O'Connell, who holds a nonpartisan office, began his speech with political partisanship:
President Obama won a mandate for change that has placed him in a position to cause a massive shift in the way our government operates and in the manner in which it serves the needs of its citizens....There was more, but you get the general idea.
In just the first few months of this Administration, I can easily and confidently say that we have seen a dramatic shift in the willingness of this White House to be a partner to states — this is a welcome difference from the previous Administration....
O'Connell then went on to identify "four key areas" that the Obama administration wants states to concentrate on:
- Adopting internationally benchmarked standards and assessments...;
- Building high-quality data systems that track students' academic careers, making it possible to tell which teachers, programs and schools are effective;
- Recruiting more high-quality educators to underperforming schools, as well as to subjects like math and science; and
- Supporting effective strategies to turn around underperforming schools.
Superintendent O'Connell proceeded to voice views that reflect the standards-and-accountability consensus on most of these matters.
I should point out that he was particularly careful to note that any "creative approaches" and "creative solutions" on teacher pay would be done only "in partnership with all the professionals involved in teaching and learning."
A flag of caution almost went up when the Superintendent said that we need to test California students more "comprehensively" than we do now. Often such phrasing is coded language for statewide portfolios or project-based testing. But then the Superintendent went on to promise that any revised testing would be as "valid" (a technical term in testing) as the current California standards-based tests and the high-school exit exam (of which the Superintendent is rightfully the proud author).
But there was one place where Superintendent O'Connell set off alarm bells: His desire to revamp and "re-up" California's academic-content standards.
The Superintendent acknowledged that this is "an area in which California has served as an established leader for some time now":
I am proud, as all of you should be, that California purposely set the bar high for what our children should know and be able to do, and we have never wavered from that commitment.But instead of maintaining these internationally-benchmarked high standards, he wants to "rededicate and reinvigorate" them. "Evolving them is healthy," the Superintendent says.
Superintendent O'Connell wants to revamp the California academic standards because, he says, they are “a mile wide, but only an inch deep.” But, with all due respect -- as I have stated in the Los Angeles Times -- I have to disagree. Indeed, the California standards have been judged among the best in the country by the Fordham Foundation and the American Federation of Teachers. California already has official Key Standards in mathematics, for example, to identify teaching priorities and the topics that should be covered in depth.
The Superintendent also wants to revamp the California standards:
...in order to fully engage both students and teachers in the learning process in a way that sees both parties benefit and helps to better prepare students for success in the economy of the 21st century.
Translation from education jargon: He wants to water down California's existing high standards in the name of the wolly concept of "21st-century skills," that is, communicating with each other, working in groups, media literacy, and so forth. He wants to subtract from classroom time spent on solid subject-matter content to teach these supposed stand-alone skills