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Does California Shakeup Signal Education Reform Shift?

In a column-one, front-page story on Dec. 8, the Los Angeles Times reported that Gov. Jerry Brown of California replaced virtually all members of the state Board of Education ("Many see influence of teachers union in Gov. Jerry Brown's shakeup of California Board of Education"). What makes the move - one of his first official acts - noteworthy is that those who were sacked were all strong supporters of charter schools, teacher accountability and parental empowerment.

It's too soon to know if Brown's decision indicates the start of a major pushback against the reform agenda of the Obama administration. But it is undeniable that California is a bellwether state. It is home to 6 million students who are taught by 300,000 teachers in 9,900 public schools. These numbers dwarf the data from any other state. So whatever takes place in California commands close attention.

Until now, California has been in the news about education largely in connection with three issues. The first was the Parent Trigger law that was passed in January 2010 but only recently put to use in Compton by disaffected parents. I wrote about this on Nov. 17 ("No Bulls-Eye for Parent Trigger Law"). The second was the state's failure to receive its share of Race to the Top funds. The third was the controversy surrounding the publication by the Los Angeles Times of rankings of teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District based on their students' test scores. I posted about this on Aug. 8 ("How Not to Win Support for Teachers Unions").

Although some observers have suggested that the seven new appointees merely represent payback to the powerful California Teachers Assn. for its support in Brown's election, I see the move as a possible harbinger of a more supportive approach to California's reform strategy. Until now, the reform movement has been overwhelmingly punitive. But I believe that teachers need to willingly buy into any changes.

I emphasize the point because teachers do not respond to the same incentives that shape the behavior of employees in other fields. They do not choose to teach because they are interested in fame, fortune or power. This does not mean they are missionaries, but neither are they mercenaries.

If I'm correct, it's not surprising that teacher morale is at an all-time low. The unrelenting attack on their efforts to serve students in the face of unprecedented cutbacks has taken its toll. Although California is hardly alone in this regard, its sheer size makes the potential for defiance impossible to ignore. That's why I suspect the Brown decision carries more implications for education everywhere than are immediately apparent.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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