06/01/2010 02:37 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

California Gets Education Data

The Center for American Progress (CAP) may be based in Washington, DC, but that doesn't mean it can't spot a good public policy taking place 3,000 miles away. One recent example is California's exemplary data collection when it comes to educational spending. Most states require reporting school district by school district. California requires reporting school by school. That unit of analysis makes a big difference. Let me explain why.

Say a school district has two schools. In both schools, $5,000 dollars is being spent per student. Now imagine another school district. In this one, one school is spending $8,000 per student and the other is spending $2,000 per student. This district, like the first one, is spending $5,000 per student. But that $5,000 number - the district average - doesn't come close to telling the whole story. The average masks some serious inequity, namely the $6,000 spending disparity between schools. California has made a statutory effort to lift this "fog of averages" by requiring districts to report, among other things, school by school averages.

CAP recently released two papers that examine both the genesis and implications of California's forward-thinking reporting requirements. One, Lifting the Fog of Averages, is by John Affeldt and Guillermo Mayer. It describes how the California policy came to be and the implications it has nationally, especially in relation to President Obama's hopes for the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The second paper, by CAP's Associate Director for Education Research Raegen T. Miller, is entitled Comparable, Schmomparable: Evidence of Inequity in the Allocation of Funds for Teacher Salary Within California's Public School Districts. Miller digs through the data created by the California requirements and holds statewide within-district inequity up to the light of day. In doing so, Miller shows districts how to get a better grasp on the connection between achievement gaps and resource allocation while also giving the U.S. Congress actual data on why ESEA needs to be improved.

Having grown up in California, I have experienced the many ways my state has gotten policies very wrong and very right in areas ranging from education to the environment. As the new Director of CAP's California office, I look forward to harnessing our six California-based Senior Fellows as well as the other best and brightest thinkers and doers in our state all towards the goal of improving the lives of every American through progressive ideas and action. I invite you to keep coming back to this space for more lessons from the West Coast.