May 16 2019

California’s Positive Outliers: Districts Beating the Odds

Positive Outliers Series

To succeed in the 21st century, young people need to be able to think critically, collaborate effectively, communicate clearly, solve complex problems, and continue to learn independently throughout their lives. In order to equip the next generation of Californians with these skills, the state adopted new learning standards and assessments that require all students to engage in higher-order thinking and problem-solving. Around the same time, California implemented a new funding and accountability system, the Local Control Funding Formula, which allocated funds based on pupil needs and removed most categorical restrictions on spending.

 After controlling for the socioeconomic status of students' families and district characteristics, LPI finds that teacher qualifications are the most important school-related predictors of student achievement.
–California’s Positive Outliers: Districts Beating the Odds

While these changes were motivated in part by the desire to improve the achievement of historically underserved students, statewide assessments show that achievement gaps in many districts continue to widen. Despite such achievement gaps across the state between students from different racial/ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, some California school districts have excelled at supporting the learning of students of color and students from low-income families. We refer to these California school districts as “positive outliers” because their students are beating the odds. In these districts, students of color, as well as White students, consistently achieve at higher than expected levels, outperforming students of similar racial/ethnic backgrounds from families of similar income and education levels in most other California districts.

Positive outlier districts appear to have leveraged the state’s updated educational standards, funding, and accountability systems to support students in meeting the more rigorous academic standards. We conducted an analysis identified 156 positive outlier districts of significant size. These results show, for the first time, which California districts and communities appear to have best supported the academic achievement of African American and Hispanic students, as well as White students, in the first three years of the new assessments—the 2015–17 California Assessment Student Performance and Progress in mathematics and English language arts—controlling for the socioeconomic status of families in each district.


California’s Positive Outliers: Districts Beating the Odds​ by Anne Podolsky, Linda Darling-Hammond, Christopher Doss, and Sean Reardon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

This research was supported by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Core operating support for the Learning Policy Institute is also provided by the Sandler Foundation and the Ford Foundation. We are grateful to them for their generous support. The ideas in this report are those of the authors and not of our funders.