Public school heads offer update on state of education


More than 130 people gathered in the theater at Canada College on Oct. 13 to hear the latest on K-12 public education from those who should know: State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, San Mateo County Superintendent of Schools Anne Campbell and Santa Clara County Superintendent of Schools Jon Gundry.

State Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, organized the public forum and asked the three educators questions submitted by the audience.

"We are at an exciting time in education," Superintendent Torlakson said. "I think it's the most transformative time that I've ever seen or heard of."

There are new school funding formulas as well as the new rigorous Common Core standards and testing, he said.

Education in California is "going away from rote memorization, it's going towards helping our students really be able to compete in a global economy," Mr. Torlakson said. Students are being taught critical thinking skills and analytical skills, he said. "This is what we want, teamwork and good communication skills," he said.

With digital learning, students can work in small groups or in teams, he said. It fosters individualized instruction, which helps by "empowering those who get it, who are proficient, to move higher, faster, farther," he said, while also making sure those who are behind get lessons at their level.

Mr. Torlakson said the California Legislature has prioritized education through its budget, including $1.25 billion put into technology and professional development.

The state made a big push to make sure all of the more than 10,000 public schools in the state had the Internet access needed to take the new computerized adaptive assessment tests. "The initiative I have in this area is called no child left offline," Superintendent Torlakson joked.

The results weren't a joke, though. When the new tests were given to 3.2 million California students, only 900 students had to take it offline because they did not have Internet access, he said.

Career and vocational education is also something the state is investing in, he said, with $1 billion statewide going into programs that are considered career pathways. That education, he said, answers the question: "How do we prepare students for careers in the regional economy near where they live?"

Superintendent Campbell answered a question about why California needs the new assessment tests, known as Smarter Balanced. "One of the real beauties," of the new tests, she said, "is that it's a computer-adapted test." If students are getting answers right, they get harder questions; if wrong, they get easier and easier, she said. The tests show just what a student knows or does not know.

"That's incredibly important to our teachers, because they can then target teaching to the particular needs of that student," she said.

Mr. Torlakson said the Smarter Balanced tests are "the modern, right direction to go." Students are tested multiple times during the year. "We can redirect teaching and learning in a way that gets those students on-board, excited, moving forward," he said.

Superintendent Gundry cautioned that the tests may need some fine tuning. "It's very important to us to get the assessment system right," he said, to "make sure it's measuring what our kids need to know."

Superintendent Campbell said San Mateo County schools face a number of issues, including rapid growth. When she began her job five years ago, enrollment in the county was 90,000. Last fall it hit 95,000 and is still growing, she said.

While San Mateo County is one of the wealthiest in the country, it still has 30 percent of students who qualify for free and reduced price lunches, Superintendent Campbell said. Students who have a language other than English as their first language make up 25 percent of the students, she said and speak 44 different languages.

All that diversity leads to a "wonderfully collaborative culture ... in San Mateo County, Superintendent Campbell said. Education, county and local government and philanthropic groups all work together on projects such as the county's early childhood education program, the Big Lift.

She said that the Stanford Business School recently created a model of a return on investment for the Big Lift program. "They are finding an 11-1 return on investment," Superintendent Campbell said, meaning that for every dollar invested, $11 is returned in savings or taxes because children don't need social services, and don't end up in the criminal justice system.

Superintendent Gundry said his office also has a "very significant early education initiative." "This is the number one priority of my office," he said. Their program, called Strong Start is based in part on San Mateo County's Big Lift program. He would like to see universal pre-kindergarten in California, but also programs that offer early learning for children from birth to age five. "Up to 90 percent of a child's neural connections are made in the first two years of life," he said. Early childhood education could erase much of the achievement gap seen in older children, he said. "We could avoid the achievement gap by eliminating it before the kids ever get to school," he said.

Superintended Torlakson said the state will soon come out with a "Read, talk, sing" campaign urging new parents to read, talk and sing to their children. "When an infant comes into the world, the parents will get a book," he said, and medical professionals will talk about the importance of reading to children in follow-up visits, he said.

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