Finding a Balance between Local Control and State Guidance

Now that California has enacted sweeping reforms to K-12 education, the state finds itself in the midst of a balancing act. California’s policymakers have shifted greater decision-making to school districts though the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) and the Local Control Accountability Plans (LCAPs). And yet the state also seeks consistent and equitable implementation of its vision for student learning—as represented in the Common Core State Standards in math and English, the Next Generation Science Standards, and the aligned Smarter Balanced assessments. Now that these policies are enacted, a key challenge for state policymakers is to find a balance between local control, on the one hand, and state guidance on the other, so as to support equitable opportunities for all students statewide.

A case in point is college and career readiness (CCR). With the adoption of the Common Core, state policymakers signaled the importance of preparing more students for college and careers, but what does this mean for schools and what challenges do local educators face in implementation? At EdInsights, we’ve conducted studies since 2014 to understand how the vision of CCR that’s embedded in the Common Core is being understood across the state. What we found is that, in general, the teachers we interviewed are excited to support student learning in areas that were not emphasized with prior standards, such as analysis, synthesis, and inference.

Based on our research, however, we also found four challenges with regard to local CCR efforts: (1) a lack of clarity about what CCR means in practice, particularly with regard to math instruction, “nonacademic” knowledge and skills, and career readiness; (2) a lack of coherence across college and career readiness programs within regions, districts, and schools; (3) a lack of capacity in terms of the professional learning needed to develop and improve college readiness efforts, except through one-time grants; and (4) a lack of sustainability for those efforts that do exist. Local educators said they wanted more guidance from the state in the above areas—as well as in assessing student outcomes for CCR, to know how well they are doing in supporting student learning. Educators also want deeper, more consistent connections with higher education.

In a separate study, we asked community college students about their CCR experiences in high school. They told us that work-based learning opportunities were critically important to them. Nearly all the students we interviewed who participated in internships described the value they received in being exposed to the world of work, particularly in keeping them engaged in school. Further, they told us that relationships with an influential adult at school had been crucial to their persistence and success in school, whether that adult worked at a CCR program or elsewhere. They also said that they were not prepared enough for community college. They were surprised by the demands of college, including the challenges of studying independently and the rigors of college coursework.

Our research over the past two years tells us that educators do not want to reinvent the wheel. Yes, they want local control of key decisions, but they also want guidance from the state about which models to consider. They’ve told us that the state’s efforts regarding CCR are not yet fully defined. And for their part, students told us they want access to career readiness programs and they want better preparation for college.

So what can the state do regarding CCR policy, within a local-control environment?

1. Determine who has access to high-quality CCR programs statewide and then broaden that access, to ensure equitable access throughout the state, including in rural areas.
2. Identify and disseminate information about exemplary CCR programs, to assist school districts in implementing their own models.
3. Expand the kinds of CCR programs included in CALPADS. There are many career pathway programs in use by school districts for which the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System (CALPADS) does not collect student performance data.
4. Incentivize cross-system collaboration. Collaboration between K-12 and higher education in pathway programs offers a good place to build on existing momentum, but there are barriers to sharing data in a systematic way.
5. Refine the College/Career Indicator (CCI) in the state’s new accountability system, but proceed with caution. Local educators expressed concerns about the difficulty of measuring career readiness accurately. Since the metrics that make up the CCI are based on data that are already collected by the state, there may be possible negative impacts on existing local programs that are not included in CALPADS or that are not readily quantifiable, like time management skills.
6. Strengthen the focus of school climate in the CCI. Students in our study were nearly unanimous in asserting the centrality of having a caring adult guiding their educational careers.

For state policymakers, there may be a tension between providing local control and state guidance—but not so much on the part of local educators. School teachers and local administrators appear to want local control of decision-making and clearer, more specific, guidance from the state. As college and career readiness principles continue to be implemented locally, state policymakers should be receptive to local concerns so that the statewide vision is executed successfully.