Friday, July 31, 2009



July 31, 2009 -- To better understand why California’s public schools — once the envy of the nation and, perhaps the world — have fallen deep into the pit of academic despair, one has only to follow the recent interaction between federal education officials, and the folks who oversee this state’s school system.

Last week, federal officials — some holding fairly responsible jobs, such as president of the United States, and the head of the U.S. Department of Education — criticized California for its failure to make a direct connection between student achievement, as measured by standardized tests, and the abilities of adults charged with the task of teaching those kids.

A few days after that broadside, California schools Supt. Jack O’Connell, no stranger to a teacher’s situation at the front of a classroom, made a half-hearted effort to deflect the federal officials’ criticism.

We say half-hearted, because O’Connell chose the only public school district in the state that actually ties student test results to teaching ability. The photo op was held in the Long Beach Unified School District, which uses the test-score data to evaluate teacher performance.

O’Connell pointed to the successes in Long Beach as a model for the rest of the state — which, in reality, validates the federal complaints about California being behind the times, and the learning curve, when it comes to (1) finding out what’s wrong with our educational system, and (2) fixing the problem.

O’Connell’s attempt to justify California’s foot-dragging attitude with regard to improving public education — by focusing on a tiny island of reason, in what is an otherwise vast sea of chaos and confusion — speaks quite clearly to California’s precipitous fall from scholastic grace, to the depths of what has become chronic, embarrassing underachievement.

The state’s schools chief is, indeed, grasping at straws. We have known O’Connell for many years, since his days as a member of the state Legislature, where he played the role of champion for better education, and he seems a nice fellow, with good intentions.

But he is a bit disingenuous on the matter of California schools’ lagging test scores, and how best to deal with that problem.

Instead of doing the little diversionary, public-relations dance in Long Beach, O’Connell could, and should, be leading the charge for public education reform, and he should start by advocating a complete revision of California’s maddeningly obese Education Code.

Next, O’Connell, despite being a devout Democrat, should tell unions to step away from the business of running California’s school districts. Those unions — big and consistent contributors to political campaigns — have too often played the role of obstructionists when it comes to actually assigning blame to deficient teachers, who are largely protected by union contracts.

Don’t get us wrong. Unions have been an historically valuable tool in the advancement and protection of workers, in the labor-vs.-management tug of war. The problem is, these organizations have, in recent years, tended toward protecting their weakest members, at the expense of allowing society — in this case, California’s school system — to move forward, toward achieving necessary goals.

And you can’t really put all the blame on unions and teachers, for a system that is archaic, Byzantine, top-heavy with bureaucrats, and slower to start and stop than a mile-long freight train.

There is no magic elixir to cure what ails California’s public schools. But the situation won’t get better until someone takes the first positive step toward at least starting to rebuild this crumbling institutional system.

O’Connell has the credentials to take the helm of such change. The question is, does he have the will to do it?

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