Jerry Brown’s ed plan reflects realism toward school reform

Gov.-elect Jerry Brown’s education plan is smart, pragmatic, and, in one respect, a little bit pregnant.

Brown’s adviser and Stanford professor Mike Kirst suggested I reexamine the governor-elect’s plan, this with the assurance that the governor-elect means to do what he said. A close reread opens the eyes to possibilities for substantial reform that can be accomplished, or at least begun, in these tough budgetary times. Smart. Pragmatic.

(My comments follow with page and paragraph references to Brown’s plan for those who want to follow along with the original.)

In a world where “you campaign in poetry, but govern in prose,” Brown didn’t get the poetry part, but the prose is good. He and Kirst have moved well beyond the simplistic I’ll-be-an-education-governor, blow-it-all-up rhetoric. When was the last time anyone heard a candidate say that schools in California are making progress toward measured cognitive achievement goals? (page 1, para 2). In fact, they are. By no measure are the schools where they need to be, but they are moving in the right direction. A couple weeks ago I talked with Laura Schwalm, the veteran superintendent of Garden Grove, whose district won the Broad Prize honoring urban districts several years ago. Even from a relatively high level of achievement, Schwalm says, “our worst school is now doing better than our best school was then.” There are similar stories throughout the state.

And when ever has a governor-elect said: “I approach this task with some humility, and a realization there is no silver bullet that will fix everything. Education improvement takes time, persistence, and a systematic approach.” Humility? Refreshing (page 1, para 3). Brown comes to this humility in part because he’s actually tried to turn around schools. He started two charters in Oakland, and like every other businessperson, philanthropist, or freelance politician who has tried to fix a school, he comes away with the conclusion that it is very hard work (page 2, para 5).

Brown would start with higher education: updating the master plan that in the 1960s created the state’s three-tier system of colleges and universities (page  3). It’s a good place to begin. Higher education plays a different role in California’s society and economy than it did a half century ago, and the state’s plan needs to reflect current reality. Some kind of post-secondary education is virtually a necessity for a young person to get the kind of job that will allow them to raise a family, buy a house, and pay enough taxes so the next generation will have these opportunities, too. But higher education rests on the shoulders of the public schools; they need to work as one system.

The pathway from elementary and high school through higher education needs to be level and well lighted. The new master plan needs to create that pathway, because it is the systemic key to many of the rest of the elements in Brown’s plan, including improving the high school graduation rate (page 7). Many of the needed efficiency gains can come from better transitions from schools to colleges and universities. Fewer surprises yield fewer remedial courses. Alignment of community college and university standards (page 4, para 1) is a good starting place. The effort needs to extend to the high schools, where university requirements drive the curriculum, but where graduates still experience mismatches between what courses they took and what is accepted at state colleges and universities.

Much of the science-technology-engineering-math reinvigoration, which Brown wants to see, starts deep in elementary schools, when 9-year-old girls learn that they really like math, and that’s okay, and that there are futures for them in science and technology. If they don’t get 5th grade math, they won’t line up in the engineering school admissions line. Likewise, much of the reinvigoration of vocational education that the governor-elect seeks requires a technical education pathway that tells students that combining “head and hand” is real school, not a dumping ground.

Part of creating a level, well-lighted pathway requires overhauling the state’s testing program, as Brown suggests (page 4). The tests California students take largely don’t help them or the school systems get smarter. Scores and analyses arrive too late and in forms that are hard to use. The tests are good for naming and shaming of poor-performing schools and districts, but not much else. Given the $100 million we spend each year on them — and that figure doesn’t include the huge hunks of school time spent on test prep — we aren’t getting a very good deal.

English Language Learners instruction is a big uneven flagstone in the pathway to success. There are almost 1.5 million students, about 23 percent of the total elementary and secondary enrollment, who do not yet speak English well. The needed overhaul extends beyond the adoption of new instructional materials and leveraging of federal funds mentioned by the governor-elect (page 7). The ESL testing program is a hurdle, not a help. The monetary incentives are backward; they reward schools for keeping students in English-learner status, and ESL instruction is often not well integrated into the general course of study.

A good portion of the Brown education plan is aimed at redressing a historic drift of authority toward Sacramento. Since the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, the state has become education’s paymaster, and the state has channeled money by creating scores of targeted programs, called categoricals. Brown wants to drastically prune them and deliver more program and fiscal control to local school districts (page 4). At the same time, he wants to rewrite and simplify the 12-volume school code. Brown also seeks to redress another historic drift, one of narrowing the curriculum to fit the mandates of the current testing system. He encourages a “broader vision of what constitutes an educated person” (page 6). Good ideas, but difficult to execute; each barnacle on the hull of the school statutes grew there because of a well-intended legislator or interest group. Usually, only states that were forced by the courts, such as Kentucky, are successful in a wholesale overhaul. And broadening the curriculum to areas not tested swims against the federal government’s current. Still, moving authority downward has a populist ring and can be implemented without increased expenses.

