Readin', writin' and relationships

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell stopped by the editorial board this week to discuss his office's new push for Career Tech curricula in California public schools. The superintendent's office has also focused recently on the lagging performance of minority students in the Golden State and recently hosted a summit in Sacramento on the achievement gap. Some highlights:

Once more into the achievement gap

Jim Newton: Let me ask you about the achievement gap study, the work you're doing. And I realize this is a long and big and hard to solve problem. But what are you seeing, in California or elsewhere, that is promising with respect to closing the achievement gap? And by that I guess I'd presumably mean not by bringing the high achievers down but by bringing the lower achievers up. Are there programs or ideas out there that seem to be particularly effective that are worth replicating here?

Jack O'Connell: There are. We have, I don't like the term but there are islands of success, which is a term a lot of people use in front of me, so I'm picking it up, unfortunately, probably. There are some here in California. There have been some successes in Maryland and other states. So we had people here, what, two weeks ago, at the talk. So there's no single program that's going to work. And what might work for one such group — say, African American students in an urban area — may not help the same subset, African American students, in a rural area. There will be different needs and we'll have to design different approaches to help even demographically the same students. Might be totally different needs. But we're going to have to involve our entire community. Including the business community...I hear all the time that we're just meeting with each other. The school guys are great at meeting with each other... We need to do a better job of getting these guys together, figuring out what their needs really are. And we can.

But to answer your question, it's going to take different kinds of approaches. We need to really find out and bear down on what are students going to need. In some areas it's going to be health care issues; we need to bring health care folks onto the campus, if students are being neglected. Child care; I mean it was just a coincidence, it really was, that the Rand study came out just one week before our summit. And the Rand study said there's a readiness gap, and the readiness gap tends to be in urban areas absent quality, uh, child care, and absent quality preschool education for these students. And that contributes. And their own conclusion was if you start out behind — and I always say the starting line's not the same for everybody — but they say if you start out behind, it's unlikely you'll ever catch up. And that shows you we're going to need to really invest in quality preschool for many of our kids. And Career Tech. We're here under a Career Tech umbrella today, and Career Tech has to be part of it for us as well. But it's not just go out and teach kids a skill. Those days are gone. It has to be access to relevance, applicability and a good core solid foundation in making good decisions, being problem solvers, being computer literate. My pitch is we all need to be more analytical, critical thinkers, problem solvers, good communicators and technologically proficient. And that's what it takes to have a secure job.

But there's not going to be one single approach. Every sub-group is going to be different, and the strategies are going to be different in different parts of the state. We've got some ideas about how to approach that. We'll be back to you in six or eight weeks.

Lisa Richardson: Are you going to at some point in these recommendations going to come out what it would cost, because money seems to be the...

Jack O'Connell: I think you have to. And I don't think costs in and of themselves — you can't do one without the other. The facts have to include that. But it's not going to be, you know, a B with 15 numbers in front of it. A lot of it I hope is better, how can we better engage parents. They have a program I'm very supportive of in Lemon Grove school district, it's right down on the San Diego border. And they — you can't do this overnight; it was a two- or three-year lead time — where they sent computers home, laptops, with — it was very low socio-economic, 99% reduced lunch was my recollection. You can imagine; that's right on the border. And they had parents come to school on Saturday to learn the basics of computers. And then two years later they sent a computer home with every single kid. And I mean, think of the information we have available now that we didn't, I didn't, when I was growing up in Oxnard. And we have to rethink the way we educate kids, and get parents involved. And that's not going to cost us a ton. And maybe we invest more on the computer side than we do on the textbook side. I mean think about the textbooks. That's a very expensive program, and a lot of my publisher friends don't like it when we talk about...

Lisa Richardson: I was going to say, that's taboo!

Jack O'Connell: Well you know, everything's on the table. I mean everything's; and I'm OK with that. I'm very supportive of Lemon Grove, been down there several times. And that district's so clever, I mean, they're making money on the deal, because they're providing all of the design and the software for it. And for the city and the county that they're doing. I mean they run the program... They're making money, for their library, for the fire and police. We have a technology task force to make recommendations on it. But we need to get parents engaged. And it's going to be a cost shift, away from the textbooks and into the computers.

