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Learning Matters: Education of children is key in California as election approaches

I get frustrated when I hear or read disparaging remarks about public schools, as if teachers and principals weren’t working really hard, as if nothing had changed in public education and schools weren’t attentive to society’s evolving demands.

I can think of many school reforms over the last 15 years:

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  • The move from an “English-only” strategy for teaching English language learners to dual-immersion language programs aimed at developing a generation of students literate in at least two languages;

  • More students accessing Advanced Placement and other college and career preparation classes, thanks in no small part to the former and much maligned “No Child Left Behind” requirements of the federal Department of Education;

  • Changing the focus of school accreditations to student outcomes — student achievement and pass rates — rather than school inputs like teacher credentials;

  • The use of test scores — designed to make sure schools are teaching and students are learning what educators, parents, and community members want students to know — as guides for teachers to help struggling students succeed;

  • Increased resources and attention to meeting the social and emotional needs of students, as demand for mental-health services increases;

  • Renewed efforts to teach problem-solving skills through project-based learning, in preparation for college and career.

These are just a few of the improvements I’ve seen — none of them easy or accomplished without resistance — that indicate a school system continuing to adjust its practices for the better.

But just as I’m frustrated when school improvements aren’t recognized, I’m also frustrated by what hasn’t happened in public education in the nearly 30 years since I attended my first PTA convention and began hearing the issues from a statewide perspective.

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  • California, with arguably the most socioeconomically and culturally diverse students in the country, still ranks near the bottom in per-pupil funding: 46th out of 50, according to the last report I heard;

  • Class size remains among the highest in the country, despite the 1996 leap to — and subsequent ebb from — class size reduction in the primary grades;

  • Arts — visual and performing arts as well as digital and industrial arts — still exist at the edges of master schedules, and most schools haven’t managed meaningfully or consistently to engage with industry experts to enrich their curriculum.

I’m particularly concerned about the enormous and growing need for new teachers as Baby Boomers retire and teacher credentialing programs shrink for lack of enrollees.

  • Starting pay for California teachers is well under the pay for new prison guards and hardly enough to afford housing;

  • Teachers lack opportunities for advancement in California. Our state doesn’t generally support “teacher leaders” to act as instructional coaches and mentors for their colleagues. Unless they leave the classroom and become administrators, teachers can look forward only to periodic, negotiated pay raises and increases based on education credits and years of service (“step and column”);

  • The probationary time for beginning teachers before administrators must either grant them tenure or release them is still too short. New teachers need more time and more mentorship.

These seemingly intractable problems are under discussion now in the campaign for California’s next superintendent of public instruction.

It’s a race featuring two Democrats — Tony Thurmond and Marshall Tuck — for a non-partisan office, but you wouldn’t know that from some of the recent ads airing in the media.

The Democratic Party, the California Teachers Assn., and even the Los Angeles Times have endorsed Thurmond, a current member of the State Assembly who moved through the ranks of city council and school board from a career in social work.

He follows in a line of legislators who sought and gained the superintendent position after being termed out of the legislature.

The other candidate, Tuck, has spent the last 16 years at the helm of nonprofit and public charter schools in some of L.A’.s neediest neighborhoods, leading those schools to significant academic growth.

I share with many public school advocates a worry about the threat charter schools can present to neighborhood schools.

But several years ago, I visited one of Tuck’s Green Dot schools in South Central L.A. and saw for myself the important function charter schools can play in a system of “have” and “have-not” districts. I also know Tuck helped secure legislation to prohibit for-profit charters in California.

The race for State Superintendent of Public Instruction is important for the future of California. Learn more on the candidates’ websites: www.marshalltuck.com and www.tonythurmond.com.

Joylene Wagner is a past member of the Glendale Unified school board, from 2005 to 2013, and currently serves on the boards of Glendale Educational Foundation and other nonprofit organizations. Email her at jkate4400@aol.com.

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