California is uniquely unequal when it comes to education. The state is home to both the two highest-ranked school districts and five of the bottom-ranked 10 districts. The two highest-ranking are affluent coastal districts, District 33 (which contains Malibu and part of Los Angeles’ Westside) and District 18 (Silicon Valley). The lowest-ranking are low-income inner-city and Central Valley districts. [1]

California has sought to address this problem by increasing funding for schools. In 1988, California voters passed proposition 98, which mandates that a minimum of 40 percent of the state budget go to schools. In 2012, voters passed Proposition 30, which has raised $28 billion for schools, accounting for 12.5 percent on average of a school district’s revenue.[2]  In 2016, Proposition 55 extended the tax rates from Proposition 30 until 2030.[3]

There has been little change in the overall performance of students in California based on the standardized tests that measure knowledge of the Common Core standards.[4] This stagnation has resulted in California falling behind in state comparisons. From 2012 to 2016, California went from 33rd to 42nd for overall grades and scores nationwide; 31st to 43rd in school finance; and 35th to 38th in K-12 achievement, according to Education Week.[5],[6] 

In terms of education, the racial divide is wider in California than in other states, with the state ranked last for education equality by race.[7]  African American students have seen their eighth grade performance decline slightly,[8] while Latino students saw their eighth grade performance overall decline to second to worst in the U.S.[9] Today, fewer than 40 percent of non-white and non-Asian students meet state educational standards. High-needs students and students with disabilities also fell below the 40 percent threshold.[10] [11] 

California schools are failing to prepare high school graduates for college. About 40 percent of students who enroll in California State University system are required to take remedial English and math.[12] If trends continue, California companies will by 2030 lack 1.1 million college-educated workers.[13] 

In the California State University system, 21 of the 23 campuses lack capacity in one or more programs to enroll all the applicants who are qualified. Six of these campuses are fully impacted, meaning all undergraduate majors have reached enrollment capacity.[14]

Eighty-five percent of Californian parents want their child to earn a four-year college degree but only 30 percent of California’s ninth graders will.[15],[16] And in 50 years, the percentage of California’s high school graduates attending a four-year college has not changed, even though a higher percentage are qualified to do so.[17] 

Meanwhile, California’s spending on higher education declined from 18 percent to 12 percent over the last 40 years.[18] The result is Millennial burdened not only with higher housing prices and stagnating wages as well as large debt incurred from higher education.

California's Special Challenges 

California’s unusually high cost of living, large non-English-speaking population, and high poverty rate make the work of school administrators and teachers especially difficult in California. Of the six million children in California’s K-12 schools, about 22 percent are English learners, the highest in the country, and over half are from low-income families.[19] Today, just 17 percent of California’s teachers can afford a median-priced home.[20]

California allocated approximately 30 percent of its budget towards K-12 education in 2016[21], and ranked 16th highest for its share of state expenditures in the U.S. by the National Association of State Budget Officers.[22] But when one accounts for the high cost of living, California actually spends 46th lowest per student.[23] 

The impact of California’s relatively small investment in its schools can be seen in staffing levels. The state has the fourth worst student-to-teacher ratio among the fifty states at 22.5-to-1, as compared to the national average of 15.9-to-1, as of 2016.[24] 

The problems of California’s schools are in many aspects extreme versions of the problems affecting schools in other states. The student achievement gap between rich and poor has grown significantly at a national level, not just in California. Stanford University Professor Sean Reardon discovered that the gap in student performance between high- and low-income families grew 30 to 40 percent between 1986 and 2001, and has been growing since 1961.[25] 

The achievement gap between children in the 90th vs 10th percentiles of family income levels is today nearly twice as large as the one between black and white children, finds Reardon. Fifty years ago, the situation was near-perfectly reversed: the black-white student achievement divide was one and a half as large as the 90-10 income divide.[26]

Education researchers have long recognized that most of what determines student performance are factors outside the classroom, and thus outside the control of principals and teachers. This research finds that the achievement gap between Latinos and African Americans on the one side and whites and Asian Americans on the other already exists by the time students start kindergarten.[27] 

