(This commentary first appeared in TOP-Ed.)
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.