If improving education is the state's number-one public priority, as so much political rhetoric suggests, our lawmakers, educators, the governor and other stakeholders now have a very timely opportunity to prove they mean what they say.
We have been making some relatively minor improvements in student performance in some areas and within some population groups, but the fact remains that California school children as a whole are not performing academically near the level they need to in order to be successful students.
Consider the following:
Barely half of California's fourth and eighth graders demonstrated even basic competence in mathematics as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress conducted two years ago. Only 15 percent of our state's fourth graders and 18 percent of eighth graders demonstrated any proficiency beyond very basic levels.
That same assessment found that 48 percent of fourth graders and 64 percent of eighth graders were no more than basic readers, while fewer than one out of four fourth and eighth graders were proficient or advanced readers.
And, fewer than half of our state's fourth and eighth graders demonstrated even a basic grasp of science. Only 14 to 15 percent of those students were proficient in science, a startling result, considering the role technology has in our state's economy and in the future of the world in which these young people will live as adults.
Students who fare worst in our state's public schools, colleges and universities are largely students from low-income families or students of color who make up the greater proportion of California's increasing population. Fewer than six out of ten Latino and African-American students who entered high school in 1996 graduated four years later. That's in stark contrast to the 77.6 percent graduation rate for Caucasian students and 86.3 percent for Asian-American students.
These numbers and other data clearly indicate the huge gap that exists between what Californians need from their public schools and what they are now receiving. So far, this chasm has been only marginally affected by the many piecemeal reforms that have been imposed on our public schools, colleges and universities over the past two decades.
California has long needed a comprehensive and long-term approach to restructuring public education that makes improved student achievement its singular focus. In short: A master plan.
Such a plan is becoming a reality, thanks to a Joint Committee to Develop a Master Plan for Education Kindergarten through University, chaired by State Sen. Dede Alpert, D-Coronado. That panel's recently completed initial draft of a 20-year California Master Plan for Education is the product of a 1999 State Senate resolution calling for the creation of such a strategy.
The draft is a work in progress that is being reviewed by educational stakeholders and the public at large through a series of public forums now being conducted throughout the state and via an "e-testimony" link on the state senate's Web site. Public input is being solicited and will be considered for the plan's final version.
No other state has attempted so broad and systemic approach to restructuring its educational system. The scope of the master plan begins in kindergarten education and extends through the primary and secondary grades, onto college and includes workforce training and lifelong learning resources.
The master plan draft is a good-faith attempt to anticipate the learning needs of students for the next two decades. I describe it as good faith because it's impossible to know with certainty the learning needs of students 20 years from now. But, we need to try, to envision what those needs will be and craft a plan that will help frame the decisions we need to make today.
The plan's recommendations include shifting the authority and ultimate responsibility for California's K-12 public education system to the Office of the Governor. The Superintendent of Public Instruction would remain an elected position and serve in the role of a state inspector general for public education.
The smallest one-third of school districts would be eliminated through locally-determined consolidation and/or unification within a prescribed time period.
A student fee policy for public universities and colleges would be aimed at stabilizing student fees and resisting the pressure to buy out student fee increases or reduce student fees at community colleges, the University of California and the state university systems during good economic times. More resources and attention would be directed to hard-to-staff schools, including a salary increase for administrators and incentives for teachers serving in low-performing schools.
Education is the business of the people who benefit from it the most. I strongly encourage parents, students, educators, employers and anyone else interested in improving public education in California to take part in the moderated online public discussions about the draft master plan with panels of experts and members of the joint legislative committee. It can be found at www.sen.ca.gov/masterplan.
Download and review the plan draft and offer up your comments and suggestions so they can be considered for the final version of the plan, which will be prepared later this summer.
Meanwhile, Alpert and her joint legislative committee deserve the deep thanks of all Californians for assembling a draft master plan that envisions the future learning needs of all who call the Golden State their home.
Hovenic, Ed.D, is president and chief executive officer of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce Foundation and executive director of the foundation's Business Roundtable for Education. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.