Q&A:No More 'Permissive' Schools, Vows California Superintendent

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California's new state superintendent of public instruction, William Honig, 45, waged an expensive campaign (the campaign cost nearly $2 million) to take control last November of the country's largest state system of public schools from the incumbent, Wilson C. Riles.

In his campaign, Mr. Honig emphasized the need for discipline, tougher academic standards, and changes in the educational bureaucracy, and the importance of citizen participation in education--particularly at the school-district level.

Mr. Honig, a lawyer, has had a varied career in education. He earned a master's degree in education at San Francisco State University in 1972. From 1972 to 1976, he taught in an elementary school in Hunter's Point--a poor neighborhood in San Francisco. He served on the California State Board of Education from 1975 to 1982 and became superintendent of the Reed Union Elementary School District in Marin County in 1979.

With a grant from the San Francisco Foundation, he directed a staff-development project from 1977 to 1979, and he helped write a manual for the improvement of reading instruction.

While serving on the State Board of Education he worked on a task force assigned by then-Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. to investigate why average Scholastic Aptitude Test scores were falling faster in California than the nation as a whole. The 1980 report of that group said that students were, among other things, doing less homework, taking easier courses--a situation Mr. Honig pledged during his campaign to change.

Mr. Honig recently spoke with Alex Heard about his educational philosophy and some of his specific plans for California's schools.

Q:During your campaign for the state superintendency, you called the race the "nation's largest referendum on public education." By electing you, what have the people of California said they want educationally?

A:They want more homework, discipline, required courses, higher standards, emphasis on traditional academic disciplines, basic skills, technical skills, development of higher-order thinking skills--that's what this campaign was over.

It was over what kind of educational philosophy works. I was contrasting two educational points of view: one that I think just didn't work, the more permissive student-centered point of view that came with a vengeance in the 1960's, when there was a drop in expectation levels, in core courses of study, a shying away from transmitting the basic values and beliefs of democracy.

The other, which I was arguing for in the campaign, is a more traditional educational approach. You can call it classical education. But the point is that the job market has gone through such a revolution that we have to educate large numbers of kids at much higher levels than ever before just so they can compete.

Q:What specific plans do you have for upgrading education in the state?

A:In California, we are $350 behind the national average on how much money we spend per child. We're a high-tax state and we actually should be spending more than other states to keep our competitive edge.

So we need a significant increase in spending in the $750-million to $775-million range. We're going to fight for that. The Governor has proposed something in the $400-million to $500-million range.

Q:At this time, do you think it's practical to hope for increases of that size in a state that is having serious budget problems?

A: Our reading from individual people is that they understand the schools need the money, that they didn't get it last year, that it's a priority issue, and that we're underinvesting in our students and that will affect the economy in the state very quickly.

So we've gotten assurances from the business community, assurances from individual legislators, and from some of the major constituencies in the state to the effect that they'll go to bat for us.

Q:You've said that increased funding has to be tied to the kinds of educational changes you want. What are some of them?

A:One is that we're going to request that statewide graduation requirements be instituted for all students. We haven't had that here since 1968, when they eliminated everything except requirements for physical education.

We'll ask that two years of science, two years of mathematics, three years of English, three years of history or social studies, and a year of fine arts be added to that.

I'm saying that every child going on to work, going on to vocational education, or going on to college needs at least these courses.

We also want to increase the minimum times in school. Right now, we have a [minimum number of days] of 175 a year--five days below the national average for the rest of the country. We want to bring that up to 180 days over a three-year period.

We also want to improve our accountability in the state testing system. We now test the 3rd, 6th, 8th, and 12th grades, and we don't get longitudinal data on these students. We want to also test in the 10th grade, and to follow student progress through the years, following groups of children through the schools to see what kind of progress they are making.

Finally, there's a whole series of proposals to upgrade the quality of our personnel. We're going to have half the principals in California retire in the next five years, so we want to establish a system of selecting, training, supporting, and finding the best principals.

We also want to hold and attract and reward some of the best teachers in the system. One series of proposals has to do with teachers in short-supply areas like math and science; we want to offer fellowships, scholarships, and loan-forgiveness programs to get them into teaching. We're also talking about a proposal for teacher-incentive grants that would allow a local district to pay up to 5 percent of its staff up to an additional $2,000 for taking on additional responsibilities like curriculum development and staff development.

We'll request changes in dismissal procedures. They are now too cumbersome here in California, too time-consuming, and there are some legal changes we want to make to give districts more ability to do something about incompetent teachers. For example, we now have a three-panel commission that hears these cases. That's expensive. We want to make that one person.

Q:What do you expect from school personnel, especially teachers?

A:We've got to find a common mission, a common agenda, common goals for education. We've been speaking with too many tongues, and as a result the public is confused, the profession is confused, and we can't get any common action toward common goals--that's the way things get better.

Part of what this election was about is what we're going to be able to accomplish over the next year or two in California. We've got to translate the agenda into action in the classrooms, and teachers will be part of that cooperative effort. For them, it means attending to the issues of homework, the issues of quality--the things teachers have been doing all along.

