Thursday, September 06, 2007

The California Legislature usually gets it wrong on public education

The California Legislature usually gets it wrong on public education because it listens to corporate sponsored lobbyists rather than teachers.
I was talking with a legislator at our Labor Day Picnic about his lack of support for our efforts to amend on small part of SB 1209 last year. He opposed our position. But, when I spoke with him it became clear that he had not heard our position. He was in favor of many of the items in SB 1209. He did not know that one provision imposed a crude accountability system on California Teacher Preparation. He did not understand that we were only trying to change one item out of nineteen.
Reflecting on this conversation led me to consider the several times when I have worked with legislators and their staffs. Usually they do not understand public schooling. This is a major problem since most school budgets, policies and curriculum decisions are now highly controlled at the state level by boards, commissions, and the legislature. And, their staff understand school policies only through the lens of lobbyists. Like others in California I lack confidence in the California Legislature and with the Democrats in the legislature.
When working on education bills you quickly encounter a number of lobbyists representing interests- none of them are teachers. Or, they may have been teachers but got out of teaching to make more money.
Since 1994 California legislature has been dominated by the concepts of accountability in education as has been most states. This effort to promote accountability is funded and directed by the Business Roundtable and other corporate sponsors. ( Emory, 2007) The best evidence is that this 13 year trip on the accountability train has not improved the schools ( Fuller, et al,2007, Nichols and Berliner, 2007, NAEP 30 year study, Laitsch, 2006 Lee, 2006)
Outsiders to education note that the California Teachers Association is one of the most powerful lobbies in the state- and they are. They, however, use this influence primarily on budget and working conditions issues. They do not typically join with teachers on policy initiatives. One exception was this year when they pushed hard for universal Kindergarden and to postpone testing until grade 3. These are valuable initiatives, but they leave the main agenda of accountability unscathed.
Beyond CTA, there are a number of other professional groups who try to influence legislation such as the California Reading Association, California Bilingual Association, Calfornia Council for the Social studies, etc. And there are a series of advocacy groups such as Ed Trust West and others.
The basic reality is that the legislature does not assist teachers- they respond to lobbyist with varying agendas.
One example of this is the way the legislature and the CDE has gone along with the destruction of programs for English Language Learners. In spite of the evidence, and in spite of a 26 person Hispanic Caucus, the legislature sits and watches as another generation of Latino students are failed. Ten years after the prohibition of bilingual education, there has been no improvement in English language scores nor Latino drop out rates. Here are some of the literature reviews:

1. Slavin, R. and Cheung, A. 2005. A synthesis of
research of reading instruction for English language
learners, Review of Educational Research 75(2):
2. Rolstad, K., Mahoney, K., & Glass, G. 2005. The big
picture: A meta-analysis of program effectiveness
research on English language learners. Educational
Policy 19(4): 572-594.
3. Genesse, F., Lindolm-Leary, K., Saunders, W., and
Christian, D. 2005. English Language Learners in U.S.
Schools: An Overview of Research. Journal of
Education for Students Placed at Risk, 10(4), 363–385.
4. Francis, D., Lesaux, N., & August, D. 2006.
Language of instruction, In D. August & T. Shanahan,
(Eds.) Developing literacy in second-language
learners, pp. 365-413. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

In my experience the most fundamental problem of all is the arrogance of most legislators and their staff. They do not listen to teachers. They are approached by lobbyists all of whom have adopted the accountability mantra- even though the data does not support these positions. When teachers and others who work in classrooms try to be heard they are ignored. I assume from the legislator’s perspective this refusal to listen is due to their over busy schedules, but that is what they are elected for.

Jim Schultz in the Democracy Owner’s manual describes well the problems of lobbyists:
"At the local level, in the state legislatures, in elections for Congress and the presidency, campaigns are being dominated by the flow of contributions made by wealthy special interest groups to politicians. These same groups later come calling on those same politicians seeking public favors. The conflict is a clear one. If the money given were in the form of a bribe. Stuck in the politicians pocket, the act would be illegal and we would be aghast. Because those funds instead go into the candidates' campaign coffers, the transaction is legal and accepted, but the effect is the same.”

I am not naïve about the actual functioning of the legislature. I have spent over 35 years teaching young people- teachers and future teachers- to work toward democracy. I worked as a volunteer for the United Farmworkers Union for 7 years and lobbied on behalf of the UFW in the difficult fights to establish an Agricultural Labor Relations Board. I know the experience of being defeated by corporate power.
And, I have worked in electoral campaigns at all levels; Assembly, Senate, Governors, Presidents, propositions.
Yet, today, based upon my own direct experience, I have less confidence in California elected officials that ever before. I understand completely when students tell me that the government and the legislature lacks legitimacy. ( More on this in my book, Choosing Democracy) Most recent democratic theory recognizes that governments in electoral democracies depend upon their legitimacy as their primary source of power.
We, the voters, and we as teachers, retain control the vital issue of government legitimacy. No legislature can long stand that loses its legitimacy.

