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Focus on Early Grades Is Key, Educators Say : Schools: Top leaders agree districts need to redirect resources and better teachers to kindergarten through third grade. Collaboration among the various levels is also needed, they say.


SACRAMENTO — University officials, college educators and high school instructors all seemed to agree Tuesday: The secret is in grade school.

Meeting to form a united front to improve learning from kindergarten through college, the state's top educators found few definitive answers. But again and again, educators at all levels emphasized the common theme that a student's lifelong performance in school is rooted in the mastery of skills learned in kindergarten through third grade.

"The No. 1 priority of our entire school system is what's happening in K-3," Joe Dolphin, the president of the community college board, told the more than 100 assembled administrators near the end of the meeting. "We need redirection of resources to K-3, with a focus on reading. . . . We need special emphasis on K-3 instruction, so those who teach our young students are the best we have."

Dolphin's comments came at the first-ever joint meeting of the State Board of Education, the Community Colleges Board of Governors and the CSU Board of Trustees. They grappled with some basic questions: What should students be required to learn? What should teachers be required to be able to teach? And how should the state assess the performance of students and teachers?

The key to solving the problems of California's beleaguered public education system, many experts said, is collaboration among the various segments, not only because it will avoid duplicated effort but because it will send a clearer message to students and parents about what they must do to succeed.

Particularly as the CSU trustees consider a proposal to phase out remedial education for students who lack college-level English and math skills, several speakers said, California's educators must agree on some fundamental standards of competency. Equally important, said Peter S. Hoff, CSU's senior vice chancellor for academic affairs, the segments must do a better job of letting the public know what is expected.

"At the present time, high school students receive mixed messages about what is important," Hoff said. "We must make sure that our expectations are clear, that we speak with one voice--and not a babble of competing and conflicting messages."

One voice that was missing Tuesday was that of the University of California Board of Regents, the only one of the state's four public governing boards that was not represented. Organizers of the meeting said UC officials had decided not to involve the regents in part because the nine-campus system was in the midst of a transition from one president to another.

But new UC President Richard Atkinson, who took office one month ago, said he considered the regents' absence "unfortunate," and he assured those assembled Tuesday that he would urge his board to participate in future meetings.

"The University of California's presence should be more visible here," Atkinson said.

Among the suggestions that came out of the joint meeting was a call for a single database for student assessment. Rita Cepeda, vice chancellor of curriculum and instructional resources for the community colleges, said students are assessed several times by different segments--often getting different messages from each.

Ruth McKenna, the California Department of Education's chief deputy superintendent for instructional services, was among many who stressed that all students--not just those headed for college--needed to be reminded of the importance of mastering basic skills.

"If we don't help children see the relevance of a high school education to life, then chances are they won't get a life," McKenna said.

State Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin agreed. "We're telling a lot of kids who don't see themselves as college-bound that they can get by with bonehead math," she said. "That's a lie."

State Board of Education member Kathryn Dronenburg suggested that to get through to students, educators should talk frankly each year about what it would mean if they dropped out.

"You leave school at sixth grade, here are your job options--all two of them," she said.

Barry Munitz, chancellor of the 22-campus Cal State system, lamented that no good mechanisms exist to let teachers know how their students fare in college. While Cal State sends annual performance reports to each high school that evaluate how its students performed, those reports give schoolwide averages and do not hold individual teachers accountable.

"We're now looking at how we can get better information back" to the teachers, Munitz said.

California community colleges board member John W. Rice Jr. said the real focus must be on the neediest students, those for whom education does not come easily.

"In a democratic system, it's the kid who can't read and who votes for somebody because he likes his picture that sinks you," Rice said. "We can set standards all day long, but they've all got to make it or we're all doomed."

The boards resolved to meet again--this time with the UC regents as well--some time in the next 24 months to take action on the myriad problems identified Tuesday.

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