California’s public schools need to be organized for the 21st century, but many of our schools were designed for the economy of yesterday. Despite all the changes in our economy and world, our schools have not kept pace. Today’s economy demands innovation and flexibility, creativity, and problem-solving. Those are the traits we need in a 21st century public school.

That begins with universal pre-kindergarten— because it’s simply too late for children to start school at 5 years old. It means offering a robust and relevant curriculum that prepares students for success— whether in college or in skilled professions that do not require a degree. It also means thinking creatively about how schools use time; and, how learning experiences can extend beyond the four walls of a classroom. State leaders must work with local superintendents, principals, teachers, and parents to help California’s public schools broaden and improve their academic programs, and push to give local schools the operational flexibility they need to more effectively develop students’ skills and engage their passions.

California is the innovation capital of the world. There is no excuse for our schools to lag behind. Let’s eliminate barriers that stand in the way of educators; spur the creativity necessary to bring our schools into the 21st century; and, help grow and replicate the best practices that emerge.

Universal Pre-Kindergarten

A 21st century school system is one that begins in pre-kindergarten, as we know how important learning in a child’s early years can be. Free access to quality pre-k is especially important for our high-needs children given that we see large achievement gaps between higher poverty and higher income groups of students at the very start of kindergarten. Universal access to pre-k will help address this, while also laying critical foundations for social-emotional, and academic growth in later years. Universal pre-k has also proven to be a wise economic investment; when considered against spending on delinquency, dependence on public assistance, and revenue generated on employment and earnings, some studies have found as much as $10.15 benefit for every $1 invested in pre-k programs11. This needs to be an immediate, top priority for our state.

The state superintendent and California Department of Education also play a significant role in early childcare and early childhood education opportunities. Serving our very youngest children- from 0-3 years- merits a great deal of attention and work, given all the research that continues to unfold underlining the significant impact these early opportunities can have over the entire lifetime of an individual.

More Flexibility and Local Control

Our state needs to give our schools greater flexibility that will allow them to be more creative and innovative. When our educators are free to be more entrepreneurial in their classrooms and schools, our students thrive. Unfortunately, over the last several decades, the California Education Code- the rules that govern our public schools- has continued to grow, and is overly prescriptive, dictating far too much to educators and school districts, and acting as a barrier to innovative, diverse schools that meet the needs of all children. The introduction of the new funding formula- the Local Control Funding Formula- provided much more spending flexibility to local school districts, and this was a critical foundation upon which we can build. This will require working with the legislature, county and district superintendents, the governor, and others to change current laws and get much more flexibility from the Education Code for our schools. This effort will likely take significant time so we plan to work with the state board of education in the short-term to get waivers from the Education Code while we work on longer-term policy change.

Learning for the 21st Century

Learning for the 21st century includes a rigorous core curriculum, as well as enrichment opportunities that go well beyond that.

When it comes to math and English standards, we have seen progress with the adoption of the Common Core State Standards, which favor analytic problem-solving skills over rote memorization, and which- when properly implemented- permit a greater deal of educator creativity and flexibility. Our state is also making progress on implementing the Next Generation Science Standards and on developing new standards for social sciences. These are all positive steps forward. Our state needs to continue to do more, however, to make sure schools have the support they need to implement these standards effectively, and that parents and the public are well-informed about these standards, and how they, too, can help maximize their impact.

21st century learning, however, goes well beyond state standards. There is much we can do in our schools to better prepare our students to be successful and the state should support school districts in these efforts.

For example:

  • More project-based, hands-on, and collaborative learning experiences, so students know how to apply their learning to real-world problems, and work productively with others
  • Foreign language instruction at an early age, when research tells us students are best equipped to master it
  • Extended learning time, especially for those students that require it to catch up
  • Instructional practices that develop critical thinking, rather than rote memorization, so students can be successful in our knowledge-based economy
  • Courses that are forward thinking, such as engineering and computer science, so students are ready for the economy of tomorrow
  • Nurturing student creativity through access to art and music— not just for students in affluent communities, but for all students
  • Preparing students for good citizenship by incorporating civics courses early and consistently into the curriculum
  • Social-emotional learning and other important life skills that help our students be productive and successful well beyond just the classroom

These are just some of the many ways our schools can provide a 21st century education. Sometimes our schools can make these types of opportunities available to students through local, public-private partnerships with nonprofits, businesses, and other organizations in their communities. Internships, apprenticeships, and other hands-on experiences are invaluable to preparing students for the 21st century economy, and allowing them to put into practice the skills they are seeking to develop at school every day. Our state should be a leader in helping school districts develop public-private partnerships, and helping to create other such opportunities to unlock the full potential of schools’ programs.

Connecting K-12 to College and Career

Just as a 21st century school system begins in pre-kindergarten, it is also one that extends beyond high school. It is one that must prepare students to be successful in their pursuit of college and/or career.

Our state needs to do more to work with school districts to help bring greater Career Technical Education (CTE) opportunities to students, through school programs like Regional Occupational Centers, as well as through partnerships with employers. Additionally, the state superintendent can convene educators, industry leaders, and economists to map out anticipated needs in the forthcoming job market, and plan backwards to design educational programs that prepare students to be excellent candidates for those and other opportunities. Ultimately, we need to improve the quality and reach of our CTE programs and make sure they are relevant for the 21st century economy.

