Meet the Candidates: CA Superintendent of Schools

Meet the Candidates: CA Superintendent of Schools

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Editor’s Note: Next week, California voters will decide who will take over the daunting job of leading the state’s public school system. Larry Aceves, a Latino, is a former superintendent of districts in San Jose and the Central Coast. Tom Torlakson is an assemblyman from Contra Costa County who taught for 10 years in the 1970s and ‘80s. This interview is a round-up of questions posed by ethnic media editors and reporters. 

Given the mess California schools are in, what are your top three priorities as state superintendent of public instruction?—Rupa Dev, New America Media

Tom Torlakson:
Stabilizing the budget: The legislature and governor have abandoned education as the top priority it once was. About $11 billion is owed to schools, and we need to return money back.

: We need to bring school boards, school administrations, teachers, and parents together to create a better system of measuring school success. For example, if a teacher is identified as not effective, can mentoring and professional development improve the teacher? If not, how do we hold the school accountable to move that teacher out of the profession?

Dropout Rate: We know the drop-out rate correlates with the achievement gap. We know African-American and Latino students are disproportionably affected. We need programs like preschool, early literacy learning, and career education. We need to protect the arts, music, and drama from being cut so young people feel motivated to stay in school. I also have a healthy students program to get all students enrolled in health care because investing early in a child’s wellbeing will help prevent dropouts later on.

Larry Aceves:
Dropouts: We have talked about the dropout rate for years. We need to look at dropouts from the perspective of what works in the classroom. What are we teaching and why is our curriculum not engaging Latino, African-American, Native American students? We need to make sure curriculum is relevant and challenging.

Teaching quality
: We need to retrain our teachers. We need to collaborate with universities to make sure teachers are culturally literate and that they understand the needs of the children they’re serving.

Student Assessment: All the standardized tests need to be revised, changed, or dropped. We need more robust testing. Florida and Washington are two states that are working on better testing system. California needs to become partners with these states.  

Parent involvement is crucial for the success of low-income students. Some kids---like children in foster care, in poverty, or children with incarcerated parents---simply don’t have support at home. How do you plan to support this population? —Yolanda Arenales, La Opinion

TT: From teaching and coaching cross-country for 25 years, I learned kids thrive when engaged in a positive afterschool activity. Back in 1998, I authored the afterschool bill that serves half a million students in 4,000 schools today. Students participate in art, music, drama, and one hour of academics. The program really supports students whose parents are working, traveling, commuting, or aren’t a part of their lives.

LA: Obviously, any adult support is very critical for kids. Students need role models, and parents are the first line of support. However, we need to make sure that within our communities, we have role model programs to serve all children—especially those kids without parental figures. Community-based service programs like Big Brother, Big Sister are essential to low-income, urban schools.

Given your limited budgetary power, how do you plan on having a real impact on public education?—Yolanda Arenales, La Opinion

TT: I have classroom experience. I know the needs of students. But I also have rich experience in public service at the city and the state government level. I can help build partnerships and bring warring factions in the legislature together.

LA: I don’t vote on legislation, so that could be seen as very limiting. But I’m an educator with 30 years of experience, so I bring credibility to the conversation. When I get elected, my first phone call will be to whomever is governor to discuss the first four to five goals for education. I intend to put pressure on the legislature and go after the folks who don’t believe there are things we need to change about public education.

Do you have plans to allocate more funds to underserved, urban schools? How will this plan be implemented? —Cynthia Griffin, Our Weekly

LA: It’s not about just putting money into underperforming urban schools. We must have very focused plans to retrain staff and ensure principals have a deep, abiding belief that all kids can learn. Schools are not islands. Schools need have to incorporate the communities they serve, and the resources within the community. For example, when I was superintendent, the young Latina students weren’t into math and science because it wasn’t cool. I brought in young engineers and math professionals from the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers to serve as role models for the kids and girls were receptive.

TT: I authored and passed The Quality Education Improvement Act three years ago, which targets $3 billion over seven years to 400 to 500 low-income schools. We’ve seen test scores go up at these schools, and funds are used towards professional development, online assessments, and keeping class sizes smaller. The school is seen as a community center.

What is your position on tying test scores to teacher performance evaluations? Do you favor or oppose this proposed reform measure? How should teacher evaluation be measured? —Leslie Layton, Chico Sol

TT: Test data is useful if the test is designed to measure teacher effectiveness. Value-added methodology tries to use test data that was not intended to measure teacher effectiveness. Academics have found value-added methodology is wrong 25 percent of the time.

Instead, principals should observe teachers and write a full page of comments to help them improve. We should use personal evaluation along with test scores, but we must use the right tests to measure teacher effectiveness, and those tests don’t yet exist in California.

LA: I support evaluation of teacher performance. Test scores should be at least 30 percent of teacher evaluation, because hard data is needed. The other 70 percent of teacher evaluation should be comprised of student writing, classroom discipline, professionalism, etc. We need to better understand how to quantify teacher quality.

