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Commentary: Is California failing its dual language learners?

Conor Williams | May 10, 2016

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sweet little girl bored under stress with a tired face expressionThese days, Washington, D.C., policymakers are focused on working through the details of implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which is replacing No Child Left Behind as the nation’s preeminent federal education legislation. The deliberations have included some conversations about how the law treats multilingual students.

It’s early days to know how ESSA — and decisions based on these ongoing conversations — will affect America’s dual language learners (DLLs). But we might be able to get a sense of the new law’s strengths and weaknesses by looking to California’s “Local Control Accountability Plans” (LCAPs), which some see as a conceptual model for ESSA’s decentralized approach. Like ESSA, California’s LCAPs maintain centralized sources of funding, but push decisionmaking and accountability attached to those dollars as locally as possible. (Note: the funding side of LCAPs is knowns as the LCFF — the Local Control Funding Formula.)

So: how’s California’s new model going?

Last month, Californians TogetherPublic Advocates, and The Education Trust-West put out reports that suggest that the local plans are not working well for dual language learners. (For EdSource’s deeper coverage of the three reports, click here) The policy’s basic idea is something like this: California provides increased “supplemental” funding for supporting underserved students — including DLLs — and allows districts considerable latitude to decide how to serve those students. The funds are still intended for serving these particular students, but districts have control over how they’ll use them. That is, instead of prescribing that all funds for DLLs be used to fund one of a handful state-specified school activities, the LCAP system requires districts to work with educators and members of the community to develop strategies suited to their students’ needs.

Yet Californians Together’s report found that “the vast majority of LCAPs lack specific attention to strengthening or providing coherent programs, services, and supports for [DLLs], and fail to address issues of access to program and curriculum.” This appears to be a problem beyond just dual language learners. Education Trust-West concluded that “it is impossible in most cases to trace whether supplemental/concentration funds followed the high-need students who generated them.”

Translation: California districts are using LCAP supplemental funds for a wide array of services and positions — but not all of them are targeted for supporting underserved children. And according to Public Advocates’ report, it’s often impossible to tell one way or another: “We saw districts propose heavy investments without setting corresponding annual measurable outcomes to track the strategy’s effectiveness.”

(Related: What at stake this November with California’s ‘Multilingual Education Act’)

It would be pleasant to believe that these critiques are new or that they are simply one-off results after a bad year. Sadly, though, the reports echo similar findings from a year ago. To get a sense of how LCAPs look to California families, I reached out to Gabe Rose, Chief Strategy Officer for Parent Revolution, a community organizing group. He thinks that the localization of educational decision making has potential, and it “was a great step forward for California, but it is being badly undermined by the state’s continued inability to implement a coherent accountability system. We are now three years into this policy without any sort of clear answer for how the state is going to rate the performance of schools and districts, let alone what will happen if a school or district isn’t serving students well.”

The reports push hard on LCAPs’ weakest point: The plans are intended to promote eight state educational priorities by giving additional resources, maximizing community input, and expanding local flexibility. The trouble is, local innovation in service of so many different (though often interrelated) goals makes simple, standardized documentation difficult. In no time, a district’s plan stretches over 160 pages (etc), and meaningful oversight and community participation get difficult.

Notwithstanding their name, the Local Control Accountability Plans don’t yet have a clear theory of accountability. That is, the plans are funded by the state, devised by districts, and then approved by counties. This sort of complexity usually takes much of the teeth out of an accountability system.

Too often, policymakers think of accountability and compliance as if they were identical. They’re not. Compliance provisions are the things that, in this case, a district needs to do as part of getting state money designated to serve DLLs (and other underserved students). Accountability provisions are the things that will happen if districts don’t do those things — or don’t follow through and implement them well. Critically, those accountability provisions need to be clear, serious, and predictable. Too often they’re not. And guess what? As far as the LCAPs go, Public Advocates’ report reads:

Absent clear, specific information about district performance across the eight state priority areas and corresponding meaningful targets for annual progress, stakeholders will struggle to assess whether district and schools strategies are driving significant continuous improvement or should be revised.

In other words, the LCAPs are currently operating in a high-flexibility, low-accountability environment. At this point, counties are reticent to get involved and the state is not actively overseeing districts’ choices, so the limiting strength of the LCAPs’ compliance provisions rests almost entirely on families involved in the drafting of the plans. This usually means that more privileged families’ voices get heard first — and foremost.

San Diego parent Amy Redding says that the LCAPs can marginalize multilingual families: “For someone to be able to engage and challenge district staff in charge of writing the LCAP, you have to have a good understanding of jargon and finances and acronyms. Lots of acronyms. So I think those things make it more difficult for parents of English learners to be involved in that process. Difficult, but not impossible.”

Parent Revolution’s Rose agrees that the system is difficult for many families to figure out. “If the state can’t build a coherent system that gives parents clear overall ratings of how well their schools are doing, sets performance targets for schools and districts, and has a clear set of actions that are taken when schools are failing, LCFF is never going to live up to its promise.”

There’s a warning in here for backers of the Every Student Succeeds Act as well. ESSA’s accountability systems are similarly unclear, and they bestow considerable flexibility on local and state policymakers, who are essentially required to hold themselves accountable when their decisions don’t work out for underserved kids. As I wrote a friend recently (I’ve cleaned up the email-grade argot of this a bit):

Compliance with ESSA only really matters if/when the U.S. Department of Education decides to pick a fight with a particular state. The Department can’t make a state do anything specific — it can just push back and say that ‘this particular accountability system is unacceptable under our interpretation of ESSA.’ This means that the design of these systems is sort of a game of chicken. States can (should?) do whatever they want, see if the Department challenges them, and then dare the federal government to actually pull Title I money over it. Note: under a GOP administration, states can probably count on doing whatever they’d like.

We’ll see how the regulations play out, but if states have an appetite (or even just tolerance) for a little confrontation, they can almost assuredly get away with maximal flexibility. Think about that: is ED really going to pull Title I dollars over whether a state wants to weight DLLs’ academic achievement scores against their English language proficiency levels? I bet they won’t.

The key here, is that policies’ substance — the provisions in the Local Control Accountability Plans, as well as those in the Every Student Succeeds Act — doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It matters more or less at the district, school, and classrooms level according to authorities’ willingness to insist on them. Everything is shaped by those political calculations. To mimic the old question about trees falling alone in forests… if a district is out of legal compliance and the state of California — or the U.S. Department of Education — doesn’t mind, will it matter at all for students?

All education policymaking stems from some more basic theory of change. No Child Left Behind emerged from a premise that federal pressure could focus schools’ efforts on underserved students’ math and literacy achievement — and that this would drive broader improvements across the board.

Now the Every Student Succeeds Act and California’s Local Control Accountability Plans take as a given that local authorities are able and willing to creatively allocate resources and design policies to support equity for underserved students.

There were major problems with NCLB’s approach, without a doubt. But California’s experience with decentralized accountability suggest that it’s likely that ESSA will also leave DLLs in the lurch.

This post is part of New America’s Dual Language Learners National Work Group. Click here for more information on this team’s work. To subscribe to the biweekly newsletter, click here, enter your contact information, and select “Education Policy.”

Conor P. Williams is a senior researcher in New America’s Education Policy Program and founder of its Dual Language Learners National Work Group. Williams is a former first-grade teacher who holds a Ph.D. in government from Georgetown University, a Master of Science for Teachers from Pace University, and a B.A. in government and Spanish from Bowdoin College. He has two young children and an extremely patient wife.

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