In this report, we have compared the performance of California students
with the performance of students from states with populations as diverse
as California's. While the data represent a snapshot rather than a long-term
view, they provide important insights into how well public education is
The data suggest a very divided student population in California. The
higher-performing students-who often come from more advantaged neighborhoods-do
about as well as similar students in comparison states. Low-performing students,
on the other hand, fare considerably worse than low-performing students
in comparison states.
This finding clearly demonstrates the need to focus particular effort
on improving the achievement of low-performing students. The failure to
adequately address the needs of these students not only carries serious
consequences for the individuals, but for society as a whole. Education
has long been considered the avenue to greater opportunity. The achievement
disparities noted here raise the specter of a two-tiered society, where
public education no longer provides to many the tools needed for a better
The achievement of California's students is also an important factor
in the health of the state's economy. If businesses perceive that the typical
student in California is less proficient than in other states or countries,
companies may look elsewhere to locate or expand.
While there is no one strategy to improve educational performance, policymakers
can contribute to the long-term success of the educational system. Improving
the achievement of low-performing
students should be a high priority. Promoting local implementation of
school-to-work programs is one avenue to improve academic and career opportunities
for students who typically do not continue on to college after high school.
In addition, policymakers can review whether programs targeted at low-performing
students are sufficiently flexible, targeted, and funded to give local educators
the tools needed to successfully address the needs of these students.
More generally, however, policymakers should be looking broadly at K-12
education to improve educational services for all students. The lesson of
previous education reform is that improvements in education occur in the
classroom. The state or federal government can encourage, but not accomplish,
this goal. Therefore, policymakers should concentrate on supporting reform
at the local level rather than mandating a new set of programs. A revision
of the state's complex categorical program structure is one step that could
encourage more successful local programs.
Improving the quality of educational data and training teachers and administrators
to use that data to improve local programs is another important step. Outcome
data are essential to understanding the success of local programs and of
state efforts to improve schools. As we discussed in this report, very little
comparable data are available and what exist are difficult to interpret.
Educational data must improve to allow a deeper understanding of student
performance and the factors that contribute to those outcomes.