California in the Dark Ages

You’d think that California, the home of Silicon Valley, would be at the forefront of the movement to harness technology in boosting K-12 education. But nothing could be further from the truth. California remains in the dark ages. And under the bold leadership of Governor Jerry Brown, it seems intent on staying there.

Brown was heavily backed in the 2010 election by the powerful California Teachers Association, and, soon after his election, he tipped his hand by appointing a CTA lobbyist to the state school board. His most recent gift to the CTA: as the new state budget takes shape, he is refusing to approve funding for the state’s educational data system, which links data on students and teachers, generates a ton of information on performance and its possible determinants—and (gasp) makes it possible to evaluate how much learning is actually going on in each teacher’s classroom. Just what the CTA doesn’t want.

The CTA has long fought against this data system: first by opposing any linkage between student and teacher data, and then (when it eventually lost that battle) by opposing the use of such data, even as just one factor, in evaluating, paying, or possibly dismissing teachers. Under Race to the Top, President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan explicitly sought to encourage the creation and use of these data systems by insisting that any states with California-like “firewalls” must remove them if they were to stand any chance of winning a share of the money. Desperate to be a winner, California dutifully complied. Sort of. It removed its restrictions from the law, but it allowed local districts to decide whether the data would actually be put to use in any way. And at the local level, of course, all such decisions are subject to collective bargaining; and local unions have regularly made sure that the data don’t actually get used in ways that might reflect on the performance of individual teachers, and thus be a threat to jobs.

Brown’s latest move, the denial of funding, is the crowning blow. If it stands, it will essentially destroy the state’s data system—and give the CTA exactly what it has wanted from the beginning. The technology exists for California to collect and store massive amounts of pertinent information on students and teachers, statewide, and to put that information to sophisticated, productive—and fair—use in improving the public schools. There is no doubt that the advance of technology and the productive use of information are the future of American education. President Obama knows it. Secretary Arne Duncan knows it. Education reformers in all corners of the country know it. But the CTA and Governor Brown are modern day Luddites. What they know is that technology is threatening to low-performing teachers, that it is threatening to jobs—and that its innovations need to be resisted, however much they might actually improve the management and operation of California’s public schools.

Long term, of course, this assault against the revolution in information technology won’t work. But in the short term, it will make technological progress slower and more difficult—and it will have consequences. Governor Moonbeam has become Governor Luddite, and it can’t help but take a toll on California’s schools and kids.

– Terry M. Moe

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