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California Swims Against National Tide

March 7, 2014
Kerchner CalTURN

Charles Kerchner, CalTURN 3/6/14 (photo by the author)

Charles Kerchner’s recent EdWeek essay examines some of the reasons that California has been “A K-12 Education Outlier.” He suggests that it’s a bit of a surprise that California is markedly resistant to federal education policies, considering the state has a Democratic majority in the legislature and a Democrat in the governor’s office. Kerchner writes: “California’s divergence is no red-state aversion to the federal government; nor is it sticker shock at the price of new K-12 assessments. It’s an aversion to the Race to the Top mentality, and the embrace of a deeply held alternative view of what drives improvement in public education.”

That aversion has been proudly on display at the semi-annual meeting of the California Teacher Union Reform Network (CalTURN. Disclosure: I’m on the CalTURN steering committee). The first day of the meeting featured appearances by Kerchner, along with our state superintendent and the president of our largest teachers association. Teachers and administrators in the room applauded their comments about holding out against bad ideas pushed by the federal government. Perhaps the most obvious example is the misuse of student test scores in teacher evaluations. We do have colleagues here joining us from other states – educators who are living with the consequences of that suspect practice. Value-added measures for evaluation are problematic enough when applied in the way most people assume – students tested on the subjects they study in class – but we’re hearing about practices that should strike reasonable people as an outright fraud: teachers are being evaluated based on test scores for students or subjects they don’t teach. These mistakes may be the most visible, memorable legacy of the Obama-Duncan education reform effort, certain to be an embarrassment when history shows – and it will – how poorly supported and how ineffective that approach was.

Tom Torlakson addressing teachers and administrators at CalTURN, 3/6/14 (photo by the author)

Tom Torlakson addressing teachers and administrators at CalTURN, 3/6/14 (photo by the author)

And yet, California has not entirely resisted national education reform; at the state level, California is fully committed to Common Core implementation, having invested over $1-billion so far, with proposals to more than double that in the future. Tom Torlakson, State Superintendent for Public Instruction, noted that, thanks to AB-484 (a bill enacted over Arne Duncan’s intrusive objections) California has an opportunity to focus on the standards and on professional development without the immediate pressure of high-stakes accountability measures linked to those tests. Accountability hawks in our own state, around the country sounded alarms, while teachers and administrators breathed sigh of relief.

The teachers and administrators here at CalTURN are not kicking back thinking they don’t have to worry about student learning for a couple years, nor are they rehashing the debate about whether or not to adopt the Common Core. Instead, they are moving forward productively, collaborating within and across districts. They are sharing their stories about how to make labor-management relationships work for schools and kids, and envisioning improved methods and measures of accountability. These are not mere philosophical exercises. The new local control funding formula requires districts to develop local accountability plans for the use of new funds. The impact of AB-484 is that the educational leaders in this room are entirely able to focus on collaborative visions for improving schools and school communities without continually talking about test scores. Looking around the country (New York comes to mind) we see compelling evidence that California’s approach is the sane, reasonable, and productive option that Duncan should be applauding rather than threatening. The NEA has supported Common Core, but NEA President Dennis Van Roekel has also raised objections to the implementation in various states.

CTA President Dean Vogel addressing CalTURN meeting, 3/6/14 (photo by the author)

CTA President Dean Vogel addressing CalTURN meeting, 3/6/14 (photo by the author)

CTA President Dean Vogel was also at CalTURN, emphasizing the commitment of California teachers to work with students, families and communities. He noted that surveys and polls consistently show teachers are trusted in their communities, and therefore its imperative for us to maintain that trust and strengthen relationships to hold on to what works and advocate for improvements. He noted that the Vergara trial, currently going on in Los Angeles, represents what we are up against: school and community outsiders funding a well-coordinated effort to frame unions, seeking solutions that will undermine our profession without addressing the more glaring inequities that undermine our state’s education system.

The California teachers I’ve been listening today for the past two days are confident in the process of labor-management collaboration. We have willing partners in the district leadership in the room, and in the districts represented here. One teacher described the experience of the past couple days as “affirming we have a shared vision for students.” Another teacher shared a concern that, moving forwards, “The state is going to want us to test, test, test,” and then she asked if, in the face of over-testing, “Are we going to live with courage and do what we know is right?”

For California, what is right is what’s happening here at CalTURN and elsewhere around the state: teachers and administrators insisting that we share a commitment to working together for students and communities, embracing authentic, local, mutual accountability – and resisting non-educators who call on us to do what we know is educationally unsound.

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