A simple teaching exercise on a green leaf has had an enduring impact on Gov. Jerry Brown’s views on education.
As he related to the State Board of Education shortly after taking office in January, when he was a student at St. Ignatius High in San Francisco, one of his teachers gave him an assignment to write an essay on his impressions of a green leaf.
“I have been thinking about my impressions of a green leaf since 1955, but that won’t show up on a standardized test,” Brown related to the board.
Fast forward to Brown’s rejection this week of Senate Bill 547, Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg’s bill that would have revised the current system of rating California schools to include other “multiple indicators” of school performance in addition to test scores.
In his veto message, he said Steinberg’s bill “nowhere mentions character or love of learning….It does allude to student excitement and creativity, but does not take these qualities seriously because they can’t be placed in a data stream.”
The emphasis, he said, should be on measuring “quality” not “quantity.”
Brown’s veto should not have come as too much of a surprise to anyone who has tracked Brown’s views on schools over the last few years.
Earlier this year, in his “May Revision” of the state budget, his administration explained that testing takes too much time away from actual instruction. Data collection requirements, the budget message read, are too “cumbersome and do not provide timely—and therefore usable—information back to the schools.”
What’s more, the budget message read, “teachers are forced to curb their own creativity and engagement with students as they focus on teaching to the test.”
His administration pledged to start a dialog with key education constituencies to come up with proposals to reduce the amount of time spent on tests, “eliminate data collections that do not provide useful information,” and “restore power to school administrators, teachers and parents.”
“The goal is to improve the learning environment in every classroom, thereby encouraging the demanding pursuit of excellence.”
Two years ago, long before the gubernatorial campaign had begun and when he was still attorney general, he wrote to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in a blunt rebuttal to the Obama administration’s proposed regulations for states to compete for the $4.3 billion Race to the Top fund.
“You are not collecting data or devising standards for operating machines or establishing a credit score,” he wrote to Duncan. “You are funding teaching interventions or changes to the learning environment that promise to make public education better.”
Tests, he told Duncan, “rely too much on closed and multiple choice answers and do not contain enough written and open-ended responses that require students to synthesize, analyze, and solve multidimensional problems and construct their own answers.”
He attacked the Obama administration’s insistence that teachers be evaluated based on the test scores of his students. “I sense a pervasive technocratic bias and an uncritical faith in the power of social science,” he said.
He also said that the “real answers may lie outside of the school.”
As Oakland mayor, I directly confronted conditions that hindered education, and that were deeply rooted in the social and economic conditions of the community or were embedded in the particular attitudes and situations of the parents. There is insufficient recognition in the draft regulations that inside and outside of school strategies must be interactive and merged.
And in his surprise appearance before the State Board of Education in January, the first such appearance of a governor that anyone can remember, he talked about his wariness of “reform” for reform’s sake.
“Some change is not well thought out,” he said. “I see no silver bullet.”
In his unscripted remarks to the board, he talked at length about the importance of “character formation”—an aspect of the educational experience that can’t be measured on tests.
“Character is important, not just mastering the test and amassing more data,” he said.
He also talked at length about the importance of the relationship of the teacher to the student: “That is not something that can be rationalized into various data streams.”
He emphasized that he is not against data or standards but, as he put it, “there is a lot of complexity in the human experience of a school.”
“Data is one thing,” he said. “The ethos, the mood, the environment (of a school) is also very critical.”
While standards are “fundamentally important,” he said, “I really value creativity, innovation, the unusual, the alive, the vital.”
It was in that context that he related the story of the green leaf assignment.
He also recalled a colloquy he had with famed anthropologist Gregory Bateson, whom he appointed to the University of California Board of Regents during his first term as governor.
“If you only have rigor,” he recalled Bateson telling him, “you have death, as in rigor mortis. If you only have imagination, you have insanity.”
“You have to have rigor and imagination,” Brown told the State Board.
“In a nutshell that is my philosophy,” he added. “You don’t have to buy it, but you had to hear it.”
What is not yet clear is how far Brown wants to go to implement his philosophy — or the extent to which he will be able to.
He will be constrained by the multiple testing and other accountability mandates written into state law, or required as a condition for California receiving significant amounts of federal education aid.
He will also need the cooperation of the Legislature.
And even school leaders who agree with Brown’s critique of the current system — and there are many of them — may not have the energy to make significant changes while they struggle to cope with a budget crisis that appears to have no end.