California’s newest but still unformed state education agency took a small step closer to becoming operational when its five board members met for an all-day meeting in Sacramento Monday. But what the agency will actually do and how it will function have yet to be determined.
The California Collaborative for Educational Excellence was created by Senate Bill 91, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law in July 2013 to help school districts carry out the state’s new school financing law and achieve the goals that districts outline in their Local Control and Accountability Plans.
Funded with an initial $10 million in state support, the agency is supposed to help districts improve, not punish them if they fail. This approach contrasts with the sanctions that the No Child Left Behind law imposed – and still imposes – on schools, including labeling thousands of them as being “in need of improvement” and subjecting them to a range of consequences, including the possibility of shutting them down.
The legislation that established the collaborative made it clear that formal state intervention, such as assigning a state trustee to oversee a district’s accountability plan, would be the last resort. As State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson declared when the law was passed, “We also see enormous potential in becoming a more helpful partner, working side by side with school districts as they strive to improve results for students.”
Five members have been appointed to the collaborative’s governing board, including its chairperson, Sandra Thorstenson, superintendent of the Whittier Union High School District. Other members are Tom Torlakson; State Board of Education member Sue Burr; Tim Sbranti, the former mayor of Dublin and a teacher who directs student activities at Dublin High School; and Michael Watkins, the Santa Cruz County superintendent of schools.
The agency has yet to hire an executive director. It has contracted with the recruiting firm Leadership Associates to conduct a search to fill the position. In the document considered by the board yesterday, the firm projected it would complete the search by July 1.
The goal of the agency, Thorstenson said, is to provide “support and assistance” to districts instead of wielding a “hammer.”
At one point early in its meeting, board members pondered the exact functions of the still incipient agency as they offered suggestions to fill out an easel pad with one column headed “what it is” and another headed “what it is not.”
“Every single child in the state would benefit from a system that attends to their needs,” said Thorstenson. “Not all children are served equally.”
Board members also grappled with how quickly the agency should actually begin providing services to schools. Sbranti expressed caution about trying to move too quickly, even though the two-year anniversary of the legislation establishing the collaborative is coming up. “I am hesitant to jump into the field until we are fully ready,” he said. “Bringing on an executive director is an important first step.”
Others worried about whether expectations for what the agency could accomplish had been set too high.
Burr said that when the collaborative was announced, many people had hopes “we were going to be all things to all people, and I don’t think we are.” She also recommended that the board look carefully at how the new agency will mesh with other key players that have a role in overseeing school performance, including the superintendent of public instruction, the state board and the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, or FCMAT, an agency that assists struggling districts to overcome financial and management difficulties.
Watkins said that inevitably expectations will be high for the agency. But, he said, “this work is an art, not a science.” Rather than coming up with across-the-board prescriptions, he said, what the agency does “will evolve in terms of how it deals with each district individually.”
What’s more, board members said, the work of the collaborative should be seen as part of a longer-range process. The process of “transformation of public education,” Watkins said, will take at least six or seven years.
The State Board of Education is at least two years from adopting a new accountability system that will determine which districts require intervention. In detailed presentations to the collaborative’s board, Stanford University professor of education Linda Darling-Hammond, who is also chair of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, and Michael Fullan, a Canadian education consultant who has worked extensively with districts in California, urged the members not to wait that long to act.
“Be proactive,” Darling-Hammond said. The collaborative should not wait “for districts to fall off the cliff” and then rush in to rebuild broken pieces. It should be asking instead, she said, “how can we act before then to help them?”
Fullan, a sharp critic of the federal government’s approach to low-performing schools under the No Child Left Behind law, said the collaborative will be more effective if districts view it as a resource and partner instead of an autocrat dispatching punishments and other forms of “negative accountability.”
Darling-Hammond, who recently co-authored a paper envisioning a state accountability system, described the collaborative as the “orchestra conductor” of school improvement in all phases. It should be the trusted source that districts turn to, with a “strong, lean staff” that is experienced in running effective schools and is respected in the field, she said.
She proposed several possible roles for the collaborative. One big need, she said, is to spread knowledge and research on effective practices, whether in reducing student suspensions or teaching English learners. “Wonderful work is being done in California without a systematic way to document and share it,” she said.
She suggested several models for fostering school improvement. One is a “school quality review” process, used in New York and Chicago, in which teams of experts spend time in struggling schools, diagnosing problems. Another method, used in Shanghai, is to pair exemplary and struggling schools so that teachers learn from each other. The success, she said, has been “amazing.”
“Don’t wait for years for a referral, for somebody to send you business,” Darling-Hammond said. “Look for symbolically useful ways,” she said, to demonstrate “the change from punishment to learning.”