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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW

Ted Mitchell

Guiding California's Education Reform From the Left and the Right

March 01, 1998|Gayle Pollard Terry | Gayle Pollard Terry is an editorial writer for The Times

Fixing the public schools has become the talk of California. The question is how, and Ted Mitchell is counted on to have some answers as dean of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, as senior education advisor to Mayor Richard Riordan and as a member of the LEARN working group, a panel of educators and political and business leaders.

When Riordan, a Republican, wants advice on how to improve the L.A. public schools, he turns to Mitchell. When Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, wants advice on how to improve California's public schools, she, too, turns to Mitchell, who helped craft her ballot initiative. It is intended, as is Gov. Pete Wilson's education measure, for the November ballot. Mitchell believes education reform can only be accomplished with a bipartisan push, so it is not surprising he was part of an effort to negotiate a compromise, which would have consolidated the dueling initiatives into a single, potent ballot measure. He continues conversations with Wilson about education legislation.

Mitchell gladly will tell the next governor to: correct the serious underfunding of public education, focus on state standards, not rely too heavily on standardized tests, figure out how to train and retain excellent teachers, speed up bilingual education and forget vouchers. He is also big on accountability for everyone in the school family--teachers, administrators, students, parents and unions.

Education is the family business for Mitchell. When he was growing up in San Rafael, the talk around the dinner table was always about students and learning, or about the traumas of educators and teachers. His father was a high school teacher and principal. His only other college-educated relatives, an aunt and an uncle, were both elementary school teachers. Mitchell had every intention to follow them into the classroom until he encountered a professor at Stanford who taught the history of education. His path changed, Mitchell completed undergraduate and advanced degrees, including a doctorate at Stanford, then spent a decade at Dartmouth in New Hampshire, before returning briefly to Stanford in 1991. At UCLA, his professional home for six years, he also serves as a vice-chancellor for external affairs.

When he's not advising politicians and educators, Mitchell, 42, and his wife Christine Beckman love being outdoors. They hike the Santa Monica Mountains, and take long walks along the beach. But education is rarely far from his mind.

Though he freely prescribes what should take place in the classroom, Mitchell has never actually taught in the public schools. He recognizes that liability and wants to take a turn next year during a sabbatical from UCLA. His laboratory of choice: the Los Angeles public schools.

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Question: Education is a big item on the political agenda in California. Why should the governor care? Isn't this a local concern, a concern of the school board?

Answer: States have always been charged with the ultimate responsibility for education in America. It is actually quite refreshing that governors across the country are involving themselves in the nuts and bolts of schools. This is not to deny the importance, the power or the legitimacy of local schools boards. But without the help of the state government, particularly without the leadership of the governor who can coalesce not only parents who have kids but the entire state behind a project of school reform or school improvement, local school boards are left with one hand tied behind their backs.

Q: How would you grade Gov. Wilson on his school reforms?

A: The governor has done an admirable job. I would give him an A-/B+ in the area of school reform.

Q: What's the best thing he's done?

A: It's hard for me to choose between two. One is reducing class size . . . . It's important for kids to have intimate connections with their teachers. That kind of educational intimacy is secured in small classes . . . .

The governor also has focused our attention on standards. Many have argued back and forth about whether the particular standards adopted--math standards is a great example--whether those are the right standards. We miss the fact that the discussion about standards, and having standards, and focusing the state board's attention on standards is an important advance in public policy.

Q: The governor wants all California school children tested, and most tested in English even if they are taught in another language. Is that educationally sound?

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