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State Schools Chief Plots Overhaul of California Education

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California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson on Tuesday rolled out a plan for overhauling the state's public school system, ranked among the nation's lowest in academic achievement.

"A Blueprint for Great Schools," comes a week before the results from annual testing of California's students are released and a day after the Obama administration offered states waivers that could ease requirements in the 2001 federal No Child Left Behind law.

"The first step in reaching a goal is setting one," said Torlakson of his plan. "We've taken an honest look at where we are and where we want to be, and created a vision about how to get there."

The key points of the 31-page report developed by a 59-member commission of educators and parents, and business, labor and community leaders include:

• Connecting children to the online world in the classroom and at home.

• Strengthening systems for teacher and principal evaluation and professional development.

• Providing for the "whole child," whether by taking care of health and nutritional obstacles to learning or providing an educational program from birth to ensure children are proficient in reading by third grade.

"He's right on target," Santa Cruz County Superintendent of Schools Michael Watkins said. "The priority areas really sync closely with what our county needs as well."

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The report notes that California fourth-graders ranked 48th in the nation in reading and 45th in math on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress. Its eighth-graders ranked 49th in reading and 47th in math. Only Mississippi students ranked lower in science.

Tim Sbranti, Dublin's mayor and a teacher at the city's high school as well as a member of Torlakson's commission, said the top five states in education funding are also at the top in achievement.

"We have to be honest and recognize to execute this is going to take resources," he said. "It's going to take an investment."

The commission did not estimate the cost of implementing its recommendations, but Torlakson pledged to work with the governor and legislators to set priorities and find funding over time.

Dorma Baker, superintendent of Pajaro Valley schools, said she hadn't had time to review Torlakson's plan or the details of U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan's waiver offer, which she said could mean trading one set of rules for another no less onerous. But she said the district, which has fallen behind in meeting federal achievement goals, is making "little incremental and sometimes larger gains."

Regardless of any new initiatives on the horizon, the district will keep its focus, she said.

"Our drive, our commitment is the same, to determine what are our best practices, and if there's money, great, and if not we'll keeping on going the best we can," Baker said.

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