This situation can be seen in one of two ways. The good news about schools is that they do not appear to be increasing the income-achievement gap. The bad news about schools is that they aren’t decreasing the income-achievement gap. Stanford’s Reardon notes that “the income achievement gap is large when children enter kindergarten and does not appear to grow (or narrow) appreciably as children progress through school.”[28]

The dominant factor for the rising income-achievement gap is “increasing parental investment in children's cognitive development.”[29] This increased parental investment, Reardon notes, is not mediated by an increase or decrease in parental education, since

the relationship between parental education and children's achievement has remained relatively stable during the last fifty years, whereas the relationship between income and achievement has grown sharply. Family income is now nearly as strong as parental education in predicting children's achievement.[30] 

And research finds that more affluent parents have more time, energy, and willingness to invest in “parental involvement” than low-income parents..[31]

One response has been government and philanthropic efforts to improve parenting, but they haven’t worked — even for the minority of parents interested in being educated by other adults.[32]

This fact should not lead us to throw up our hands at improving education for the simple reason that we also have abundant evidence that the quality of the teacher can matter significantly to student performance. Teacher quality can be measured over the long-term for their influence on future wages and well-being.[33]

Increasing spending alone was insufficient to improve student performance in California, and there was never much in the way of good evidence showing that increasing funding would result in better student performance. The lack of a relationship between resources and student performance holds true both within and between developed (OECD) nations.[34]

The nearly decade-long experiment with public school reform in Washington, D.C. shows that student performance can be improved significantly by rewarding teachers for performance and replacing underperforming teachers.[35] Dismissal threats for underperforming teachers led to both an increase in voluntary attrition of these teachers and an improvement in the performance of the previously low-performing teachers. And the financial incentives associated with the program further improved the performance of high-performing teachers within the school district.[36]

However, even as test scores were rising in those districts, a growing body of research was finding that standardized testing only benefits a narrow band of students, those “on the bubble” between meeting the standard or not.[37] The researchers refer to this as a consequence of “educational triage.” Teachers under pressure to improve student performance on standardized tests often focused on the students closest to achieving proficiency — the students in the middle — and ignored both the high-achieving and low-achieving students.[38] 

Relatedly, tests hadn’t measured whether individual students were improving their performance, only what percentage of students were meeting a standard. That left teachers feeling that they were being held accountable for things outside of their control, namely the preparedness of the students assigned to them.[39]

To address these problems, Congress in 2015 passed and President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2015 to change how student performance is measured. ESSA established growth in student achievement as the guiding measure, not percentage of students meeting the standard, and rescinded the requirement that educators be evaluated.[40]

And yet none of these reforms address the fact that teachers and many students simply lack the time they need to teach and learn the material due to the length of the school day and school year. For nearly 25 years education experts have recognized this problem. In 1994, the National Education Commission on Time and Learning published a report, “Prisoners of Time,” that warned that core academic instruction for high schoolers had been reduced to just three hours per day. It urged core academic instruction time be increased to at least five and a half hours — an almost 100 percent increase.[41]

The evidence is overwhelming that student performance improves with increased instructional time. Some of the strongest evidence comes from the fact that the achievement gap between rich and poor students widens not during the school year but rather over summer vacation.[42],[43] “The effect of summer break was more detrimental for math than for reading and most detrimental for math computation and spelling,” a major review found. "Also, middle-class students appeared to gain on grade-level equivalent reading recognition tests over summer while lower-class students lost on them.”[44]

Too little instruction time results in students ill-prepared for college or high-skilled work of any kind — the worst of all worlds. Educational researchers have long criticized the “farm schedule” of the current school year and the “factory model” of instruction, where students are all treated the same. The factory model was thought of as an efficient way to instruct children within the short school day.[45] Today’s it’s clear that the outmoded farm schedule and factory model conspire to thwart the needs of most students while leaving teachers and parents frustrated and unhappy.

