Asking candidates the right questions about public education

October 28, 2018

Students in a transitional kindergarten class at Figarden Elementary in Fresno.

Pretty much every candidate who talks about education at all this year will promise change. It’s up to us as voters to figure out whether they mean it.

The stakes are enormous. This month, Californians have started voting on hundreds of school board races and for a new state superintendent of public instruction. Collectively, these leaders oversee budgets totaling more than $76.6 billion and — more importantly — shape the opportunities for 6.3 million students.

What many candidates are actually promising — when you listen carefully — is cautious, incremental adjustment, coloring within the lines of the system as we know it. The reality for California children demands something very different: only half our students meet grade-level English standards and only 4 of 10 meet standards in math, and most lack the basic coursework even to be considered for admission to the state university systems.

GO Public Schools’ Jonathan Klein

These results, while woeful, should not surprise. Our students continue to attend schools ill-designed for the actual future they will face — one that demands critical thinking, interpersonal and leadership skills as well as reading and computation — and education beyond high school. That’s why tinkering with the system we have today — a system largely unchanged over a century — falls short of what our children and our economy need.

And the truth is, it doesn’t need to be this way. There’s too much evidence that creatively rethought schools can meet students where they are, tailor learning to their individual needs and set them on a path to define their own future. Some of these answers lie in reinvented district schools, some in high-quality public charters, but all challenge the way school systems work now, and all have a record of results.

But it’s politically risky to challenge the status quo, and right now, candidates are rarely asked to. Let’s change that. Here are ten uncomfortable questions one might ask:

1. What is your vision for how to assess progress based on what students have learned and mastered, rather than on how much time they’ve spent in a particular course?

2. How will you empower educators to develop flexible environments that recognize that learning happens in different places, at different times, and in different ways, inside and outside of school?

3. What will you do to ensure education is more tailored to students’ individual needs and empowers active learners that feel ownership of their academic journey?

4. What will you do to ensure every single student receives coursework consistent with the possibility of attending college, and aligned to the real demands of today’s economy?

5. How will you ensure schools cultivate engaged and informed citizens, ready to work together across difference and actively participate in our democracy?

6. What will you do to ensure our neediest children have access to teachers that hold, and deliver on, high expectations for all students? Will you offer equity-based incentives to great teachers to work in high-need schools?

7. What will you do to raise teacher salaries and strengthen teacher preparation?

8. Will you work to ensure schools are community centers that meet students’ physical and mental health needs?

9. Will you promise transparency to families on key school factors — such as course offerings, enrichment opportunities, teacher experience levels, etc. — and the degree to which students of different races and income levels receive these benefits?

10. Will you support public charter schools as an option for families, while holding those schools to high standards for educating all students?

I’m optimistic that if communities come together to empower and support educators to innovate, we can design new models and practices to better meet student needs.

But if candidates tell you that incremental fixes to today’s system are a sufficient answer, they are not recognizing history, they are not recognizing current reality, and they don’t deserve your vote. Because anyone who is not willing to propose solutions that are far different from our current schools is either not being honest with you or doesn’t understand the magnitude of the economic, environmental, social, and political challenges that are already emerging.

Candidates should earn our vote when they can describe the risks they’re willing to take to break with traditional boundaries and practices, to adopt new, learner-centered models that work better for kids. They earn it when they offer a vision that offers a challenging, rigorous education, not just for some, but for all our kids — one that sees children in every community as potential leaders and innovators who will invent the jobs of the next generation.

Ask candidates about their ideas, and listen carefully to their answers. Because the quality of our schools will determine our state’s future. And California’s millions of children can’t vote. But we can.

Jonathan Klein is the CEO and co-founder of GO Public Schools, a nonprofit network of families and educators advocating for better public schools in three California cities.Follow him on Twitter at @jonathanklein42.

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