The Superintendent of Public Instruction leads the California Department of Education (CDE), and is the only elected statewide position that should be focused solely on delivering a high-quality education to every student in California. To have the best public schools, our state superintendent and CDE must be highly effective in supporting all aspects of our state’s education system. That includes:
- Serving and supporting county offices of education, school districts, and schools, and holding them accountable for serving all students well
- Working with the governor, legislature, and state board of education to pass policies that best support our public schools
- Representing the voices of students, parents, and educators on a number of state boards and commissions that impact our K-12 system
Too often, the state superintendent and CDE have spent too much time on compliance and regulation, and not enough time on those core focus areas. We need to shift the culture and practices of California’s statewide education leadership. It should be about providing support to districts, sharing best practices, uplifting the voices of practicing educators, and prioritizing the interests of our students.
Share Best Practices to Scale What is Working in Schools
The CDE is uniquely situated to spot innovative practices in districts, schools and classrooms. It should have strong expertise in identifying best practices and helping to share those best practices with educators throughout the state. The CDE can utilize the robust data it collects (and expand the data it collects), find experts in the field who are yielding unusually strong results in the face of big challenges, and help make those expert practitioners available to schools that may be struggling when confronted with similar challenges. For example, we can identify top teachers, principals, counselors, and/or superintendents and provide them with stipends to engage in video-chats or site visits several times a month to help coach other educators.
The state has recently put a greater focus on building the capacity of county offices of education, to provide greater support for schools and districts that are struggling. We will work to support these efforts and build upon them, working to ensure that the CDE, California Collaborative for Educational Excellence (CCEE), and county offices of education are highly aligned and coordinated in their work so that districts are getting the best support possible with minimal bureaucratic hurdles.
Leverage Practicing Educators to Drive Change
Our state is full of incredibly talented educators, and the California Department of Education should be looking to their guidance when it comes to developing practices and policies that best support our public schools. We must make sure that critical decisions that are made at the California Department of Education are made after soliciting the insight and expertise of education practitioners, so that they can help inform how policy actually looks in practice. Ideas for engaging the voices of practitioners in the field into the work of the CDE include:
- Conducting annual surveys of county offices of education, and districts. We should regularly ask our educators to provide feedback on how effectively the CDE is supporting their work. This feedback will be aggregated and shared with the staff at the CDE as well as with superintendents, labor partners and others. Surveys can help build more of a service culture in the CDE, and can also allow the state superintendent and CDE to pinpoint areas of strength and areas in need of improvement.
- Bring more practitioners into the CDE. We should create some rotating leadership positions at the CDE that last 1 to 3 years, and are filled by education leaders in the field. Having practitioners from the field in key leadership roles will help make sure the CDE is doing the work that can be most helpful to our school districts’ efforts to improve student achievement.
We should respect the voices of our educators by systematically including them in the policymaking and implementation process, and solicit their ongoing insight as they drive and help monitor the changes necessary to improve our public schools.
Focus on Learning and Innovation
In addition to providing support to our school districts, the state superintendent and CDE should actively encourage and facilitate the spread of innovative new practices and programs.
One way to accomplish this would be through the establishment of a new Innovation Fund— a funding resource to support pilot projects in school districts that are finding creative solutions to challenging issues. For example, it could provide some of the initial funding needed to build a better system for integrating a county’s health and human services into school campuses, or a new pilot program to attract and retain educators in hard-to-staff schools. The purpose of the fund will be twofold: (1) to identify and support these new practices, and (2) if they are successful, to help them spread across the state to where they can be effective elsewhere. We envision significantly leveraging philanthropic funding to support the Innovation Fund. Read more about additional ways we might fund such an initiative here.
To help drive learning and innovation, our state must also lead the development of new and/or expanded partnerships with the university research community in California, leveraging academia to help answer critical questions facing our public schools with evidence-based and scalable solutions.
A Strong System of Accountability, Support, and Intervention
Our state constitution guarantees children equal access to a public education, and our courts and legislation have made it clear that all children in California have a right to a quality education. The state plays a key role in defining the standards and skills that all children are entitled to learn, getting schools the resources and support they need to make that happen, and ultimately holding school districts accountable for ensuring that all students are achieving at the appropriate levels. The state superintendent and CDE need to be more deliberate at communicating school performance to educators, parents, and others, identifying schools that are struggling to effectively serve their students (or subgroups of students), provide targeted support to those districts/schools, and make more significant interventions when necessary.
Recently, much work has been done on California’s new public school accountability system. The move to multiple-measures in our state accountability systems is a positive step, but the tool should be more user-friendly for both parents and educators, transparently disaggregate data for subgroups, and allow for the clear identification of underperforming schools. We must continue to make improvements to the state’s accountability system to ensure it is meeting these objectives.
Unfortunately, there are times when schools persistently fail to meet their students’ needs, and we cannot permit this to continue indefinitely. We need to utilize every tool available to support schools that are struggling to serve their students adequately. Among other things, we can help identify financial resources, new partnerships, professional development opportunities, technical assistance from the county offices of education, CCEE and elsewhere— whatever we can do to help improve outcomes for students. But when it becomes clear that a school or district is unable or unwilling to make the changes necessary to serve their students well, we must act to intervene more directly. Importantly, we must make sure that the performance of smaller populations in a school or district- such as African American males, or Latinos- are not obscured by total, aggregate performance; we must disaggregate the data to ensure that no group of students is being left behind, and act to intervene if a school or district is chronically under-serving a group of students. We should work with local leaders and school operators that have a proven track record of turning around underperforming schools to help translate state intervention into improved outcomes for children.
Better Support Governor, State Board, and Legislature in Policymaking
In addition to improving the supports the state superintendent and CDE provide districts and county offices of education, the superintendent and CDE should also better support the governor, state board, and legislature, as they make statewide education policy. Education policy is often driven by non-educators, so there can be unintended consequences that could have been foreseen and prevented if the policymaking process had better included the voices of educators and experts. Here are some ways the state superintendent and CDE can be a highly effective partner in the policymaking process:
- Convene the governor, legislative leaders, and others to develop a ten-year action plan for our public schools, so that there is buy-in and a shared vision for the steps necessary to make our public schools among the best in the country
- Regularly meet with education leaders to solicit feedback on ongoing policy initiatives and how they are playing out in practice, and ensure those voices are heard by policymakers
- Represent the voice of parents, students, and educators on the California State Teacher Retirement System’s Board, the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, the University of California Regents, the Board of Trustees for the California State University, and various other boards and commissions on which the state superintendent sits.
- Keep the governor and legislature up-to-date on best-practices and policies working in other states and countries, and in schools throughout California
- Provide regular updates to policymakers on the impact of policies, to quickly deal with any unintended consequences, and/or to adjust when policy isn’t having the desired effect on-the-ground