Unfortunately, in my view, the California legislature has given away most of its legitimacy. We elect representatives. The elected officials, who are supposed to be representing us, are now a significant part of the problem.
As an example, lets look at teacher preparation in California. The legislature has created a system where the state must continually train new teachers to replace those driven out by inadequate working conditions and the imposition of a failing accountability system. A recent report by Ken Futernick for the CSU system described how the current teaching conditions in schools drive new teachers out ( 2007)
An August 2007 report by Merrow on PBS newshour described nationally how skilled and experienced teachers ar now be driven from the classrooms. (
Having failed to provide adequate resources and working conditions to improve public schools, the legislature instead turned to accountability systems. Now, with over ten years of experience, those systems are not producing gains on normed national tests. In a typical non thinking manner, since the accountability mandates failed, the legislature in 2042 (2000) and SB 1209 (2006) imposed the accountability model earlier- to teachers during their preparation period.
This system, known as performance assessment under SB 2042, will cost each future teacher $300 - $400, is shaping their teacher preparation curriculum toward a very limited view of teaching, and de values the student teaching experience and the current system of on-site coaching and evaluation.
As reported on prior posts, a group of faculty tried to make one small amendment in SB 1209 to require that if the legislature imposed this accountability system they must fund that work. Our group represented 6 campuses in the CSU system. We had the support of the California Faculty Association and their Teacher Education caucus which represents the faculty of the university.
We were opposed by two lobbyists from the CSU administration who have never worked in classrooms nor with teachers and CTA took a neutral position. We were also opposed by former staff of the Commission on Teacher Preparation (CTC). These advocates too have never taught in public schools. Another strong source of opposition was the office of Senator Scott who chairs the Senate Education committee and enjoys the support of both teacher unions.
The provision which we sought to amend out of SB 1209 imposes a low quality accountability system on teacher preparation in place of the performance assessments which currently exist. Campuses who have tried early pilot versions of this system – known by its acronym PACT- have found that the system angers students, frustrates students and encourages many students and faculty to leave the profession. In spite of this, we were unable to get a hearing on this developing crisis in teacher preparation in the legislature. For details on this specific issue see the paper “ Problems with California Legislation on Teacher Preparation” at (

The problem is growing. All campuses in the CSU system must use one of two systems of performance assessment by July 2008, and the legislature has provided no money for the implementation. The best guess is that the costs of the system will be passed on to college students just as the students have been charged a 10% tuition and fees increase for three of the last four years.
Schools fail due to conditions in schools and conditions outside the schools.
Corporate funded advocacy groups like Education Trust have their reason for existence in convincing the media and elected officials that the problem is with “teacher expectations’ and the achievement gap. This focus allows the groups to be funded to continue to produce reports and position papers – and they have been successful. This focus has not improved learning conditions for students.
Few new teachers want their students to fail. When teachers accept low expectations it is primarily a result of their experience of working in under funded – under staffed schools. They learn from the teaching conditions provided and not provided. It is not from lack of in-service workshops on expectations and the achievement gap.
I am not yet ready to give up on the political process. See my book, Choosing Democracy (2004) on the critical importance of democracy and multicultural education for the survival of this society. But- working with the elected officials and their staffs is more than frustrating. The problem is legislative insularity –distance from the public and the voters. I have been defeated by corporate power before, but this was defeat by corporate framing of the debate and by legislative inertia.
The issue is not simply one of the small bill AB 750 which we ran last year to make an adjustment to SB 1209. The more basic problem is how the legislature deals with- or refuses to deal with- teachers, schools, and school children. The lack of respect for teachers – or even willingness to listen to teachers- is revealed in the legislatures commitment to “accountability” without measuring whether accountability has worked.
BTW. A broad coalition of teacher forces are presently trying to be heard on the re-authorization of No Child Left Behind. Initial drafts of the amended legislation do not indicate that the Democratic majority is listening to those who do the work in the classrooms.

So, if our elected system Is failing us, what do we do? I am not willing to give up on democracy.
We can work for public finance of elections, we can support legislative re districting so that there are competitive legislative districts. But, what can we do to get the legislature and a future governor to listen to the students and the teachers?
Currently the legislature, ensconced in its strange version of accountability, is failing our schools and our teachers. To be fair and balanced, there are some legislative staffers who are well prepared – open- and willing to listen, but far too few.
Perhaps we will have to get tougher. The Democrats in the legislature want to amend term limits. Term limits have increased the influence of paid lobbyists not brought the legislature closer to the voters. The Democrats want us to defeat the Republican initiative to re distribute electoral votes. Our support should come at a price. I am interested in other options. One step would be to elect more ex teachers as legislators like Jackie Goldberg (and fewer lawyers). You will not always agree with her, but at least teachers will be heard.

Duane Campbell
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