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$3.1-billion economic stimulus windfall offers a chance to reform California schools, top education official says

State Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell calls on teachers and administrators to work together.

April 18, 2009|Seema Mehta and Howard Blume

As California received billions of dollars Friday to stave off widespread teacher layoffs, the state's highest elected education official pledged to reform schools, aligning academic standards with other states, rewarding teachers who work in the most challenging classrooms and improving student assessments.

"If we are going to do right by our kids and take advantage of this wave of change, then everything must be on the table, and we need to bring both teachers and management to that table to come up with creative solutions that benefit all students," state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell said in a speech at an education conference in Irvine.

O'Connell's proposals came the same day the federal government announced it was releasing $3.1 billion in economic stimulus funding earmarked for education to California, money that could help save the jobs of some of the more than 30,000 teachers, administrators and others who have received preliminary layoff warnings in the state's school districts.

California was the first state in the nation to receive the funding.

O'Connell said the funding provides a watershed opportunity to create dynamic transformations in the state's schools.

Obtaining billions more in stimulus money will depend on the state embracing calls for education reform by President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

O'Connell walked a fine line, echoing some of their ideas but with less strident language that avoided directly mentioning those issues that are most deeply opposed by teachers' unions and others.

"If you come at this in people's faces, you turn people off," said Rick Miller, O'Connell's deputy superintendent for policy and public affairs. "It's about being collaborative."

Paying teachers based on their performance has been among the most controversial aspect of the administration's education agenda.

O'Connell called for ensuring that teachers are receiving appropriate training and mentoring, and for rewarding teachers who work in the state's most challenging schools.

The state could use stimulus money to create pilot programs in selected districts.

"What he's alluding to is the need to put differential pay on the table: to pay teachers more money if they're willing to take assignments that are deemed more challenging," said Ken Futernick, an expert on teacher retention and school redesign who works for the San Francisco-based nonprofit WestEd.

Duncan has gone further, alluding to "pay for performance," which, Futernick said, O'Connell elected neither to mention specifically nor to rule out: "Maybe it is some signal to the feds that he is willing to play along with their agenda to promote pay for performance," a positioning that could result in California receiving additional federal funding.

Los Angeles teachers union President A.J. Duffy said filling jobs at schools that are hard to staff is not about pay.

"The primary issues are a safe, clean, healthy environment, administrative backup and support, and student discipline," he said. "You get those four elements in any school and you will get people to go to those schools."

O'Connell also spoke about a push to create national standards, which he said are inevitable and ought to be "state-driven" and voluntary.

"We can either be a leader in the conversation and work to ensure the results closely align to our current standards or we can stand on the sidelines and watch it happen to us," he said, noting that the state's existing standards, though rigorous, must be strengthened to keep up with global competition.

Miller said many states have already begun to have discussions about forming alliances. Possible partners for California would be Massachusetts, which has equally rigorous standards, or states such as Florida and Texas that also have a high number of English learners.

These students are a key concern for O'Connell, who said California must show leadership in ensuring that new standards take their language development needs into account.

Educators and others worried that a move away from state-based standards could lead to loss of local control.

"The very next step would be a national test and that's something we're very wary about in California," said Scott Plotkin, executive director of the California School Boards Assn.

Williamson Evers, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University who helped write the state's math standards, said he fears rewriting the standards could weaken them.

"California already has international benchmarked standards," he said. "There is no need to be tweaking or modifying or rewriting California standards."

Evers did agree with O'Connell's call to improve use of assessments to help struggling schools and students.

"We cannot let them fail, hit them with sanctions, and sit on the sidelines," O'Connell said.

But the state has never used some of the sanctions at its disposal under the federal No Child Left Behind reform law, such as restructuring or taking over a failing school.

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