State of Education Address offers few surprises

Posted by DanielleGaines on February 3, 2009 

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell delivered the annual State of Education Address this morning in Sacramento. There were few surprises considering the regular media coverage of how the state budget shortfall is playing out in school buildings across the state.

A few things to note:

Merced City School District got a mention right in the beginning of the address as one school district considering “staggering” cuts.

Later this afternoon, O’Connell announced he will hold a series of town hall meetings to discuss budget issues with local and county superintendents throughout the state. The Merced Union High School District is holding a budget town hall meeting tonight at the Buhach Colony High School theater at 6 p.m. and the Merced City School District will continue its public budgeting process tonight at 6 p.m. at Tenaya Middle School.

The full text of the address is copied and pasted below.

Keep in mind that O’Connell, a Democrat, has announced he will run for governor of California in 2010.

O’Connell’s remarks:

Good morning. Thank you all for being here.

Today in California we face a defining moment for public education. We gather at a moment of great uncertainty. But I want you to know that I stand before you today hopeful. Hopeful for the future of our country, hopeful for California, and hopeful for our public schools, even at this difficult time.

Yes, these times are turbulent with no clear skies ahead. The national economic downturn and the budget shortfall facing our state are creating havoc in every one of California's schools and districts. Every teacher, every principal, and every superintendent I speak with wonders how we will make it through the next school year.

Friends, the state of public education is precarious. Beyond the immediate crisis, and even more alarming to me, is the long-term future of our common education system. If we continue down the road we are on our public schools and our state itself face certain, perhaps irreparable, damage.

Let's look at the immediate crisis: With more than half of the school year completed, our schools are faced with staggering, immediate budget cuts. The budget being negotiated may result in current-year reduction to education funding of $10 billion. These cuts are nothing short of breathtaking:

    * Hayward Unified plans to lay off as many as 170 teachers and increase class sizes from 20 to 32 students.
    * In Merced, as in many other school districts, school bus transportation is on the chopping block.
    * In Lake Elsinore, not only are veteran teachers being given incentives to retire, schools are putting duct tape over light switches to save on electricity.
    * And on and on all over this state.

And as painful as these midyear cuts are, we can expect worse over the next two years: Larger class sizes and fewer classroom aides. Outdated textbooks, longer bus rides or no buses at all. Less support for English learners and for our neediest schools. Fewer librarians, counselors and nurses. Districts are choosing between hiring a math teacher and buying math books. Most tragically, these cuts come at the same time that the need for investment in better schools and more support services has grown.

The number of homeless students in our schools increased nearly 19 percent in the 2006-07 school year, and we know that percentage is rapidly growing. Hunger is also on the increase. Our schools served 28 million more free school lunches in 2007-08 than the year before.  Historically, subsidized school lunches have increased by 1 percent a year. Between September 2007 and September 2008, we saw an alarming 12 percent rise.

The students behind these percentages are the students who need more time in school, not less, more adults on staff who care, not fewer.

We know downturns like this hit the most vulnerable among us the hardest. It's the children in our schools struggling to learn the English language or those who come from poverty or who live with a learning disability that will be the first to feel the pain of cuts. Sadly, this comes after a long-term California focus on closing achievement gaps that is just now starting to show modest progress.

Let me be crystal clear, all of our progress as a high-expectation state is at risk unless we commit ourselves now to being innovative, flexible, and focused as never before. It is time for us to prioritize and to focus on only those things we know are working to close the achievement gap and help all students succeed.

So I call on my colleagues throughout the state, school board members, superintendents, and partners in labor to think carefully as you make these difficult funding decisions. There is no easy way to make the reductions demanded on us; there will be no winners in this process. But I implore you to keep the achievement gap in the forefront of your decision making. Students of color, students who are poor, who are learning English, or coping with learning disabilities need the assistance most. Equal cuts across a school or district will be inequitably felt by them.

That is the lens I've asked my California Department of Education colleagues to look through as we make cuts. As an example of our serious effort to think differently, today I am announcing that effective immediately we are suspending all non-mandated on-site monitoring visits for at least one year. During these challenging times I want districts and schools to focus every ounce of energy they have on improving student achievement, not on preparing for program audits.

In addition, I have directed my staff to use the time and resources they will save from not conducting on-site reviews to conduct a top-to-bottom review of our compliance monitoring system. I want to see a redesigned system that will focus the greatest attention on those schools that need the most assistance. It should be based on student achievement results, not bureaucratic agendas.

