Outgoing state schools superintendent Jack O’Connell has faith in California schools

Closing the student achievement gap. Raising student test scores eight years in a row in almost every grade level and subject area. Bringing more nutritious meals into schools.

Those are three highlights cited by outgoing state schools Superintendent Jack O’Connell during his eight years on the job.

But “if you were to ask me what in my 28-year career I’m most proud of, it’s Proposition 39 (which reduced the threshold to pass local school district bonds to build schools to 55 percent from two-thirds),’’ he said.

“Since 2002, $23 billion (in bonds) passed that came in between 55 percent and 67 (percent),’’ he added. “And had we not done that, a lot of districts would not have been successful.’’

O’Connell, 59, isn’t a big fan of exit interviews.

“I kind of think politicians get honored too much,” he told a Tribune reporter last week over Cokes at a local cafe. “To me, you do the job that you’re elected to do, and I don’t need the extra gratification.”

O’Connell’s résumé spans 28 years of public service, including lengthy stints in the state Assembly and Senate. His current job officially ends Monday when Tom Torlakson is sworn in as superintendent.

O’Connell lives in San Luis Obispo with his wife, Doree, who works for Cal Poly’s study abroad program.

Q: What did you want to accomplish — but did not? And why not?

A: Probably even further narrowing of the achievement gap; the budget challenges really precluded that from occurring. Today, we have fewer nurses, fewer counselors, fewer librarians, fewer teachers. We have fewer classes in music, the arts, career technical education. Summer school was practically eliminated. A shorter school year — most districts have cut by five days. The budget has been my biggest disappointment. The governor (Arnold Schwarzenegger) oversaw the most significant disinvestment in public education, probably ever. And yet, our school system is incredibly resilient.

Q: Budget cuts over the past few years have forced local districts to increase class sizes, lay off teachers and reduce programs. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that state funding for the K-12 system and community colleges will receive $47.5 billion in the next fiscal year — about $9 billion less than four years ago. How can districts and teachers continue to meet their goals for student learning? What action would you encourage Gov.-elect Jerry Brown and the Legislature to take to support the state’s public schools?

A: (Currently) you have to obtain a two-thirds vote for a community (to raise a parcel tax), and we should drop that to 55 percent, just like we do for building schools. We made it easier to build schools than operate schools. If communities want to invest in the future, let’s enable them to make that a reality.

Q: Critics say standardized tests aren’t an accurate measure of students’ learning, while proponents say they are one of the only gauges for measuring student achievement. How do we make sure teachers and schools are properly educating our youth?

A: The standardized tests should be one measure. We need to look at dropout rates — the dropout rates are too high, and we didn’t even know what they were until three years ago. We can now track students. Even today, on our statewide tests, we’re comparing this year’s fifth-graders to last year’s fifth-graders. At some point, what we need to (know) is how well did our fourth-graders do last year, and how well did they do as fifth-graders this year?

You also have to look at graduation rates, at the achievement gap, at our college entrance exams.

Q: The Lucia Mar school district is updating its vision to guide the district over the next decade, with a particular focus on what skills students need to succeed. What do you believe today’s students need to know to compete globally?

A: Not an emphasis on rote memorization. Our curriculum and our teaching strategies need to be designed to have our students be more analytical, more critical thinkers, greater problem solvers; (they) must be better communicators — regardless of your profession. And all of our students need to be technologically proficient.

Q: You have said drastic changes are needed in the way teachers and principals are evaluated in California schools. The Los Angeles Times was criticized by teachers’ unions after it published a database of about 6,000 city school teachers ranked by their effectiveness in raising student test scores. Do you think this was useful? Should student test scores be used in teacher evaluations?

A: Should it exclusively be used to evaluate teachers? Definitely not. Can it be an indicator? I think it’s appropriate. We also need to use this data to evaluate programs — to see what strategies are working in terms of our successful programs. Our CSTs (California Standards Tests) were never really designed to evaluate teachers. They were designed to be a snapshot in time; are students understanding our standards?

Q: Would you change the duties or powers of the state schools superintendent if you could? If yes, how?

A: I’d like to see it strengthened. The big one would be more authority over budget, but of course that’s not going to happen. We have to change the culture of failure with some of our really historically underperforming schools and be clear that the state superintendent can come in with even more authority to help change that.

Q: In your long career of public service, what are the top three things that you have learned?

A: Don’t be afraid to get involved; I worked for 13 years (on Proposition 39). Coalition-building is very important for success in this business. And then you have to persevere. I wrote the law on class-size reduction, and that took 15 years to come to fruition.

Q: What were the biggest controversies you had to address?

A: If you want the three biggest: budget, budget, budget. The budget has been the biggest disappointment and the most controversial. There’s so much more we should be doing to meet the needs of kids — if you want to have a well-educated work force to have an expanding economy.

Q: Do you have any interest in heading Cuesta College after Gil Stork finishes his two-year appointment?

A: I hope Gil Stork stays there indefinitely. He’s the perfect person for Cuesta College, and this community is so fortunate to have him. I really don’t have any plans right this minute. The best advice I received from several of my friends is “take your time.” And so I’m going to follow that advice.