Charles B. Reed

Kenneth R. Weiss covers higher education for The Times

When Charles B. Reed became chancellor of the California State University in March, he figured his top priority would be preparing the 22-campus system for a tidal wave of students expected to enroll in the next decade.

That was before he sized up the troubled state of California public schools. Now, his No. 1 objective is to improve the training of public school teachers.

It was, perhaps, a natural evolution of thinking for the head of the nation's largest university system. As he puts it, "If we want to improve the public schools, we're going to have to improve the universities because that is where all the teachers come from."

Indeed, Cal State campuses churn out about 60% of California's teachers. And Reed himself has long been interested in the topic. In the early 1970s, he helped run a performance-based teacher education project under the auspices of the American Assn. of Colleges for Teacher Education.

He later moved to Florida where he worked his way up the rungs of state government ultimately to become chancellor of Florida's State universities. He presided over that 10-campus system for nearly a dozen years until Cal State's trustees lured him West to take a bigger job.

So Reed, 56, rises at 5 a.m. every day--an hour earlier than he did in Florida--to throw himself into his work. His friends say he is remarkably consistent: always charging forward like he did as a high school quarterback from a Pennsylvania steel mill town. His grit and determination won the state championship for his team. And, for him, a football scholarship to George Washington University.

In his few months on the job, he has visited 15 Cal State campuses and spends at least one day a week in Sacramento hunkered down with state lawmakers, the governor or education officials.

His wife, Catherine, stayed behind in Florida to arrange for the movers, who arrived in California early this month. In the interim, Reed "camped" in the chancellor's mansion in Long Beach, eating with plastic utensils, sleeping in the guest room because the master bedroom has no furniture. His wife has teased him ever since she caught him rinsing out a foam cup. The couple has two grown children.

Sitting in his equally sparse office at Cal State headquarters in Long Beach, Reed spoke recently about the challenges facing the university and public education.

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Question: Your office has just released another set of alarming statistics on remedial instruction: 80% of African-Americans who come to Cal State need remedial work in math, 64% need remedial work in English. For Latinos it was 71% in math, 65% for remedial English. What does this say about the state of public education in California?

Answer: What it means is that we have got to focus on mathematics and English skills from the very beginning. Preschool programs must get students ready so they can come to school prepared to learn. I'm convinced that the foundation and those basics are extremely important. That is a responsibility that has to be shared by the parents, shared by the public schools and shared, frankly, by the universities in California.

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Q: So what can Cal State do to hold up its part of the bargain?

A: There are several things that Cal State can do. Most important is to better prepare teachers to work with culturally diverse students. Two, prepare many more teachers. I have said that we're going to move from training 12,000 teachers annually to 15,000 in the next 18 months. Three, be more focused. California's leadership has talked about these new standards in math and reading. But the focus has to be on teaching mathematics, teaching reading and writing.

All students need to take algebra no later than in the eighth grade and then take geometry and algebra II so they can achieve the state mathematics standards.

I don't understand why we quit teaching reading about the fifth or sixth grade. We have to teach reading all the way through high school. And in teaching reading, we have to teach writing. And the only way that I know that you learn to write is by writing.

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Q: You mentioned training more teachers. Where will you find enough bodies to cover the coming shortage?

A: We're going to put on a massive effort to recruit people with baccalaureate degrees who are being downsized by corporations, military personnel who are being phased out and looking for second careers, just general housewives who want to start a career after raising a family. I'm even interested in recruiting teachers from other states. Pennsylvania overproduces 15,000 teachers a year. If we could just get 10% of them to come to California, we'll start to make a difference.

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Q: But with class-size reductions, we're talking about the state needing 300,000 new teachers in the next decade.

A: It seems crazy to me that we have these incongruent policies in California: Lower K-3 class size. Don't do anything about preparing more teachers to work in that arena. Here's a profession that we want people to enter and yet we say to them, "OK, go to school for four years and get a baccalaureate degree. And, oh, by the way, come back for a fifth year and go another year without wages and then you can be a teacher. And we're going to pay you $23,000 or $24,000 a year."

The marketplace doesn't work that way. Now, if we can change the model and say, "You can become a teacher in four years. You don't have to spend this fifth year and you don't have to forgo a year's worth of wages." Then, I think we can get good people to be more interested in teaching.

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Q: Does Cal State have the capacity to train more teachers?

A: We'll expand our capacity. We are going to move teacher preparation to a year-around operation. We have to put a sense of urgency on teacher education and on the improvement of public education. So we need to do things outside of the traditional way of thinking.

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Q: If you train teachers in four years--instead of five--aren't you going to get a lot of flak, given all the complaints that the emergency-credentialed teachers are not being adequately trained now?

