Fixing the public schools has become the talk of California. The question is how, and Ted Mitchell is counted on to have some answers as dean of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, as senior education advisor to Mayor Richard Riordan and as a member of the LEARN working group, a panel of educators and political and business leaders.
When Riordan, a Republican, wants advice on how to improve the L.A. public schools, he turns to Mitchell. When Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, wants advice on how to improve California's public schools, she, too, turns to Mitchell, who helped craft her ballot initiative. It is intended, as is Gov. Pete Wilson's education measure, for the November ballot. Mitchell believes education reform can only be accomplished with a bipartisan push, so it is not surprising he was part of an effort to negotiate a compromise, which would have consolidated the dueling initiatives into a single, potent ballot measure. He continues conversations with Wilson about education legislation.
Mitchell gladly will tell the next governor to: correct the serious underfunding of public education, focus on state standards, not rely too heavily on standardized tests, figure out how to train and retain excellent teachers, speed up bilingual education and forget vouchers. He is also big on accountability for everyone in the school family--teachers, administrators, students, parents and unions.
Education is the family business for Mitchell. When he was growing up in San Rafael, the talk around the dinner table was always about students and learning, or about the traumas of educators and teachers. His father was a high school teacher and principal. His only other college-educated relatives, an aunt and an uncle, were both elementary school teachers. Mitchell had every intention to follow them into the classroom until he encountered a professor at Stanford who taught the history of education. His path changed, Mitchell completed undergraduate and advanced degrees, including a doctorate at Stanford, then spent a decade at Dartmouth in New Hampshire, before returning briefly to Stanford in 1991. At UCLA, his professional home for six years, he also serves as a vice-chancellor for external affairs.
When he's not advising politicians and educators, Mitchell, 42, and his wife Christine Beckman love being outdoors. They hike the Santa Monica Mountains, and take long walks along the beach. But education is rarely far from his mind.
Though he freely prescribes what should take place in the classroom, Mitchell has never actually taught in the public schools. He recognizes that liability and wants to take a turn next year during a sabbatical from UCLA. His laboratory of choice: the Los Angeles public schools.
Question: Education is a big item on the political agenda in California. Why should the governor care? Isn't this a local concern, a concern of the school board?
Answer: States have always been charged with the ultimate responsibility for education in America. It is actually quite refreshing that governors across the country are involving themselves in the nuts and bolts of schools. This is not to deny the importance, the power or the legitimacy of local schools boards. But without the help of the state government, particularly without the leadership of the governor who can coalesce not only parents who have kids but the entire state behind a project of school reform or school improvement, local school boards are left with one hand tied behind their backs.
Q: How would you grade Gov. Wilson on his school reforms?
A: The governor has done an admirable job. I would give him an A-/B+ in the area of school reform.
Q: What's the best thing he's done?
A: It's hard for me to choose between two. One is reducing class size . . . . It's important for kids to have intimate connections with their teachers. That kind of educational intimacy is secured in small classes . . . .
The governor also has focused our attention on standards. Many have argued back and forth about whether the particular standards adopted--math standards is a great example--whether those are the right standards. We miss the fact that the discussion about standards, and having standards, and focusing the state board's attention on standards is an important advance in public policy.
Q: The governor wants all California school children tested, and most tested in English even if they are taught in another language. Is that educationally sound?
A: . . . I would support the testing of kids in English. The question, then for educators and policy-makers, is what do you do with that information? If you use that information to say there is a portion of the student body of this state, that needs serious remedial English, I would say that's a responsible use of that test. If on the other hand, you said those kids aren't smart, that's the mistake that we made in the 1890s in this country, when we labeled immigrant kids as deficient because they couldn't speak English.
Q: You would test all ESL (English as a Second Language) children in English?
A: I'm a proponent, along with Mayor [Richard] Riordan, Sen. [Dianne] Feinstein, [Silicon Valley venture capitalist] John Doerr and Jules Zimmer, [dean, UCSB Graduate School of Education], of a ballot initiative that would also test all kids annually in four central subject areas: mathematics, science, social studies and English. Our purpose in that task is very clearly to develop a diagnostic program of the needs of children so they can continue to perform or be brought up to perform at grade level in those four critical subject areas.
Q: Why an initiative? Is reforming public education a task for the voters?
A: The initiative is, for me, in part a statewide expression of the principle of local control. Rather than working through the variety of [school] districts, in this case, where we are talking about statewide provisions, changing the tools available to educators, changing the principles under which education takes place, the initiative is probably the appropriate way to gauge the will of the broad populace of California.
That's not to say that many of these same things, maybe most of these same things, could be achieved legislatively. My hope would be that my colleagues and friends in the Legislature would take a hard look at this initiative, and at the governor's initiative, and help us identify those elements that are appropriate for legislation and would move things forward at the same time the initiative process is gaining signatures and looking for support among the voters of this state.