As part of this effort, I intend to work with Senate President Pro tem Darrell Steinberg and Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, as well as with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, to seek more flexibility in the way we monitor and require state and federal funding to be spent. The emphasis ought to be on what's working for students, not on bureaucratic processes.

With President Obama in office we have an opportunity for a new federal-state relationship — one that sends support from Washington, not just sanctions to our schools. It is time to bring harmony and restore trust to our relationship with the federal Department of Education. I look forward to working with Secretary Duncan and have great hopes for a more responsive, more flexible relationship with this new administration.

When states have established effective accountability systems, as we have in California with the Academic Performance Index, the federal government should let states work within those systems to hold schools accountable for student achievement. We no longer need duplicative, overlapping, often contradictory accountability systems.

And at the California Department of Education, we are examining all our programs with an eye toward changes we can make to assist the field during these difficult times. As an example, I've approved the immediate suspension of the California School Technology Survey. For now, we will meet our federal reporting obligations for technology without this survey that will save many hours of work for our teachers and administrators. I have also directed my staff to review the data submissions for the upcoming initial release of our longitudinal data system — CALPADS.

Now, we cannot eliminate federal reporting, and we will not eliminate critical data needed to assess the achievement gap — such as graduation or dropout rates. But I have asked my staff to find relief for school districts by making some data elements this first year optional, rather than required. We have worked long and hard to finally reach this juncture of having a longitudinal data system. While we must not turn the clock back on its implementation, we must be mindful of how much new work school districts can accomplish during these days of fiscal crisis.

Following the lead of our president, I intend to work with the Legislature and Governor to get additional dollars into our classrooms as quickly as possible.

First, I am supporting legislation, SCA 6 by state Senator Joe Simitian, to lower the threshold for parcel taxes from the current two-thirds majority to 55 percent. The legislative passage of this measure should be tied to any budget agreement that cuts funding to our schools.

Local voters invest in local schools. Time and again they have shown us that. In the November election we saw wide public support for parcel taxes to support schools. Seventeen out of 21 parcel tax measures were approved, remarkable in light of these difficult times. But in three cities — Oakland, San Carlos, and Ojai — parcel tax measures won large majorities but fell short of the two-thirds vote requirement, depriving schools of nearly $14 million to support teachers and fund important educational programs. This was a serious blow to those districts in a time of great fiscal distress.

I am also sponsoring legislation by my good friend, Chair of the Assembly Education Committee Julia Brownley, to place a major school facilities bond on the next statewide ballot. I expect a special election this year, and this bond measure should be on it. This measure would create jobs. It would help stimulate the construction of schools designed for 21st century learning as well as energy efficient, high-performing “green” schools that would help tomorrow's students compete and achieve.

I also stand ready to work with the Governor and Legislators to expedite any federal economic stimulus dollars that come to California to create jobs by funding school facilities projects. Multiple billions in new projects are ready to go right now in California, and every $10 billion spent on school construction will create more than 175,000 jobs. Also, to make sure that money received from the stimulus gets into the hands of school and districts as quickly as possible, I've created a cross-departmental team that is preparing now so we can immediately get assistance dollars out the door.

Economics tells us the best way to deal with a downturn is to invest and plan for the inevitable uptick. So right now, let's envision and plan for schools that are not only friendly to our environment and our communities but that are truly designed for the 21st century learning needs of our students.  Let's plan for schools that are built based on educational needs, not on funding constraints. This economy will recover, and school construction will help to revive it.

And let's also face this fact: If we truly share the belief that all students can meet high standards, then we must recognize that it simply costs more to help some students meet our high expectations. It costs the system more to educate a child learning to speak the English language. It costs the system more to educate a student with special education needs. It costs the system more to educate children who come from poverty.

For many years we have recognized this truth obliquely, by creating a Byzantine system of categorical programs that are narrowly tailored to specific student needs. However, the state budget crisis is forcing us to think differently about school funding. Let's use this as an opportunity to construct a method of funding that links dollars more directly to individual students' needs while we continue to hold schools accountable for each student's success.

If we don't do this, we will see the achievement gap widen. Unless we are willing to make major revisions to our current structure, funding, and overall commitment to public education, I fear for the future of our state and so should you.

Now, let's look at our current commitment to public education. A new study by Education Week found that based on data from 2006, California's per-student spending ranks us a dismal 47th in the country. We would have to increase our spending by almost $2,400 per student — or 31 percent — simply to reach the national average. Keep in mind, this ranking was done before the current budget cuts were calculated. And if the current cuts being discussed are enacted, we would likely drop to 50th in the nation.

