There were pessimistic headlines and TV news stories when a major study concluded in early summer that because of inferior public schools, California kids have a worse chance to achieve the American Dream of financial security than those in 33 other states. But that alarm was grossly misleading.
The implication of headlines like “State’s children less likely to succeed” and “California 34th in nation” was that this state’s schools are doing an abysmal job preparing students for success.
That’s seriously off-base because of the handicaps under which California schools now operate: this state has the lowest percentage in the nation of children whose parents speak fluent English (62 percent), it has the second lowest percentage of kids with parents earning middle incomes (58 percent) and the second lowest percentage of children with at least one college-graduate parent (37 percent).
You will not find an educator who does not correlate those three factors with the academic success that usually is a precursor of economic well-being. And schools cannot do anything to mitigate these conditions.
The reason California lags in all these categories is simple: immigration.
The current wave of immigrants is perhaps the least educated in American history. The vast majority of immigrants arriving in California today are poor. Most did not even finish elementary school in their home countries. They drag down the percentages of educated, English-speaking, middle-class parents. In some districts, like Los Angeles and San Francisco, children of these low-income, school-dropout immigrant parents make up the single largest element of the school-age population.
More such immigrants come to California than any other state, with New Mexico getting the second-highest percentage influx. That makes it a contest between this state and New Mexico for last place in categories like high school graduation, children with at least one parent working full time, young adults enrolled in college or holding a degree and adults with full-time jobs.
Because it gets relatively fewer immigrants, lowly Mississippi – which once occupied last place in virtually all categories linked to academic and career success – has moved up a couple of places, according to the new report from the Washington, D.C.-based Editorial Projects in Education Research Center.
But ranking last or nearly last in nearly every category that foreshadows success and still coming out 34th overall in the likelihood of success for its young people says a lot that’s positive about what California schools have been doing the last few years.
It turns out California kids begin to overcome the odds against them as early as about age three. More California children than kids in even Virginia – the state whose kids are most likely to succeed (in part because that state has the highest percentage of English-speaking parents) – attend kindergarten and almost as many are in preschool. Fully 78 percent of California five-year-olds are in kindergarten, compared to 74 percent in both high-flying Virginia and lowly New Mexico. About 46 percent of California three-year-olds are in preschool of some sort, compared with 47 percent in Virginia and just 39 percent in New Mexico.
“The school years are where things start to turn around for California,” reported Christopher Swanson, director of the research center. “Its school system is not the most stellar in the country, but it’s holding its own and working with an educational population that’s fairly challenging.”
“Fairly challenging” is a gross understatement in this state where gang warfare, English learners and migrant workers are commonplace.
The basic conclusion to be reached is this: The rigorous and clear academic expectations adopted for every grade level in California are working. No, higher standards have not yet stemmed the tide of high school dropouts. No, higher standards can’t compel parents to speak English at home.
But yes, the standards have lifted the overall population of California schoolkids far above the projected success levels that might be expected from a state where public school teachers operate under enormous handicaps.
All of which means that despite all that’s unquestionably wrong with California’s public schools, they’re also doing a lot right.