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. Both are Democrats. 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
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.
Accountability: 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 youths enrolled in health care because investing early in a child’s wellbeing will help prevent dropouts later on.
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, and Native American students?
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.
Parent involvement is crucial for the success of low-income students. Some kids–like children in foster care, in poverty, or those 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.
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 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 (helped) 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.
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 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 effectiveness, and those 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. We need to do more work with the universities to better train teachers before they come out of teaching programs. We need principals to be instructional leaders.
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 L.A. We also need to bypass these high-need teachers when 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.
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.
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. I’m known for having great strengths as a problem solver and a person who can bring diverse groups of people together to find 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 a teacher and the anger I have over how much California has let its education system deteriorate to fight for an improved system.