Jerry Brown: "My Hunch is that Principals and Teachers Know the Most..."

January 19, 2012

In his State of the State address today, Jerry Brown continues to lead education in a direction that is different from that taken by most of the nation's governors. Like few other leaders, he seems to recognize the flaws in our over-reliance on tests, and the need to shift power back to those in closest contact with our students.

You can read his entire statement here.

Here is what he had to say about education in California:

Next, I want to say something about our schools. They consume more tax dollars than any other government activity and rightly so as they have a profound effect on our future. Since everyone goes to school, everyone thinks they know something about education and in a sense they do. But that doesn't stop experts and academics and foundation consultants from offering their ideas -- usually labeled reform and regularly changing at ten year intervals--on how to get kids learning more and better. It is salutary and even edifying that so much interest is shown in the next generation. Nevertheless, in a state with six million students, 300,000 teachers, deep economic divisions and a hundred different languages, some humility is called for.

In that spirit, I offer these thoughts. First, responsibility must be clearly delineated between the various levels of power that have a stake in our educational system. What most needs to be avoided is concentrating more and more decision-making at the federal or state level. For better or worse, we depend on elected school boards and the principals and the teachers they hire. To me that means, we should set broad goals and have a good accountability system, leaving the real work to those closest to the students. Yes, we should demand continuous improvement in meeting our state standards but we should not impose excessive or detailed mandates.

My budget proposes to replace categorical programs with a new weighted student formula that provides a basic level of funding with additional money for disadvantaged students and those struggling to learn English. This will give more authority to local school districts to fashion the kind of programs they see their students need. It will also create transparency, reduce bureaucracy and simplify complex funding streams.

Given the cutbacks to education in recent years, it is imperative that California devote more tax dollars to this most basic of public services. If we are successful in passing the temporary taxes I have proposed and the economy continues to expand, schools will be in a much stronger position.

No system, however, works without accountability. In California we have detailed state standards and lots of tests. Unfortunately, the resulting data is not provided until after the school year is over. Even today, the ranking of schools based on tests taken in April and May of 2011 is not available. I believe it is time to reduce the number of tests and get the results to teachers, principals and superintendents in weeks, not months. With timely data, principals and superintendents can better mentor and guide teachers as well as make sound evaluations of their performance. I also believe we need a qualitative system of assessments, such as a site visitation program where each classroom is visited, observed and evaluated. I will work with the State Board of Education to develop this proposal.

The house of education is divided by powerful forces and strong emotions. My role as governor is not to choose sides but to listen, to engage and to lead. I will do that. I embrace both reform and tradition--not complacency. My hunch is that principals and teachers know the most, but I'll take good ideas from wherever they come.

I am excited that California is beginning on the path towards authentic education reform. Jerry Brown has made public statements in the past along these lines. See this report from October,Jerry Brown puts the Brakes on Test-Driven Reform, and this one from last May;California Governor puts the Testing Juggernaut on Ice.

As far back as the fall of 2009, while serving as California's Attorney General, Brown sent a strongly worded statement to Education Secretary Arne Duncan raising concerns about his Race to the Top program. Here is what he said then, in part: 


The basic assumption of your draft regulations appears to be that top down, Washington driven standardization is best. This is a "one size fit all" approach that ignores the vast diversity of our federal system and the creativity inherent in local communities. What we have at stake are the impressionable minds of the children of America. You are not collecting data or devising standards for operating machines or establishing a credit score. You are funding teaching interventions or changes to the learning environment that promise to make public education better, i.e. greater mastery of what it takes to become an effective citizen and a productive member of society. In the draft you have circulated, I sense a pervasive technocratic bias and an uncritical faith in the power of social science.

 

I will be joining Diane Ravitch and Linda Darling-Hammond at an event in Sacramento this Friday, Jan. 20. Tickets are still available. It will be a good time to be in the state's capital. We finally have a light at the end of this test-crazy tunnel.

What do you think of the approach Governor Brown is taking? How does this compare with leaders in your part of the world?

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Anthony Cody

Anthony worked for 24 years in the Oakland schools, 18 of them as a science teacher at a high-needs middle school. A National Board certified teacher, he now leads workshops with teachers on Project Based Learning. He is the co-founder of the Network for Public Education.