Common Sense Radicalism

Apparently California Gov. Jerry Brown missed the memo. Across the country, governors outlining educational priorities for their states have focused largely on more testing and doing away with teacher tenure. The approach is so in-vogue, it reaches across party lines. A few examples: Last week, South Dakota's Gov. Dennis Daugaard outlined his education reform package, including merit pay for high performing teachers and the right to fire those whose students fail to perform on tests two years in a row. On the east coast, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is also asking legislators to do away with tenure, while New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, under pressure from the U.S. Department of Education, is determined to implement more teacher evaluations, based largely on standardized tests. In Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal wants to create a full-scale voucher program, as well as getting rid of teacher tenure. Finding "high quality" teachers is a key component of the education reform movement, but the only real metrics for greatness appear to be standardized tests.

But don't tell Jerry Brown. In his state of the state, given yesterday, the governor took a different approach to improving schools. (In fact, his entire speech was a surprise to those expecting doom-and-gloom.) In terms of education, he actually talked about putting more money into the system and then creating an evaluation system based on more than just testing.

From his speech:

Given the cutbacks to education in recent years, it is imperative that California devote more tax dollars to this most basic of public services. If we are successful in passing the temporary taxes I have proposed and the economy continues to expand, schools will be in a much stronger position.

No system, however, works without accountability. In California we have detailed state standards and lots of tests. Unfortunately, the resulting data is not provided until after the school year is over. Even today, the ranking of schools based on tests taken in April and May of 2011 is not available. I believe it is time to reduce the number of tests and get the results to teachers, principals and superintendents in weeks, not months. With timely data, principals and superintendents can better mentor and guide teachers as well as make sound evaluations of their performance. I also believe we need a qualitative system of assessments, such as a site visitation program where each classroom is visited, observed and evaluated. I will work with the State Board of Education to develop this proposal.

The house of education is divided by powerful forces and strong emotions. My role as governor is not to choose sides but to listen, to engage and to lead. I will do that. I embrace both reform and tradition—not complacency. My hunch is that principals and teachers know the most, but I’ll take good ideas from wherever they come.

Brown's approach shouldn't seem radical, but it's hard to find a politician right now who would argue that teachers and education professionals actually have answers and solutions to the problems facing American schools. And while everyone is eager to evaluate teachers, few discuss letting teachers be judged by more than a test. In most mainstream policy discussions, among both Democrats and Republicans, the effort has been to bring in business-style solutions: competition between schools and teachers, aggressive evaluations that can yield either rewards like merit pay or losing your job.

Brown's state of the state takes a fairly common sense approach education. Which is, of course, what makes it so unusual.

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