Four months into his first term, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond is creating 13 work groups that he expects will recommend strategies for addressing some of the state’s thorniest education challenges. The issues include the need for an extensive student data system, college affordability, special education, teacher development, student health and safety, the teacher shortage and the issue he ran on but has little direct power to effect — more funding for schools.
In an interview this week at EdSource, Thurmond identified one priority he’s ready to push high on the to-do list: enticing more minority men to become teachers, particularly in the elementary grades, and fostering the conditions to keep them in the classroom. “We’ve landed on a strategy that we’re going to get in place hopefully by next year. It’s tangible. It’s concrete and we know it’s impactful,” Thurmond said. “The data shows when kids see a teacher who looks like them it makes a huge difference.”
Only 1 percent of teachers in California are male African-Americans and 5 percent are Latino, while 6 percent of the state’s students are African-American and 54 percent are Latino. A half-dozen of the 23 campuses in the California State University system, which trains the bulk of the state’s teachers, have had initiatives to recruit minority men. But they need more funding for programs like year-long teacher residencies, which mentor young teachers in districts where they will work, Thurmond said.
Ryan Smith, whom Thurmond has named to chair the work group on closing the achievement and opportunity gaps, agrees with the need to build a pipeline for men of color and welcomes Thurmond’s charge to consult with experts from within and outside California on “narrowing gaps across marginalized communities.” More than a thousand people volunteered to be involved in the work group and Smith’s challenge will be figuring out how to harness their energy, while naming a handful to serve on the task force itself.
“The state superintendent believes experts and practitioners, as well as other voices in the communities” will be important to the work, said Smith, the chief external officer at the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a nonprofit that runs 18 schools within Los Angeles Unified. The work groups will be co-chaired by administrators in the California Department of Education and outside experts. Smith, who will also lead Thurmond’s larger “Closing the Achievement Gap Initiative,” is the first of the 13 co-chairs to be named.
Eight years ago, in his first month in office, Thurmond’s predecessor, Tom Torlakson, convened a 59-member advisory team that produced a 25-page document, Blueprint for Great Schools, with mixed success in seeing its recommendations carried out.
Thurmond said he is determined to produce recommendations that don’t end up sitting on a shelf. He said he’d like to see two or three short-term, implementable strategies in all of the policy areas within two or three months, “because people do want to have some wins.” Then the task forces can turn to longer-range recommendations that will guide directions over the next four to eight years.
Thurmond said he is reaching out to foundations to help underwrite the strategy for more male minority teachers and hopes that will lead to other partnerships. But Thurmond ultimately must rely on his power of persuasion and his working relationships with the Legislature and Gov. Gavin Newsom to translate words into action.
“I think the relationships are strong,” said Thurmond, who served two terms as a Democratic Assemblyman from Richmond before his election last year as state superintendent.
As head of the Department of Education, the state superintendent has administrative and regulatory authority over schools, but no policy-making or budgeting power. The state superintendent is a non-voting member of the State Board of Education.
Newsom, he said, “has been direct in wanting to work on things together, whether it’s disaster response or charter school issues or early education. And we’re working hard to show him that we’re a partner who can be counted on to lead education issues.”
Restoring confidence, post-Jerry Brown
A study issued last fall as part of Getting Down to Facts, a project coordinated by Stanford University and the research nonprofit Policy Analysis for California Education, or PACE, was critical of the state’s education department. It characterized the department as understaffed, underfunded and unable to meet its potential role as “an efficient source of instructional support for schools.” Showing little confidence in the department, former Gov. Jerry Brown shifted some responsibilities away from it. His administration put community colleges in charge of administering half of additional money for career technical education and charged a new agency, the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence, with overseeing technical support for school districts.
Thurmond said that he has found employees at the department “work really, really hard and I think they get a really bad rap. There are people there who care deeply about kids who’ve been working without resources for a long time. And I think in some ways they’ve been demoralized by a lack of funding, a lack of resources.”
Thurmond said he has requested additional money while acknowledging, “If people don’t have confidence in an agency, I believe you have to restore confidence. This is an important test case for us to show competency, to show that we can get things done. I think that’s how we make the case for fully funding positions.”
In his interview with the staff at EdSource, Thurmond discussed a range of issues:
Charter schools: Newsom has asked Thurmond to lead an 11-member Charter Task Force, which has met weekly behind closed doors. The task force plans to make recommendations in June to the governor on changes to the state law governing the state’s 1,300 charter schools. Thurmond has not disclosed much about its work, other than to say it is focusing on who can authorize charter schools and whether school districts can take the financial impact of charter schools into account when deciding whether to grant or renew a charter.
“I am hopeful that there will be meaningful recommendations for reform in charter schools from the task force,” he said in the interview. “Right now there is a vigorous conversation taking place and if we can achieve some reforms, we can move past the debate.”
Teacher shortage: Thurmond said he is looking into grants for districts to build affordable housing on their surplus property for teachers and classified staff “at rates that educators can afford to live in. When they move on, another educator moves into that slot.”
Teacher housing will be a critical stop-gap measure until there is substantially more funding to raise teacher salaries, he said. “We know the cost of living in California is super high. If we’re honest, this is a hard place to be a teacher. Living conditions are hard. And work conditions are hard. If we want to close our teacher shortage, then do a better job of compensation.”
Chronic absenteeism: Thurmond said the issue has been important to him dating back to his previous career as a social worker in the Bay Area, when he noticed that asthma is a big reason for children missing school.
“I spent a lot of time doing outreach to families where kids were chronically absent. Sometimes kids were sick. I suspect there may be other health illness issues with young children. Sometimes there are children taking care of younger children. Family members depend on them,” he said. And he said there are other challenges: poverty, homelessness, trauma in the family and transportation.
“There’s nothing like human contact with the family to figure out what their barrier is,” he said. He said he’d like to see the state help districts with parental support. “I know (districts) need funding for that because most cut their outreach staff long ago when the budgets were really tight.”
Local Control Funding Formula: The teacher shortage in high-cost regions like the Bay Area has led to calls for adjusting the state’s funding formula to account for regional costs of living. Thurmond said he is open to discussing how to restructure the formula, but then cautioned, “For every action there’s a reaction. I don’t want to start doing things to fill one hole and then you’re pulling funding away from other districts. I think that the real answer is to acknowledge that LCFF is important and I’m grateful for it. But it’s not enough.” California schools need substantially more funding, he said, and so he wants his work group on funding to “study every funding mechanism that could generate permanent funding revenue in education.”
“I think the governor wants to be smart and strategic and I think the governor gets that we have to balance any kind of tax reform with supporting industry and keeping California strong on the industrial front,” he said.