Hey Dick, welcome to Sacramento

Riordan may want to rethink taking the education job once he’s faced the anti-reformers

Illustration By B.Z.

I don’t like Gray Davis. He’s a weak leader who stuck his finger in the wind to decide what to think.

By contrast, I like incoming California Secretary of Education Richard Riordan, recently appointed by Governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger, and I know Riordan to be a leader with strong beliefs.

Because this is true, why do I feel so damn queasy about the prospects for California’s near-miracle in the public schools to survive now that we have Schwarzenegger and Riordan in charge?

The answer is that for all his failure, Davis greatly succeeded in one thing: He stopped a high-pressure crowd of educators and politicos who are hellbent on reversing the big advances that have ended 25 years of academic freefall in California’s public schools.

I realize this sounds insane. Who would want to end the historic wave of success we are observing, mostly in our elementary schools? What sort of people would oppose the first sustained, major improvements in achievement among children in California in more than two decades?

Davis understood this bizarre, multi-level chess game. So did his education secretary, the sharp Kerry Mazzoni.

Every year, opponents of reform would bring forth ugly, politically motivated legislation to roll back the improvements, and the Democrat-controlled Legislature would shamefully approve them. Every time, Davis vetoed these attacks on school reform.

Indeed, Davis went in the opposite direction.

Building on reforms adopted by the California State Board of Education under former Governor Pete Wilson, Davis’ board of ed. adopted rigorous state academic standards that are the same for all children and that are tracked through testing so the public can see how well a certain school is teaching the subject matter in comparison to other schools near and far.

Districts like Los Angeles Unified School District saw student achievement levels skyrocket once they began teaching explicit phonics to grade-schoolers and English immersion to immigrants and once they re-trained teachers who had learned next to nothing at the state’s teacher colleges. In roughly 70 school districts, tens of thousands of teachers have now been retrained under California’s “Reading First” program.

But at districts that fought those state reforms, such as San Diego Unified School District, student achievement is in the tank.

The most amazing thing revealed by statewide testing is that poor children—whom the California Teachers Association (CTA) and big teachers’ unions insisted could not be taught because of “poverty”—are not being held back by poverty but by the teachers themselves. At reformed schools, less-privileged poor children now work at nearly suburban-kid levels in reading and math. All they needed was decent instruction.

Schwarzenegger and Riordan don’t know these crucial issues the way Davis and Mazzoni do. They are so green they probably don’t even know that a few days after he lost the recall on October 7, Davis finally buckled to the anti-reformers.

Sadly, Davis signed a law allowing California to ignore a requirement that federal “Reading First” money go only to programs teaching English. The new law allows the money to be diverted into the mostly Spanish “bilingual” program, from which children often emerge at age 12 functionally illiterate in English. When a new funding source is found for a program—even one like bilingual education, which voters killed—it means the program could come roaring back.

Schwarzenegger and Riordan have only a nanosecond of political time to get up to speed before unions and anti-reform politicos start slamming them with incomprehensible legislation freighted with backdoor ways to end grade-school testing, muddle phonics, insert chaos into the curriculum standards and water down school accountability.

And the unpleasant games start at the top in Sacramento, with people like state Senator John Vasconcellos, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, and include many beginners too, like junior Assemblywoman Lonnie Hancock of Berkeley.

They are among the very liberal Democrats fighting to end the testing of second-graders—tests that allow schools to identify struggling children before they enter third grade, when it’s almost too late to help many.

Another obstacle to reform is the powerful 330,000-member CTA. The CTA keeps trying to push through a law that would force the state to revamp its content standards every seven years.

Because it takes years to develop these content standards—which dictate exactly what a child should know about everything from grammar to multiplication, and by what age—such a law would create permanent upheaval.

Another goal of anti-reformers is to revamp the statewide test known as STAR (Standardized Testing and Reporting). Though anti-reformers claim they want to make the test better, serious reformers don’t buy this. If a new test comes out every few years, it makes year-to-year comparisons difficult and protects teachers from scrutiny.