A: It's not an emergency teacher who will be produced in four years. It will be certified, well-performing teachers produced in four years. And, yes, I'll get flak. And, yes, we have to do things differently than California has done the last 12 or 15 years. There are a lot of young people in our colleges and universities who would make excellent teachers.

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Q: So how can you speed up the process without compromising quality?

A: Frankly, most other states produce baccalaureate-level teachers in four years. We prepare engineers in four years. We ought to be able to prepare a teacher in four years. We'll do it through a combination of subject matter and experiential learning in the beginning-teacher support program.

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Q: Beginning teacher support program?

A: Well it's a partnership that has formed between the university and school districts. The university hires the school district's master teachers to work for the university. They become the coaches of the beginning teachers. They know the tricks of the trade. They know how to get to those kids who are having trouble passing achievement tests and they should coach our new teachers. Besides that, they deserve to be recognized by universities, to be on our faculties, and maybe it'll keep those master teachers in the public schools.

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Q: So the idea is to send college students into the public-school classrooms?

A: Right. Starting in their freshman year in college, we're going to, one, find out whether they really want to be teachers and whether they have the personality and stamina to be a teacher. If they don't, it's better to find that out and not waste their time. Now they go five years before they find out whether it's good for them to be a teacher. So we want early experiential learning.

We're also going to send some of our faculty to the public schools to get into the trenches to find out what it's really like out there.

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Q: What kind of reaction have you gotten from the faculty?

A: I think it's unanimous that it's a crisis and we have to do something. Sometimes, you get, "Why me?" But generally the faculty in teacher preparation is more energized, excited.

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Q: Speaking of the faculty, should tenure be sacrosanct? When you presided over Florida State, you opened a campus that hired all faculty on a contract basis with no promise of tenure. Do you see Cal State heading that way?

A: We have to be flexible. In the 21st century, our top priorities may not be teacher training. It may be teaching computer science, or telecommunications or international economic trade. So locking ourselves into a tenure track for faculty forever, I don't think is what's best. It is a scary thing for faculty members to talk about. But why not experiment?

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Q: Forecasters predict a tidal wave of 100,000 students hitting Cal State in the next decade. That's enough to fill four new campuses the size of Northridge or Cal State-Fullerton. How can you absorb so many students?

A: At some institutions, we're going to have to get money to build more buildings, but it is a solvable problem. The tidal wave can be accommodated by increased efficiency in using our space. The California State University system does not operate at capacity on a year-round basis. We get funded to operate two semesters or three quarters. That means these facilities sit idle 35% of the time. I want our universities to operate year-round.

I'm talking about operating in some places seven days a week, 12 to 14 hours a day. There is no reason why we can't require students to go to summer school. In order to get a baccalaureate degree, you must complete 12 hours in the summer. Think what that would do. Now the question is, will the California Legislature fund us to operate year-round?

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Q: Cal State now gets criticized because it takes students, on average, 5 1/2 years to graduate. What about that?

A: We can cut down on the time to degree completion if we offer the courses that everybody needs. If we go on year-round operations, we're going to get a 30% productivity increase. The other thing is that I've asked the academic affairs people to review the degree requirements. I don't know why most degrees can't be done in 120 credit hours. We don't have any degree that's less than 124. We used to require physical education. Not any more. If we roll the four hours back, we could save students money and get them out faster.

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Q: On the subject of money. College costs are always on the minds of the students and parents. The American Council of Education just came out with a report saying that most colleges are actually a bargain, but that the public doesn't realize it. Do you agree?

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A: I agree. The general public thinks as if everybody is going to go to Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Yale. You know, $25,000 a year. The California State University and the University of California are models for cost containment. We have [among] the lowest tuition and fees in the nation. The largest cost of a college education is living expenses. But you're going to be sleeping and eating whether or not you're going to college. For approximately $8,000-a-year--if you're living on the campus, have a little spending money, buying your books--you can get a college degree at Cal State. That is one great bargain--but the general public doesn't know it.

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Q: Florida is one of the states that offers a prepaid tuition program, as a way for parents to lock in the costs of college by paying tuition in advance. Given your experience in Florida, would you advise California to pursue this?

A: I have mixed feelings about prepaid programs. It's good in that it forces working- and middle-class people to save for college. People can put aside a little bit every week for 10 years or 18 years or whenever they buy the prepaid package. The scary part is the liability the state accepts: That by the time the student wants to go to college, will the prepaid tuition cover the cost? It's also a helluva deal for the wealthy because they make one payment. It's one of the largest Christmas presents given to grandchildren in the state of Florida.

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