It's still true: The future tends to happen first in California

Merrill Vargo

Merrill Vargo

It often seems as if the rest of the nation – and certainly education policymakers in Washington – wants to avert its eyes from California. Many of the large national foundations have stopped or curtailed their investments here, and the federal government seems to have followed suit: California has yet to receive Race to the Top money, there is no word on California’s request for a waiver on NCLB, and when researchers cite “cutting-edge” work, it is usually happening somewhere else. The message we get is that state policy in general and education policy in particular in California is pretty much a mess and until we get our house in order, we shouldn’t expect either any help or any respect. The fact that six million kids go to school here is apparently their tough luck.

But there is another story about California, and it is the one entitled “The Future Happens Here First.” I don’t mean just in Silicon Valley, though that’s part of it. I mean the future of education often happens in California schools and school districts first. Looking back, major forces like large-scale demographic change and the explosion of students learning English in our schools hit here first, and we adapted to the challenge of teaching children speaking some 150 languages. Policy change also happens here first: California adopted the Public Schools Accountability Act with its focus on standards, accountability, and testing before NCLB; the scale-up of charter schools happened here first. And districts, including Los Angeles Unified, the second largest in the nation, are making a good faith effort to combine a per-pupil approach to resource allocation with public school choice. California is always on the cutting edge, just not always the edge that others might wish we were on.

So what is the edge that Californians are dancing on these days? I think it is staring us in the face: For a number of years now, California has been embarked in a serious experiment about how cheaply we can operate a public school system. This may not be the experiment educators – or policymakers – wanted.  Our kids deserve more and education advocates will continue to work to find more resources. But for right now, apparently this is what the public wants both in California and elsewhere. Shrinking the public sector means shrinking school budgets, too.

So who wants to learn how to run schools on the cheap? Nobody. But what if we rephrase the question? Who wants to learn how to run schools more efficiently? Lots of people. And that is what people who work on the ground in schools and districts are working on – it’s just not the label we or they use. What does working on education efficiency look like? Here are some forms it takes:

  • Deregulation: Delivering services and managing compliance based on a myriad of disjointed categorical programs is costly and inefficient. Deregulation – both from state to district and from district to school – opens the door for greater budget transparency and better use of resources at the local level, resulting in educators tailoring services to meet student needs effectively.
  • Process automation: Shifting from paper to automated processes costs money at first and then saves money almost immediately. Both schools and districts are benefiting already from making this shift, and more need help to get on this bandwagon.
  • Blended learning: Some California teachers are already using technology to deliver instruction, and many more need help to do so, too.
  • Expanded roles for teacher leaders: An unintended consequence of sharp reductions in the number of district administrators is an explosion of new opportunities for teachers to take on instructional leadership roles. The result is an exciting new set of career opportunities for teachers.
  • Online support for teacher collaboration: Policymakers worried about whether sufficient computers will be available to give new standards-aligned tests online need to worry as well about online support for teacher collaboration to create or adapt Common Core standards-aligned curricula. Some districts are doing it; more need to.
  • New partnerships and resource sharing arrangements: Necessity is the mother of innovation in education as elsewhere, and schools and districts are busily working to forge new relationships with community agencies and local businesses and to share people, resources, and information across organizational boundaries. In one of my organization’s partner school districts, for example, the district partnered with a community agency to run focus groups and town meetings to collect data that helped inform their strategic plan. The result was more data and a better plan than could have been possible using district resources alone. As districts are looking to implement the Common Core, more and more are looking online for free training and already-designed instructional materials. The New York City DOE has an online library of teacher-created materials that could be used to jump-start efforts here in California. And Linked Learning districts are a wealth of ideas about new places to look for student internships.

Work like this – the next generation of education “best practices” – is happening now and it is happening here. The budget crisis is certainly creating the motivation, and sometimes providing the political cover, that is needed to spark the reinvention of public education. Our best education leaders are using forced efficiency to spark more effective teaching and learning. The rest of the nation would do well to take a hard look at California, because the future happens here first.

