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

July 22, 2012

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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:

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.




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