A weekend interview with ...
... Roy Romer, the former three-term governor of Colorado and superintendent of Los Angeles public schools, the nation's second-largest school system. Romer now is the leader of ED in '08, a national $60-million campaign funded by the Gates and Broad foundations to get the presidential candidates talking about education issues. They have a distance to go. As California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger noted in a talk to the Education Writers Association on Friday, the Republican hopefuls debated this week and, "Education was never talked about." Romer sat with reporter Jeff Solochek in Los Angeles to talk about the initiative.
Q: Why is it that we can't get the attention to education? I know there's a war ...
A: I have a feeling that any president wakes up the first week after the election and says, 'OK, what are the issues that I'm going to have to master to prepare this country for the next 20 years?' You're obviously going to have the war on one corner of your desk. You've got health care. You've got global warming. But the overriding issue that's going to shape this nation for the next 20 years is the education of its citizenry and the productivity of its economy. And we're in danger, frankly, because if you look at the trade deficit we're accumulating, if you look at where the high skilled jobs are going, you look at the separation of incomes in this country, particularly tied to skill sets, you know the future of this place is dependent upon education and increasing the knowledge and skills of the work force.
So as you're president, you say, 'Most of the action is state and local. What can I do as leader? Well, I am president not only of Congress. I am president of 50 states and 17,000 school districts.' So you really have got to have education as one of the key agenda items. Our campaign is to bring that into focus in this debate, both political parties. Raise the level of discussion and consciousness. Secondly, our objective is to get a million plus people out there who are really advocates, passionate advocates, of change in education. ...
Standards need to be very much more coherent and unified in this country. We are one nation, not 50 nations. That means not a national curriculum. You can't force it by legislation. It means as president you use the bully pulpit and you call the states together and say, 'We're going to insist upon benchmarking your standards against the world, and the workers of the world. And I'm going to give you incentives to do it. But I expect you to do it." You know, that kind of job is what we're talking about.
Q: Are there any states that are doing it now?
A: Yes. Achieve Inc. is one organization, a good one, it's out there working with 20 states to voluntarily work together on a common set of standards and benchmark them against each other. Nine of the states are working on a test they would all use on Algebra II. Because they know that it's not just the standards, it's the way you test and hold them accountable.
But our campaign has three issues. No. 1, finding a way to arrive at American standards. No. 2, finding a way to get an effective teacher in every classroom. No. 3, being sure we've got enough time to learn and supporting teachers for that time. ... We're going to be out there doing a campaign like everyone else is doing it. Troops in the field. Very sophisticated. ... We intend to do everything we can to make this a key issue in the debate.
Q: ... When I look at the things they're doing in Florida, and how they want to do it their way, I wonder how you can make it so everybody gets on the same page.
A: See, fourth grade math is not different in Florida than it is in Los Angeles. We all ought to have a common understanding of what we're doing. There's a lot of mobility in the country. Particularly the jobs are mobile. When you get out of high school, you don't know where you are going to work. We as a nation need to come together more, without a federal dictate, but there needs to be a presidential call to arms, a call to action. I'm glad to hear Florida is working on it. But it doesn't make sense to have 50 different states working on it 50 different ways. It's inefficient. We need to have a way in which we have freedom to teach however a state wants to teach, but have a common set of expectations of what you need to know and need to be able to do.
Q: You served as superintendent here. So you know about class size and what its effect is on the teacher pool.... It drives the numbers to the point where everybody is fighting for that last teacher who is qualified. With the federal standard for highly qualified, that makes the stakes even higher. How do we get that second item that your talking about, highly qualified ...
A: ... teachers in every class. One, we have got to make this profession more attractive to our better students. You know, kids in college do not look first to teaching because the income is not as attractive as some science or math route. We need to really focus upon the pay package. It is put together in the wrong way. We have these contracts so you get paid every year you increase your time of service or the number of college credits. Crazy way to pay. We've got to get pay where a teacher gets differential pay based on the difficulty of the assignment they are given - tough school, or the skill set they bring - science, or performance they have in the classroom. ... We need to get to career ladder systems where we really do motivate teachers by pay, and reward them for good performance, fairly evaluated, measured by by tests and other factors. And we need to work with teachers to do that. Now, this is tough territory. ... There also is the working conditions in schools and the kind of professional development we give to teachers. That's the second key issue.
Q: Can I take you to the flip side of that question? How do you get rid of the bad teachers?
A: It's the elephant in the room. I visited a school I used to be in charge of yesterday. And I pulled the principal aside and said, 'How's it going?' And she said, 'We're really making great gains.' I said, 'Be specific. What are you doing here, here and here? And what about your teaching?' And she says, 'I still don't have any place to put the teachers that don't teach well.' And she says, 'I could transfer them out to another school, but then they're just in somebody else's backyard.' How do you attack it? You have got to first really be able to define what good teachers are. Evaluate them. Secondly, we need to give them every chance to improve and correct their inability by teaching them to teach better. Third, for those who are unwilling or unable to do it, you've got to find more efficient systems to relocate them to places that they're efficient for us. That we don't do anywhere in America well. Never. And it is one of the toughest nuts we've got to crack. We've got to do it. ...
Q: The third piece you talk about is how we structure the day, the year, the time. I wonder about that because we had a debate in Florida over when the school year should begin and end. Everything was supported by school districts to do it one way, and then ... all of the tourism industry stepped forward and it got changed because that's what they supported.
A: We've got to get our values straight. See, there are a lot of families saying, 'I'm afraid for my child being able to afford the life I'm living. Are they going to have a job that keeps them in a house? Send their kids to college?' Those jobs have higher skill requirements. They've got to think very seriously that the time to learn is very much more important than that vacation schedule. It's just getting our values straight. Europeans and other nations have already come to this conclusion that we don't have enough time to learn. The KIPP Academy is a very good school system alternative that has extended the day and the year. We need to have more time and we need to use that time better in support of those students who need that extra help.