Let me add that the same Education Week study found we rank 37th among states in the percentage of taxable resources spent on education.

We can and we must do better. Major new investments in our education system aren't just desirable for those of us who work in and around schools. They are critical to overcoming the economic doldrums we face today. They are critical to every aspect of our future in California.

Now as you know, I believe in data driven decision making, and I look to research to draw conclusions. So it's important to note that the “Getting Down to Facts” study wasn't the only research project to conclude that we need significantly more funding. The Governor's thoughtful and deliberate Committee on Education Excellence reached the same conclusion. And a recent finding by the respected research firm MGT of America confirmed what most of us in education have always intuitively known: money invested in our schools pays off.

Let me give you an example. Five years after the state of Maryland increased spending by $2 billion — nearly $2,500 per pupil — students made remarkable gains in reading and math. In fact, for every additional $1,000 spent per student, there was a significant increase in pass rates in both subjects. The improvement was targeted to provide greater academic equity.

The research is clear; both education reforms and significantly increased investments are necessary. We just need to find the political will to make it a reality.

So we must not wait to institute reform and to invest more and invest more wisely. The time of change is upon us and we must seize it.

I recognize that what I am asking for is greater investment at a time when the state is virtually broke. Californians and educators are being asked to make greater sacrifices at a time when we are already feeling stretched. And I am asking you to willingly embrace major change at a time when all of America is greatly averse to risk.

Let me tell you why we must do these things, and why I believe we can.

First, unless we rethink our investment in public education and specifically target our resources to closing the achievement gap, we'll see a future in California where even those who “have” live with less: fewer services, less safety, a society with constrained growth and lack of innovation. Those who “have not” will be in the majority, suffering lack of jobs, lack of support, and lack of the hope and opportunity that have for so long defined our state.

We will see solidified a two-tiered system of education that will become untenable. Untenable in the sense that a student's future could be determined more by his zip code than his or her individual determination to learn. Families who struggle financially will be left with a substandard system — one that cannot possibly prepare their children to compete in a challenging global economy. And to be clear, those children left behind will be the backbone of our future workforce. If they do not succeed in this global economy, the impact on all Californians will be devastating.

Now, this is not the future I expect for California. But it will be our future unless we all take specific actions to change our current trajectory. We must strike a grand bargain, and bring together those who call for real reform and those who call for real funding. We must say, “You're both right.” And we must do both.

On the reform side, it is time to seriously reconsider things like the structure of our modern high schools, the way we train our teachers, and the way in which we evaluate our effectiveness. These aren't minor fixes to a system but a true top-to-bottom rethinking.

The good news is that an enormous amount of good thinking has already been done by premier researchers throughout the country in the “Getting Down to Facts” research, by the Governor's Committee on Educational Excellence and by my statewide P-16 Council. Today's crisis provides us an opportunity to permanently improve ourselves for tomorrow. The key now is to use this time to embrace these reforms and make them work for California.

At the same time, we must expect a different commitment from the citizens of California. We know that more money alone will not get us what we need. There is simply no doubt that education reform is necessary. But it's equally true that reform without significant new investment will not work either. We will never be the great state our citizens deserve unless we invest in our future.

I'm optimistic that this can be done. I believe that, just as parents who come to this country sacrifice everything for the education of their children, the public in this time of difficulty will also sacrifice for education because education is the one thing that will secure our future.

I am also optimistic because even during this time of crisis all over California there are thousands of educators bringing innovation, creativity, energy, and heart into our schools and classrooms: Creative teachers like Mark Teeters, who introduced me today. Mark keeps his students engaged and connected with songs in languages from Hungarian to Hebrew.

I'm optimistic because even in this difficult year we've continued to make notable progress:

In fact, since 2003 — the first year all of our statewide tests were aligned to California's rigorous standards — more than half a million more California students have become proficient in English-language arts and more than 415,000 additional students have become proficient in math.

Fifty-four percent of schools in California made their Academic Progress Index or API growth targets this past year, an increase of nearly 18 percent from 2007. These gains are particularly impressive given that for the second year in a row, schools were required to narrow their achievement gap in order to make API targets.

I'm also keenly interested when looking at numbers like these to see the progress of the student at the bottom of the scale. There too we have good news. In 2002, 35 percent of our students were far-below or below basic in English-language arts. But by 2008 that number had dropped to less than than 25 percent, almost a 30 percent decrease.