In 2004, a massive war over STAR will occur. Riordan had better be ready to fight to the bone to make sure STAR is not messed with.

I spoke to Riordan about his new job, and though he is knowledgeable on general topics, he did not volunteer the kind of information I believe should be on the tip of his tongue.

I’m worried Riordan will be drawn to trendy uber-discussions on education while some in the Legislature turn back the clock. (A disclosure here: I worked with Riordan last spring and summer on his proposal to launch his own newspaper in Los Angeles. That work has ended, and the newspaper project is dead.)

Don’t get me wrong; Riordan’s no neophyte. He has a history in education reform. But his big successes have tended toward electoral victories and brick-and-mortar stuff. As Los Angeles’ mayor, he pushed ideas to cut red tape and build schools more quickly to relieve student overcrowding, for instance.

Riordan’s biggest education reform came when he upended the Los Angeles school board, whose seats were controlled for years by a union, United Teachers Los Angeles. The Riordan-backed candidates instituted sweeping curriculum reforms, including a widely criticized requirement that grade schools devote three hours per day to teaching reading.

Today, the minority-heavy Los Angeles Unified School District enjoys higher test scores than California itself—a major achievement.

When California voters backed Proposition 227 five years ago, requiring that immigrant students be immersed in English, Riordan was the only elected official I could find in California who had the cojones to go on record supporting Proposition 227.

Riordan also has spent a small fortune privately underwriting the nationally known Puente Learning Center, on Los Angeles’ poor eastside, where immigrants from 6 to 80 years of age attend and graduate from well-regarded English-immersion classes.

But Riordan has been behind some awful flops in education, too. He has a penchant for arm’s-length reforms that never hit the classroom.

In the 1990s, he enthusiastically backed an unproven plan called LEARN, in which student achievement was expected to improve greatly once teachers, parents and principals were allowed to co-govern their school. Never happened. The biggest result of LEARN was squabbling and union dominance over parents.

LEARN never changed what teachers did. So, the teachers kept right on using ineffective teaching methods, such as the old California standard of “go at your own pace; do your own thing” that has set children so adrift since the 1970s.

Riordan also poured millions of dollars into computers for poor schools. But poor children are not helped much by computers, which distract teachers from core goals like literacy.

Riordan will be a success only if he accepts the fact that Davis, a failure as governor, knew what he was doing in education.

Riordan should hire Mazzoni immediately, if she’s willing to coach him on issues. He also should hire several former executive directors of the California State Board of Education, such as John Mockler and Bill Lucia, and current Executive Director Rae Belisle, who have played key roles in reform.

The one person Schwarzenegger ought to reappoint to the board, without a doubt, is Marion Joseph, the hero who tore the lid off California’s “whole language” disaster in the 1990s. Joseph is the toughest education reformer around, a stickler for allowing no backsliding on the standards that are finally working for California.

Riordan should persuade Suzanne Tacheny, Joe Nuñez and Nancy Ichinaga to stay on the board, though the rumor is Ichinaga will step down. The bluntly honest Ichinaga is the most gifted school-turnaround expert in California.

He also needs frequent chats with reading genius Alice Furry, of the Sacramento County Office of Education, to learn which school districts are refusing to do the right thing. Bureaucrats in places like San Diego have no right to withhold proven education methods from failing children who deserve to learn. It’s like withholding medicine from the sick.

The other day, Riordan was talking to me about possible ways of “empowering principals,” a long-term reform idea discussed in a book by Riordan’s longtime friend Bill Ouchi.

Hey, I agree it’s a great idea to empower school principals. I’m all for it.

But there’s no time, Dick.

Right now, he has to forget about untested ideas that swirl around education. He needs a battle plan for the sneaky legislation, constant attacks on testing and content standards, and God knows what else.

He may not realize it yet, but Riordan’s new job is to fight people who, for reasons only they grasp, are intent on ramming California’s education miracle right back into the dark ages of the 1980s and ’90s.

So, Dick? You still want the job?