Merrill Vargo is both an experienced academic and a practical expert in the field of school reform. Before founding Pivot Learning Partners (then known as the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative, or BASRC) in 1995, Dr. Vargo spent nine years teaching English in a variety of settings, managed her own consulting firm, and served as executive director of the California Institute for School Improvement, a Sacramento-based nonprofit that provides staff development and policy analysis for educators. She served as Director of Regional Programs and Special Projects for the California Department of Education. She is also a member of Full Circle Fund.




Filed under: Commentary, Federal Education Policy, Reforms, State Education Policy, Technology



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3 Responses to “It's still true: The future tends to happen first in California”

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  1. el on Jul 24, 2012 at 11:13 am07/24/2012 11:13 am

    • 000

    I love Navigio’s comment.

    We have schools in California where principals are being shared across two geographically disparate elementary campuses. This is not positive nor sustainable. A lot of staff are stepping up in non-sustainable ways with the assumption it will be better eventually, with the idea to get through the next few years however we can.

    I’ll add another: blended learning is not a cost-saver. Bringing technology into schools will in some areas have educational benefits. But, the costs for infrastructure, for ongoing equipment, and for school IT departments will be real and not offset by other reductions unless you are shortchanging the kids.

  2. Navigio on Jul 24, 2012 at 9:41 am07/24/2012 9:41 am

    • 000

    Apologies, but this article scares me. Not because it is trying to find positives in a terrible situation (kudos for that) but because after reading it, it made me realize that if people see things this way, things are not ever going to change for the better. 

    I dont disagree that we should be looking for ways to innovate, and that some of these may arise out of a poverty of resources. But I also think we should not use that as a justification to perpetuate where we are actually failing our kids, and worse, to make that the new normal. I could probably address every bullet point in this article, but I’ll focus only on one to make the point, namely, ‘the expanded roles for teacher leaders’. 

    California already has the lowest admin per pupil ratio in the country. Suggesting that teachers should be looking to step into that void raises the questions of what the role of a teacher should be and what impact this would have on the effectiveness of teachers to teach. One of the biggest problems with the falling admin to pupil ratio is the very fact that teachers have had to take over roles that were historically served by others and that this has taken time away from how much teaching they can do, which is of course their primary role. The impacts of some of these changes are implicit, such as the reduction in asst principals, guidance counselors, psychologists, security, parent involvement, etc (coupled with increases in kids in poverty, on parole, use of drugs, etc.). Some of these are explicit, such as reduction in special Ed and classroom aides, increase in class sizes, increased call for involving teachers more in ‘reform efforts’, etc. These things impact all teachers and those who would be most likely to step into leadership positions perhaps even disproportionately so. 

    So while I dont disagree that this resource poverty creates an ‘opportunity’, I would stress that I don’t believe it results in any kind of a net gain. And even more importantly this is no ‘solution’. 
    If anything, we should take this as an opportunity to recognize that reducing the number of bodies needed to address increasing needs is going in the wrong direction. 
    The fact that teachers are already the only ones stepping in make sure things still happen should also be noted by our communities. 

  3. Bill Younglove on Jul 23, 2012 at 3:32 pm07/23/2012 3:32 pm

    • 000

    Thank you so very much, Dr. Vargo, for stating what is so often overlooked about California education. I think part of “the future happening here first” is due to the size and diversity of the state, the land, itself, but, more importantly, I believe, is the composition of California’s people. Not only do we have the immigrant frame of mind willing/needing to “take a chance” on their futures here, but we also have so many of us “out-of-staters” who left whatever/whenever/however behind to come to Eureka-land. The willingness of so many of us to really re-form education energizes those whose roots have been long established here. That is the reason that I believe, despite current economic realities and concerns, those that truly care the most about the future of California will continue to see education as an investment in the state; nothing less!

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