PALO ALTO DESK - Public education in California is at an all time political low. Today's public school leaders include the leading candidates for governor. One of these has actually boasted she was educated in California's public schools.
That must have been some time ago because all candidates agree the California public schools are not adequately preparing California students so that they can qualify for minimum-wage entry-level jobs after graduation.
No doubt. California students tend to score in the lowest quartile in the world on standardized tests of reading, writing, and math achievement.
There is also no doubt that the criteria for public school success has become a common standard: can high school graduates qualify for a job. Maybe that is an unrealistic aim of today's education, but that's the standard.
After all, today's educational dilemma is the direct descendant of governor Edmund G. "Pat" Brown's(D) 1959, California higher-education Master Plan, which reorganized a system of free community colleges, state colleges and universities, guaranteeing every high school graduate an opportunity to attend college.
University of California's president, Clark Kerr noted a generation later, that Brown's California education program marked '... the first time in history that a government entity in the United States or in the world made such a guarantee...'
It is true, while the State of California had created the largest free system of post secondary education in the world and its full time enrollment skyrocketed to the highest level in history, Californians' performance after entering college was very unsatisfactory.
Most students from lower-income families did not make acceptable achievement in California colleges and universities. Most of the new students were unfocused, and lacked skill-development to benefit from self-directed higher education course work.
In a short time, critics were zeroing-in on socio-economic factors to explain the dismal performance of many new college students. Factors affecting college student achievement were said to be lower family
income and lower parental education levels. Underlying these factors, it was said was the insidious impacts of students' early, mid-range or late development in language and key study skills as an attributed dynamic of segregation, prejudice, and discrimination associated with large numbers of Latinos, African Americans and Asian students entering colleges and universities.
Such rationales for underachieving higher education students was then accounted for in terms of racial and ethnic composition of California inner-city public schools and neighborhoods.
Enter Dr. Wilson C. Riles, California's new State superintendent
of public instruction in the early 1970s. This far sighted leader recognized the consequences of the school system's changing demographics that had trended toward inequities in student performance. He devised a statistical analysis that depicted the character of the problem as divided along racial lines. He concluded, large numbers of minorities were moving into neighborhoods with all-white schools, causing discomfort among middle-class parents. Add to this, advances in knowledge about how children learn and California was blessed with the promise of achieving significantly
higher levels of student performance, through public school curricula reorientation to the teaching of reading, math, and science across the elementary and secondary schools curricula.
Readiness for learning would be another of Dr. Riles trademarks. He produced the pioneering Early Childhood Education Program (ECE) curriculum, which called for reforms aimed at basic learning skills through systematic and individualized teaching.
These kinds of programs were costly and Riles erroneously held that by frequent testing of California students, a multi-level paper-pencil student assessment would be standardized for all of California public schools. To this end a comprehensive test of basic skills was developed and widely utilized for a number of years. However, standardization was achieved just as California schools' curricula was again being revisited.
Parents lacked confidence in Dr. Riles individualized education model and were concerned about the future of neighborhood schools to provide children from low-income families with a sound education which seemed to be ignored in the Riles thrust for inner-city educational gains.
Enter new California governor Ronald Reagan(R) who wanted to hold down state spending, improve educational standards that would cover all children, and nonetheless approved money for the early-childhood education reform.
Dr. Riles then revised California's educational program by adding the Reform for Intermediate and Secondary Education (RISE) program for grades 7-12. He was unable get the program through the Legislature.
By then the drive for reform of California's public education had moved into the hands of the California legislature in the form of The California School Improvement Program (SIP), which focused on individual schools' parent-teacher school-site councils. These were composed of staff, faculty and parents who theoretically were to work on curriculum and instruction.
The plan, though commendable in theory, resulted in the wasting of hundreds of millions of dollars by predictably increasing the number
of teacher aides, ignoring curriculum and assessment improvements needed.
By 1996, high-school graduation rates of Latinos, African Americans and Native Americans had dropped to 54% while California's overall graduation rate declined 65%.
California taxpayers are not getting a fair return on their investment in human capital. And voters know it. Compared with other states, California's spending on public schools declined over the past 20 years.
Sending a message to Sacramento, to local school boards, and to the State's higher education institutions, the passage of Proposition 13 eliminated the primary source of public education funds, the property tax.
California ranks in the bottom quartile in per-capita spending on public education in 1998.
Adding insult to injury, there is now underway a catastrophic change in the composition of the students demanding a free public education in California. With millions of students from non-English-speaking, low-income immigrant families California's public education mission is nearing its end. If this happens, clearly it will be the fault of politics.
Take for example the discrediting of Bill Honig, the state superintendent of public instruction. In 1983 he had embarked on an ambitious strategy to renew the public education curriculum and linked it to student-performance standards and statewide tests. Honig's design was to make the curriculum and student assessment standards part of the annual teacher evaluation process.
It might have worked. But, California governor George Deukmejian(R) had just ended the California Assessment Program(CAP) testing statewide, which had been established under Riles and Honig.
Enter, California governor Pete Wilson(R) and Honig's appeal for Wilson
to support a comprehensive model test that was to be administered for the first time in 1993. Honig educated Wilson on his interpretation of low test results this way '...Statewide, students performed poorly, in large part
because the test measured important basic skills that California schools were not teaching in its classrooms!'
Wilson immediately scuttled the comprehensive test and the purported curriculum changes Honig had anchored to it.
After two generations of declining student performance test scores, the California governor, the legislature, educators, parents and students
want a different kind of public school.
Teachers, on the other hand, dream of an old fashioned one-room school house built and paid for solely by each community. Get federal government financing out of this picture, and it will come into focus, they say.
Of course, they are quite right. But, then students would have to toe the line or else. That's an old fashioned curriculum for taking responsibility for one's own education.
[The author is a member of Phi Delta Kappa, and holds an earned doctorate in Economics Education from the Univesity of Southern California.]