Brown also seeks some other changes, such as improving the attractiveness of teaching to high-ranking college students (page 5) and increasing the number of magnet schools (page 7). Charters get mild encouragement,(page 7). Taken together, the elements of the plan are amazingly pragmatic. Brown knows there’s no money to buy change. He and Kirst have found the places where change is possible without large infusions of cash. but not support for massive expansion

A missing piece: technology

Yet, the part of the plan that struck me as having the most possibility was only mentioned in a couple paragraphs, leaving the ideas underdeveloped, a little bit pregnant. Young people in California are changing the way they read, write, communicate and learn. But in the state whose education system gave birth to the information-processing revolution, very little of its progeny have changed the structures of schooling.

The governor-elect wrote about higher education, he advocated exploring online learning and new technologies “to the fullest,” to expand access, increase productivity and reduce costs (page 4). He also advocated expanding online and virtual capacity in science, technology, engineering and math (page 7). These would be important initiatives. But they only begin to capture the sea change that is taking place in learning and teaching and its capacity to shape California education at all levels. Schools, colleges, and universities are rapidly adopting online courses and experimenting with new ways of interacting with students. California foundations, such as Hewlett, have been in the forefront of creating an open-source movement that is making college and university courses and materials freely available. The trend of technology is to break down the century-old pattern of batch-processed learning and open the door to instruction that is more student-friendly and available on demand. Technology adoption will intensify, even if nothing is done in education policy.

However, as governor, Brown has an opportunity to invest in a learning infrastructure that connects kids, teachers, and parents, that allows every student in the state access to high-quality learning material and first-rate teaching. Unlike the current CALPADS design, which if it works will be good at collecting data on students, a learning infrastructure would help them learn and manage their own learning. A learning technology system, such as the one the Scottish government has developed, would have six elements.

First, it would provide information to students and parents. It could begin with report cards and state test data, and should rapidly expand to more fine-grained data. For example, English language learners and their parent should have access to the progress students are making toward fluency and the benchmarks they still need to complete. Second, an information infrastructure would connect families and teachers through a secure communication link such as that now used for patient-physician communication at Kaiser Permanente. Third, the system would provide direct assistance to students through online tutoring. Fourth, it would begin, at least, to open source the curriculum, and to make it improvable by teachers from throughout the state. Fifth, it would channel or link to the rapidly developing capacity for direct instruction.

Finally, it would open the possibility of online testing. It would provide self-paced examinations and certification of competency in ways that break down the relationship between time spent in classrooms and progress toward graduation from high school. Only when this relationship — one of the most enduring aspects of an education system designed early in the last century — is broken can we begin to expect substantial productivity gains in public education. An external examination system tied to student progress also creates a system in which both decentralization and standards-based accountability are possible.

If the governor had one big bet, one big investment to make, it should be in this already developing embryo.

Charles Taylor Kerchner is Research Professor in the School of Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University, and a specialist in educational organizations, educational policy, and teachers unions. In 2008, he and his colleagues completed a four-year study of education reform of the Los Angeles Unified School District. The results of that research can be found in The Transformation of Great American School Districts and in Learning from L.A.: Institutional Change in American Public Education, published by Harvard Education Press.

Kirst: reread Jerry Brown’s plan

Michael Kirst, who co-authored Gov.-elect Jerry Brown’s education plan, had this reaction on reading the two dozen commentators’ worth of advice that ran on this page over two days last week (here and here): Go back and reread Brown’s plan.


“At least in the short run, rather than bring up whole new issues he has not committed to, it would be most useful to those working with him (Brown) if the comments addressed the plan specifically – what people like and don’t like,” Kirst told me over the weekend. (To keep the conversation going, I encourage readers and commentators to do just that and send in your reactions. Again, here’s the plan .)

Kirst, a professor emeritus of education and business administration at Stanford, was Brown’s principal adviser on education and sole campaign spokesman on that issue. He had a hand in writing the 12-point education plan, although, he said, Brown rewrote sections and approved every word of it. And, he said, Brown is serious about implementing it.

Brown’s plan includes some of the key issues that experts and advocates raised in their advice: a return to local control and the simplification of the state Ed Code, the need for new assessments beyond the current California Standardized Tests, and a focus on teacher and principal training and development. It commits to implementing a weighted student funding formula, based on student needs, as a replacement for dozens of categorical programs, though not in the context of overall governance and financing reform. And the plan does not directly address the massive funding cuts that K-12 schools and higher ed institutions may continue to experience.

The plan was written before Gov. Schwarzenegger deleted money from the budget for CALPADS, the statewide student data system that’s a year behind schedule; the plan doesn’t focus on student data. It also does not include a section on preschool, which Kirst said that Brown would address.

Kirst served on the State School Board for seven years, including four as president when Brown was governor. He told me that he is interested in serving once again for Brown, although he’s not certain in what capacity.

Apparently, it won’t be as Brown’s secretary of education; the governor doesn’t plan to appoint one. Kirst referred me to a section of Brown’s campaign web site that said: “Currently, education policy making at the state level is divided among the State Board of Education, the Superintendent of Public Instruction and the Governor’s Secretary of Education. As Governor, I eliminated some of this overlap by not appointing a secretary of education and looking to the State Board for educational policy advice. Given education’s fundamental importance, I intend to play a major role in education policy. But I would work with and use the existing staff of the State Superintendent or state board, as opposed to having my own separate educational staff.”

The current president of the State Board, Ted Mitchell, is a Democrat whom Schwarzenegger appointed. A one-year extension of his term ends in January.