With regards to students that pursue higher degrees, we can create partnerships between leaders in colleges and universities and our elementary and secondary educators to share insights, and to develop stronger alignment between the skills developed in pre-K-12 and those needed to be successful in college. The state superintendent holds a seat on the University of California Regents and the Board of Trustees for the California State University, and is especially well-poised to lead this kind of articulation.

Of course, we must also find ways to make college more affordable and accessible for students, and break down the financial barriers that exist for students- especially from low-income households- when it comes to pursuing higher degrees.

Unlock the Power of Technology

Technology can have an enormous impact on teaching and learning. Technology can help personalize learning, extend learning time, and help bring curriculum to life. Our state should support efforts to maximize the potential of technology in our classrooms and schools.

Well-utilized technology has the capacity to improve the way we individualize and personalize learning for students. One of the greatest challenges facing our educators is the great diversity of need that exists within a single classroom, with some students beginning each year several grade-levels behind, some several levels ahead, and everything in-between. Technology can help our schools address these challenges. Already today, some schools have begun to leverage technology to diagnose performance levels in real-time, and provide instantaneous feedback and support that is unique to each child. This needs to happen in more classrooms and schools throughout our state. Technology can also improve the opportunities teachers have to learn and grow in their practice.

Technology can also extend learning time— by connecting students to one another and their curriculum when they are away from school, and also by making self-directed practice available to students above-and-beyond the traditional supports they receive from their teachers.

The 21st century requires us to be critical consumers and producers of knowledge and ideas using a variety of platforms, and technology can help our schools reflect this reality. Students can now produce a news segment from a cell phone, collaborate with peers from another state, read archival texts from around the globe, and much more. We need to support more of this kind of learning in our public schools.


To unlock the power of technology, of course, all schools need broadband access and every classroom should have Wi-Fi. Unfortunately, today this isn't the case, particularly in certain rural parts of our state. This is an issue of equity our state must help address.

To maximize the potential of technology, we’ll need to ensure that we roll-out new technologies in a thoughtful way, pairing it with the right training, and supports. Educators need to identify the software that best meets their students’ needs, and then acquire new skills for using them; administrators need to develop guidelines for cyber safety and data management; parents need to be included and engaged; and students need to adapt to new resources and new tools for learning. The state needs to support efforts like these. Home to Silicon Valley, we need to identify the best tools available to support our schools and children, and then share these innovative practices with educators across California.

21st Century School Facilities

Our students deserve to learn in inspiring environments, and the needs of the 21st century classroom and school will often require rethinking the physical space in which learning takes place. Too many of our students attend dilapidated schools, and ones that were built for a different era.

In 2016, the voters approved $9 billion in school bonds to help address this problem, and our priority now should be getting those dollars into the hands of districts of schools in a timely, efficient, and equitable manner. There are currently several state agencies that districts must interact with to receive the funding, as well as a host of rules. The state should consider ways to streamline this process, and ensure that it is flexible enough to maximize the use of these funds.

Additionally, the current policies governing bond fund distribution to local districts also can sometimes favor larger and wealthier districts by issuing funds on a first-come, first-served basis; smaller districts don’t have the resources or expertise to apply for these funds as quickly, and miss out. The state should reexamine policies like these to ensure an equitable distribution of funds.

Finally, the state should be sharing best practices about school design and construction that help districts update facilities in a way that aligns with student learning in the 21st century, and effectively utilizes taxpayer dollars.

Keeping Our Kids Safe

Keeping kids safe must always be the first priority of our schools. We must do whatever we can to keep our schools safe. There are many facets to this effort-- from investing in mental health service, to crisis-responses training, to having secure facilities, and much more. Additionally, schools cannot do this work in isolation. They must work in partnership with community groups and other agencies, and be supported by commonsense policies- such as those on gun control- at the state and federal levels.

Below are some steps our state and schools can take to help keep our kids safe:

  • Improve mental health services available to students. This starts with improving the counselor-to-student ratio in our public schools; California currently ranks last in the nation when it comes to the number of counselors per student, and this needs to change.
  • Better integrate our public schools with other health and human services available to students from nonprofits, government agencies, and other organizations.
  • Ensure teachers and staff are trained in identifying possible concerns, and addressing them. Through teacher preparation programs and professional development, we need to prepare teachers and other school staff to identify issues, and then to address them before they escalate.
  • Target school bond dollars to improve the security of school facilities. Voters have approved funds for school facilities, and the state should prioritize projects that enhance the safety of school campuses.
  • Collaborate with local law enforcement and other agencies, to ensure productive communication that can help prevent threats to school safety, as well as effectively respond to a crisis.

Finally, the state can support schools in this area by studying effective practices across the state, to determine which strategies are having the most success, and sharing those practices.

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11Reynolds, Arthur J., et al. “Age 26 Cost-Benefit Analysis of the Child-Parent Center Early Education Program.” Child Development, vol. 82, no. 1, 2011, pp. 379–404., doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2010.01563.x.