Tom Torlakson’s blueprint

Create a Commission on Educator Excellence to jump-start policies on teacher and principal development; increase the adoption of digital materials; incorporate phys ed  into a school’s API score.

These are among dozens of recommendations in Superintendent Tom Torlakson’s “Blueprint for Great Schools,” a 25-page report released on Tuesday. Seven months in the making, it’s the product of his massive transition team, 59 advisers consisting of  parents, business leaders, teachers, academicians, and school administrators.

Sweeping in its scope, the report makes a number of reasonable suggestions without hard edges – a reflection of Torlakson’s consensus style, temperament, and interests: teacher training, career-technical education, and early childhood education.

In California’s fractured division of K-12 responsibilities, Torlakson doesn’t set policy; the State Board does. But his priorities also match up well with those of Gov. Jerry Brown, State Board President Michael Kirst, who chaired Torlakson’s school finance subcommittee, and key Democratic legislators, Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg in particular. And, from all appearances, Torlakson and the State Board are making great efforts to work together. So there’s a chance that some of the report’s proposals – especially those not requiring substantial new money – may gain traction. The report also has the weight of the transition team’s two co-chairs, Stanford University School of Education Professor Linda Darling-Hammond and David Rattray, senior vice president of education and workforce development for the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce.

Revive languishing programs for teachers

Budget cuts, combined with flexible spending, have shrunk teacher and administrator development and training programs. California has cut or malnourished model programs – like BTSA (Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment), Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) – for mentoring underperforming teachers, as well as School Leadership Academies. There is little collaboration time left for teachers.

The Commission on Educator Excellence will focus on reviving some of these programs. Darling-Hammond, who chaired the educator quality subcommittee and has agreed to serve on the State Commission on Teacher Credentialing, champions another idea which the report says could “dramatically strengthen educator preparation”:  enforcing the new performance assessments that all beginning teachers must take and using the results to measure the quality of teacher preparation programs.

An effective teacher and administrator evaluation system would be the glue binding these programs together. The report does recommend the creation of one without venturing into the hot-button details, other than to say the new system should incorporate “appropriate evidence of student learning.”

Integrating career technical education or “linked learning” into high school while better aligning K-12 courses with college and career expectations is a focus of the report. It urges removing the constraints that  A-G – the courses required for admission to a CSU or UC school – and standardized tests have imposed in discouraging students to take, and schools to offer, courses in engineering, biotechnology, and technology. They are electives, not sciences, under A-G.

It also recommends removing barriers preventing high school students from taking community college courses and – listen up, Jerry Brown – urges linking CALPADS, the K-12 student database, with higher education and workforce databases to track students’ records of success.

Other recommendations include:

  • Building on a process started by Gov. Schwarzenegger, speed up the instructional materials adoption process to allow more digital materials and create incentives to provide inexpensive Internet and computing devices to all students. “It may be structured as a  public-private investment as long as the benefits are provided for all kids,” Darling-Hammond told me;
  • Revise the high school exit exam to make it more relevant to preparing for college and career goals;
  • Protect First Five State Commission and county commissions’ funding to preserve vital services for children up to age five;
  • Develop a web of support for children, maternal education, and home visits to infants;
  • Increase access to high-quality summer learning programs, especially all-day programs that blend recreation and academic support;
  • Support legislation allowing passage of a parcel tax by a 55 percent majority vote;
  • Create incentives for district consolidation to save money;
  • Use emerging technologies for more efficient operations and improvements in instruction; revise regulations on minimum instruction time to capture efficiency.

Author: John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (www.TOPed.org), one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

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