School & District Management Opinion

California’s Continuous Improvement Needs Political Muscle

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — May 16, 2016 8 min read
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Words don’t capture how radical California wants to be. Neither do pictures, charts, and infographics I looked at last week.

On Wednesday, I watched the State Board of Education wrestle with lists, circles, and graphics with colored arrows for six hours before it took an historic vote to move away from test-score accountability and toward multiple measures aligned with federal standards and local needs.

Then I read a 41-page report from policy scholars and education agency leaders filled with ambitious aspirations. At the end of the day, I felt a need to make martinis, invite my friend Arthur to sip them with me, and not think about education policy for a few hours.

The title and authorship of the Superintendent’s Advisory Task Force of Accountability and Continuous Improvement, Preparing All Students for College, Career, Life, and Leadership in the 21st Century, don’t invite broad readership, and the webcasts of State Board meetings are not high drama.

Political High Drama Necessary

But the underlying issues and politics are. California is trying to turn its public education system away from the path it has followed for half a century. It’s trying to reverse decades of Sacramento centric education and move power to schools and districts. It’s trying to rebuild local democracy and make it more inclusive. It’s trying to replace “test and punish” accountability, built almost entirely on negative incentives, with a capacity building system that nourishes green shoots of innovation and creativity. It’s trying to improve performance and equity at the same time.

These are profound and extremely difficult changes, and the Task Force essentially places the weight of the education establishment, policy scholars, and the business community behind doubling down efforts to make California’s Local Control Finance Formula work. The heads of two of the state’s largest and historically oppositional interest groups led the Task Force and presented the report on Wednesday.

Wes Smith, executive director of the Association of California School Administrators, said California was, “taking deliberate steps from what doesn’t work to what does.” And California Teachers Association president Eric Heins emphasized the long-range nature of the effort saying, “Building trust and relationships takes time.”

Trust in Short Supply

But trust is in short supply, and slow, complex education reforms crash against the rocks of impatience and against a world that wants simple easy answers to complex questions.

The report provides complex answers. It endorses driving California’s schools forward with cycles of improvement that motivate both students and educators. It endorses multiple performance measures, such as those the State Board approved last week. In it’s words:

“This culture of continuous improvement must infuse all parts of the system, including continuous improvement for the system itself, through evaluative mechanisms that allow us to learn from local experience and revisit the indicators, tools, and systems of support we use to ensure they are working as intended.”

The “system itself” is a big ship to turn. Implicit in the report is a need for a new omnibus political coalition. The politics of the last decade have pitted the mostly outsiders “reform community” against “educators” who manage and govern public schools, the latter disparaged as educational bureaucrats.

A Lasting Coalition?

I hope the broad membership in the Task Force represents an emerging political coalition as well as a brain trust (names and membership at the end of this post). A muscular political coalition will be necessary to sustain a continuous improvement agenda that builds on the existing system rather than replacing it with charters and firing successive rounds of teachers.

As Task Force member David Rattray, executive vice president, Education and Workforce Development, Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement: “Many education reformers believe that we can simply fire ineffective teachers. The business community knows that high-performing teams are successful when we create a positive work culture that attracts, retains and motivates employees to perform at the highest possible level.”

Asking Hard Questions

“Improving the system itself,” means asking some really hard questions about the existing system and clipping the reach of existing interests. Let’s be clear: there are many people who have an interest in maintaining the existing teaching, learning, and accountability systems. There are jobs at stake in schools, districts, state offices, unions, and in advocacy organizations.

So, the coalition represented on the Task Force has to be built for the long, tough haul: longer than Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration. For this to happen, it needs to rapidly move beyond the rhetoric of solidarity to getting things done. And here’s where the report was too limited.

I get the principles. Continuous improvement needs to be linked to a dashboard of indicators. But the dashboard needs to be connected to the drive train.

Get Local Control Right

First, the coalition partners need to help districts get the Local Control Finance Formula (LCFF) and Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP) process right. This is not a matter of the State Board adopting more user-friendly templates, or waiting for evaluation rubrics to be approved. The process isn’t working well in too many districts. Districts and schools are supposed to be able to use their flexibility to explicitly connect investments in staff, technology, and materials with desired outcomes and to track these over time.

Only when thinking about resources is driven down to schools and classrooms, will locally created indicators of progress have much meaning. Only when teachers and principals can make the connection between resources and outcomes does the idea of trying new things, evaluating them, scrapping bad ideas, and investing in new ones make sense.

Clear the Underbrush

Second, the coalition needs to push to move forward rapidly on what California State Board senior fellow Nancy Brownell called, “clearing the underbrush,” at the board meeting on Wednesday. As the Task Force report illustrates, schools are required to submit multiple plans, often with duplicative information, to state and federal agencies. When I visited the Charter Oak district in suburban Los Angeles, Superintendent Mike Hendricks showed me a dozen plans other than that required by the state’s new finance and accountability laws. Duplication doesn’t motivate educators; it enervates them.

Do New Things Fast

Third, the coalition partners need to help schools with what the design world calls rapid prototyping. The current of continuous improvement is far too slow to provide feedback and too far removed from schools and classrooms. Achievement and other measures are still too aggregated and fed back to schools (mostly) a year after the fact.

Finally, the coalition needs to line up necessary fiscal support. Schools have largely recovered from the hits they took during the Great Recession, but that still leaves California and its students ranking 42nd in the nation in support for education on a cost-adjusted basis. The two most immediate and somewhat intertwined needs are support for continuing the tax levies passed under Proposition 30, and creating a fiscal underpinning for the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence, the primary state vehicle designed to help schools through cycles of improvement.

I’m pleased with the Task Force report. It signals broad support for what I think is the right direction for improving the state’s education system, top to bottom. But to hold its nascent political coalition together, the new direction needs to show tangible progress this year.

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

Members of the Superintendent’s Task Force on Accountability and Continuous Improvement:


Eric Heins, California Teachers Association.

Wes Smith, Association of California School Administrators.


Jorge Aguilar, University of California, Merced.

Shawn Ahdout, California Association of Student Councils.

Eric Andrew, Campbell Union School District / California Association of African American Superintendents and Administrators.

Vernon Billy, California School Boards Association.

Peter Birdsall, California County Superintendents Educational Services Association.

Shannan Brown, San Juan Teachers Association.

Carolina Cardenas, California State University Office of the Chancellor.

Carl Cohn, California Collaborative for Educational Excellence.

Linda Darling-Hammond, Stanford University / Learning Policy Institute.

Cristina de Jesus, Green Dot Public Schools California.

Adam Ebrahim, Fresno County Office of Education.

Mike Hanson, Fresno Unified School District.

Judi Larsen, The California Endowment.

Brian Lee, California Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, Council for a Strong America.

Camille Maben, First 5 California.

Shelly Masur, Californians Dedicated to Education Foundation.

Laurie Olsen, Sobrato Early Academic Language Initiative.

Martha Penry, California School Employees Association.

David Plank, Policy Analysis for California Education.

Gina Plate, California Advisory Commission on Special Education / California Charter Schools Association.

Morgan Polikoff, University of Southern California, Rossier School of Education.

David Rattray, Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce/ UNITE-LA.

Ryan Ruelas, Anaheim High School / Anaheim City School Board.

Sherry Skelly Griffith, California State Parent Teacher Association.

Suzan Solomon, Newhall School District.

Samantha Tran, Children Now.

David Verdugo, California Association of Latino Superintendents and Administrators.

Kenn Young, Riverside County Office of Education.

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.