Listen to good advice, Jerry Brown

The current governor has not suffered for lack of good advice on education policy. There’s the 23-study Getting Down to Facts, assembled by an institute at Stanford at his encouragement, followed by extensive findings of his Committee on Education Excellence, which he appointed. But education policy never much interested Arnold Schwarzenegger or his key advisers. The governor shelved the Stanford studies and shunned his committee, after members put in a year of hard work. Schwarzenegger had his likes (charter schools and Race to the Top) and dislikes (teacher seniority and the Ed Code) but he had no coherent policy and overall strategy to improve schools.

But with a new governor comes new hope. Jerry Brown enjoys policy debate and the challenge of complex issues. To stimulate his thinking, I’ve asked some regulator contributors and others with respected views to advise him on setting his education priorities. There were so many good responses that I will run them over two days. Come back tomorrow for the views of Margaret Gaston, John Danner, Marshall “Mike” Smith and Ted Lempert, among others. I’ll be offering my two cents, too.

Charles Taylor Kerchner: Heed Thomas Paine

The phrase “lead, follow, or get out of the way” is attributed to perhaps the crotchetiest of our Revolutionary founders, Thomas Paine.  Gov. Brown could help education by doing a little of each.

Lead. No one but the governor can get our state’s education system out of its current financing mess. Forty-third place among the states is not where Californians want their schools to be; they need a revenue boost. But more importantly, the state has to quit delivering dollars late and tied with rules that keep schools from being effective.  The schools need Smart Money, to borrow from Jacob Adam’s new book. Universities, think tanks, and foundations have studied the issue more than enough. The governor needs to act.

Follow. It’s a shame that the Internet and multimedia capital of the world lags so badly in applying learning technologies, but we can learn from Florida and Kentucky about virtual education and from Scotland about how to build a secure intranet service for all students. Before resurrecting CALPADS from his predecessor’s veto, Gov. Brown should consider building a data system that is also a student and teacher learning portal rather than just an information archive.

Get out of the way. Several California school districts have made solid achievement gains while pioneering new ways of using data and organizing learning. Seven have entered into a formal compact, have secured private foundation support, and are actively networked together: San Francisco, Los Angeles, Long Beach, Fresno, Sanger, Clovis, and Sacramento. The governor needs to run interference with the state’s bureaucracy.

Charles Taylor Kerchner is an author and Research Professor in the School Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University.

Caprice Young: Be bold and act quickly

It wasn’t just symbolism when Gov.-elect Jerry Brown delivered his election-night victory speech at Oakland’s historic Fox Theater – the home for the Oakland School for the Arts – one of two public charter schools he created while mayor of Oakland. Instead, it highlighted Brown’s commitment to fixing our public school system as governor. He recognizes the difficulty involved in creating public schools that defy expectations for under-served students.  He knows the importance of creating public schools that prepare multitudes of low-income graduates to attend the UC system, as his two charter high schools have done now for a decade.

Governor-elect Brown understands the importance of innovation, creativity and high expectations in every classroom. He knows first-hand that increasing resources in our classrooms, freeing up local schools from Sacramento red tape and empowering teachers and holding them accountable for improved learning are key ingredients to fixing our public school system. His skills and experience in creating successful schools will matter when it comes to fixing Sacramento’s logjam.  My advice to him is simple: Be bold.  Act quickly. Don’t let another student down.

Caprice Young, the former Los Angeles Unified board president and founder of the California Charter Schools Association, is the interim CEO of ICEF Public Schools.

Peter Schrag: Finish CALPADS, take a broad view

The most important thing you can do is get good information, which means, first of all, taking the common “schools are failing” rhetoric with a large degree of skepticism; second, completing the implementation of the state’s long-overdue CALPADS data system; and, third, getting a knowledgeable and imaginative education secretary and staff, and, unlike the last governor, paying attention to them.

Something similar is true for your appointees to the state Board of Education, the people who are your education policy makers. They need to be backed against political pressure from the Legislature and the schoolhouse interest groups it often represents.

It means analyzing and following data on educational outcomes, not political fashion, to determine what works and what doesn’t, what programs to retain and which waste money and should be scrapped. That in itself will not be easy.

It means looking at the state’s overall education problems with a much broader and more hardheaded, less politicized perspective. We have major problems in education but many, perhaps most, don’t originate inside the schools. They begin in poverty and poor health, in a culture that largely disrespects learning and in a political system that devotes far more energy to lip service about education and its failures than it does to delivering the resources to improve it.

Finally, upgrading education requires a great deal of caution, patience, and an understanding of and sympathy for the human complexities in a system as large, diverse and complex as ours. It also requires lot of humility. Your Jesuit training should have prepared you well for all these challenges.

Peter Schrag is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee and the author of “Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future.” His latest book is “Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America.”

David B. Cohen: Turn to teachers for good ideas

When I was in sixth grade, during your last gubernatorial term, I had a wonderful teacher who nurtured and challenged every student, and helped inspire my love of poetry and literature.  Twenty-eight years later, I’m a public school English teacher, and I recently met with my former teacher; sadly, she now talks about “waiting for the test scores” to determine if she was “successful” in the prior year.

