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.”