School & District Management Opinion

Calif. State Superintendent’s Blueprint for a Second Term

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — June 08, 2015 7 min read
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Back in December, I wrote about a marvelous, campy country and western video that State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson sang (kinda) under the title “California: We do things different,” adding the grammatically correct ly at the end. The movement of the state from “test and judge” to “support and improve” now extends to Torlakson’s official vocabulary as he talks about the “The California Way” in a series of proposals he’s called Blueprint 2.0, which is in draft form.

Blueprint 2.0 begins by parting ways with the past. “The days of California’s reliance on a single standardized test for accountability purposes are over,” the draft document says. “While well intentioned, we now recognize that we were using the wrong drivers for positive educational change.” Local control funding and the new state standards are creating “a new accountability system that differs from the previous [one] in almost every respect.”

Torlakson recently talked with me about what Blueprint 2.0 calls the “unique opportunity” that schools have to reconfigure themselves as learning organizations. Here, edited for length and clarity, is our conversation.

When you talk to your colleagues from other states, what do they think about California’s difference?

They wondered about us four-and-a-half years ago when we were not jumping on board the train that was hauling all the federal money, if you obeyed the new rules. Many of them got on that train and found that it wasn’t going anywhere worthwhile. Or they got the money, and now their waivers are in trouble. I think we’re viewed as progressive, and other superintendents marvel at the fact we passed an $8-billion tax measure and coupled it with finance system reform attuned to serving lower income kids and English learners.

Let’s talk about the Blueprint specifically. One of its elements is raising revenue. How are you going to build a coalition around finance?

There’s a short term and a long term. The short term is that we have to have a new measure for revenue to replace the loss of Prop 30 [the tax increase voters approved in 2011. Next year the sales tax portion expires, and the income tax portion expires at the end of 2018]. It’s tricky enough to figure out what will sell to the voters and what would be acceptable to the governor or get his endorsement. The longer-range issue is the whole definition of adequacy and how you fund that. California used to be in the top five or six states in per pupil funding, and now we’re 46th [adjusted for cost of living]. The promise of the Local Control Funding formula is in jeopardy if the funding isn’t there.

The momentum from my re-election campaign helps. We’re going to go around the state and put a spotlight on all the good things going on. People support my push for career-tech education, technology in our schools, more parent involvement, more help for English learners. Many of those things are going on because Prop 30 is providing the revenue stream.

Are you anticipating a road show?

Of sorts. We’ve done it before. We’ve got lots of good news. We are changing the way schools are funded, providing more money to schools and students who need it most, implementing more rigorous academic standards, and developing a new way of student and school progress. We put out $250-million in career pathways grants last month. It really seems to be working: retention and graduation rates are going up in these career technical education programs. And we are getting the business community involved, which is good because we need their help in the schools with tutoring and mentorships. And they get to see firsthand the needs of the schools so they are more likely to be supportive when we go to the ballot.

And the long-term agenda?

We want to keep building alliances around changes that are needed. We need to work together to implement the California State Standards, to successfully launch all our initiatives, and to look at the long run, which is: Can we do all we know that we should do if we don’t have the money?

Essentially build a little grass roots demand?


What about the federal government in the future?

They are coming around. We were defying Washington and saying that we were going to do away with [our former state tests] the CSTs and not waste our teachers’ time giving an old exam. [Sen.] Lamar Alexander’s [R-TN] bill, with [Sen.] Patty Murray [D-WA] as a strong co-author, has a lot of what we’ve been promoting: local control and sort of a state’s rights approach. Yes, we should have evaluation for teachers, but Washington shouldn’t dictate or hold money back from us. School districts and states should define how they should do teacher evaluation, and so on.

Many of those elements that were ignored during Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind that we stuck to--the governor, Mike Kirst [president of the State School Board], and myself--were in that way ahead of a lot of the rest of the nation.

Will the a replacement for No Child Left Behind get out of Congress?

I’m hopeful. I was back there a few weeks ago. Lamar Alexander did a briefing, and I talked briefly to [Rep.] John Klein, [R-MN, the head of the House Education and Workforce Committee]. And we had an extraordinary meeting with the President, about 30 of us. His hope is that there will be a bill, and he would have the opportunity to weigh in before it goes to conference committee. The Senate can get it out. The question is whether Klein can get it out of the House.

A new ESEA is important because right now we are wasting so much money because we don’t have a waiver on [the current law,] No Child Left Behind. We’re having to channel $400-million a year into those tutoring programs [for schools that have been declared failures for not meeting federal test score metrics].

Mike Kirst and I agreed to apply for a waiver that would free up the $400-million a year for schools to spend on what they think are their priorities. It might be tutoring. But it’s probably going to be summer school or extended services. That passed unanimously out of the State Board of Education. It’s nearly on its way to Washington.

County Offices tell us that there is blatant fraud in some of these tutoring programs. Forged signatures, falsified attendance records. This is a chance to clean that up.

There’s a wonderful phrase in the Blueprint about schools as “learning organizations”. There are a lot of little school districts that don’t have capacity, and a lot of big ones have been hollowed out.

It’s aspirational. There’s greater awareness among education supporters. The Blueprint is a great way to have a roadmap, an action plan for everyone to pull around together. A lot of the first-term Blueprint was aspirational, too. Many people thought ideas like the weighted student formula financing were unlikely, but four years later we’re implementing it in the form of the Local Control Finance Formula.

You’ve got an organization of people who are well tutored in the compliance business.

They’ve come a long way in the last four years. They have to check with their auditors. They can’t spend the hours doing advice, but they can be more constructive, and they have been. There are more miles to go. Our department is 80 percent federally funded.

There’s a thirst in the professional community for professional development, for example for English learners. How to help our students in all classes--whether it is science or math--to learn vocabulary and writing skills. The workshops we’ve held are sold out. There is pent up demand. Now that the science standards are coming on board, the planned office of standards can help collect best practices in training, seminars, webinars.

What about digital education?

It’s part of the huge and positive changes that we are going through with standards. We are asking second graders and beyond to be critical thinkers, problem solvers, and not just memorize. They are learning the scientific method. They are going to be prepared to compete in the global economy, contribute to the tech revolution, the bio-genetic revolution. There’s a story in the paper today about stem cells and cells from rats growing human organs. It’s amazing.

If the world’s knowledge is doubling every few years, you can’t keep up by memorizing facts. You have to know how to do research and make an argument.

I recently attended a middle school in Galt. They were doing a lesson trying to predict where in the orbit the temperature would be the hottest as the earth goes around the sun. The answer that everyone thought would be the right one was when the earth was closest to the sun. Turns out not to be the case. It has to do with the angle at which the earth is tilted. The teacher set them up to rethink.

(And here is Torlakson on The California Channel talking about “The California Way.”)

The opinions expressed in On California are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.