What happened to teaching and learning, in the past decade in particular, should be a great concern to the governor of a state that has prided itself on innovation and creativity, from Silicon Valley to Hollywood.  As part of a network called Accomplished California Teachers, I communicate with teachers in many regions, and from every school level and subject area.  Our ability to do our best work is curtailed by a focus on testing, and a misguided notion of accountability pitting education stakeholders against each other.  There should be more common ground.

California has many excellent students, schools, and teachers, but the overall climate and morale in the state is deteriorating.  My advice: buck the trend on testing reliance and teacher bashing.  Look to teachers for education ideas that will work.

David B. Cohen is a National Board-certified teacher in Palo Alto, where he teaches high school English. He helps to direct Accomplished California Teachers and writes for the group’s blog, InterACT.

Rick Miller: Return power to local communities

Your last stint as governor marked the beginning of a long transfer of educational decision making from local communities to the State Capitol. Use your second stint to return it. You should focus your administration’s education agenda on the only three areas in which the state should be involved.

First, maintain a credible standards-based accountability system built on a new generation of assessments that reflect deeper learning and inform instructional improvement.

Second, fully fund and complete a comprehensive statewide longitudinal data system that helps teachers improve, provides student-level data from preschool through college and career, and helps share successes and strategies throughout the state.

Lastly, find a way to significantly increase California’s investment in our schools but allocate the money based on individual student needs, not the politically popular desires of adults. Then couple that increased funding with reform that allows local schools to drive innovation.

Our global economy demands that we educate every student with higher-order critical thinking, communications, and analytical skills. By focusing your administration on excelling in the state’s core competences and letting educators focus on theirs, you can actually be “the education governor.”

Rick Miller, a principal of Capitol Impact, a Sacramento-based education policy advisory firm, served as a Deputy State Superintendent for the California Department of Education.

Doug McRae: Appointments will be critical

It is critical Gov. Brown use his authority via appointees to the Office of Secretary of Education and the State Board of Education who will make statewide assessment and accountability issues a priority.

The current Secretary and State Board have not shown interest or expertise in overseeing statewide assessment and accountability issues, and thus the Superintendent of Public Instruction and the California Department of Education, which the state superintendent manages, have used their influence to weaken current statewide assessment and accountability systems in favor of instructional uses rather than measuring the results of instruction. Instructional tests do have their place within instructional systems, but uses for instruction cannot dominate accountability testing systems.

Driven by federal requirements, new California statewide assessment and accountability systems are to be developed over the next four years. Unless these systems are designed and defended as strong accountability systems, education reform efforts in California will be severely compromised by a Trojan Horse statewide assessment system unable to adequately serve its accountability purpose.

Doug McRae is a retired educational measurement specialist living in Monterey.

David Plank: Focus on assessments

Get assessment policy right.

California has recently adopted new standards for what children should know and be able to do at every grade level. To ensure that these new standards support improvement in the performance of schools and students, tie them to assessments that provide timely, accurate, and useful information for teachers and parents about whether and how students are progressing toward mastery.

Two national assessment consortia funded by the federal government will do some of the work, but most of it will have to be done in California. Key tasks include the development of a computer-adaptive system that can measure the knowledge and skill of English-language learners, and not just their fluency in English; the construction of instruments to assess students’ performance in middle-school mathematics (where California standards are very different from the Common Core); and the incorporation of complex performance tasks including extended writing into the assessment system at all levels.

The STAR system sunsets in 2013, and national assessments are scheduled to come on-line in 2014, so we have a brief opportunity to get this right right now. Seize the moment.

David Plank is executive director of PACE, Policy Analysis for California Education, based at Stanford, USC, and UC-Berkeley.

Anthony Cody: Use wisdom you’ve shown

I am very happy you have been elected once again as our governor. A little more than a year ago, you wrote to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan regarding Race to the Top. My advice to you is to stand by the wisdom those words reveal you possess regarding education. You wrote, in part:

Curriculum choices are not just technical and “evidence-based” issues, but go to the heart of deeply held beliefs and understandings of what children should learn.

Most current state wide tests rely too much on closed end multiple choice answers and do not contain enough written and open ended responses that require students to synthesize, analyze and solve multi-dimensional problems and construct their own answers.

There are huge technical and conceptual problems that remain on how to assess the specific impact of individual teachers and principals on the scores of students on annual state tests. Test score increases and decreases can be caused by many factors in a specific year, and it is beyond the current state of the art to sort out what is the unique and independent influence of teachers and principals. Performance pay schemes for teachers based primarily on annual test scores in other states reveal more about how not to structure performance pay rather than show what are viable ways to restructure teacher compensation. Compensation should to be just one element of a broader approach to improving teacher effectiveness that includes initial recruitment and preparation to retention and professional development.

I greatly appreciate the depth of knowledge this reveals, and look forward to your leadership in this arena, (Jerry Brown’s entire statement can be read here.)

Anthony Cody, a National Board certified teacher who taught science  for 18 years, is now a secondary science coach for the Oakland schools. His  blog, Living in Dialogue, is featured in Teacher Magazine.

Frank Pugh: Reform finance system

The education issues facing Gov. Jerry Brown are formidable: the reduction of nearly $18 billion in education funding over the past two years; the suspension of Proposition 98’s minimum funding guarantee; unfunded mandates that have saddled schools with responsibilities they lack the resources to address properly; and ongoing, sometimes misguided reform efforts coming out of Sacramento and Washington, D.C.

