California Dreamer: The Golden State's Champion of a New Education for a New Economy

State superintendent of public instruction Jack O'Connell chimes in on NCLB, home schooling, and the endless quest for better teachers.

State superintendent of public instruction Jack O'Connell chimes in on NCLB, home schooling, and the endless quest for better teachers.

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California's top education official met with Edutopia staff to discuss his thoughts about school reform. Here are his comments:


How do you compare and contrast the way schools are with the way they ought to be? What's the difference?

The bottom line is, we have to recognize it's a new economy that requires higher-level critical-thinking skills, analytical skills, and problem-solving skills. We must all be better communicators and technologically proficient.

And that segues into the better use of technology. I have not seen a great use of technology in our schools. For the most part, schools have not changed much in the last fifty to one hundred years from the old one-room schoolhouse. I'm a big believer that students can learn 24/7. We can communicate with almost anybody at any time, in any place, and anywhere. No longer are students limited to learning between the hours of 8:30 A.M. and 3 P.M.

As I travel up and down the state, I talk about the three new Rs in education. First, we want more rigor -- a challenging, rigorous curriculum. The second R is relevance. We need to make sure our coursework is relevant to the real world. Finally, the third R is relationships. We need to cultivate better relationships with our teachers, site administrators, and careers that our students might want to pursue.


Now, how do we get there from here? Is it a matter of money, restructuring the curriculum, or retraining the teachers we have in the system?

All of the above.


Let's talk about teachers. How do we attract and retain them?

We need to recruit the best and the brightest and keep the ones we have. There's a new study that says money is not the biggest issue to teachers; it's classroom environment. It's making sure that teachers have a say and are heard. I'd like to see class-size reduction, for instance, paired with an increase in qualified teachers, a greater utilization of technology, and rigorous and relevant curriculum. That's what the classroom of the future should look like.


In your mind, what defines a highly qualified teacher, and how do we create more of them?

That's difficult to quantify, but certainly we have more flexibility today under the No Child Left Behind Act than when it was first introduced four or five years ago. Now, being "qualified" is not defined exclusively by the type of degree you have. We now have options for observation. I also believe in some flexibility. Should the CEO of Xerox be allowed to teach business? I think so. Should George Lucas be allowed to teach arts and creativity? I don't know whether he has a teaching credential, but I think he'd qualify to teach a high school class in business or in dramatic arts.


Would you like to get more people in the business community involved in education?

I would. We need to create pathways into the classroom, and I don't think we're doing a good job of that.


I'm guessing from your tone that we're not where we should be with that.

We don't do the job. The projections -- and these numbers are not mine, but are from a study done last year -- say we're going to need 100,000 more teachers because of retirement. That's about 30 percent of the current teacher workforce.

Forty percent of our current administrators will be gone in the next ten years, and we already have a shortage today, geographically. Some of our urban, more challenging schools are tough, and some of the rural areas are tough just by definition -- these schools lack people in the right areas, such as science, math, and special education. But for the whole state, 100,000 teachers will be retiring in the next ten years, as will 40 percent of the administrators.

When I was talking with a group of teachers the other day and told them the projected percentage of retiring administrators, they all stood up and applauded. But a lot of our administrators will come from the teaching ranks.


One solution for retaining teachers is to offer higher salaries to teachers at troubled schools. What's your view on that?

I'm OK with that if the offer is made to all the teachers in that school. You shouldn't make that offer only to new teachers simply to entice them to teach at a very challenging school, because that -- especially if I were one of the teachers who had been working in that challenging school already -- would be a slap in the face. Perhaps it could be offered school by school or subject by subject.

We've done a little bit of that with the Quality Education Investment Act bill, presented by state senator Tom Torlakson last year and sponsored by the California Teachers Association. I sued Governor Schwarzenegger two years ago; he, by our definition, shortchanged public education. We settled last September -- I'm sure the fact that it was two months before an election was just a coincidence.

We settled for almost $3 billion over the next seven years, and all that money is going to decile one and decile two schools, which will really help. [California schools are divided into ten deciles, or ranges of ten percentage points, according to ratings.] And that money can be used to lower class size, employ more school counselors, and get more resources into the classrooms. I also think it will have the net effect of helping us better compensate the teachers in those areas.


What role does online learning play in this?

I think it's going to play an increasingly important role. Will it ever replace that personal relationship with a teacher? No. But can it help supplement educational opportunity? Yes.


What is the relationship between public school and home-schooled children?

I've always encouraged home-school communities to work with local school districts. Home schoolers need to know what kind of financial aid is available, when the college entrance exams are offered -- those kinds of things.

I want to discourage the home-school community from shutting out the public schools. I've always said that home-school communities need to let us know if they need books, materials, or information in general. We want to encourage them to attend various school events, such as an open house, to see what the school has to offer. I don't want an us-versus-them situation.


How are you feeling these days about the California exit exam? It's been very controversial.

You know who wrote the law, right?


You.

Yes. And I'm the guy who frequently gets sued over it -- more often than my wife wants to know. I defend it wholeheartedly. It's the capstone of our accountability system. I believe in accountability, and I think it's helped us prepare our students for this new economy.

I'm much more into students being prepared than I am into handing them a piece of paper that's basically a certificate of seat time and then passing them on to graduation, just to see them fail in the real world. And right now, the standards we have are not that high for high school graduates. I'm told that eighth-grade math and tenth-grade English and language arts is the minimum you need to survive in this new economy.


Why is the exit exam test the right test?

It reflects the minimum necessary skill set for our economy.


Any reaction to NCLB as it's debated and up for renewal?

Sure. My biggest concern is that I want to have a fair methodology for a school's portrayal. I'll give you an example: Schools use an arbitrary status bar. It would be like getting a B. We could drop our B down to a C and we'd have more schools over the bar, but the bar would be much lower. I believe that would be a mistake. We have to keep pushing the system, maintaining high standards, and holding ourselves accountable.

But the federal government says today that 25 percent of your kids must be proficient or above; that's assuming the starting line is the same for all students. And that's assuming you have a somewhat homogeneous population. Our population is the most diverse on the planet. So I believe a much more accurate way of trying to assess how well a school is performing is by growth. I think growth is a fair indicator, because the starting line is not the same for all kids. The California education system, under the Academic Performance Index, is based on growth.

I use a sports analogy: The long jump is about improving -- are you doing better this year than last year? NCLB is a high jump; it's an arbitrary-status high jump bar, and by 2013 it expects 100 percent of your kids to get over that bar. Yet we'll have kids that year, I assume, learning the English language. In a way, you're setting schools up for failure in 2013. That has to change.

James Daly is the former editorial director of Edutopia.

This article originally published on 9/10/2007

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