Making the Grade

California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson on charter schools and the future of public education

Back Q&A Apr 10, 2017 By Rich Ehisen

California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson has spent his career advocating for education issues, from his days as a high school science teacher through his time in the Legislature and now as the state’s top education official. We sat down with him recently to discuss a few critical issues facing California’s schools.

There is much speculation surrounding whether the federal government will dramatically increase funding for charter schools and, if so, what impact that will have on traditional public schools. Are you concerned about this?

Not really. I don’t know what’s going to come out of the new administration yet, so we will work with the new Secretary of Education and hopefully they’ll respect something that was a strong campaign message, which is states’ rights and local control. We’ve pioneered the idea of local control and allowing local elected officials and their school superintendents and staff to set priorities. We have charter schools that are doing a great job, and we have charter schools that are a wreck and not providing the needed academics or financial stability. But school choice is important and magnet schools, neighborhood schools and charters are all part of the mix.

One theory behind charters is that they offer more innovation in teaching and better prepare children for the modern workforce. What is your view on this?

I haven’t seen data that shows that to be the case. There is a Stanford study that compares the quality and success of different charter schools with public schools, and results were mixed. Some charters outdo the neighborhood schools they draw students from and others are way behind those neighborhood schools. So it’s a case-by-case basis, but I haven’t seen data that shows that the charters are really any stronger than neighborhood schools. Of course, having resources makes a huge difference and many charters have large philanthropic backing and so they have more to invest per child. And while we know money isn’t everything, money and resources do count. Statewide our graduation rate has climbed to an all-time high. It’s now at 82 percent where just a few years ago it was 74 percent.

California voters have in the past resoundingly rejected the use of school vouchers; the new Secretary of Education is a big proponent of them. Do you see another push to use vouchers here?

“I think we’re all looking to tailor education to the needs of the community, especially the business community: What is the workforce going to look like in five or 10 years and what skills do our students need to succeed?”

I can’t predict what Washington’s going to do, but I think the voters of California have been very wise in rejecting voucher proposals. I think voucher proposals undermine the public education system. Vouchers are just counter-productive in my view, taking tax dollars that could go into the public education system and allowing parents — usually parents who are better-off financially and better-off in terms of their own education — to weaken our public education system. I don’t expect Californians to change their views on the voucher system.

Rapidly advancing technologies are making many traditional jobs obsolete. How do you approach the task of preparing kids for jobs that might not yet even exist?

We’re all looking to tailor education to the needs of the community, especially the business community: What is the workforce going to look like in five or 10 years and what skills do our students need to succeed? New standards in math and language arts are helping English learners learn the language proficiently as quickly as possible. Our social sciences and regular sciences are now adapted to real-world context so that the students are tackling problems using a team approach. I think technology is a positive game-changer that’s already helping our students learn and to be ready for the real world and for those jobs of the future. These critical-thinking skills and problem-solving skills and teamwork skills — they’ll prepare students for whatever those jobs are of the future as we transition.

Linked Learning programs are becoming a very popular way to connect students with career pathways. What are your thoughts on how those programs are working here in California?

These programs are fabulous. They’re motivating students, getting them excited about learning. I’ve been to many schools where the students are solving problems in a science class and the bell rings and they stay at their seat because they don’t want to tear themselves away from what they’re doing. Linked Learning provides a relevancy and a context. We’ve always heard: ‘Why do I need to do this math homework? Why do I need to know different algebraic equations?’ But when it’s applied to the real world, it is a step to understanding that issue, a step towards a career goal … When students get an idea of what and who they want to become, they get much more focused, and the proof is in the graduation rates — in these courses that are connected to the real world it’s 95 percent and higher. So to me that’s proof of the efficacy and the excitement that it brings to learning.

How do those programs compare to what we used to call vocational training and now call Career Technical Education?

It was a shame those programs were dismantled and academia sort of turned its back on hand-eye coordination, outdoor career opportunities. About 80 percent of those programs were eliminated after World War II. I’ve been one of the leaders, along with [now Sacramento Mayor] Darrell Steinberg, in insisting that we need to go back to hands-on learning and full engagement with real-world connectivity. And it’s working. I would say though that the recovery from that mistake really only started in the last 10 years and it’s only in the last five years where the entire state Legislature and governor have put together legislation to fund the full $1.4 billion of investment to make them work.

Are you happy with the business community’s participation with these programs?

We could always use more help, because the partnerships with businesses are really important, as are the partnerships with community colleges. We’re doing a lot of dual enrollment where high school students that know where they want to go in the math or engineering or science fields are getting associate’s of arts degrees at the same time as they graduate from high school, and there are employers waiting to hire those students. I think that’s a key ingredient to these career pathway partnerships where you have the business community telling the academic community, ‘These are the skills we’re looking for. We don’t know all the jobs our company will have in the future, but we’re innovative and we’re going to create new jobs and you can be part of that and set your goals and here’s a map to get there.’ There are many good examples in fields like construction that don’t necessarily require four years of college education but do require an apprenticeship program and a real concentration on math and science and physics. So I think those are really positive, and we need to foster more relationships with business in general.

California is facing a significant teacher shortage. What is being done to get more fully-qualified teachers into the classroom?

It’s a huge challenge for California. The baby boomers are about to retire, and teaching has been particularly hard hit. During the recession, we had 30,000 teachers laid off who went to other professions. Most of them didn’t come back. Recent studies show we need 20,000 new teachers a year to keep up with the demand, but we were 8,000 short this last year, particularly in science, career technical education, math and some of the special education needs. So it’s a daunting challenge. One thing we need to do is to stop bashing teachers. The future of our country is in the hands of our teachers, and we need to hold the profession up as such. We need talented teachers that are engaging and inspiring, and we need to do everything we can to bring in second and third career folks from the private sector and from business. We have many programs around the state where someone who’s 50 years old can become a teacher. Those people give real-world experience, which is incredible to students. They see that person actually built bridges or worked on computers and that’s really important. 

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