Education Reform

The last major reform of education was the standardization 125 years ago. In the mid-1800s, Horace Mann went to Prussia and learned the machine-age of education, which divided instruction by age, ability, and subject matter.[46] Before then, elite education involved blending of ages, abilities and subject matter.[47]

What was progressive about Mann’s approach was the widespread deployment of standardized education. It was what was needed for the industrial era, and thus superseded the agricultural era. On his return to the United States, public education was reformed along the Prussian model.[48]

The modern school calendar is also the result of standardization. In the late nineteenth century, a combination of a scientific belief that long term break from school for their healthful, the severe heat in school houses in the summer, and the desire of wealthier urbanites to take long vacations led to the creation of the modern summer vacation. This new school calendar was standardized across rural and urban areas in many different states, whereas previously school calendars had differed by locality.[49] 

But the standardized educational system that worked well for the industrial age is not working well for the digital age. To some extent, this is a consequence of gradual specialization rather than some radical break between paper and digital eras. Economic modernization — going from a world of 90 percent farmers to a farming-industrial economy to one where knowledge and services comprise a majority of a nation’s GDP and workforce — has for 200 years involved rising specialization.

The rising services and knowledge economy requires more social and “soft” skills than traditional schooling with the emphasis on basics allows. Leadership, work ethic and having the ability to collaborate, communicate and respond to criticism, and work both independently and in teams are increasingly valued by employers in all sectors of the economy.[50]

Rising specialization and desire for social and soft skills has led to an emerging consensus among researchers and scholars that the older model of a four year higher education is being replaced by less linear educational pathways, including ones that last a lifetime.[51]


Research finds that targeting instruction to meet individual student needs leads to improvements in student success. This research supports the widespread view that good teachers and schools can make a significant difference in the life of a student, even ones who come from high levels of disadvantage.[52] 

What tutoring does is increase the speed of a student’s learning over classroom lecturing. Children go at their own speed, which means they are being challenged but also rewarded for success. They are neither bored nor discouraged.

Tutoring is a craft but highly-teachable and learnable. Teachers tend to enjoy tutoring over teaching because their pride comes from success of the child, and it’s must faster and easier in tutoring than in traditional schooling.

In short, the evidence strongly suggests that one-on-one tutoring would improve the performance not simply of most but almost all children. If money were no object, more one-on-one tutoring is something most administrators, educators, and parents would support.

The good news is that the world’s best teachers of every grade of math and reading and subjects including social science is already on-line in the form of the free and wonderfully clear Khan Academy, School of Life, Discovery, and TED talks.

Critics of standardized testing have a good point when they point out how dreadfully dull a great deal of textbook teaching is and must be in order for students to pass the test. But they are wrong that standards and testing should be discarded.

One of the few sectors of the society that has remained largely unaltered by the digital revolution is the one most squarely focused on knowledge: education. Despite more than three decades of personal computers in schools, the full potential of the Internet remains untapped.

The real potential of computers and the Internet for education is personalization. In chapter four we discussed how standardized testing addresses only a minority of students, and in chapter five we addressed how summer vacation undermines educational progress.

Flipping the classroom is one of the few things almost everyone supports, and there is a growing body of research supporting it as “effective and scalable.”[53],[54]  Flipping the classroom allows teachers to give more individualized attention to students so they can meet students where they are, and challenge them in ways appropriate to each of them, both one-on-one, as well as through the combination of videos and classwork.

As students watch more lectures and get more lessons from digital media, teachers are freed up to be tutors. Children can interrupt video media to meet with teachers in much more frequent, personalized and shorter check-ins on work assignments that keep children on track and prevent them from getting stuck and discouraged.

Modernize the School Day and School Year

As early as 1983, when the US Department of Education published a “Nation At Risk,” warning of the declining quality of the country’s schools, experts urged a lengthening of the school year to 220 days from today’s average of 180.[55]

Support for longer class days and years comes from the fact that school and class attendance are strong factors determining student performance. One study finds that one-quarter of the income-achievement gap is caused by differences in attendance rate.[56]

The problem is not that school is too hard but rather that the school day is too short and too badly structured for everyone, especially students. Students who are struggling to meet standards need more time to absorb the material. Students who meet the standards need to also be challenged. A longer school day and school year allows opportunities to innovate. We can integrate new kinds of learning including more social, physical and vocational education into the school day.

