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Why I Write: A Preface to 'On California'

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Given the alternatives, why would I get up in the morning and face a blank word processing screen after subconsciously crafting sentences in my sleep?  Why fight with what Hemingway called "the white bull"?  After all, I have reached the age when tour company brochures arrive daily along with subtle inquiries about joining a retirement community. 

The short answer is that I am driven to do this work.  It's not a job; it's a vocation.  I started writing for publication when I was 16, as sports editor of the Barrington (Illinois) Courier-Review, and I spent my salad days in Florida during the civil rights era at the most progressive newspaper in the South, Nelson Poynter's St. Petersburg Times.  Then, I was seduced into academe and a challenging life of teaching and research.  Now, I get to return to my roots.

There are good stories to tell.  California is full of them. The state is on the mend.  Thought to be a hopeless fiscal disaster two years ago, it has a budget surplus, a legislature that moves major legislation, and a crafty old governor firmly in control.  The state school board, declared the province of "political hacks and educational has-beens" four years ago, has created a new education finance system and has bet a pile of chips on the Common Core.

Yes, huge problems remain.  The Common Core will surely have implementation problems.  On a cost-adjusted basis, California is 49th in per pupil spending.  PISA test results put us at developing-nation status.  The teacher pension fund teeters toward crisis.  Stockton and San Bernardino have followed Detroit into municipal bankruptcy.  The state divides economically into rich and poor regions.

I'll put my commentaries in the context of two huge reinventions.  First, California is reinventing itself.  We are a new people.  Latino, and more recently Asian, immigration has transformed us.  Now, as when John Steinbeck wrote Grapes of Wrath, migrants define who we are.  The word "minority" no longer has conventional meaning.  Last year, 26 percent of elementary and secondary students were classified as "white."  While whites still comprise 62 percent of likely voters, the steady change in who votes, and about what, is creating a new government.

Second, California is creating a new education system, or trying to.  This transformation is much more fundamental and interesting than the tiresome, screechy yelling match between people who call themselves "reformers" and those who actually work in schools. 

The most compelling stories are about the people who illustrate wrenching changes in education:  The Red Bull-fueled software entrepreneurs in Palo Alto applying Facebook-like social media techniques to special education.  The teachers in Pomona who dissolve in tears because they can't answer some of the questions on the Smarter/Balanced practice test.  The students in Riverside with individual Kindle Fire's who get unrestricted Internet access, and those at the Waldorf school in the heart of Silicon Valley that has unplugged itself.  The teachers at High Tech High in San Diego who inspire and enable their students to write and publish books, and those in East L.A. who teach elementary age kids the "pancake drill," as in, when you hear gunshots, make yourself into a pancake on the ground.

The state is charting a different path toward building capacity in its education system.  It's changing how it finances schools, assess them, and how it intervenes to assist and correct them.  It is dramatically changing local governance and the role of parents.  I've written a commentary about these changes, and how they create a pathway that differs from conventional notions of testing our way to excellence and firing our way to Finland.  More will follow.

You can help.  Comment.  Suggest stories to write.  Talk to CTK.

 

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