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Monday, January 24, 2011

Is California Starting to get it?

From the Sacramento Bee

by Peter Schrag

When Gov. Jerry Brown replaced seven members of the State Board of Education earlier this month with seven appointees of his own, the overnight response could have been predicted: This was political payback to the unions, especially to the California Teachers Association, which had spent big bucks to get him elected.

That may have been one-third correct. The unions had never been happy with the Schwarzenegger board, and especially the tilt of some of its members toward charter schools and test-based evaluations of teachers. Brown's appointment of Pat Rucker, CTA's hard-nosed lobbyist, seemed to confirm the payback theory.

But the real significance of the school board changes – both for California and maybe for national education policy – may be more far-reaching.

Both the new members and Brown's own ideas about education – the other day he called himself a "reformed reformer" – point to a gradual shift away from the narrow focus on fact-based testing in math and reading, on creating many more charter schools, on "reconstituting" or closing sub-par schools, and on other business-model schemes that school reformers have pushed for during the past couple of decades.

It won't be so much a replacement of the existing regime, said Mike Kirst, the retired Stanford University professor who's the new board president, as a broadening. But by whatever name it would include a wider spectrum of liberal arts courses – more history, arts, literature, science and physical education in addition to reading and math – more attention to analysis and imagination, more mentoring of teachers and less reliance on rewards and punishment. Most important, there'll be less ideological certainty about what works.

That shift reflects a slowly growing realization both in California and nationally that the rigid reform formulas pursued both by the Bush and Obama administrations and by the nation's influential foundations and business leaders have created as many problems as they've solved.

Under AYP, the Adequate Yearly Progress formula mandated by President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind law, some schools regarded as successes one year are labeled failures and forced into remediation programs the next. Increasing numbers of respected teachers and principals have been threatened with sanctions, including dismissal, on the basis of low student test scores.

In too many cases, and especially in large districts like New York and Los Angeles, frustration with rigid seniority rules, union resistance to reform, arteriosclerotic bureaucracies and general insensitivity to the needs of students and the wishes of parents is altogether justified.

But the remedies have gone into the swamp of over-correction. The other day, when he came to the state board meeting, itself an extraordinary step, Brown talked about how school improvement with real kids doesn't come from ideology but from open-mindedness, and from recognition of the complexity of the process. He recalled how one of his teachers asked his students to write "your impression of a green leaf." He said he'd always remembered that.

That kind of approach, too, can go overboard, to what Maureen DiMarco, perhaps the savviest secretary of education California ever had, called "fuzzy crap." Thirty years ago it led to over-reliance on "whole language" – reliance on context in reading, even pictures, and too little on phonics and the other basics of reading; too much on "constructivist" math – inviting students to devise their own methods in solving problems – and too little on command of fundamental arithmetic. It was too obsessed with the abstractions of "critical thinking" and too little with the facts that the thinking was supposed to be about.

But as Bill Honig, California's former superintendent of public instruction, said the other day, charter schools alone won't change the system. Some are better than regular public schools serving similar students, most are no better and some are worse.

Nor will systemwide change come from exclusive reliance on closing schools, firing the worst teachers and other structural changes. It will come from instructionally driven improvements: teachers working together, not competing with one another; it will require quicker feedback on individual student strengths and needs, not just annual testing that provides no data to teachers for months or even years. Rewarding excellent teachers and firing bad teachers, as Brown's education platform said, leaves out the average teachers who instruct the vast majority of the state's students. If the system is to get better, those teachers also need support.

Honig, an innovative educator who was forced to resign in 1993 after his conviction on a politically driven conflict-of-interest charge, worked with Kirst in developing Brown's education platform for the 2010 gubernatorial campaign. He was among Brown's seven new board appointees, then quickly withdrew without explanation, except to say that it was a "technical" matter. Kirst and Honig were Brown appointees on the board the last time he was governor.

What may be most significant for schools at this point, however, are Brown's own nascent interest, involvement and skepticism about grand educational ideas. "There's a lot of fashion in education," he said at the state board meeting the other day. "I don't expect any silver bullets." After a decade of high-level certainty in the Governor's Office, that tentativeness and caution may be the most refreshing and encouraging signs of all.

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