Why Reforms Won't Work in California

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There is a great deal of educational frustration in California, and this frustration has existed for a good many years.

At one time California was regarded, along with New York, as a leader in public education. In comparison with other states', California's schools enjoyed very high financial support, its teacher salaries were envied, its curricular and instructional innovations were often copied, and student achievement was assuasive.

Today, this status no longer exists. While close observers have often referred to Proposition 13, the ballot initiative that made it more difficult to levy property taxes, or to the changing ethnicity of California's population, along with new socioeconomic problems, as likely causes, none of these would explain the obvious lack of direction for California's school system. With direction, the schools could have countered and alleviated many of the impacts of recent years and restored themselves to a position of prominence.

In an article last March in The Sacramento Bee, Bob Wells, the executive director of the Association of California School Administrators, spoke of this need for direction in terms of a necessary master plan for California schools--a plan that would eliminate fragmentary and conflicting reforms, which presently characterize the state's educational effort.

Unfortunately, steering such an educational course will be particularly difficult because of the following three factors: 1) divided leadership; 2) lack of knowledge about public education among state officials and the legislature; and 3) influence of special interests.

  • Divided Leadership. There is no cohesiveness of leadership in the California system. The state superintendent of public instruction, the nominal leader, is an elected official, while the state board of education is appointed by the governor. This, generally, has not prompted an adversarial relationship, but in recent years there have been some noticeable difficulties, largely concerning who is serving whom.

County offices of education and local school districts are not in a chain-of-command relationship to the state. County offices regard themselves as mainly service agencies assisting local districts, while local districts are virtually autonomous, provided they stay financially solvent and observe educational laws and funding mandates.

Within local school districts, the development of school-site councils and charter schools has added to fragmentation. While there is much to applaud about these forms of decentralization, the fact remains that there is greater need in California for a common educational focus.

The governor also can and does play a role in decisionmaking. This involvement is certainly an executive prerogative. But such involvement further fractures leadership when new reforms advanced by the present governor--such as "exit examinations" and "peer reviews"--do not seem to have much support, especially among those strongly connected to education, including teachers and administrators.

  • Lack of Knowledge. With due respect to state officials and lawmakers, they seemingly know very little about public education. The most recent gubernatorial contest was illustrative. Despite public education's being the No. 1 concern for most Californians, neither candidate showed much knowledge about the real world of the schools, their teachers, and pupils. The candidates discussed the increased testing of teachers and pupils, raising standards, the retention of pupils, summer school as a form of remediation, parent involvement, and the closing of low-performing schools. Most of these were old bromides. Candidates spoke sparingly, if at all, of solving facility needs, of a more intimate matching of curriculum with pupil testing, of reporting individualized results of standardized pupil testing, of easing the dismissal of incompetent tenured teachers, or of determining the role of teachers' unions in educational governance.

Lack of real knowledge, not surprisingly, has created antithetical situations. For example, in 1983, Senate Bill 813 provided, in part, for the expansion of the school year from 175 days to 180 for those districts that wished to do so, enabling them also to receive additional state financial support for the extra days. Part of the reason for the increased number of days was to improve pupil achievement (along with catching up with the Japanese, whose schoolchildren had both longer days and years).

Most California districts took advantage of the extended-year option. Several years later, however, because of some expressed need for increased teacher training, it was deemed that up to eight days of a school year could be claimed for this training, even though pupils would not be in attendance. Thus, the number of instructional days for pupils was reduced from 180 to 172, three days less than the requirement prior to 1983.

A second example is class-size reduction. Based on the logical belief--although not supported in educational research--that the reduction of class size, in itself, would lead to increased pupil achievement, then-Gov. Pete Wilson prompted lawmakers to reduce class size to 20 in the primary grades, with a view toward reducing class sizes at all levels. While this move had strong support, particularly among teachers, little thought was given to the corresponding need for additional classrooms and teachers.

During 1998, schools were faced with the awesome task of securing hundreds of new classrooms and teachers. When fully qualified teachers were simply not available, "emergency" teachers were allowed to take up the slack. In that year, there was an accompanying cry from the state and the public that many teachers were not fully certified, leading to proposals for the increased training and testing of teachers.

There are many other illustrations of lack of insight and foresight. This really is not meant to criticize, but until those who make educational decisions really come to understand public education, so-called reforms will be fruitless. Experienced teachers and administrators, if called upon, could contribute greatly to that understanding.

  • Influence of Special Interests. Special interests have long influenced public education, whether it be in California or elsewhere. Perhaps, though, because California is such a dynamic state--in size, a large and diverse population, and economic production--special-interest groups are more noticeable and effective. Like elsewhere, these groups utilize myriad ways to influence what takes place in the schools. Essay and speech contests; special days, such as Earth Day or Bank Day; or assembly programs featuring awards given by businesses have been commonplace. Others--organizations more aggressive--have sought to influence textbook selection, personnel practices, or curricula and instructional methods.

Within the educational system, there are also special interests, the most dominant of which are the teachers' unions. Since the arrival of collective bargaining in California in 1975 and through subsequent interpretations of that law, school districts have had to address in their governance virtually all matters related to the working conditions of teachers--school calendar, length of work day, supervision and evaluation, leaves--in addition to salaries and benefits, and to resolve any issues concerning them in bilateral fashion, that is, with union agreement. Needless to say, this has led to acrimonious relationships between administration and teachers, often expressed in various forms of work slowdowns and strikes.

Also within the system, categorical programs have been a reflection of special interests. For instance, special education, a main example of such programs, has over the years been the recipient of a greater percentage of funding than that allocated to districts for general purposes. This is not to say that special education is not deserving of adequate support, but it is to say that categorical funding should not be an offset to general-purpose funding.

Needed direction for California's schools is not necessarily synonymous with any supposedly needed reform. In fact, there are those in the education community who feel reform is a false premise because California's schools have not failed but been tossed about by imprudent and faulty legislation and powerful demographic and economic factors.

What is required is a careful assessment by those who understand the reality of California's schools; the development of informed, coordinated leadership with a universally accepted plan; and the rightful subjugation of special interests to the leadership and its plan.

John W. Myres is a retired California schools superintendent and an adjunct associate professor at Chapman University in Sacramento.

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