School & District Management Opinion

Former Calif. School Chief Pushes Back Against Test-and-Punish Reforms

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — August 17, 2016 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Bill Honig, who was California’s state superintendent from 1983-1993, has launched Building Better Schools, a website devoted to making the case that the ‘build-and-support’ approach to school reforms work better than the test-and-punish policies.

“I created this website so that the research and evidence supporting various components of the build and support approach could be gathered in one place and easily accessible,” he said in an interview.

Sixteen Essays

The bulk of BBS is 16 well-annotated articles written by Honig in his best breezy, accessible, son-of-an-ad-man style. He starts by framing the school improvement debate and proceeds to the case statement of why conventional school reform has failed and how top performing school systems create excellence using build-and-support strategies.

“Many opinion leaders are stuck in the old test and punish paradigm,” he says, and an introductory note on BBS declares, “I especially want to assist governors, mayors, legislators, and their staffs who wish to resist or reverse the disappointing results of conventional school reform by arming them with facts, arguments, and the unassailable research that points the way to lasting success.”

Honig’s BBS site is the most provocative when it takes dead aim at charter schools as a primary means to improve education. While calling some California charters “beacons of best practice for everyone,” he charges that: “many charter schools are educational disasters. The worst are plagued by self-dealing, embezzlement, or undue political influence that allows them to engineer preferential sweetheart deals.”

Charters Don’t Perform Better

His case statement asserts that charters don’t perform better than their public school counterparts and that charters have become political shorthand for an ideology that is hostile to all government institutions.

His critique of unlimited charter expansion will add ammunition to the Charter School Wars now forming in Los Angeles and elsewhere in the state. In the face of the Great Public Schools Now initiative to drastically increase the numbers of charters in Los Angeles, Honig argues that local school districts can reach a tipping point if more than 15 to 25 percent of students move to charters. Read Detroit. He writes:

The question of charter expansion becomes critical when a neighborhood school is slated for closure to be replaced by a charter. The trade-off should be framed as follows: based on the evidence, closing a public school for a charter will improve performance about one-fourth of the time and will make it worse about one-fourth of the time. Thus, the one-in-four chance of an improved school must be weighed against the massive dislocations local school closures cause families, students (e.g., long bus rides or walking through alien turf), and communities. In addition, the very real chance of worsening school performance one-quarter of the time must be factored in."

Will Build-And-Support Be Successful?

BBS is least well developed in making the case that build-and-support will be successful. Certainly, this has been the strategy of high performing school districts and countries, and this idea undergirds the “blueprints” of the current California state superintendent Tom Torlakson and the political coalition he has assembled. It is the strategy of the new California Commission on Educational Excellence. (See: the California shift from test-and-punish, and the first ‘On California’ piece about the state’s exceptionalism pushing back against the Obama/Duncan policies.)

But it is one thing to cite the successes of Long Beach and Garden Grove (over and over again) and quite another to publically recognize the conditions that made those successes possible.

Every successful build-and-support education reform—from Finland to Massachusetts—rests on long term political stability that transcends political parties and works through opposition and challenges within the overall framework of supporting the existing institution. Those conditions are unusual in urban school districts.

Build-and-support success also requires that school districts, educators, unionized teachers—the whole lot—own the problems of inequity and underperformance and publically commit themselves to solving it.

The advocates of build-and-support often skip over the frustrations earlier reformers had in trying to turn around dysfunctional school districts. Many charter school leaders in California were first public school reformers that became discouraged or were driven out. As one charter advocate said recently, “You can’t run reform like you were changing light bulbs in Marin County. You know the story: ‘how many people does it take to change a light bulb in Marin County? Only one, but the light bulb has to want to be changed.’”

As long as substantive efforts at improvement can be considered an optional exercise, the politics necessary to sustain build-and-support will fall to the more urgent pleas that only hard-edged accountability can create equity in the short run.

Related Tags:

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.