I was feeling pretty smart last week, strolling the halls of our state capitol and talking about teacher evaluation reforms with members of our legislature. The policy report that Accomplished California Teachers published recently has been well-received, and policy makers are, as we’d hoped, asking for our input about current initiatives and future ones. I was in a follow-up meeting in my hometown, meeting in my state senator’s office on Tuesday, when his legislative director asked me if I had actually read one of the bills we had touched upon in our conversation. It wasn’t meant as a challenge, but simply a point of clarification regarding the background of our discussion. I freely admitted I hadn’t read the actual bill yet, and we continued to converse pleasantly about the issues; then, I went home to do my homework.
For teachers like me, who take an interest in political developments in education, it can become a time-consuming hobby to try to follow legislation and education policy. And yet, it feels urgent that we do so. Otherwise, the risk is that we leave the political debate to the established ideological camps and interested parties. Think tanks, foundations, business roundtables, unions, and a handful of policy wonks dominate the discussions, and are too often unwilling to bend when the opposing side has a reasonable point. Meanwhile those of us in the classroom who want to put our students first can barely keep up with the demands of the job, and when we’re doing so, it’s often at the expense of family time, sleep, or exercise. So, it’s a tricky balance to aim for, to be an effective teacher and a healthy person with a family life, and still have any time at all to learn the ins-and-outs of education politics and policy. That’s the appeal of having others digest the information for us. I don’t have the time or expertise to study bills, so I’ll let the union tell me what’s right, or I’ll trust the leading pundits to present the facts. But, it turns out, when I do my own homework, I find that there’s no one I agree with or disagree with on everything.
So, yes, I looked up the bill that had come up in conversation today at the senator’s office. (For those who care, it’s SB 1285 – Steinberg). Here’s a small portion of that bill:
(F) (i) Commencing with the 2010-11 fiscal year and every third year thereafter, the Superintendent shall identify a list of schools ranked in deciles 1 to 3, inclusive, of the API for which the county superintendent, or his or her designee, annually shall submit a report, at a regularly scheduled November board meeting, to the governing board of each school district under his or her jurisdiction, the county board of education of his or her county, and the board of supervisors of his or her county that describes the state of the schools in the county or of his or her office that are ranked in deciles 1 to 3, inclusive, of the base API as defined in clause (ii). (ii) For the 2010-11 fiscal year, the list of schools ranked in deciles 1 to 3, inclusive, of the base API shall be updated using the criteria set forth in clauses (i) and (ii) of subparagraph (B), subparagraph (C), and subparagraph (D), as applied to the 2009 base API and thereafter shall be updated every third year using the criteria set forth in clauses (i) and (ii) of subparagraph (B), subparagraph (C), and subparagraph (D), as applied to the base API of the year preceding the third year consistent with clause (i). (iii) As a condition for the receipt of funds, the annual report shall include the determinations for each school made by the county superintendent, or his or her designee, regarding the status of all of the circumstances listed in subparagraph (J) and teacher misassignments and teacher vacancies, and the county superintendent, or his or her designee, shall use a standardized template to report the circumstances listed in subparagraph (J) and teacher misassignments and teacher vacancies, unless the current annual report being used by the county superintendent, or his or her designee, already includes those details with the same level of specificity that is otherwise required by this subdivision.
Now, it’s not that the law is incomprehensible, but it is certainly time-consuming to read and make sense of dense legal text that makes frequent use of coded, abbreviated references to technical details. Just to complicate matters, I’ve learned the hard way in recent years that it can be quite a challenge to identify and follow bills if you’re not engaged in full-time research and monitoring. Searching for education bills turns up hundreds of items, many of which are rather technical and far-removed from my interests or expertise. Then, you could go crazy trying to keep track of the others as they move from committee to committee, undergo amendments, and sometimes even transform in more radical ways when lawmakers “gut” a bill, leaving the bill number with none of the original contents.
So, what are we to do? I’m afraid this blog post is more question than answer. Because ultimately, although I don’t like to rely on others too much, I have to. It’s an uncomfortable truth that I simply can’t maintain any kind of life for myself, and be an accomplished practitioner in the classroom, and a leader in my school, and keep tabs on the relevant policy developments that will affect my work and the education of my children. I don’t like that disconnection. Most teachers don’t know enough about what’s going on in their field at the policy level, and don’t speak up enough about education policy. So debates rage on, opinions fly back and forth, and important decisions are made without sufficient teacher input or participation. It’s convenient for some of those in power, and those who often drive the debate, that most teachers are too busy teaching to confront these matters more effectively.
Since we don’t have the time to do everything, we do ultimately have to compromise by looking to others who provide good information, reasonable analysis and thoughtful perspectives. There are many sources that I look to, but in keeping with the California focus of our group, I’ll name a few resources that I turn to regularly. This list is not comprehensive, but perhaps a useful starting point.
- The Educated Guess is a website and blog by John Fensterwald, whose focus on California education has made his site quite valuable to my ongoing study of the issues.
- The Education Report offers a focus on Oakland schools, but with a good dose of statewide information, produced by reporter Katy Murphy.
- L.A. Now is a news blog from the L.A. Times, with an education section that, like The Education Report, has a local focus but still provides relevant information for those interested in statewide issues.
- UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access offers a good summary of education news with a California focus.
I hope reader comments will include some other good sources of information about California education politics and policy. Because with the state budget still overdue, and recent bills on teacher evaluations, seniority in layoffs, kindergarten cutoff age, charter school governance, not to mention the potential impact of ESEA reauthorization, Race to the Top, Common Core Standards, and even the upcoming Johnson-Rhee marriage, teachers should be paying very close attention.