By Diana Lambert | Sacramento Bee
Friday, Sep. 4, 2009
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's message was clear during his Thursday visit to Sacramento: California can either get on board or be left behind.
Duncan spoke about federal stimulus funds and education reform during stops at the state Capitol, a youth rally in Oak Park and a meeting of school officials and a public town hall meeting at the downtown library as part of the Sacramento Education Summit.
He urged California educators to "lead the country" in education reform "with a sense of urgency."
"Either take the steps to do the right thing for children or you'll be on the sidelines," he said.
Duncan stood behind the requirement that teacher evaluations be tied to student achievement for a state to be eligible for some of the $4.35 billion in competitive federal funds being offered as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
California's education code states that a system tracking teacher data, to be online next year, is not to be used in combination with student test scores to evaluate teachers.
"That's a problem," Duncan said to a group of state school officials gathered at the downtown library.
Only Wisconsin and Nevada have similar laws.
"We'll watch with great interest what California decides to do," Duncan said.
State schools chief Jack O'Connell has said the law is misunderstood and doesn't prevent districts from using student assessment results for teacher evaluation or compensation.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called a special session of the Legislature to address the issue. Legislators last week said they would work on rewording the law. California Teachers Association board member Michael Stone told The Bee the CTA will carefully look at the reworked language when it is completed.
Duncan told residents at the town hall meeting that teacher evaluations should be based on student improvement and administrator reviews, among other things, and not solely on test scores.
Stone was among a contingent from the CTA at the town hall meeting. The group has been vocal in its opposition to tying student data to teacher evaluations. Stone said teachers are concerned the state would want to be involved in the evaluations.
"A lot of that happens locally," Stone told The Bee. "Nothing prohibits that."
Duncan said state leaders should go after the stimulus funds for the right reasons.
"If you're making changes to chase these dollars, don't do it," he said. "If you're doing it for children, that's another thing."
Duncan said the administration is willing to invest in any programs that can demonstrate they can raise the bar for students and close the achievement gap – his top priorities.
"The achievement gap is devastating," Duncan said. "The dropout rate for African Americans and Latinos is above 40 percent (nationally). The problem is huge; it's unacceptable."
He said charter schools can play a part in reform, but they are only a small part.
"I'm not a fan of charters," Duncan said. "I'm a fan of good charters."
He said charter schools should go through a rigorous application process but, once accepted, be free of bureaucracy, although they should be made accountable and closed if they fail.
He said the nation is in an economic and education crisis.
"Often in times of crisis, the country can get the kind of reform you need," Duncan said.