There is no single cure for these problems, but there are some key issues for Gov. Brown to address. Academic achievement is a priority for all school districts, but that performance is currently based on a standardized test-driven system of evaluating our students and schools. California needs more portfolio- and project-related assessment to truly evaluate academic achievement and – more importantly – to keep our students engaged. Our reform agenda needs to be drive by data and facts, not trial and error. And the most urgent reform needed is the reform of California’s education finance system. By working with the plaintiffs of Robles-Wong v. California, Gov. Brown has the opportunity to create a school finance system that provides all students an equal opportunity to meet the academic goals set by the state, and rid our schools of the current system that is unsound, unstable and insufficient.

Frank Pugh is president of the California School Boards Association.

Bring in new faces and voices to Sacramento for real change

Our electorate occasionally acts schizophrenic. Take the call for change. In the midst of one of our country’s longest running economic downturns, there’s a palpable anger against politicians and the political system. According to the rhetoric, they got us into this mess, and the answer is to boot them out. On Tuesday, this anger is likely to force a change of power in Congress – with Republicans taking over from the Democrats.

Outside of California, the role of the Tea Party in this process has been the focus of massive attention from the press and the political system. Longtime elected officials in other states lost their jobs to challenges from political novices channeling the anger of their constituents. Yet, the “change” promoted by Tea Party and other insurgent candidates has been more of a reaction to the “change” of the last two years. The same electorate that put Barack Obama in the White House to change Washington apparently has now turned its attention to rolling back that “change.”

In California, the call for “change” has had a nearly opposite impact. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was the original Tea Party-like candidate. The recall campaign against Gray Davis was the original Tea Party-like insurrection. It was mounted by two talk show hosts who energized voters by playing on their desire to eliminate the infamous “car tax” and arrived on the heels of a major California recession. Schwarzenegger played up his image as a non-traditional Sacramento outsider who would blow up the Sacramento boxes and bring fundamental change to the state.

Yet, once installed in Sacramento, Schwarzenegger and his staff did little to distinguish themselves from long-time Sacramento insiders. This was particularly true when it came to the over 40 percent of the budget devoted to education. In good times, the Administration spent the extra dollars like drunken sailors, creating new grant programs to satisfy the parochial priorities of education special interests, including the governor’s own preferences for physical education equipment and band instruments. Does anyone remember the infamous P.E. and Music block grants? In bad times, they constructed, in collaboration with the Legislature, a series of budgets that did little in the way of systemic reform and simply passed debts and obligations to future generations.

As a result, when it comes to the 2010 governor’s race, Californians seem to be far less interested in “outsiders” than we used to be. Based on recent polling, the gubernatorial candidate who has held more statewide and local elected offices than anyone else in California apparently has pulled away with a double-digit lead over his non-traditional opponent. Californians appear to be pining for insiders instead of outsiders. Once Americans get a real sense of what the Tea Party means, the same thing might happen nationally – especially when they realize how quickly the outsiders turn into insiders.

In the end, that’s the problem in California. Insider or outsider, elected officials quickly get trapped in the Sacramento quicksand. Last week, I was at a meeting of statewide education reform advocates from 20 other states. The progress many of those states have made in the areas of teacher evaluation,  evaluation, tenure and pension reform, and school turnarounds was amazing. The contrast with California couldn’t have been starker.

Sacramento insiders like to paint the California electorate as the problem. And, certainly, we have clotted up our state budget process with too much initiative-driven spending. But I would argue that our state’s real problem isn’t its citizenry but the longtime Sacramento insiders and their institutional culture. Part of the issue is a candidate selection and primary process that gives us politicians who reflect the extremes of their parties rather than the great mass of voters in the middle. Recent initiatives creating the open primary and non-partisan redistricting may result in a more moderate set of politicians from both parties.

It’s possible that these politicians will be less beholden to the public employee unions on the left and the taxpayer associations on the right, and that this independence will give them the room to make decisions based on the long-term needs of all Californians rather than personal, short-term political objectives or the desires of special interests. But without an end to, or minimally an extension of term limits, it is still likely that even our most forward-thinking elected officials will become overly dependent on the institutional knowledge of the longtime Sacramento insiders — the unelected lobbyists and staffers who really run things and want to maintain the system they’ve built.

In order for change to stick, our newly elected officials must commit to bringing some new voices and faces into Sacramento. We need to tap the wellspring of talent from different parts of California and other states, including different sectors from business to philanthropy, and bring some of that new thinking into our Capitol.

In looking for educational leadership, we should be looking outside of the traditional education blob and their old boys and girls networks. Looking to great district and local leaders who not only acknowledge the existence of our broken college and career pipeline, but are doing something to fix it, is a good place to start. We also need to bring in the reform voices and leadership of California’s new “majority minority” demographic and collaboratively commit ourselves to real change on behalf of all of our state’s children.

Otherwise, the change we experience will be in name only.

Arun Ramanathan is executive director of The Education Trust-West, a statewide education advocacy organization. He has served as a district administrator, research director, teacher, paraprofessional and VISTA volunteer in California, New England and  Appalachia. He has a doctorate in educational administration and policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His wife is a teacher and reading specialist and they have a child in preschool and another in a Spanish immersion elementary school in Oakland Unified.