For students in California to receive the education they need to compete globally, the school day must match the 9 to 5 work day. Parents should be able to drop their children at school before work and get them afterwards.

A longer school day and school year would likely require more hours worked by teachers, but not necessarily very many. The average teacher works 10 hours and 40 minutes per school day.[57] If those hours were reduced to 40 hours per week, a teacher could work the same average number of hours annually for 48 weeks per year.[58] This new schedule would eliminate homework for both students and teachers. Students would do — and teachers would grade — classwork while at school. By reducing the work week from 50 to 40 hours, we can extend the school year.


Personalization is important for getting students the skills they need for the workforce. The fashionable idea has long been that all students should attend four year universities and gets degrees, but this approach has failed. In 2016, twenty percent of California’s college students dropped out. They weren’t getting the education or support they needed.

Not everybody wants or needs to go to a four year college. But many will need vocational education that will give them the skills they need to make more money after high school or a two year community college.

Consider Germany’s continuously modernized dual-education system. It combines vocational education with an apprenticeship program, which allows students the opportunity to gain real-world occupational experience alongside traditional theoretical learning.

The system has been very successful in preparing young Germans for careers. Since the implementation of major reforms in 2005, the share of Germans in their 20s without formal employment qualifications declined from 16.5% to 12.9%. The system now offers nearly 65% of 16-20 year olds workplace training in addition to classroom learning, up from 57% in the early 2000s.[59]

The German model has been studied by many countries looking to reform education, most recently emulated by South Korea to better prepare Korean students to navigate a competitive job market. In California, too few high school students gain the opportunity to apprentice and must instead rely on guidance counsellors disconnected from labor markets.

And this is a strategy to personalize and professionalize education to create higher-skilled, more competitive, and more satisfied students, while reducing the burden schools impose on parents and teachers. Through schedule reform and personalized digital educations, we can eliminate homework, schoolwork, and testing over time. And we can tailor lesson plans, videos, readings, and exercises to specific level of the student, so that low-performing, high-performing, and median-performing students are all challenged and then rewarded for their progress, creating a virtuous cycle.


[1] Burd-Sharps and Lewis, Ibid, p. 28. The five consist of district 51 (which contains Chula Vista and all of Imperial County), 16 (located in the San Joaquin Valley containing the city of Merced), 44 (located in South LA containing the city of Compton), 21 (containing parts of Fresno, Kings Valley and San Joaquin Valley), and in last place, 40 (which contains parts of East, South and South Central LA

[2] California State Controller’s Office “Track Prop 30: State of California K-12 Education Profile”; California Department of Education, School Fiscal Services Division: SACS Unaudited Actual Data; The California Department of Education tracks California K-12 school funding increases from Proposition 30 tax increases—reported by the California State Controller. The California Department of Education also tracks schools’ yearly revenue. The percentage of school funding from Proposition 30 tax increases is calculated by dividing the sum of yearly funding from Proposition 30 tax increases by the sum of yearly California schools’ revenue.

[3] Liam Dillon,  "Voters approved Proposition 55, which extends higher income taxes rates for wealthiest Californians”, Los Angeles Times, November 6, 2016.

[4] John Fensterwald,  “Average scores flat in 3rd year of California's Common Core-aligned tests,” EdSource, September 27, 2017.

[5] “Quality Counts 2012,” Education Week, January 2012.

[6] “Quality Counts 2016,” Education Week, January 2016

[7] “Best States: Equality Rankings,” U.S. News and World Report, 2017.

[8] “State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson Announces Results of California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress Online Tests,” California Department of Education News Release 17-67a, September 27, 2017

[9] “The Majority Report,” The Education Trust-West, November 2017.

[10] “California’s Future,” Public Policy Institute of California, January 2018.

[11] Ibid. PPIC.

