[In response to many comments by teachers in California who insist that the state is NOT on the right track, I have revised the title, turning it into a question, not a judgment.]


Jeff Bryant, one of the nation’s most sensible commentators in education, describes the chaos that NCLB and Race to the Top have unleashed on schools. Matters have been made worse by battles over Commin Core and the reaction against Common Core testing.


One state, he says, seems to be navigating these treacherous waters: California, thus far with minimal turmoil.


Bryant interviews veteran educator and former state superintendent Bill Honig about California’s path. (Note: Bill has been a good friend of mine since the mid-1980s, when he invited me to participate in rewriting the state’s history-social sciences curriculum, a document that remains in use).


Bryant writes:


“Instead of taking massive budget cuts to public schools, California is flowing more money into schools and has taken steps to ensure school funding is more equitable. Instead of tormenting teachers with shoddy evaluations, many California school principals are resisting the policy of using standardized test scores to judge teacher performance. And the state recently refused to include a teacher evaluation system based on student test scores in its application for a waiver from the mandates of No Child Left Behind laws.” 


Note that California has not started Common Core testing, nor the punitive consequences that follow. Those events seem to ignite both parent and teacher reactions, and they are seldom if ever positive.


Here is a portion of Bryant’s interview with Honig:


Bryant: For quite some time, most federal and state education policy has been dominated by what’s often called a “reform” agenda. Anyone opposed to that is accused of supporting the “status quo.” How do you see the debate?


Honig: That accusation is a transparent debating ploy. People opposed to the “reforms” understand the need to improve our schools but contend that the high-stakes, test-driven accountability measures being advocated haven’t worked. What currently passes for “reform” has caused considerable collateral damage to schools and teachers. There are better alternatives that are based on a huge amount of research, scholarship, and evidence from schools and districts. Why “reformers” don’t look at these other models as exemplars, I don’t know. California has, and the state is taking this alternative path to improve schools that I believe is more promising.


Bryant: What is California doing that is different?


Honig: In 2010 Jerry Brown was elected governor in 2010, Tom Torlakson was elected State Superintendent, and a new State Board of Education was appointed by Brown under the leadership of Michael Kirst. California’s education policy shifted as it followed a different path from many other states and different from the federal government, especially under U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the Obama administration. Those policy makers have been pursuing a “Test-and-Punish” policy primarily relying on tests as a way of holding schools and teachers accountable and using threats to pressure schools.
Under Governor Brown, California has adopted an alternative approach which relies much less on testing. The California model believes educators want to do a better job, trusts them to improve if given proper support, and provides local schools and districts the leeway and resources so they can improve. We also put instruction – what goes on in the classroom and the interactions between teachers and students – at the center of our improvement efforts. When you do that, the question becomes, how do you build support and structures to increase the ability and capacity of teachers, not how do you scare them into improving. That’s why we call it a “Build-and-Support” approach.


Bryant: How would you describe a Build-and-Support approach?


Honig: It’s what high-performing districts, states, and countries have done. They’ve built successful teams at the school site that have an ability to continue to improve. They provide support structures and resources to bolster the effort. They put a strong liberal arts curriculum in the center, like the Common Core, which is what we use in California. Teachers visit each other’s classrooms. Teachers and principals in these schools talk to each other about what works and what doesn’t and how to do it better next time. They tap into the vast knowledge of successful teaching approaches that has been developed in recent years. And they use information about student performance to do better. This approach is just like the strategy that industry and professional outfits have followed for years. There’s a tremendous amount of research, scholarship, and experience supporting these policies. They work.


Bryant: What are the advantages a Build-and-Support approach has compared to Test-and-Punish?


Honig: The problem with test-driven reform coupled with punishments is that it causes schools and teachers to spend too much time on test-prep, to narrow the curriculum to just what is tested at the expense of deeper learning, to game the system, and even to cheat. Science, history, humanities, understanding of the world, civic education, and a broad education all suffer. And it reduces cooperation because teachers are made to compete against each other. Fifty years ago, W. Edwards Deming argued that heavy evaluation schemes based on fear don’t produce strong performance boosts. Engagement and team-building do. School districts that have used the Build-and-Support approach have gotten stellar results. Districts primarily following the Test-and-Punish strategy have floundered. This misplaced emphasis on punitive approaches has taken a severe toll on educational morale and performance.”