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Monday, October 24, 2005 | Proposition 74: Increase the probationary work status period for teachers from two to five years. This is the time period in which school administrators, primarily principals, can dismiss a teacher without cause.

Proposition 76: Provides the governor, under certain conditions, with the power to unilaterally reduce state expenditures. These powers permit him to reduce state K-12 spending below Proposition 98 minimums.

Two of the governor’s four “reform agenda” initiatives on the November ballot involve K-12 public education. Neither is a bonafide reform and both will negatively impact school quality.

Proposition 74, briefly outlined above, has two probable outcomes: lower teacher morale; and a decrease in the attractiveness of teaching, as an entry-level profession, to high performing college graduates.

If an ineffective teacher is not identified in the first two years, the most difficult teaching years, the chance of making a valid judgment over the next three years is virtually nil. Two years is a long enough period of time for a teacher to be subject to a no-cause dismissal. Subsequent dismissals ought to require a reason. This is only fair.

Proposition 74 is a scapegoating caper. The people who thought it up do not understand teaching or schooling. Worse, they are not serious about improving it.

Instead of it, the governor could have embraced any number of teacher-based, performance enhancing reforms. The simplest thing he could have done to improve the quality of teaching is to provide higher salaries. This will attract higher performing college graduates into teaching and research informs us that, in the current system, they are the surest way to increase student performance.

The first two years of teaching are very difficult. First- and second-year teachers, based upon student achievement, consistently perform at lower levels than experienced teachers. Several factors account for this, including: inadequate professional preparation; inexperience; inappropriate assignments; poor working conditions; and the burdensome demands of the classroom.

The governor could have addressed any one of these issues. Take inexperience. If beginning teachers had the benefit of a full year of classroom experience, working as paid interns under the supervision of experienced master teachers, they would be better prepared to assume solo teaching responsibilities. Expand this intern position to two years and the 50 percent beginning teacher attrition rate would significantly decline.

Yes, 50 percent of beginning teachers voluntarily exit the profession. Some do so because they lack the temperament for the job. Teaching is extraordinarily demanding. Elementary classroom communication rates can rival that of air traffic controllers. In this hectic work setting, most students have not acquired, in prior grades, the skills and concepts they need to learn the current lesson. And, teachers are not in control of the lesson schedule. The lesson ends before they are able to impart the capabilities students need to succeed in future lessons. This adds up to an exhausting, arduous snarl, with excessively high teacher dropout and student under-performance rates.

Does the governor understand this? It is not unusual for a first-year teacher, the school’s most inexperienced teacher, to be assigned to the most difficult and largest class of students in the building. Who does this? The principal with the unilateral power to fire this rookie, without cause, when she or he fails at this absurd assignment. The governor wants to extend this power from two to five years. What is he thinking?

Who is going to replace the, now, experienced third- to fifth-year teacher the governor thinks should be dismissed? The answer is: a less experienced, less skilled, even more ineffective teacher. It is predictable; the replacement teacher will produce lower student achievement levels than most of the dismissed teachers. Proposition 74 is a fraud.

Proposition 76 will, ultimately, further decrease the amount of funds the state expends on K-12 public education. This runs counter to the policy preference of a majority of voters.

When Californians elected Arnold Schwarzenegger they assumed he shared their hopes and fears. For decades voters identified improved school performance as their top public policy priority. Candidate Schwarzenegger intimated his agreement but Gov. Schwarzenegger ignored the issue. After the election, as months passed and school improvement issues went unaddressed, increasing numbers of Schwarzenegger voters were disappointed.

Their disappointment turned into disenchantment. This voter gloom foreshadowed the governor’s decline in popularity. His public support, once above 60 percent, eventually plummeted to 37 percent.

Parents and grandparents come in all political stripes. Those who feel Schwarzenegger is not providing the state with the leadership it needs include 41 percent of Republicans; 67 percent of Independents; and 71 percent of Democrats. These are formidable numbers.

The governor’s pollsters insist that 66 percent of California’s voters support Proposition 76. The Field Poll has the proposition being defeated 65 percent to 19 percent.

Conservative Republicans suggest there is no relationship between school funding and student performance. Yet, every elite school in the nation, private and public, spend a great deal more educating the privileged children they serve than is spent in a typical neighborhood school.

Although money, alone, does not produce higher performance, it is virtually impossible to generate improved performance without adequate funding.

California schools are inadequately funded. The reduction of state support for K-12 schooling began in the Reagan Administration. In those years our schools were among the best funded, and highest performing, in the nation. Since then, Govs. Brown, Deukmejian and Wilson further reduced school spending. Gov. Gray Davis restored it, somewhat, but Schwarzenegger is now reducing it again, perhaps permanently.

Permanently? It is impossible to know. Gov. Schwarzenegger has not candidly addressed the school finance issue. He has not squared himself with voters. California now ranks 42nd, among states, in school funding and its students perform at the nation’s lowest levels.

Is that our destiny? The governor talks about restoring the state to its prior greatness. Does he think this is possible with a second-rate K-12 school system? It is the governor’s responsibility to address this issue.

Les Birdsall is an education expert who has been involved in federal, state and local (district and school) improvement initiatives for 40 years. Read his education column every Monday.

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