State Senate leader calls on Gov. Brown to present his plan for school accountability


Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg

Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, is calling on Governor Jerry Brown to come forward with his own “comprehensive” plan for the state’s testing and accountability system.

His comments to EdSource came in response to Brown’s harsh rejection two weeks ago of Steinberg’s legislation, SB547,  to reform the state’s main system for rating the state’s schools.

“My hope and expectation is that we sit down with the governor and other stakeholders over the next couple of months, and he comes forward with his own proposals about how to change an accountability system that is far too test-oriented,” he said.

In his memorable veto message, Brown said the new ways of evaluating schools called for in Steinberg’s bill, one of the most important education bills of the legislative session, were “ill-defined and impossible to design.”  They relied, Brown said, “on the same quantitative and standardized paradigm at the heart of the current system.”

He suggested establishing local teams of inspectors to evaluate schools without coming up with a score like the state’s Academic Performance Index, the state’s main measure for ranking schools.  “Adding more speedometers to a broken car won’t turn it into a high-performance machine,” Brown wrote.

But Steinberg feels his bill was misunderstood. Rather than just calling for more accountability measures, he said, its main intent was to ensure that students leave high school ready for careers and/or college, and that courses are more relevant.

However, Steinberg’s bill was an extremely technical piece of legislation, which proposed a complex new accountability system that adds graduation rates and other measures to the API to establish a new index to be called the Education Quality Index.

The bill’s intent may have been to force schools to focus more on college and career readiness by creating measures to test them in these arenas. But it did not provide any resources to schools to transform how they teach core academic courses.

For those puzzled by how a bill of such importance would have landed on the governor’s desk without a sense of whether he would sign it, Steinberg acknowledged that Brown had asked him to hold the bill until next year.

But, he said, “I felt that every year that goes by without fundamentally addressing the connection between our education system and the economy, we end up with a whole cohort of students who are left behind.”

He said that as painful as the veto message was, something good has come out of it. “We have a lot of people talking about what I think is the central issue, the relationship between public education and our economy,” he said. “Now it is incumbent on us to work it out.”

Within days of his veto, Brown went out of his way to soften some key portions of his tough veto message.   In remarks to the San Diego Union Tribune editorial writer, he said “I believe [in] a certain amount of testing.”  He called the API “a good metric,” but said it shouldn’t crowd out “other good measures” of student performance.

In later comments at the Millken Institute’s State of the State conference he once again defended the API, reportedly saying that he vetoed Steinberg’s bill because it would have “marginalized” the ranking system.

Brown’s comments may have done more to confuse than clarify, however. Both the Los Angeles Times and Sacramento Bee have weighed in with tough editorial critiques, urging Brown to clarify his positions.

“If Brown has a realistic new vision for education in California,” the Times editorial read, “he should pull the relevant parties together quickly and develop a concrete proposal that the state can afford and carry out effectively.

Along similar lines, the Bee editorial said “Californians deserve more from Brown than the inscrutable, nebulous meditations he has delivered so far on K-12 education.”

Steinberg now says he wants to get the discussion back to focusing on the “real reasons” behind his measurement-oriented bill, which he says is to figure out how to link academic instruction to the world of work and careers. “You see kids who are bored because they are learning in ways that are not meaningful to their lives and their futures,” he said.

With Brown having retreated somewhat from the blunt message in his veto, and Steinberg de-emphasizing the testing and assessment portions of his bill, at least in his comments to EdSource, the two Democratic leaders may have laid the groundwork for a rapprochement.

As for that Brown veto, Steinberg said “I have had many great victories, and some setbacks … If you have a setback, you get back up and get back to it.”

This is an updated version of an earlier post.  For background on California’s school testing and accountability regimen, see this EdSource report

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2 Responses to “State Senate leader calls on Gov. Brown to present his plan for school accountability”

  1. Salmacis said

    on October 21, 2011 at 10:05 am

    One side wants schooling to produce critical thinkers, the other side wants schooling to prepare factory fodder. So…”The purpose of education is…?” It doesn’t matter when 547 or any similar bill is brought back – it’s the debate on the underlying ethos that we need to have. (And yes, hopefully that will lead to getting the hands of business off our children and out of our classrooms).

  2. Big Daddy2 said

    on October 21, 2011 at 2:56 pm

    I applaud Sen. Steinberg for his efforts. Students should graduate from high school with employable skills, even if they’re going on to college. Far too many students quit high school because they don’t find relevancy in the curriculum. Many graduates can’t afford the ever-increasing cost of higher education, and don’t have the skills needed to get a decent paying job. There are many good-paying jobs going vacant because of a skilled labor deficit in California, or are they being filled with out-of-state recruiting.

    This is definitely a debate that needs to happen….sooner than later.

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