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Chief of schools O'Connell assesses progress

By Timm Herdt
Ventura County Star
January 22, 2010

SACRAMENTO — Delivering his final annual assessment of the state of public education in California before he is termed out of office next year, Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell on Friday praised the progress schools have made during challenging times and expressed hope that President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top education initiative will lay the groundwork for productive reforms.

“It’s a historic opportunity to make systemic changes that could fundamentally improve our educational delivery system,” O’Connell told an audience of education leaders from around the state.

O’Connell is entering his eighth and final year as the state’s top education official. To mark that occasion, his friend and mentor Willie Brown, the former Assembly speaker and former mayor of San Francisco, came to Sacramento to provide the introduction for O’Connell’s annual state of education speech.

Brown described O’Connell as an elected official who throughout his career has been “always working to build a consensus. That’s an unusual trait for a successful politician.”

O’Connell, 59, who spent two decades representing portions of Ventura County in the Legislature before being elected superintendent, has announced he will retire from politics when his term ends next January. Brown said he hopes the departure will be “a pause,” rather than an end.

“Without term limits, there is no question in my mind that Jack O’Connell would be eternally the superintendent of schools, and the state would be better off,” Brown said.

Befitting a final assessment, O’Connell spoke of some of the progress that has been achieved over the past seven years: The percentage of students who test proficient in English language arts has climbed from 35 percent to 50 percent, those proficient in math has climbed from 35 percent to 46 percent, and the number of career technical education classes that are rigorous enough to count for college-admission credits has soared from 289 to 7,650.

He said those gains “take on particular significance at a time when our schools have lost tens of billions of dollars in much-needed funding.”

O’Connell pledged to continue to fight for adequate school funding but advised that “as stewards of our children’s future, we cannot afford to sit back and wait for conditions to improve.”

The Race to the Top initiative, he said, can be a springboard toward improvements in such areas as making better use of assessment data to inform decision-making, creating better methods to assess student performance, and establishing better ways to evaluate teachers and principals.

In a line that drew enthusiastic applause, he said: “Surely we have the capability to figure out how to assess knowledge in a valid and reliable way beyond simply asking our students to fill in a bubble test.”

Chuck Weis, the former Ventura County schools chief who now is president of the Association of California School Administrators, praised O’Connell’s optimism.

“If there is no money, we’re still going to do these things,” Weis said. “What I know about reform is that you’ve got to start somewhere.”

In an interview after the speech, O’Connell said educators must continue to forge ahead even at a time when schools are being starved of money. “We can’t wait,” he said. “The students aren’t going to wait for us.”

Assemblyman Tom Torlakson, D-Martinez, one of three leading candidates seeking O’Connell’s job, said he and his fellow lawmakers cannot allow education funding to deteriorate further next year. The $2.4 billion reduction in school funding sought by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, he said, “dwarfs the amount of money we can get from Race to the Top. I’m going to fight to see to it that the next state budget doesn’t represent a tumble to the bottom.”

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