We've got the models: individual classrooms, schools, and districts that are doing the kind of job we should expect. They set high standards, they get good results, kids take the right courses--and that's what we've got to spread statewide. Teachers are part of it, but so are principals, superintendents, the community, parents, and students. Everybody has got some work to do, and I'm not singling teachers out. We've got to do it together.

Q:What are you plans for the state education bureaucracy?

A:We're going to have to cut it down. We're overbudgeted for this year. We had a task force look at the department, which basically said to us: You've got a lot of high-paid people and consultants out there collecting data that are not really used, that's used to justify whether or not programs are operating properly. That's expensive, it's not really productive, and it's an intrusion on the local districts.

The department of education has become an institution which is heavily devoted to monitoring and gathering measurable progress data at the local district level. That is a wasteful, expensive, burdensome process, and the data doesn't mean anything.

We want to shift from the concept of a tightly controlled system under which you monitor low-level procedural processes.

The department should shift to those things that really do make a difference: things like science and math institutes, long-range planning with the districts. We want to move in that direction.

We also heard there were too many levels of reporting within the department, too many levels of management. We want to flatten the organization. I want an organization that's much more consistent with my philosophy. Our job should be to provide the leadership and form the alliances with districts--our department should be organized to be a much more field-based organization and less of a monitoring and paperwork organization.

We'll try to give more flexibility to districts. I'm for keeping the integrity of special programs--handicapped programs, programs for the disadvantaged, and so on--but we've got so many restrictions placed on the money. I think the money should flow to schools with high concentrations of these students; but once those funds get there the schools should have much more flexibility in suiting the program design to the local site, to the local district.

A:nd then we hold them accountable for progress. If they're making good progress relative to comparable types of schools, we should give them a medal; we shouldn't ask them to fill out forms and justify what they are doing. If they're not making progress, we should ask them to change what they are doing.

The state monitoring should be of a student-progress or growth-status type. It shouldn't be the process-monitoring we have now, asking, "Did they meet?" "Did they fill out a plan?" "Did they fill out a form?"

Q:You recently set the minimum passing scores for the new California test for prospective teachers [the California Basic Educational Skills Test]. Do you think you set them high enough?

A:We could have set them higher, but actually the recommendation from the panel was to set the cutoff lower. We thought 70 percent was a reasonable figure for reading, 67 percent for writing, and 65 percent for math. That means about 38 percent didn't make it the first time around. We think that's a fair level. It protects the children and it sends the right message to the teacher-training institutions and teaching candidates.

Q:The cbest program will also require that candidates who failed retake only the portion or portions they failed and allow a candidate to take the test an unlimited number of times as long as he or she pays the $30 registration fee. Did you consider limiting the number of times an applicant could take the test?

A:I think if you passed English, and you passed writing, then you've got those basic skills and you shouldn't have to take those parts over again. You should be able to concentrate on math. I think if students pay the $30 to keep taking the test, they should have the right to increase their scores.

Q:Your recommendation was that teacher candidates be required to pass the test before they could be admitted to teacher-training programs, but that will not be the policy. Do you still favor it?

A:Yes, I think that's when they should give it. I did recommend that, and I think any institution now that doesn't give that test early will be shortchanging its students. In fact, a lot of the people that took those early tests were juniors and seniors in college.

Q:What is the nature and purpose of the group you are forming called Citizens for Quality Eduction?

A:After we reorganize the department and get more funding, I want to spend my time working with local districts and making cooperative efforts at improving quality. I spent several weeks out in local school districts, and I'm detecting a tremendous outpouring of support for that point of view and a willingness to participate.

We're under the gun here in California. We either start performing better--building back public support and confidence--or we'll put our schools in extreme jeopardy. Forty-seven percent said in a recent Field Poll, which is a reputable poll, that they have little or no confidence in education in the state, and that's about twice the level in other states. So we've got a job to do in building back confidence, and that's where we want to spend our time.

Part of what we're doing is forming a group of citizens--we're aiming at 30,000 people--who are committed to quality education and will support our efforts at the state and local levels.

The idea is that there are people out there who believe in public schools. They want to do something to upgrade standards. But they don't know what to do. We have to form a place where they can at least get answers to questions they have, get information they need.

The real battle is at the district level and at the school level. I've been getting commitments from superintendents, board members, parents, representatives of the business community, all saying they will cooperate at the local level to take a good look at the nuts and bolts of education.

Q:You received a good deal of support from members of the business community during the campaign. What cooperation do you expect from them?

A:We need their cooperation to move ahead in the directions of increased quality and increased funding.

Also, we want more emphasis on the introduction of technology into education, on math and science and computer literacy, and the business community is going to help us detail what it is they expect from a high-school graduate. They're going to say, "These are the kinds of skills we want to see people have when we hire them," and that will be helpful.

William Honig aims to raise academic standards in California schools.

Vol. 02, Issue 23

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