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Raising Teacher Quality Spotlighted in State Report

A 59-person team named by state schools chief Tom Torlakson offers a "blueprint" for 21st-century education and helping the "whole child."

The state’s top education official Tuesday unveiled an ambitious plan for revamping California’s education system that makes improving educator quality through statewide collaboration a top priority.

"A Blueprint for Great Schools" was prepared by a 59-member Transition Advisory Team composed of parents, teachers and school administrators and other school employees, as well as community, labor, and business leaders. Tom Torlakson announced the team Jan. 3 when he as state superintendent of public instruction.

Kensington and El Cerrito were part of Torlakson’s district during the eight years that he served in the state senate, from 2000 to 2008. He has a master’s in education from UC Berkeley and taught in Mount Diablo area high schools for many years.

In introducing the 31-page report, Torlakson stressed 21st-century learning and meeting the needs of the “whole child” by addressing issues such as health, in addition to improving the quality of teachers and school leaders.

The press conference was held in Sacramento. Reporters also could hear comments by Torlakson and his team through a listen-only phone set-up. The team’s full report is online.

The quality of teaching, he said, can be improved by such means as improving professional development practices and the state’s Peer Assistance and Review Program for teachers who have received unsatisfactory reviews, and creating an educators quality commission.

“Educator quality is at the heart of it all,” said Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond, who co-chaired the team. She said gains would come through improved recruiting, teacher preparation programs, mentoring systems, and the system for evaluating teachers and administrators. Darling-Hammond said the California Department of Education’s role needs to shift from being about tests and accountability to leading a system that promotes best practices in education.

Darling-Hammond said the 21th-century learning focus on using technology and making students career-ready is also an efficient one. She said an inexpensive computer costs about the same as one or two textbooks.

Dubbing that goal “No Child Left Offline,” Torlakson said all children need access to the Internet at school and at home in order to be successful. He said California ranks 47th in the nation in using technology.

“What I’m particularly excited about, from the transition committee work and the superintendent’s priorities, is the notion of addressing the needs of the whole child,” Richmond resident Jennifer Peck, a  member of the advisory team, told Patch. Peck is executive director of Partnership for Children and Youth. She is married to Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia, whose district includes Kensington and El Cerrito.

“We know that many children arrive at school with a variety of challenges that make it difficult to participate in class and take advantage of their education," she said. "Even with a great teacher in the classroom, a student can’t learn if they are hungry, if there are physical or mental health problems, trauma at home or violence in the neighborhood, or a lack of necessary academic support outside of school hours."

Peck said she was excited to see the recommendation for  expanding summer learning opportunities. “Researchers estimate that a full two-thirds of the achievement gap at the ninth-grade level can be attributed to summer learning loss alone,” she said.

Many West Contra Costa Unified School District students would benefit from better health and academic and social service coordination through their schools, she said. “Schools are where families are, and it makes all the sense in the world to use schools as a point of access to all the things kids need to be successful in school.”

Todd Groves, an active volunteer in El Cerrito schools, was less enthusiastic about the report.

“Little in the report is new, and little mention is made of the greatest problem, the need to make school spending more effective,” he said. “We can’t afford both the changes sought and the system we have. Something has to give. The findings are easy to make. We need a realistic path to improvement that has some practical implementation. Let’s also not forget that many problems we currently face stem from similar policy-making exercises.”

Groves said the report isn’t tough enough on ineffective educators. “The report makes it clear by absence that removing faltering faculty and administrators is off the table. The biggest problem with public education workforce quality is that no one loses their jobs.”

One recommendation Groves praised suggested “rethinking” the A-G courses that California students are required to take for admission to University of California and California State University campuses. 

The report says that because their schedules are loaded with the traditional classes, “California students — unlike their peers across the country — cannot typically take courses in technology and engineering, marine science or biotechnology, statistics, or career and technical fields, except as electives, primarily in their senior year.”

El Cerrito High, said Groves, “has some great teachers who could offer extraordinary new learning opportunities, but A-G is a significant barrier in their creation.”

The report is available at http://www.cde.ca.gov/blueprint/. Feedback can be sent to blueprint@cde.ca.gov.

Jean Eger August 10, 2011 at 06:28 PM
They always change things because a classic time and motion study showed that changing anything in an office environment improves performance, even little things like wall color or brightness of lights. So there is always some new theory that teachers have to spend their precious time learning, so they can improve their performance. Or maybe it's just a review of old stuff in new clothing. Then they have to go back to college because of credentialing requirements, so they spend a lot of time going to college. People who don't like school, usually don't become teachers, because they have to spend a whole lot of time in school. But even mechanics have to learn something new because of technological changes in cars. Thankfully, most subjects do not change with the speed that computer programming changes. I mean, you can rewrite history just so much...
Glen Price August 20, 2011 at 06:51 PM
Thanks Betty for a great article. Although I am biased because I was heavily involved in this report's development and creation, I find it incredibly refreshing to have Superintendent Torlakson and his Transition Advisory Team passionately advocate for a shift from a sole reliance on standardized test scores to indicate success for schools and students to much broader set of indicators reflected in the notion of "whole child." Equally refreshing is the emphasis on the idea that education agencies (starting at the top with the California Department of Education) should focus on service and support as opposed to solely on compliance. I would respectfully take issue with my friend Todd Groves' assertion that the report does not deal the critical issue of how to make school spending more effective. A section of the report deals specifically with how existing spending could be done more efficiently and critically how we can raise the revenue necessary to bring our state's spending on education to a level we could bring to be proud of (or at least not embarrassed by). See: http://www.cde.ca.gov/eo/in/bp/bpstrategy8.asp
Betty Buginas August 20, 2011 at 11:24 PM
Thanks for your comment, Glen. Though I understand Todd’s skepticism, I was hopeful after hearing about the report for several reasons. One was the idea of the California Department of Education becoming a conduit for sharing good teaching practices, rather than the constant threats of sanctions. Given how much control the state itself has over our schools through things like adopting standards and textbooks and control over teacher credentialing, it seems like it should be looking at what it can do to make things better instead of trying to put blame on individual schools. It goes a long way to know that Torlakson was, and still considers himself, a teacher so I’m hopeful this isn’t the usual grandstanding. And I know he has strong connections to local school advocates that I wasn’t able to fully capture in this article, so hearing that you are involved adds a value piece. Please keep us posted on progress on implementing this plan.
Todd Groves August 21, 2011 at 02:47 AM
Glenn, I would support any of the initiatives listed, but can't see their political viability. You know the legislative environment far better than me, but it's difficult to conceive that much of this could make it through Sacramento currently. Perhaps redistricting will help, or not. The findings, if implemented, undoubtedly will improve our schools. To implement them, however, would require at least some Republican support or Democratic supermajorities, if I'm not mistaken. It's just hard to picture, especially items like lowering approval thresholds for new taxes. How much of this has a chance of passing beside best practices and task forces?

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