Kudos for the L.A. Times

Jack O'Connell: The best report I've ever seen on dropouts in my life, you know who did it? You guys. The report you guys did on dropouts about two years ago, I got as emotional reading that series as anything I've ever read. It brought me to tears when I was home reading. You followed that to the kid. You did it the right way. It had to be incredibly labor intensive to go out and call parents, try and track these kids down, and find out what happened. When you got to the point where one kid said "I skipped class, and nobody cared. I skipped a day and nobody cared. And then I skipped a couple days, and then I got so far behind and nobody really cared." That's the relationship. That's the third R. And that's why it's gonna help kids to be in smaller learning communities.

Auto shop, we hardly knew ye

Robert Greene: Let me ask you about the Career Tech program, because you seem to be describing a program that is every bit as challenging as a regular academic program. There are always going to be kids who, at least in the old days, they went to auto shop. Why? Not because we had a crying need for more people to work on cars, but because we needed something for kids with low aptitude or low interest to do. So it doesn't sound like your Career Tech program is going to be for them. What happens to them?

Jack O'Connell: I think it is. And that auto shop program that you and I took, those skills are not needed anymore. You know, how do you replace a fuse and — I don't know much about cars — but you look at that mechanic, look at the textbooks for that, and the reading levels for that in some cases are higher than college reading levels.

Robert Greene: No, I, I get that. I agree that there's probably a need for that. I don't know that it, that that program would be able to accommodate people who again have a low aptitude and just otherwise would want to leave or just are not interested or not motivated.

Jack O'Connell: Well there's also been studies done, I remember when I was teaching, that if a kid is interested in a subject area, reading level increases a couple of grades. And so I think you can. It's the matchup. A teacher we honored today, he said: "We know a kid can learn; our challenge as a system is to design the right strategy so that that kid can reach his or her potential." And when you put it in the context or the framework of their interest, of their passion — you've got to light that fire. And then that kid can really take off. I think if we can challenge these kids, I mean, every kids not going to college, and that's absolutely OK with me. We don't have a system for that, and if we ever have a community college system that says every kid has to transfer to UC or CSU, community college loses me as an advocate, because I know every kids not going. But I want to make sure we have a system that prepares kids to make that decision.

Y solve for X?

Jim Newton: You mentioned, nicely, the Times series on dropouts. It's been a while since I looked at it but one of my recollections is that one of the significant pieces of that series was to note that algebra was this really difficult stumbling block for a lot of students and that appeared to be pushing a lot of students to drop out, because they got so baffled by algebra. Um, if that's correct, and some very large percentage of students are leaving because they get so frustrated with algebra, is it worth not requiring algebra if it would keep them in school?

Jack O'Connell: But algebra is a skill for success. It really is a problem-solving skill. I, I think what that calls for is a better way to teach it. I'll give you a — when I was at Kearny High School, uh, they tipped off the media we were coming. So they had all these TV cameras, all your counterparts in San Diego. And so the teacher said, "O'Connell, will you help us teach algebra?" And this was in a Career Tech class. So I got — it's been a few years — I got a little nervous. So I thought what am I gonna do? I can spell potato but what am I gonna do? So the teacher says "Come outside and help us teach algebra." So 30 of us walk outside, and they said "Stand up straight." So a kid got the tape measure and measured me, six feet. Then they said "Measure O'Connell's shadow." It was nine feet. Then they said, "Measure the shadow of this flagpole." It was 40 feet. Then they went back in and said, "Let's find how tall the flagpole is." Perfect. Perfect way to find the unknown, by setting up the equation. It was a perfect approach.

Jim Newton: Well that's one day.

Jack O'Connell: Only 179 to go! Yeah, right. But that's the perfect approach. I mean that's the relevant side to it. And that's why we need to keep doing a better job. There's a great law enforcement academy down in San Diego, and you know what their writing assignments are? It's as if you're a police officer and you have to write a report. And these kids, it's a class of kids, in Sweetwater, right next to the border again, just like California, their numbers are awesome.

Robert Greene: So if you say "The guy got out of the car" you fail but if you say "The suspect exited the vehicle" you're correct?

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