Q: Most voters don't have children in the public schools. Why should they care?
A: I have just finished drafting a book on citizenship and education in America, a historical analysis. . . . The question I started out to ask is: Why do we have public schools? We take them so much for granted. We don't often think that they really were an American innovation. . . . The answer is our faith in individual voters, individual citizens, coming together as an electorate in voluntary organizations, in associations and societies; our faith in individual people making decisions that affect the collective, that affect all of us, that depends on education. It depends on the people being able to tell the difference between a good argument and a bad argument. Without a good educational base, the whole thing falls apart. We can't sustain our economy. We can't sustain our democracy. We can't sustain our civic life without a high quality education for all children.
Q: What's your position on the English for the Children ballot initiative?
A: It is a blunt instrument trying to address a very difficult policy problem. Personally, I will vote "no" on the Unz initiative . . . .
The complications of the problem are in part systemic, and I applaud the Unz initiative for raising them. For example, the Unz initiative has done a good job of helping the public understand the crossed incentive that schools faced today when they receive more money for children who are in bilingual programs than for children who are not. This of course creates a mixed incentive for school districts who, on the one hand, want children to move from first language instruction to English language instruction but who, at the same time, face a financial incentive for keeping them in first language instruction. These systemic problems must be addressed.
But I also understand, and this comes from a lot of research that has been done in the area of language development and cognitive psychology, that creating a one-year requirement for kids to be in an immersion program and then to be moved directly into English-only instruction is a one-size-fits-all approach that is inconsistent with our ideas of local control, and is inconsistent with what we know about how a great number of children learn a second language.
Q: Why are parents so frustrated with the public schools?
A: Parents are frustrated with the public schools because they feel the public schools have become an unassailable bureaucracy in which they do not have a voice in their own children's education, much less a voice in the broader issues of how schools are run, what their priorities are and how their resources are spent.
Q: What can Mayor Riordan do, given his lack of authority in this area?
A: This is our daily conversation. It's quite clear that the mayor's major point of leverage is his ability to communicate with the people of Los Angeles, the bully pulpit. Encouraging people to not accept educational mediocrity, encouraging parents to stand up for their rights, encouraging business people throughout the city to become more involved in helping to raise the standard of education, thereby raising the level of qualification of their future employees. That kind of rallying of the people of Los Angeles around the cause of better schools is one of the mayor's better initiatives, one of the mayor's better achievements. He will continue throughout the rest of his term to make that one of his highest priorities.
In addition to that bully pulpit, the mayor and the superintendent have developed a very strong working relationship in putting together creative initiatives to use some of the city's resources and some of the school district's resources to do things that neither could do alone. The best example is the emerging effort to construct primary centers in several highly impacted areas throughout the city. These primary centers will be small schools for kindergartners, first graders and second graders, and their focus will be on many of the things we've been talking about, literacy, language acquisition. They will be small. They will be schools in which the adults and kids know each other well. And the achievement of putting these things together has been a joint achievement of the superintendent and the mayor.
Q: Should the L.A. mayor run the schools?
A: That's a good question and there are lots of people asking it. But I don't think it's the right question. The right question is how can we make sure there's accountability at each level of the system that enables the public to make sure that a high level of educational excellence is attained. It is less relevant whether it's the mayor or the school board than that there be accountability, and that accountability be addressed in all the important places.
Q: What do you think about Chicago Mayor [Richard M.] Daley and his involvement with the public schools?
A: He has certainly turned around a district that was moving rapidly into chaos. That chaos needs to teach us a good lesson. That chaos was caused when Chicago decided, essentially, that every school should have its own school board, and moved to very, very radical decentralization. That proved to be a disaster in a very short order.
The mayor had done a very good job in restoring order, building the kind of accountability change that I was talking about earlier, and creating some real standards for student performance, for teacher performance, for administrator performance throughout that district. What we've yet to see is the effect over a several year period on student achievement, on dropout rates, on retention rates for teachers and ultimately longitudinal studies that will show the success of those students in the work place and getting into college. So, [we've seen] very positive results and we need to be watchful to see if there are any unanticipated problems as we move forward.
Q: What about New York Mayor [Rudolph W.] Giuliani?
A: He has a different kind of involvement with the schools. It's not as direct or as great as the involvement of Mayor Daley. This is exactly what I'm talking about. We have a number of natural experiments going on across the country. The mayors have taken a more active role with Chicago probably at the far end followed by Boston, New York, Kansas City, Philadelphia to a lesser extent and Los Angeles.
. . . What's common about each of those cities is the same feeling that we feel in Los Angeles: that something is wrong, very wrong, with the schools; that time is running out. We are looking for strong leadership, new ideas, a strong sense of purpose.