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Education Reporter Discusses Calif. State of Education

Education Reporter Discusses Calif. State of Education
What is the current state of California's education system? We speak to education reporter Ana Tintocalis about the State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell's State of Education speech.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. California schools chief Jack O'Connell is termed out of office this year, so last week's State of Education address was his last. He spoke of accomplishments, challenges and warned of the effects of any deeper state education budget cuts. But most of all he talked about the federal Race to the Top program and what he believes it could bring to California in terms of dollars and institutional change. KPBS education reporter Ana Tintocalis was in Sacramento to hear Jack O’Connell’s State of Education speech and she’s here now to tell us about it. Good morning, Ana.

ANA TINTOCALIS (KPBS Education Reporter): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Welcome back from up north.


TINTOCALIS: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Now, what – I kind of gave a thumbnail sketch of what the highlights of the state superintendent’s speech were. Tell us more about it.

TINTOCALIS: Well, it was – First of all, it was his last State of Education address. He’s been in this position for 7 years so he’s termed out. He’s one of the longest running state superintendents in California. So, again, he took this time to kind of look back on his accomplishments, slow but steady gains in student performance, much more – a much more robust career technical education program and also more high school seniors are passing the state’s high school exit exam. So those were some of, you know, the key highlights. But he did spend a lot of time talking about the reforms that lie ahead in the form of the federal Race to the Top program. And so he talked about, you know, California stands to get $700 million in federal stimulus grants, so he talked about how that would really spur the much needed change in our education system, really get to things that they haven’t been able to get to in terms of reform, one of them being teacher evaluations. So the state’s plan in terms of reform as it relates to the Race to the Top program, one of the key reforms is that the state now is going to link student test scores with teacher performance, and they’re going to build databases that will allow for that it happen. And the idea is that we have to lift the firewall between students and teachers, we have to know how effective our teachers are. And there’s been a lot of controversy around it initially but I think a lot of education stakeholders now are realizing that the way we evaluate teachers is not the best way, it’s actually kind of a meaningless way, that we need to do a much better job in figuring out who is good and who is not. So I brought a clip back from Sacramento, and this is State School Superintendent Jack O’Connell talking about the need for reform when it comes to teacher evaluations.

JACK O’CONNELL (California State School Superintendent): We must reorient our evaluation systems for teachers and principals to emphasize effectiveness, and we must use student achievement as data as key measurement, not the only key measure, but a key measure. As I continue to travel up and down the state and talk to teachers, principals, and other administrators, I constantly hear the dissatisfaction with our current evaluation system. I don’t think that any of us can really stand here today and say we know exactly what the right evaluation system should look like but it is evident that the current evaluation system provides too little value and it really is time for a change.

TINTOCALIS: So when we look to reforms ahead for California, you’re going to see a big push to change the way we evaluate teachers and, as the superintendent said, principals, too. The problem is they don’t know exactly how this evaluation is going to be and that’s something that they’re going to try to work out. But the state superintendent did kind of indicate he wants all parties to work together to create a fair system so that we’re not completely relying on student test scores to figure out who is a good teacher and who is a bad teacher because there is so many factors involved in the process of teaching and learning. So that was one of the more interesting highlights of his speech.


CAVANAUGH: Yeah, we heard – you just told us about the huge amount of money that can come along with the Race to the Top program but what does – did Superintendent O’Connell really sort of outline what he – what opportunities he thinks this program might create for California?

TINTOCALIS: Well, it really comes down to changing the way education is delivered and really honing in on the most failing schools, the schools that are struggling the most. And just to kind of recap for those folks who don’t know what Race to the Top is, I mean, it has become ‘the’ education catch phrase across the nation and San Diego County. And, basically, it’s a $5 billion national competition that was created by the Obama administration to spur change in education. And so the feds are kind of dangling this money in front of states and they’re saying, states, you develop reforms that fall in line with our guidelines and you might get a slice of this money. And so states have had to figure out, okay, what reforms do we want? What tough reforms do we think will get us some money from the federal government? In California, there was a lot of legislative back and forth. They weren’t sure if they wanted to go for the money. They didn’t – There was also just a lot of education policies that they had to approve to make the state eligible. So they were able to finally push that through and the reforms that they think will really help education in California as it relates to this Race to the Top are centered around three things. One is the teacher evaluation part, which we already talked about. The other two give greater control, actually, for parents to control the destiny of their child’s education. So one would be to allow a parent who has a child in a struggling school to pull that child out of that school and send them to a school in another – another school in the district or another school in another – in another district. The other one is that parents have the right to petition to turn around a failing school, so they could possibly shut down a school, remove half of the staff, bring in a new staff. So those are really controversial issues but the state says these are the reforms that we’re putting forth and these are the reforms that will be tied to Race to the Top stimulus funds if California’s picked.

CAVANAUGH: Now aside from State School Superintendent Jack O’Connell, you also spoke to a number of state and local lawmakers, and State Senator Gloria Romero, who is from the LA area, sponsored the Race to the Top bill in the state legislature.

TINTOCALIS: That’s right, and so these reforms actually kind of emanate from her office. And a lot of people say, you know, these are forms – they’re more in line for what Los Angeles needs to do and – and the reforms have divided the educational community in this state in two camps, those that like them and those that don’t. And Romero believes in these reforms, thinks it’s time we – the state takes responsibility, and was quite disappointed, to say the least, to hear that San Diego Unified doesn’t want to commit to these reforms. When the state had to turn in its application to the federal government to say this is our plan, we’re going for Race to the Top, they needed to get the commitment from a lot of school districts to say we are going to implement these reforms. About half of the school districts in our state said, okay, we’re on board. San Diego Unified was missing from that list. So that has certainly ruffled a lot of feathers in Sacramento because San Diego Unified is the second largest school district in the state, and the feds want buy-in from the largest school districts. So when I talked to State Senator Gloria Romero, this is what she had to say about San Diego’s response not to go forward with the state’s plan.