In 2008, we also continued to see an increase in the number of high school seniors taking college entrance exams.

Also in 2008, our state took a major step forward in improving the accuracy of dropout and graduation counts for the first time using student-level data. This will increase accountability and, most importantly, help educators to track students and keep them from dropping out.

Last year I stood here and laid out an ambitious, comprehensive plan for addressing the achievement gap that threatens the future of far too many California children.

My statewide P-16 Council, a dedicated group of educators, philanthropists, researchers, and community and business leaders, made 14 specific recommendations for what the state can do to assist schools and districts in closing the achievement gap. These recommendations were not received and shelved as happens with too many reports in Sacramento. Today I am pleased to report that many of these recommendations have been fully implemented. We are making great progress on the rest, and all will be accomplished.

Let me highlight just some of the progress my department has made in collaboration with the P-16 Council, legislators, the Governor, State Board of Education, and educators throughout this state.

To improve the quality of preschool in California and to lay the foundation for high-quality preschool for all, I sponsored and the Governor signed two major bills.

To strengthen teacher professional development on the use of data to improve instructional practices, I sponsored and the Governor signed a bill to amend the state's teacher professional development program.

To provide better data on conditions and issues related to race and the achievement gap, my department developed a school climate survey for students and staff. An expert roundtable also has been selected to develop a framework for delivering culturally relevant professional development for all school personnel.

We also significantly altered our school awards program, for the first time requiring that schools named a California Distinguished School must also demonstrate progress in closing their achievement gaps. And instead of requiring cumbersome, pro-forma applications for this honor, we are asking applicants to provide us with their signature practice for closing their achievement gaps so we can share proven practices throughout the state. This is a small but important step in our effort to move the California Department of Education from a compliance organization to a broker of expertise.

The Council also recognized that partnerships are critical to our work. In response, based on the work of a broad coalition, the CDE will make available this spring a Resource Kit for Partnerships to Close the Achievement Gap. This tool will give practical and specific recommendations for how communities can come together to better serve the whole child.

I'm also very proud of my department's cutting-edge, Web-based professional development tool for middle school educators, which is called “Taking Center Stage Act II.” Using this Web portal, a teacher in Siskiyou County, for example, can observe a teacher in Imperial County modeling effective practices in the classroom. Teachers from all over the state and nation have benefited from this innovation, and the community of middle school educators has been strengthened to the great benefit of their students.

We are also making great progress on our Brokers of Expertise project and intend to deliver a full-scale model by the end of my term for sharing best practices in revolutionary ways and creating statewide communities of practice.

It is because of these positive indicators that I remain optimistic. It is because I spend so much time in our schools with our students, teachers, and dedicated staff that I know the unlimited potential we have. But it is for those same reasons that I'm saddened when I think of what we provide our system vs. what our children deserve.

These times call on all of us — as individuals, as parents, and as educators and policymakers — to give more than we thought we were able to give. As we move from a society of seemingly limitless abundance to a time of more limited means, we must look to the great wisdom of those who enshrined in our Constitution the commitment to a system of common public schools as the highest priority of our government. That was, and remains, a remarkable idea, an amazing commitment to the next generation.

Now our mission must be to step up and do what it takes to keep our end of that commitment — for ourselves and our posterity. In a world that is increasingly flat, “what it will take” becomes more complex and challenging by the day. But we must not retreat from these challenges. As President Obama said, “we must pick ourselves up, brush ourselves off…” and carry on by fulfilling the promise our forbearers had the courage to make.

In our schools, it is the creativity and the dedication of our educators that will move us forward through this time. It is the extra sacrifice of parents. It is the determination of neighbors who care about their schools, whether or not their own children attend them. It is the willingness of Californians to embrace all students as their students, to be responsible for the future they face, and the future they will make for us all.

Today more than ever our students need us. In difficult times, our schools provide safe and stable environments. Even as we face our own challenges, our schools can be that place where children prepare for and believe in a better future. We can help by staying focused on student achievement. We can help by expecting the very best from our students, not just ‘under the circumstances,' but because we truly believe they deserve and shall have that brighter day.

Earlier I described the state of education as precarious, because a precarious state is a state that is teetering, in need of holding steady. I have faith Californians will get through this next difficult year and hold our schools steady no matter what it takes. More importantly, if California is willing, we can head down a different road, create for our state a more positive future, where every child has options, and where every child can succeed. I am willing to take this road. I hope you will join me.

Thank you.

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