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The California exceptionalism: How a deep blue state took on a Democratic administration and forged a new way forward in education reform

07.21.15 | Learning on the EDge | 0 Comments

By Charles Taylor Kerchner

California refused to enlist in the teacher wars, and it’s betting on a peace dividend. Rather than leading its education reforms with tests, punishments, and markets, it has concentrated on capacity building, expanding grassroots democracy, and rebuilding trust. Rather than demonizing teachers unions, it is counting on them to be political allies and constructive partners.

The most visible difference between California and other states is how the Golden State is implementing more rigorous standards. California is a deep blue state politically, but it has pointed disagreement with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the Democrats education reform test-and-punish agenda. 

It is not that California objects to standards, although some teachers do. The state had standards-based instruction long before the federal No Child Left Behind Law. But linking new standards and new assessments with teacher evaluation seems premature, at the very least.

The state issued no test score results last year. It jettisoned its old Academic Performance Index and stopped using its old tests, which were not linked to the Common Core, which State Superintendent Tom Torlakson calls “California’s rigorous standards.”  In the place of a single number score, the state is well on its way to a multiple indicator system, elements of which can be locally determined.

Holding test scores and high-stakes consequences at bay while teachers, parents, and students transition to Common Core instruction has allowed California to avoid some of the debilitating conflict enveloping other states.  

The story of how this happened starts with Edmund G. Brown, the state’s 77-year-old governor and Michael Kirst, the 75-year-old Stanford emeritus professor who heads the state school board and is his principal education advisor.

Jerry Brown is a case study in political maturation. “This is a guy who was enfant terrible when he went into office at age 36, and now he’s the elder statesman and the only adult in the room,” said his biographer Chuck McFadden. As governor, Brown serves as the dean of discipline over a Democratic legislature.  He signs only 15% of the bill it passes and reigns in its instincts toward excess spending, and he’s not a big fan of standardized testing.

Brown’s approach to education is captured in the word “subsidiarity,” which in Sacramento has been taken to mean, “The locals know best, so don’t mess with them.” Gov. Brown took the term from his Jesuit training and inserted it into his 2013 state-of-the-state speech.  “Subsidiarity is offended when distant authorities prescribe in minute detail what is taught, how it is taught, and how it is to be measured. I would prefer to trust our teachers who are in the classroom each day, doing the real work — lighting fires in young minds,” he said.

Trusting teachers?  It’s been a long time since a politician pronounced trust as an education reform policy. In his sometimes cryptic way, Brown has changed the direction of four decades of education policy that increasingly centralized low-trust accountability in state and national capitals. In many ways he confounds the instincts of his own political party with the message that schools and teachers should be objects of trust rather than derision.

(Next: The financing and accountability to implement subsidiarity.)

About the author: CHARLES TAYLOR KERCHNER is an emeritus professor at Claremont Graduate University and author of the On California blog at EdWeek.org.

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