In the schools, creativity and accountability can co-exist

February 3, 2013

By Daniel Weintraub

Arguing that Sacramento is micro-managing the public schools, Gov. Jerry Brown is pushing hard to give local districts and individual schools more power over spending and classroom instruction.

Brown tried a similar approach last year but fell short as he and the Legislature were overwhelmed by the state’s budget crisis. But now that the budget appears to be on firmer ground, the governor is turning again to education policy, pledging to modernize what he sees as a system stuck in the last century.

Californians should watch carefully. Decentralization of the school finance system is long overdue, and tweaking it to address students’ needs, not just numbers, would be a good thing. Repealing specific programs mandated by the state would also be smart. But if the governor also seeks to reduce the state’s role in holding schools accountable for what they teach, he could hurt the very kids he says he is trying to help.

In his state-of-the-state speech Jan. 24, Brown, in his unique style, offered this colorful description of the status quo:

“The laws that are in fashion demand tightly constrained curricula and reams of accountability data. All the better if it requires quiz-bits of information, regurgitated at regular intervals and stored in vast computers. Performance metrics, of course, are invoked like talismans. Distant authorities crack the whip, demanding quantitative measures and a stark, single number to encapsulate the precise achievement level of every child.

“We seem to think that education is a thing—like a vaccine—that can be designed from afar and simply injected into our children. But as the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats said, ‘Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.’”

The first leg of Brown’s reform agenda focuses on school finance. Instead of giving every school essentially the same amount per student regardless of need, Brown proposes to give more money to schools that teach more children whose first language is not English or who come from poor families.

Common sense says it is tougher to teach kids who do not speak English. Schools have to teach them the language and the regular curriculum at the same time. And poor children usually don’t have the same support at home – computers, extra materials, tutors and well-educated parents – as students from middle class and wealthy families. Brown wants to close that gap.

But the governor is a good politician, so he knows he would never succeed by taking what some schools have now and giving it to others. Instead, he wants to fund the needs-based grants he envisions going forward, out of new money. Schools serving middle-class kids would get less new money than they would under today’s rules, and schools with a lot of poor and immigrant children would get more of the growth in revenues.

Brown is also proposing to cut many of the strings that Sacramento has tied to the money it sends to the schools.

This is a worthy goal, as lawmakers have a way of seeing the need for a law in every anecdote. A school shooting means requiring every campus to have a security plan. Outdated textbooks in one district lead to a separate pot of money that can be spent only on school materials. A district that lets its buildings deteriorate impels the Legislature to require set-asides for maintenance, and deferred maintenance. And so on.

While it’s a myth that most of the schools’ money gets wasted on administration, it is true that far too much of it is tied up serving the myriad priorities of generations of legislators, most of them long gone from office and many of them dead. Brown wants to wipe the slate clean (or nearly clean) and start over, with the presumption that local communities and the school boards they elect know best how to spend their money.

Brown calls this the concept of “subsidiarity” – the idea that a central authority should do only those things that cannot be done at the local level. The state, he says, should respect the jurisdiction of local school districts and “the dignity and freedom of teachers and students.”

But then he takes a leap. In his speech, Brown said he saw this concept extending to “what is taught, how it is taught, and how it is to be measured.” He added: “I would prefer to trust our teachers who are in the classroom each day, doing the real work – lighting fires in young minds.”

That’s a good impulse. Teachers and their immediate supervisors should decide how they teach. But deciding what they teach – what we, as a state, want young people to learn – is different. That’s the job not just of teachers but the people who hire them, either the community, the district or, if we want consistency across California, the state.

Otherwise, we risk returning to the days before California adopted academic standards in the 1990s, when every teacher decided for himself or herself what concepts of history to teach, what algebra was, and whether teaching chemistry should include the periodic table of elements.

The result was a lot of creativity, and very little accountability. Parents had no way of knowing whether their children were learning the concepts they needed to get into college, get a job or participate in civil society. And the children who suffered most were the poor, immigrant kids Brown says he’s focused on. Their schools generally had low expectations for them, and a lot of them fell through the cracks.

Since the adoption of academic standards, minority and poor children are mastering basic skills in far greater numbers, and far more of them are going on to college and graduating. Some teachers complained about having to “teach to the tests,” but many welcomed the clarity that came with specific benchmarks, and students were the winners. The performance gap between rich and poor, white and minority students has narrowed, even if it has not closed completely.

So Brown is mostly on the right track. The school finance system needs an overhaul, and the state should recognize that it costs more to teach a poor child or one with language limitations. Sacramento should get out of the way and let school districts, principals and teachers decide how to spend the money.

Finally, we should treat our teachers like other professionals. If you go to a doctor, you tell her what ails you and you tell her when you feel better. If you hire a lawyer, you tell him what problem you need him to solve. If you go to an architect, you tell him what kind of building you need. And then it is the job of these professionals to take your requests and use their training and best judgment to satisfy your needs.

Teaching is no different. It’s up to the people of California to decide what we want our children to learn in school. And then Sacramento politicians should get out of the way and let the schools and the teachers to decide the best way to teach that material.

Daniel Weintraub has covered public policy in California for 25 years. He is editor of the California Health Report at www.healthycal.org

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