Brown’s and Whitman’s platforms

Few voters, other than fighting-mad members of the CTA, will likely cast their ballots for governor based on Meg Whitman’s or Jerry Brown’s views on K-12 education.

Education has been mostly a campaign sideshow – even though districts are struggling amid crippling budget cuts. California ranks abysmally low in national tests, and the state serves larger numbers of high-needs students with very low per student funding.

From the eagle’s nest, there are some similarities in Republican Whitman’s and Democrat Brown’s positions: Both support charter schools – she unequivocally, he, with caveats; both favor shifting more money to K-12 education – she  from “welfare,” he from prisons. And both want to give districts more control over earmarked spending, the 62 specially designated programs known as categoricals.

But there are fundamental differences, in tone and in substance, between their plans.

Brown’s is nuanced and more comprehensive, reflecting who he is – a veteran politician who dealt with complex policy issues as governor, became scarred as a mayor who tried to insert himself into Oakland Unified, and gained some firsthand knowledge of how difficult school reform is as a founder and funder of two charter schools in Oakland. His conclusion: Reforming schools is hard work: “I approach this task with some humility, and a realization that there is no silver bullet that will fix everything.”

Whitman has boiled her platform down to a handful of ideas that would put her in conflict not only with the teachers union but probably with the rest of the education coalition of the school boards and administrators associations. She fashions herself as a school reformer from the outside, but her ideas aren’t presented in depth; they’re more like slogans: cut waste, adopt merit pay, give schools a letter grade from A-F.

EdSource, which juxtaposed the candidates’ positions on education, offers the best visual comparison. In four of the topics – school safety, instruction in the classroom, innovative schools, and assessments – the Whitman campaign had no position. In another area, how to better recruit, evaluate, and retain effective teachers, Whitman offers two proposals; Brown suggests nine.

Neither directly deals with the continuing K-12 funding crisis that’s expected to lead to another plunge in revenue for  districts and charter schools next year. Implying there is massive bureaucratic waste and inefficiency – an assertion I have previously questioned – Whitman calls for directing more money to classroom teachers.

Brown doesn’t call for more spending; but there are seeds of reform – and echoes of a recommendation of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Committee on Education Excellence. Brown calls for partially funding students based on need, with extra money for English learners and low-income children – an idea detailed two years ago by Stanford  education professor emeritus Michael Kirst, former state education secretary Alan Bersin, and Goodwin Liu, a law professor whom President Obama has nominated as a federal appeals judge. The money initially would come from combining categorical grants into one pot.

Whitman’s ideas

  • Giving every school a grade, A through F, and allowing parents in failing schools either to transfer out or, by majority vote, to convert to a charter school. This idea is taken from Florida, where it began under Gov. Jeb Bush. Until this year, the grades were based strictly on standardized test results. Soon they will include other factors, such as SAT scores and numbers of students who take college-level courses. This year, 74 percent of elementary schools and 78 percent of middle schools in Florida got A’s and B’s. Parents in California currently pay attention to a school’s API score, a ranking from 200 to 800, which has the advantage of showing growth or decline in points every year.
  • Allowing students in “failing” schools to leave or create a charter would simplify and  speed up two reforms that the California Legislature passed this year: a parent trigger provision allowing parents in 75 low-performing schools to demand their school boards to do a charter conversion, and open enrollment, allowing families in the lowest performing 1,000 schools to choose a school in another district, assuming that school opens its doors.
  • Promoting charter schools: Whitman would remove the state’s cap on charter schools. So far the ceiling has not been an issue in discouraging the creation of charters.
  • Expanding the teacher pool: Whitman would encourage alternative credentialing pathways for more second-career professionals to become math and science teachers. She would use merit pay – bonuses to high-achieving teachers and administrators – to attract “high-quality professionals” into teaching.

Brown’s ideas

Several proposals would advance ideas that have long been discussed.

  • Revising state tests: Brown recognizes flaws with the $100 million state testing system, like its reliance on limited multiple-choice questions. With the adoption by California of national Common Core standards, new assessments are coming anyway. How the two testing systems would mesh isn’t clear.
  • Broadening the curriculum: Concerned about the narrowing of the curriculum under No Child Left Behind, Brown would encourage initiatives to expand the teaching of history, science, and the humanities, without, he says, reducing attention to English and math.
  • Returning control to the locals: As with other candidates before him, Brown pledges to pare back the voluminous state Education Code and cede more authority over student achievement to local districts, making them responsible for outcomes but not micromanaging the process. This would be easier said than done.
  • Attracting good teachers and principals: Brown pledges to raise public and private money for a leadership academy to train good principals. He would pay mentor teachers more to work with new teachers. He would encourage high school districts to become alternative certification providers by offering apprenticeships combining university courses and classroom experience. And he would work with public universities to lure the students ranked in the top third of their class to teaching. How this could be done without financial incentives isn’t clear.

  • Expanding magnet schools and partnership academies: Brown would continue a priority of the Legislature and Gov. Schwarzenegger: career academies that prepare students for college and careers in high technology, health professions and other industries.
  • Dealing with bad behavior: Parents and teachers continually complain that schools seem unable to control handfuls of disruptive students. Brown said he would consider changing state laws or practices to control behaviors that disrupt the learning of others.

