But the heart of the problem lies in California's K-12 education: According to the Department of Education's National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests, California eighth-graders came in forty-eighth in 2007 among the 50 states and District of Columbia in reading and forty-fifth in math.
At the conference at Stanford, members of Hoover's Task Force on K-12 Education tried to explain why schools in California and elsewhere were performing poorly. The experts generally blamed bad teaching and the refusal of the teachers' unions to do anything about it. They want to improve the teaching through evaluations that weed out bad teachers, through merit pay to reward good ones, and by paying extra to teachers willing to teach in problematic schools. They also want to use school choice and, in some cases, vouchers, and the establishment of charter schools to pressure poorly performing schools. (With support from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has advanced a set of proposals along these lines.) For many reformers, everything begins and ends with bad teachers and union obstinacy.
At the gathering, held in a plush conference room, one of the experts projected tables and graphs comparing various states. It was there that I had my own "AHA!" moment. The states with thriving educational systems were generally northern, predominately white, and with relatively few immigrants: the New England states, North Dakota, and Minnesota. That bore out the late Senator Patrick Moynihan's quip that the strongest factor in predicting SAT scores was proximity to the Canadian border.
The states grouped with California on the lower end of the bar graph were Deep South states like Mississippi and Alabama with a legacy of racism and with a relative absence of new-economy jobs; states like West Virginia that have relatively few jobs for college grads; and states like Nevada, New Mexico, and Hawaii that have huge numbers of non-English-speaking, downscale immigrants whose children are entering the schools.
California clearly falls into the last group, suggesting that California's poor performance since the 1960s may not have been due to an influx of bad teachers, or the rise of teachers' unions, but to the growth of the state's immigrant population after the 1965 federal legislation on immigration opened the gates.
In California, one in four students has to learn English in school, while the average in the United States is less than one in ten. Half of California students are eligible for free or reduced meals. Together, almost 60 percent of California's school population is made up of Hispanics, many of them low-income, and African Americans--groups that generally have a much lower rate of student achievement than whites, Asians, and upper-income students. (One in three Latinos fails to graduate from high school.) And that affects how well schools do in the Department of Education's measure of "Adequate Yearly Progress" (AYP). As the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) reports: "Fifty percent of elementary schools with the highest share of low-income students made AYP in 2007, whereas 98 percent of elementary schools with the lowest share of low-income students made AYP. This suggests that AYP reveals more about the type of students who attend a school than it does about the effectiveness of teachers and administrators at that school.”
This is not to say that exceptional teachers can't make a difference. It is also not to say that non-English-speaking immigrant kids are unteachable. But they are more difficult to teach, especially when their parents aren't high school graduates. And, without an extraordinary infusion of resources, as well as active and knowledgeable support from parents, their achievement levels are likely to bring down a state's bar graph.