[12] “Fall 2015 Freshman Proficiency At Entry (Fall 2015) and One Year Later (Fall 2016)”, Systemwide.

[13] Hans Johnson, et al., “Higher Education,” California Futures, Public Policy Institute of California, January 2018

[14] September 2017. “2018-2019 CSU Undergraduate Impacted Programs Matrix,” The California State University.

[15] Mark Baldassare, Dean Bonner, David Kordus & Lunna Lopes, “PPIC Statewide Survey: Californians and Education,” Public Policy Institute of California, April 2017

[16]Niu Gau & Hans Johnson, “Improving College Pathways in California.” Public Policy Institute of California, November 2017.

[17]Niu Gau & Hans Johnson, “Improving College Pathways in California.” Public Policy Institute of California, November 2017.

[18] “Investing in Public Higher Education,” PPIC Higher Education Center, September 2017.

[19] Richard Alba and Jennifer Holdaway “The Children of Immigrants at School: A Comparative Look at Integration in the United States and Western Europe” New York University Press, 2013

[20]  Jeffrey Marino, “California Fails the Affordability Test for Teachers,” Redfin, September 20, 2016.

[21] California Enacted Budget, 2015-2016.

[22] “State Expenditure Report 2016: Examining 2015 - 2017 State Spending,” National Association of State Budget Officers.

[23]  “Quality Counts 2017,” Education Week, January 2017; “Rankings of the States 2016 and Estimates of School Statistics 2017,” National Education Association, May 2017

[24]“Rankings & Estimates: Rankings of the States 2014 and Estimates of School Statistics 2015: C-6. Students Enrolled Per Teacher In Public K–12 Schools, Fall 2013,”  National Education Association, March 2015

[25] Sean Reardon, “The Widening Academic Achievement Gap Between the Rich and the Poor: New Evidence and Possible Explanations,” Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis, July 2011.  

[26]  Sean Reardon,“The Widening Academic Achievement Gap Between the Rich and the Poor: New Evidence and Possible Explanations,” Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis,  July 2011.

[27] Nate Jensen,“Research Explores Impact of Summer Learning Loss on Student Achievement Gaps,” NWEA, June 24, 2014.

[28] Sean Reardon, “The widening academic achievement gap between the rich and the poor: New evidence and possible explanation,” New York: Russell Sage Foundation Press, 2011.

[29] Sean Reardon, “The widening academic achievement gap between the rich and the poor: New evidence and possible explanation,” New York: Russell Sage Foundation Press, 2011.

[30]  Sean Reardon, “The widening academic achievement gap between the rich and the poor: New evidence and possible explanation,” New York: Russell Sage Foundation Press, 2011.

[31] Susanna Loeb & Ben York, “Helping parents help their children,”  Evidence Speaks - The Brookings Institution, 2016.

“We need self-control to focus on long-term goals, and many of us don’t have enough,” write Loeb and York. “Parenting requires similar self-control. While regular educational interactions with children have some immediate rewards, many of the benefits come later. What makes matters worse, the benefits of alternative choices, such as washing the dishes or of talking with friends, can bring parents more immediate pleasure.”

[32] Ibid

[33] Pam Grossman & Susanna Loeb, “Memo: Improving the teacher workforce,” Brown Center Chalkboard - The Brookings Institution, 2016

[34] Eric Hanushek, “Assessing the Effects of School Resources on Student Performance: An Update,” Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis. Volume 19, Issue 2, 1997.

[35] Melinda Adnot , Thomas Dee, Veronica Katz & James Wyckoff, “Teacher Turnover, Teacher Quality, and Student Achievement in DCPS,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, vol 39(1), pages 54-76, 2017

[36] Thomas Dee & James Wyckoff, “Incentives, Selection, and Teacher Performance: Evidence from IMPACT” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, October 2013

[37] Linda McNeil, “Contradictions of School Reform: Educational Costs of Standardized Testing,”Routledge, 2000.