When I was principal, too many of my teachers weren’t ready. I had to pull veteran teachers out of the classroom to mentor and support the novice teachers. We need to do more work with the universities to better train teachers before they come out of teaching program. We need principals to be instructional leaders. We need to stop pulling them out of school for meetings that could be held on the weekend.

Merit pay for teachers has been a contentious debate in California. What is your stance?— Rupa Dev, NAM

LA: I’m not a big fan of merit pay that is based on student scores. But I support incentive pay, which would reward good teachers. We need to pay teachers who work in high-need areas like math and science and special education more money. And we need to pay veteran teachers more money to teach for five years in areas like downtown LA. We also need to bypass these high-need teachers where there are layoffs. Layoffs shouldn’t be based on seniority.

TT: Merit pay comes up periodically from decade to decade. I don’t know of any examples where it really works. It operates in a way that can be counterproductive because it could keep teachers from sharing and cooperating with each other. Some districts, like San Francisco, have negotiated extra pay for hard-to-staff schools or subjects. The most successful model of effective teaching I’ve seen is when teachers work as a team and there is peer accountability among the staff.

Each year thousands of young people do not graduate high school because they don’t pass the exit exam. Do you feel like the CAHSEE (California High School Exit Exam) is a fair metric to determine high school graduation? —Cynthia Griffin, Our Weekly

TT: We should have high standards. Generally, I support the CAHSEE, but for special-needs students, we need to find an alternative method for them to prove their skill level and earn a diploma. Also, I believe there is a place for an alternate test for English-language learners who recently arrived and are still learning the English language in 12th grade.

LA: The CAHSEE tests eighth-grade skill level. People try to pass the CAHSEE off as something it is not—as if the exam is a measurement of high school proficiency. A lot of kids are not good at bubble tests. I have four kids. My second daughter, who is an attorney today, freaked out every time she took a bubble test. Kids need to know critical thinking, problem solving, and collaboration, and there are new tests being developed that address these skills. Class scores and student portfolios should be used to assess student achievement as well.

Funding of K-14 education is an ongoing area of concern. One challenges is that schools do not have an independent source of funding and are tied to the state budget and revenues. Do you think it is possible to develop an independent funding source that could help all schools? —Cynthia Griffin, Our Weekly

LA: The whole funding structure for public schools is broken. My district in San Jose got $7,000 per student, while Palo Alto Unified got $14,000 per student. That is totally inequitable. Every kid needs to be funded at least at the same base rate. We are in tough times. Our budget will be brutal for the next three years. In the meantime, we have to focus the funds we have on the most critical needs. How do we better serve English-language learners and special education students?

I have authored a bill that makes it easier for communities to raise local funding by decreasing the requirement to 55% to raise money through a local parcel tax. The bill will start a dialogue over what our schools need. Career education? Computers? A robust English-language learner program? I believe parents, tax payers, school board leaders, and teachers will put together investment plans which voters in their district can vote on in 2012. I will also propose to reform Prop. 98, so that state money flows to schools on a more steady basis. We will initiate the local measure, but the state is responsible for funding the majority of public education.

Charter education is on the rise. Will an increase in charter schools improve or harm public education?—Rupa Dev, New America Media

LA: Charters are just one of the alternatives; they are not the solution. The great charters are really good, and I’m very supportive of them. I want to encourage the expansion of good charters in California. But the poor charters are really poor, and we need to close them down.

TT: We need to evaluate good charter schools and determine what exactly is working. Then we need to share best charter practices with other schools. How can we scale up the good charters? I plan to do the same for magnets and partnership schools. With 35 percent of charters being outperformed by neighborhood schools, we should not wait five years to shut them down if they are not performing.

What do you think of President Obama’s education reform initiatives?— Rupa Dev, NAM

TT: I’m very happy that we have a president who has made education a priority. I support the movement towards national standards with the ability to customize. I also support the president’s initiative to get technology into school and emphasis career technical education.

LA: I’ve been a lifelong Democrat. I’m disappointed with Secretary Arne Duncan’s idea of how to make schools work. The money that he used for the Race to the Top contest should have gone to underperforming schools. Now there are winners and losers, and we can’t have that in public education. But I’m encouraged by the administration’s focus on college, school-to-career readiness, and early education. I was a kindergarten teacher, so I know that many kids are already behind when they enter kindergarten. I’m a big believer in universal preschool.

Why should Californians  vote for you?

LA: I’m an English-language learner; I started kindergarten speaking Spanish. All voters have an opportunity to pick someone who is really an educator. I have been in public education for over 32 years. I was a principal, teacher, and superintendent. I know how to manage 1,800 employees. I’ve been in thousands of classrooms observing as a principal and superintendent. People need to choose between an educator and politician, and I think people will choose me.

TT: I am a teacher and I have state government experience. My dad was a teacher. I’m known for having great strengths as a problem solver and a person who can bring diverse groups of people together to find financial solutions to complex problems. When I see students get excited about learning and pursuing natural talents, I get excited. I am channeling that optimism I have as at teacher and the anger I have over how much California has let its education system deteriorate to fight for an improved system.