State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson called for a reform of California's education system during a meet-and-greet at CSU East Bay on March 17, 2011. He and a 50-member advisory team of educators, business leaders and lawmakers will develop an action plan to address key concerns in the looming budget crisis. Credit Zoneil Maharaj
March 21, 2011 - Tom Torlakson is an optimist.
Despite the pressures on California’s education system, the new state Superintendent of Public Instruction is planning a renaissance.
Last week, Torlakson joined representatives of the Bay Area’s education, government and business sectors at California State University East Bay for a mixer-turned-discussion about the state’s education policies and practices.
The event, sponsored by the superintendent’s Transition Committee, East Bay Economic Development Alliance and CSU East Bay, is part of a series that Torlakson has held since he was sworn in as California’s 27th state Superintendent of Public Instruction in January.
“We all have high hopes for the students of California,” Torlakson said.
California currently faces $300 million in planned cuts to K-12 education and another $1 billion in cuts to colleges and universities. In the past three years, the state has cut $18 billion from public education.
"Building back the $18 billion that’s been cut is going to take time,” said Torlakson, who pledged to reform the education system.
“We’re in this crisis partly because of the economy, but it’s also self-inflicted,” he said. “We sort of lost our dream.”
California was once one of the best performing states in the nation, Torlakson said.
“We were in the top five,” he said. “Now we’re down at 47, 48 [and] sometimes, 49.”
During a speech, Torlakson discussed a number of collaborative ideas to help get California’s education up to speed.
“The team theme is the way to go,” he said Thursday.
When he took office, Torlakson formed a 50-member transition team of educators, lawmakers, business leaders and community advocates to help develop a plan of action.
According to Dublin Mayor Tim Sbranti, who is also president of the superintendent’s transition committee, the group will hold two meetings next month to make recommendations on a range of topics, from finance to curriculum.
“It’s been exciting. It’s a challenging time, but there’s lots of innovation,” Sbranti said. “There’s more innovation in a crisis.”
In coming months, Torlakson will launch of series of new campaigns to improve education in California.
Among the programs he envisioned was "No Child Left Offline," an initiative aimed at providing students improved access to technology. California ranks 48th in the nation in using technology in schools, Torlakson said.
“This generation we’re seeing now are the digital natives. They’ve never known a world without online capacity,” said Paul Hefner, Torlakson’s communications director. “We have to meet students where they are. Using technology has to be part of what we do.”
Another of Torlakson’s initiatives is the Team California for Healthy Kids campaign, designed to promote health and fitness. He’s already got a number of athletes behind the project, including “ultramarathon man” Dean Karnazes and former football star Bubba Paris.
“A healthier kid is more productive as a student and as a human being,” said Paris at the meeting.
The three-time Super Bowl champ helped foster the program to re-educate youth about how to live and eat because of the increased cuts to physical education and sports programs, he said.
Torlakson will also partner with the Green Schools Initiative to engage students in hands-on environmental education in their own schools. He’s already held meetings discussing renewable and sustainable energies to help build smarter schools, Hefner said.
The superintendent also discussed reforming the way success is measured, noting “too much testing” in elementary schools and calling for an evaluation of STAR testing.
“Is life a multiple test choice? No,” Torlakson said. “We need to look at practical, fun and engaging problem solving.”
A subject of considerable debate at the mixer was jobs. Finding ways of attract, retain and grow a local job base in California is a concern for the new superintendent.
“Without the genius of California colleges, we wouldn’t have the strength of the industry we have today,” Torlakson said.
An example of such collaborative efforts was the recent donation of $540,000 by the Bayer USA Foundation to CSU East Bay for a new STEM Education (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) center.
The biotech and science industries know the importance of education, said Trina Ostrander, community relations manager for Bayer HealthCare, who made a short speech at the event. She said it was “frustrating” to see how the state performs in science-related subjects.
“I hope this can be the start for a better era in education for California,” she said.