Whitman has cast herself as a reformer and, in unremitting TV ads,  characterized Brown as a toady of the teachers union. But the CTA is spending millions of dollars independently not out of  love for Brown but out of dislike of her. Brown’s ideas reflect a detailed knowledge of the problems, needs and dynamics of  California’s diverse public schools. There’s no indication that Whitman has that level of understanding.

Note: For two contrasting views of the candidates’ views on education,  read retired San Jose high school principal Jim Russell on why he supports Whitman and UC-Davis education professor Thomas Timar on why he favors Brown.

Whitman plan — school grades, charters, merit pay — is right for us

Every four years, candidates for governor in California campaign on making our schools better. As a school principal, most recently at a Silicon Valley high school, I pay close attention to what they have to say. To be honest, I’m usually unimpressed by the politicians’ promises or don’t believe they have the independence to deliver on their promises.

This year I feel differently. Meg Whitman understands that there is no one-size-fits-all answer and has a multi-pronged plan that at its core holds all of us accountable – from elected officials to principals to classroom teachers to parents.

I recently retired as principal of Del Mar High School, which we turned from an underperforming school into a California Distinguished School. Meg Whitman believes, as I do, that all children can learn. She also believes that schools are for kids, not for status quo bureaucrats and teachers unions.

First, here are the facts. Despite spending half of our general fund on K-12 and higher education, California’s K-12 schools lag painfully close to the bottom on critical performance measures. On the NAEP tests, a national battery of exams that allow states to measure their academic performance relative to each other, California is a bottom feeder. California ranks 46th in 8th-grade math and 49th in 8th-grade reading. In science, California, innovation capital of the world and home to Silicon Valley, ranks a dismal 43rd.

The graduation rate from public high school is 50 percent higher in New York City than Los Angeles. Statewide, one of three students does not obtain a high school diploma in four years. This performance is unacceptable, and every child who leaves school without the skills needed to compete is a tiny crack in the foundation of California’s prosperity.

The next governor needs a plan to improve our schools based on proven solutions and the strong independence to push for reforms opposed by the powerful teachers unions that dominate California’s education landscape. Meg Whitman has both.

Whitman believes you cannot improve what you cannot measure, and thinks we need better tools that will kick start action early when a school is not performing well.

Her plan starts with grading every school in our state on a simple, easy-to-understand A-F scale. Florida adopted a simple A-F scale more than a decade ago and it became a cornerstone of that state’s successful reform efforts. Parents, the media, taxpayers, and elected officials have all benefitted from the simplified system, and education reformers in Florida say the grades have served as a catalyst for performance changes in Florida schools. A-F will add much needed transparency to our school system.

California schools under Whitman would also escape the dense thicket of bureaucratic rules and regulations that do not benefit children but keep an army of consultants and bureaucrats shuffling papers in an endless quest for compliance.

Whitman would dramatically simplify the state’s categorical spending programs, which tie Sacramento strings to nearly a third of our education dollars. By consolidating and dramatically reducing the categorical programs, we could free up countless dollars to pay for teachers or technology for our classrooms instead of meeting the Sacramento dictates that may have nothing to do with local education conditions. Local teachers and principals are in the best position to know what local kids need, and Whitman will empower them and give them more freedom to spend their money where it counts: in the classroom.

Charter schools will also grow under Governor Whitman, giving parents more options to find the best possible fit for their child’s educational needs. Charter schools are public schools, but they are free from some of the stifling, union-contract labor rules and other regulations that hamper our schools today. They can specialize in certain areas such as math and science, or the arts, and often can be laboratories for new teaching ideas. The competition charter schools provide to traditional public schools is also a systemwide benefit, as traditional schools no longer have a monopoly on their students and have to improve themselves to retain their kids.

Whitman would eliminate the state’s arbitrary cap on the number of charter schools. Certainly, there is no need to limit the amount of innovation in our schools. By making it easier for parents to open charter schools, and making it easier for successful charter operators to open and continue running charter schools, Whitman’s plan will ensure a vigorous charter school segment that will benefit all students.

Whitman is a huge fan of committed and dedicated teachers who put their students first. She recognizes that our best teachers are the gems of our school system. She will make it possible for them to get more money for the classroom performance that leads to outsized gains in student achievement. By rewarding performance, Whitman will make it easier for new teachers to make more money earlier in their careers, which has long been a barrier to attracting and keeping the best candidates in the field. Right now, the worst teacher in a school could be making twice as much as the best teacher in the school – and that has to stop. Merit pay will provide incentives for current teachers and will serve as an enticement for highly qualified candidates to become teachers.

No single change will revitalize our schools. But Meg Whitman’s changes, taken together, with more transparency, money into the classrooms, local control, better incentives, parental empowerment, and more competition will make the difference for our schools and put our kids on the path to success.

Jim Russell retired this past June after 31 years in education and 18 years as a high school principal—most recently serving as principal at Del Mar High School in San Jose. Under his tenure, Del Mar turned from an underperforming school to a California Distinguished School.

Note: Tomorrow in this space,  University of California at Davis Education Professor Thomas  Timar makes the case for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown’s education platform.

