation efforts. Moving Forward with A-G for All: From the Perspective of District Leaders will be held June 20 at the California Community Foundation Palevsky Center, 281 S. Figueroa St., Suite 100. Those interested in attending should contact for more information.


  • 12-15-2010
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Past editions of our Themes in the News. Interested in one of our latest editions from the past three months? Visit our main Themes in the News page or use the left-hand sidebar.

Weekly Themes In The News

Each Friday “Themes in the News” explores one of the current week’s “breaking news” topics—selected by IDEA staff and its partners—for summary and reflection.   Hyperlinks of the news stories, which are cited, allow readers to explore the theme on their own.