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Quantifying the Unquantifiable: Special Education Woes in California

Updated: May 15

Education always comes up short when it myopically assesses students as the producers of units of correct effort which can be quantified and standardized. If many people were consistently gauged by their performance in either third grade, or even twelfth grade, predictions for those students' future accomplishments in their adult lives would be sorely limited, and often far off the mark from their real potential.

Education is a continuum, not a static delivery of learning to students which uniformly prompts an immediately measurable response. As the social sciences and great literature have taught us, individuals are the sum of all of their experiences, and their emergence from those experiences throughout their lifetime. We do need to be able to evaluate our educators and educational methodologies, but the evaluation is not only quantitative, but highly qualitative and personal.

Whilst working as a special education teacher in the public school district during the pandemic, I saw the assiduous marketing of the district's approach, versus the reality of its delivery. The word that comes to mind for all who work within the special education domain is exasperation. Exasperation on the part of the students, teachers, parents, administrators, and governmental bureaucrats. No one is immune, and no one emerges unscathed.

As a social scientist, I must separate my individual perception of the broken special education approach in the California public school system from the greater problem of assessing how to best remedy its egregious shortfall. It does not uphold its declared mission to California students and their families. Special education in California, despite the resilient public messaging claiming its systemic prioritization, continues to be the troublesome stepchild of a mismanaged and underfunded educational sub-area.

Each year public school administrators tout the latest learning protocol from a recently-published educator's book or a legislative PR campaign, as the benchmark for good teaching. Not only do these revolving slogans not fix the recurring problems in student learning, they are moot for the increasing number of special education students for whom a one-size-fits-all model is anathema, and frankly speaking, a deception.

"The 2021–22 budget package increases the funding level for the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) with an increase in funding of 5.07 percent over 2019–20 funding levels. The total overall funding (federal, state, and local) for all K–12 education programs is $124.3 billion, with per-pupil spending of $21,596 in 2021–22. For 2020–21, per-pupil funding increased from $16,881 in the 2020–21 Budget Act to $23,089 in the 2021–22 Budget Act." (

As impressive as the aforementioned statistics might appear, they are based upon taking the total funding amount for the state system and dividing it by the total number of students enrolled. As any teacher who works in public education in California can tell you, the average student does not feel the benefits of $23,089 per annum in their individual educational experience. Many of these funds go to pay the huge bureaucracy of mid to upper-level administrators who orchestrate and enable the failing system. These same administrators do not teach or interact daily with students in the classroom. They construct systems and strategies designed to instruct and control teachers, but they are unsuccessful in so-doing, and drive the most committed educators among them out of the field entirely.

A huge number of highly qualified teachers who enter the system with a sincere commitment to working to improve students' learning soon shift to administrative jobs within the public school monolith, which take them away from the daily classroom dynamic, and seat them in pseudo-management positions where their stated mission is to define for teachers how they should do their jobs. This approach has not worked in past generations, and it is not working today. The unquantifiable alchemy inherent in meaningful teaching does not survive the algorithm du jour of political bureaucrats. In the meantime, California students and families who need this public human right to education most bear the brunt of our flailing school districts.

But, I am not recounting anything that most of you who have taken the time to read this do not already know.

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