[38] Jennifer Jennings & Heeju Sohn, “Measure for Measure: How Proficiency-Based Accountability Systems Affect Inequality in Academic Achievement,” Sociology of Education, Volume 87, Issue 2, pgs 125-141, March 10, 2014

[39] Jennifer Jennings & Heeju Sohn, “Measure for Measure: How Proficiency-Based Accountability Systems Affect Inequality in Academic Achievement,” Sociology of Education, Volume 87, Issue 2, pgs 125-141, March 10, 2014

[40] “Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA),” U.S. Department of Education.

[41] “Prisoners Of Time,” Report of the National Education Commission on Time and Learning, April 1994.

[42] Alexander, K. et al. April 1, 2007. “Lasting Consequences of the Summer Learning Gap,” American Sociological Review; Volume 72, Issue 2.

[43] Downey, D. et al. October 1, 2004. “Are Schools the Great Equalizer? Cognitive Inequality during the Summer Months and the School Year,” American Sociological Review; Volume 69, Issue 5.

[44] Cooper, H. et al. September 1, 1996. “The Effects of Summer Vacation on Achievement Test Scores: A Narrative and Meta-Analytic Review,” Review of Educational Research; Volume 66, Issue 3.

[45]Eileen O'Brien, “Making time: What research says about re-organizing school schedules,” The Center for Public Education, September 25, 2006

[46] Curran, K., “The Romanesque Revival: Religion, Politics, and Transnational Exchange,” Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003.

[47] Blakemore, "In Early 1800s American Classrooms, Students Governed Themselves,” History, September 6, 2017; Hunt, T., Carper J., Lasley, T, and Raisch, C. "Encyclopedia Of Educational Reform And Dissent” p. 33-34. January 12, 2010.

[48] Curran, K., “The Romanesque Revival: Religion, Politics, and Transnational Exchange,” Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003.

[49] Gold, K. M., “School's in: The History of Summer Education in American Public Schools,” 2002.

[50] National Association of Colleges and Employers, “Job Outlook 2016” November 2015

[51] Kirst, M., & Stevens, M., “Remaking College: The Changing Ecology of Higher Education,” Stanford University Press, 2015

[52] York, B., “Know the Child: The Importance of Teacher Knowledge of Individual Students' Skills (KISS),”Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis, 2014

“To estimate the effect of [knowledge of individual students’ skills] (KISS), on student learning, I use a set of student and subject fixed effects models that control for the non-random sorting of students into classrooms, average differences in how well teachers know particular children, and baseline achievement. I find that a standard deviation increase in KISS positively impacts kindergartners’ and first graders’ achievement by about 0.08-0.09 standard deviations. This result is highly robust to a number of different modeling choices and alternative explanations.”

[53] “Flipping the classroom,” California Teachers Association, Volume 17, Issue 4, December 2012.

[54] Davies, R. et al.“Flipping the classroom and instructional technology integration in a college-level information systems spreadsheet course,” Education Technology Research and Development,  June 11, 2013.  

[55] “A Nation At Risk: The Imperative For Educational Reform,” U.S. Department of Education, April 1983.

[56] Loeb, S., & Liu, J., “Going to school is optional: Schools need to engage students to increase their lifetime opportunities,” The Brookings Institution, 2016

“Using variation in attendance caused by inclement weather, one study estimated that each additional absence reduced math achievement by 0.05 standard deviations, suggesting that attendance can account for up to one-fourth of the achievement gap by income. A similar study using data on students in Philadelphia found that living farther from school increased absences and resulted in lower grade point averages and test scores.”

[57] “Primary Sources 2012: America’s Teachers on the Teaching Profession,” Scholastic and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 2012.

[58] Calculated by taking the average length of a teacher’s work day and multiplying it by 180 days, the number of instructional days required by the majority of states. Dividing these hours into 40 hour work weeks results in 48.015 work weeks.

[59] Anger, C. et al.  “Bildungsmonitor 2017: Eine Bildungsagenda für mehr Wachstum und Gerechtigkeit,” Institut der deutschen Wirtschaft Köln, August 2017

Information retrieved initially from Professor Adam Tooze: