Mr. Nice Guy

Jack O’Connell has to get mean if he wants to fix the schools

In a race to decide the most ineffectual, slow-on-the-uptake superintendent of public instruction in contemporary California history, I normally would nominate former superintendent Delaine Eastin for sheer, maddening inability at the top.

But now comes this really nice guy—everybody says so—Jack O’Connell, a former legislator who hasn’t got a clue what troubles the schools.

While he wastes time getting on the news as an official thorn in Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s side, O’Connell does little to address the mismanagement of vast sums of money by inept school boards.

In mid-July, O’Connell publicly claimed that 552 school districts overspent by $682 million last year—this in a time of rapidly fattening budgets for schools. O’Connell shamefully tried to blame Schwarzenegger, saying that “our schools are not being adequately funded to provide the classroom programs and services our students deserve.”

Bill Evers, an education reformer at Stanford, told me the other day, “For Jack O’Connell to say that a district that has spent on such things as open-ended health care for retirees, that somehow the governor is responsible—well, you are living in a bizarre dream world to talk that way. I wish our state superintendent would come down to earth.”

The truth is California test scores are finally edging upward because of strict teaching standards forced on these incompetent local school boards by former governors Gray Davis and Pete Wilson. Those guys understood that the real problem was not funding, of which the schools have plenty. Nor was it some governor. Nor was it “poverty.”

The problem was, and still is, the 320,000 teachers who spend seven hours per day with California’s kids and very often don’t know what to do with the time.

O’Connell didn’t call me back. Possibly, I burned a bridge calling him a “serial exaggerator” recently in The New York Times. But I wish voters would stop electing super-nice folks like O’Connell who can’t handle the heat.

Just look at former Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig, who wanted to change the culture of failure among California teachers. In the 1980s, teaching literacy to kids was not viewed as any more crucial than teaching daily health habits. Students took really relevant-sounding courses—yet they couldn’t read their books.

It was very Orwellian, and it still is. The oft-repeated media chant that “teachers know what’s best in the classroom” is patently false. In the late 1990s, I was told by a “language acquisition” expert that the Los Angeles Unified School District’s reading program—whittled down to about one half-hour a day and churning out thousands of “functionally illiterate” youngsters—couldn’t be lengthened to two hours so kids could learn to read.

Why? Because such change “wouldn’t be fair to the other subjects.”

Honig tried to fix this teacher-driven madness by being nice about it. He let teachers design statewide reforms in the late 1980s. That led to widespread adoption of the “whole language” fad, in which spelling tests and phonics were banned at many schools. Honig admitted it was a gross error as test scores plummeted.

It was only when reformers got sort of, well, mean that California schools halted the freefall. A tough State Board of Education began publicly posting the test scores of all schools. Teachers fought that reform. Strict reading and math standards were adopted. Teachers and school boards fought that reform.

Oblivious, O’Connell blames money. He files suit against the governor. He’s a veritable beacon of niceness toward teachers and school boards. We all realize that most teachers are wonderful people doing a hard job. Unfortunately, teachers are isolated, insecure and mired in “gut feelings” about how to impart knowledge to children—uneducated hunches that backfire with such stunning regularity you could make book on it.

It seems we need a mean person in charge of the schools, and O’Connell doesn’t fill the bill. Will he firmly address teachers who must be retrained or fired? Is he going to peek at those hush-hush classroom scores (kept secret in California) that individually reveal the absolute worst California teachers, using apple-to-apple comparisons of virtually identical classrooms of kids?

Or will O’Connell spend the summer and fall pretending it’s crucial that teachers get awarded tenure after two years—a nutty rule not allowed by any intelligent states in the country. The tenure issue is on the ballot in November—a modest improvement that escapes O’Connell entirely.

I used to muse that Jack O’Connell was a very nice but very dumb guy. After watching him do very little work but lash out at the governor and kiss up to teachers while pulling in a salary of $100,000-plus per year, however, I’ve had to reassess. Anybody with a deal that sweet couldn’t be so dumb after all.