GLORIA ROMERO (California State Senator): I think the response from San Diego is – says more about the internal turmoil within San Diego. How many superintendents have left in the last few years? I think they can spin whichever way but at – the bottom line is, they turned their backs on fighting to give California the biggest opportunity possible…

TINTOCALIS: And that’s basically the situation, that’s what…


TINTOCALIS: …how she feels. And state – There’s other state lawmakers that say San Diego Unified took a thoughtful approach to this.

CAVANAUGH: Well, one of them is a state senator from down here, Denise Moreno-Ducheny, she’s not crazy about the Race to the Top money. Tell us what she said.

TINTOCALIS: Right. She is, of course, from the San Diego area and she voted against California’s Race to the Top plan. And she particularly doesn’t like this idea of parents yanking their kids out of bad schools and sending them elsewhere or shutting down a school. What she says kind of is that you’re abandoning these schools in essence. What we have to do is fully fund education so we can give these struggling schools the resources and attention they need, so let’s invest in our neighborhood schools, not, you know, send schools – or, students to other schools across the state or across other districts. And that was her main argument with it. She also says, you know, $700 million for the state, that – you know, that sounds like a lot of money but when you start distributing it among all these school districts in the state, school districts won’t be getting a lot of money in the end. So this idea of the risks of making the reforms outweighing the benefits of the money is something that she – is a point that she really hit on.

CAVANAUGH: So the state education superintendent, Jack O’Connell, you told us this is his last year, this is the last State of Education address he’s going to be giving. He spent a lot of time talking about Race to the Top but there are challenges that he faces this year in the school budget because that budgeting process is still going to be affected by the state’s fiscal crisis.

TINTOCALIS: Yeah, I mean, this was something that was kind of taking place in Sacramento while I was up there. You know, the – Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger came out with his State of State address and said we are protecting education, we are not going to touch education funding. Well, in talking with folks and analysts up there, what he basically did after that kind of declaration, is that he recalculated—and it’s kind of complex—but he recalculated the formula to fund education and that recalculation shows a $2.5 billion shortfall for education once again. So a lot of people said it was disingenuous for him to say we’re protecting education because, in the end, public school districts will have, again, a shortfall in state education funding. So that’s reflected in the San Diego Unified School District budget. They’re now dealing with a $93 million budget shortfall. Of course, it’s not as bad as they thought it was going to be. But the fact is, schools are still going to be facing another tough year of education budget cuts.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, Jack O’Connell will be spending a lot of part of this year – lots of his time this year trying to lobby for this Race to the Top, getting everybody on board. But I wonder, you know, as we look back over his tenure, what are some of the things that he has accomplished? How are California schools different now – that since he’s been the head of the education department?

TINTOCALIS: Well, you know, a lot of this goes back to state standardized tests and the standards that California’s put forth, which many believe are the highest in the country. And so when we took a look at the progress students have made, there has been slow but steady progress in how kids are scoring on these state standardized tests. So that is something to be proud of, is that, you know, we’re not exactly, you know, where we want to be but we are making gains. Like I said, there – the other thing is that there was so much controversy around the California High School Exit Exam, there was legal challenges left and right, students didn’t know if they had to take it or if they did have to take it (sic). Well, now everyone’s on board with this and more seniors are passing it. In fact, when you – when students are taking the pretests, they’re passing the pretests at an earlier stage and so that’s a good sign, he says. Another is just school nutrition, which is kind of an odd thing to point out, but there are so many students in our state that are living in poverty and there’s been a real push to provide them with better nutrition programs, to really tap into the federal government’s program to provide these free meals. And so you’re having more students in our state, even more so now because of the economic crisis, getting fed at schools. There’s – in San Diego Unified, there’s an early breakfast program where students can eat breakfast in their classes and get a decent meal. So that’s something he also pointed out, and the modernization of schools. There’s been a lot of modernization efforts to get schools looking nice and brand new, and so that’s something he also highlighted over the past 7 years.

CAVANAUGH: And a quick last question for you, Ana, if I could, is one of his disappointments that persistent achievement gap that he keeps talking about?

TINTOCALIS: Yeah, I mean, that’s – When he was talking about, you know, the good news and the bad news, the bad news is we still have a persistent achievement gap among black and Latino students and their white and Asian counterparts. That has not budged. And so while, you know, these highlights are good to hear, the fact is we haven’t been able to close that achievement gap and it baffles education officials. A lot of people say it’s time to, you know, the problem is we’re not fully funding education but the fact is, there’s another camp that says, well, throwing money at the problem is not going to help either. And that, you know, kind of speaks to the Race to the Top stuff, is that we need real reforms. We need to target our money to reforms that will really work. And, of course, there’s differences along that – that line.

CAVANAUGH: Difference of opinion, yes, indeed. I want to thank you so much. Thanks for going up there and thanks for telling us what happened in Sacramento.

TINTOCALIS: Well, you’re welcome. Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with KPBS education reporter Ana Tintocalis. You can comment on what you hear on KPBS, Coming up, the controversy over infant circumcision. That’s next as These Days continues here on KPBS.