CTA outspending ACSA in race

Update: Thanks to reader Eric Premack, who points out that charter booster and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings did report contributing $400,000 on Oct. 20 as an independent expenditure on behalf of Larry Aceves.

In the surrogate battle in the race for Superintendent of Public Instruction, behemoth California Teachers Assn. has spent $3.4 million this year on behalf of its chosen one, Assembly member Tom Torlakson. This is more than double what the smaller Association of California School Administrators has spent promoting its favorite son, retired superintendent Larry Aceves of San Jose. In late September, CTA reported having spent $1.5 million on radio ads for Torlakson.

So far this October, it’s been different. Keeping its powder dry, ACSA raised $604,000 and spent $639,000 from Oct. 1-16 in independent expenditures, on radio ads and slate mailers pushing Aceves’ candidacy, according to the latest  campaign finance reports. Since Jan. 1, ACSA reported spending $1.5 million for Aceves. CTA added $200,000 to its independent campaign and spent only $102,000 in October.

But heading down the stretch, CTA has $296,000 left in its campaign chest for Torlakson, while ACSA had only $5,750 as of the end of the latest reporting period, Oct. 16.

Torlakson also got help from the California Federation of Teachers, the smaller of the two teachers unions, which reported spending $180,000 on mailers in late September. (It spent $132,000 on mailers in the primary.) And two American Indian tribes, the Mission and the Chumash, reported spending $233,000 in the past two months on TV ads and mailers for Torlakson.

Independent expenditures have dwarfed  the candidates’ own campaigns. Aceves has raised only $166,000 since Jan. 1, including $37,000 in October. He spent $14,600 in October, leaving him $56,000 in the bank.

Torlakson has raised $1,056,000 since the start of the year, including $140,000 in October. He spent $88,000 this month, leaving him $327,000  to spend before the Nov. 2 election.

CTA poured money into the June primary, when Torlakson also faced state Sen. Gloria Romero, a Los Angeles Democrat who attacked the CTA and crossed it in pushing the state’s Race to the Top legislation this year.  Pro-charter school EdVoice, backed by philanthropists Eli Broad and Reed Hastings, spent $1.5 million promoting her candidacy. But, in a surprise finish in June, she came in third, narrowly behind Torlakson and Aceves.

Aceves is not nearly as threatening to CTA as Romero; he got along well with his union when he was superintendent of Franklin-McKinley School District in San Jose, and he is selling himself as someone who can bring factions together (also Torlakson’s theme). So, since June, CTA has been freed to focus its firepower on Meg Whitman. In the latest reporting period, CTA said it spent $3.4 million on the govenrnor’s race, mainly in anti-Whitman TV and radio ads.

EdVoice and the charter school funders have largely sat out the Torlakson-Aceves race, although Aceves recently got $2,500 from John Danner, founder of Rocketship Education, a charter school group in San Jose, and $2,500 from Virginia-based K12, which operates online charters nationwide, including operations in several California counties.

Aceves’ biggest contributors are the Silicon Valley power couple Jim and Becky Morgan (the latter a state senator from 1984 – 1993), who together have contributed $16,500 since Jan. 1.

Torlakson has gotten tens of thousands in donations from a bunch of unions, including those representing nurses, iron workers, peace officers, carpenters, and service workers.

Larry Aceves on testing & spending

Larry Aceves, the dark-horse candidate for Superintendent of Public Instruction who won the primary in June, dislikes “merit pay” for individual teachers but believes parents should be entitled to know how effective their child’s teachers are in improving test scores.

Aceves, who will face Assemblyman Tom Torlakson in the Nov. 2 election, made those comments during a video interview with me.

Aceves also criticized teachers’ unions for not working with districts on changing the way they are evaluated. “They have not been cooperative on how we do that. They stood back and said, ‘It ain’t my job,’” he said. But he said that in becoming engaged in the process, teachers can work to create a system that helps them improve and that puts standardized test scores in perspective, as one factor in an evaluation.

Aceves is the retired superintendent of the Franklin-McKinley School District, a small K-8 district serving largely low-income Vietnamese and Hispanic families in San Jose. He has been a teacher and a principal and is stressing his credentials as a 30-year educator, contrasting himself with Torlakson, a termed-out legislator. Aceves won with the financial support of the Association of California School Administrators.

Aceves will become superintendent during the period when the state makes the transition from state standards to common-core standards, shared with 40-plus states, with new standardized tests. He said he wants to make instruction and assessments his signature issue. There has been too much emphasis on “drill kinds of instruction” in math and English, to the exclusion of instruction in science, technology,  problem solving and critical thinking, he said. Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, high-stakes testing has crowded out arts and science. Kids have been assigned double periods of reading  and math.  “That’s deadly for kids,” he said.  “They lose their enthusiasm for education.”

California cannot continue to fund schools at its current low levels, he said, or “we will lose a whole generation of children.” Despite cuts and the destruction of programs, “we’re  seeing dedicated individuals who have managed to hold it together. But we’re on skinny branches now and cannot continue.”

The California School Boards Association, ACSA, the state PTA, and lawyers representing low-income children have filed Robles-Wong v. State of California, challenging the low levels of school funding. Aceves said he looked forward to become involved in settling the case based on determining the true cost of education.

The first part of the two-part interview can be seen here. I’ll post the second part early next week.