Opinion: New California Accountability Dashboard Provides Little Light for Poor Families

"Not everything that is confronted can be altered, but nothing can be altered until it is confronted." —James Baldwin

For over a year, families belonging to Parent Revolution’s Parent Power Network have expressed their concerns regarding the trajectory of California’s school accountability system. They have engaged with legislators, embarked on numerous overnight bus trips to Sacramento to address the State Board of Education, gathered petitions, participated in meetings and webinars organized by the Department of Education, penned op-eds in both English and Spanish, and extensively spoken to the media.

These esteemed parent leaders, predominantly from low-income African-American or Latino households in Los Angeles, have consistently conveyed a message derived from their own collective experiences: families necessitate clear and practical information about their children’s schools to make informed decisions and hold the schools accountable.

Demanding accessible and transparent information about school quality for all families in California is a reasonable expectation, and it should not be an impossible task. In any system’s design, be it an app for grocery sales or regulations for voter registration, prioritizing functionality for the intended audience is paramount. When it became evident that the state was moving in the wrong direction, we partnered with Teach Plus California and the Center for American Progress to propose a comprehensive plan for improving California’s school system design and ensuring it caters to the needs of all Californians.

Despite our continuous efforts, the recently released California school accountability dashboard falls short for many families within the state. In fact, it fails in such a profound and fundamental manner, even after more than three years of planning, that the state’s intentions seem dubious, and its role in closing opportunity gaps remains unclear.

While the dashboard does present data on various indicators of school quality and importantly breaks them down by student subgroups, it disappoints families in almost every other aspect.

Certain indicators rely on data that is two years old or lacks data altogether. It lacks a feature for comparing performance across districts or individual schools. Furthermore, it fails to provide an overall rating that would allow families to easily and swiftly assess school quality and compare their public school options. Astonishingly, the dashboard is not optimized for mobile phones, lacks printable reports, and except for a Google translate button, is only available in English.

Considering that most low-income families in California do not have access to home computers and predominantly use the internet in languages other than English, these omissions clearly demonstrate the state’s intention to provide useful school information exclusively to affluent, English-speaking families. By designing a system that hinders access to and understanding of school information, California has knowingly chosen to exacerbate inequity. And it has done so at the worst time possible, as it is increasingly evident that families are the only ones who will urgently hold schools accountable for student outcomes.

The limitations of this dashboard become even more significant when viewed within a statewide and nationwide context. The federal government is increasingly taking a hands-off approach to holding schools accountable for student outcomes, repealing regulations established during the Obama administration, revising the state ESSA plan template, and failing to incentivize efforts to improve underperforming schools.

While California’s leadership may present itself under a different political guise, it too eagerly adopts a similar approach, championing Governor Jerry Brown’s philosophy of local control and decentralization. Under this leadership, a complex structure has been established, wherein struggling schools receive limited technical support and collaboration, which is ultimately delivered not to the schools themselves, but to counties and districts.

Unfortunately, this is not just a challenge confined to California. In recent weeks, we have observed other states seizing upon this newfound federal "flexibility" as a means to shirk responsibility.

Reasonable individuals may disagree as to whether primary responsibility for educational equity lies with the federal or state government. However, what happens when states decide to pass the buck to districts, and then districts shift the burden onto schools, without any form of accountability up or down the line?

California’s experiment with school funding serves as a cautionary tale. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, mounting evidence indicates that when entrusted with a significant amount of state funding to address inequity, the district has misdirected and misspent these funds. We cannot claim to be serious about tackling inequity while simultaneously undermining interventions and impeding families’ ability to take action on behalf of their children.

California’s current trajectory represents a perilous trend for our most vulnerable children and families, both locally and across the nation. While it is essential to engage in rigorous debates on policy specifics, we cannot cease from boldly and clearly speaking the truth, nor can we afford to lack a sense of urgency when it comes to shaping the future of our children.

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  • owenbarrett

    I'm Owen Barrett, a 31-year-old educational blogger and traveler. I enjoy writing about the places I've visited and sharing educational content about travel and culture. When I'm not writing or traveling, I like spending time with my family and friends.