Improving teaching and learning must drive efforts of reform


I’m going to make a flat-out assertion that flies in the face of most current efforts to improve the achievement of California’s students. Unless improving curriculum and instruction becomes the driving force behind these efforts, gains will be minimal. We will never catch up with those world-class performers: nations such as the Asian tigers and Finland; states and provinces such as Massachusetts and Ontario, Canada; or districts such as Sanger and Long Beach. These jurisdictions have made what is taught and how it is taught central to their educational reform strategies. They have adopted a long-range effort to upgrade their teaching force and have built the infrastructure to improve curriculum and instruction.

A recent report shows what the highest performing countries, states, and districts do. A 2010 follow-up to a 2007 McKinsey report – How the World’s Best Performing School Systems Keep Getting Better – concludes that “improving system performance ultimately comes down to improving the learning experience of students in their classroom,” and that systems achieve the best results when they “change their processes by modifying curriculum and improving the way that teachers instruct and principals lead.” Mike Schmoker’s excellent new book Focus makes a similar point.

Nationally, current efforts such as Race to the Top and many state initiatives stress improving the quality of the teaching force by eliminating incompetent teachers (about 5 percent of the teaching force) and rewarding superstars; creating competition through expansion of charter schools (currently serving about 3 percent of our students); adopting standards and assessments geared to those standards in only language arts and math; and transforming or closing a minuscule number of the lowest-performing schools (about 1/70th of California’s schools). No high-performing country or state has limited its reform efforts to this narrowly conceived approach.

It’s not that these strategies are necessarily misguided. For example, some charters are excellent and can be a helpful source of innovative ideas. However, many are no better than their public school counterparts (some are worse) and, in any event, only serve a small number of our students. Some turnaround efforts are successful, but many come way too late. Others are badly conceived or implemented, eliminate a community institution, and after tremendous disruption end up creating a school no more proficient than the original one.

Teacher quality is critical

Improving the quality of the teacher force is a critical goal of any successful reform movement, but there are much more productive strategies available than those being promoted. Eliminating incompetent teachers – if done fairly, using reliable data and with the cooperation of teachers, and after a well-organized attempt to help the teacher improve – is important to do. If done unfairly, based on shaky information, this tactic wreaks havoc.

Recent research on programs to provide individual rewards for the best teachers have demonstrated that such initiatives are not particularly effective, confirming similar studies on individual rewards in business situations. On the other hand, rewarding teams to encourage cooperative efforts at the school or paying our best teachers more in return for them leading additional improvement efforts produces much better performance results.

Most importantly, current teacher quality reforms don’t touch over 90 percent of the existing teaching staff; and most reform efforts have given only lip service to the problem of upgrading the huge number of teachers who will enter the system in the next decade.

As an example, in California, if 5 percent of teachers are incompetent and are let go during the next decade, then about 10,000 classrooms will be affected. But what about the approximately 200,000 remaining teachers or the 100,000 new teachers who will enter the teaching force during the same period?

California needs a strategic plan for new teachers comparable to those adopted by high-scoring countries or states. The plan should include such measures as:

  • Limiting teacher candidates to the top third of college graduates;
  • Radically improving the training they receive;
  • Initiating widespread support for beginning teachers (which markedly reduces the number of teachers who leave after a few years); and
  • Paying teachers salaries that are commensurate with what other professionals receive.

Finally, improving the quality of the teacher force is a necessary component of reform, but is not sufficient in itself. Such efforts need to be coupled with measures that build the capacity of these teachers to improve teaching and learning. This dual strategy will produce much larger gains in student performance than concentrating on the caliber of teachers alone.

Missing link between standards & assessments

Utilizing the Common Core English Language Arts and Math standards and fashioning assessments based on them are important first steps. The ELA standards suggest more emphasis on literacy in informational text, best taught through an organized sequence of history and science, especially in elementary schools. New assessments should reflect this shift in strategy.

The recently formed national assessment consortia (PARCC and SMARTER Balanced) are sophisticated and promise to focus on the most important student abilities such as close reading of text or a deeper understanding of pre-algebra number concepts. More importantly, they will produce tests that rely not just on multiple-choice questions, but on essays and demonstrations much like some of the best assessments nationally and internationally. Additionally, the consortia promise to report usable data back to teachers and schools in a timely fashion and in a manner conducive to supporting improvement efforts.

A huge caveat: Standards are not a curriculum (for example, which books to teach at which grades, what sequence of science and history to teach, how best to structure lessons based on the curriculum, or how best to help English learners master more complex academic language).

Some states are working on developing curricula based on the Common Core standards and would be willing to enter a cooperative effort with California. The American Federation of Teachers’ Shanker foundation has recently urged the creation of a voluntary national curriculum supported by a nearly 200 prominent educators and leaders

Common Core, an organization devoted to teaching the liberal arts, has developed curricula maps for ELA standards. California needs to address the issue of how best to encourage the development of effective curricula and how to encourage wide-scale adoption.

By themselves, standards, curriculum, and assessments cannot transform our schools without attention to building the infrastructure to support teaching and learning based on those standards. The assumption of the current reform movement seems to be that if standards are adopted, students are assessed, and rewards and sanctions are imposed, the system will improve. I cannot stress enough that this is not the approach undertaken in those jurisdictions which have produced world-class results. First, they instituted a long-range plan for recruiting, training, and supporting a high-quality teaching force, developed a broad liberal arts curriculum and standards, and produced assessments based on that curriculum. Then, most of their efforts were dedicated to building the infrastructure to support school and district staffs in improving what is taught and how it is taught.

The following initiatives are examples of the missing links between standards and assessment:

  • Reaching consensus on a lean and powerful curriculum including not just language arts and mathematics but also history, science, and the arts;
  • Assuring that our assessment and accountability system tracks this broader liberal arts curriculum;
  • Making available powerful instructional materials (both print and digital) that incorporate best practices based on these standards and curriculum;
  • Building teams at each school to continually assess success and failure and determining the best corrective actions;
  • Developing  school and district leadership required to support these efforts, as well as state policies and programs to enhance these efforts; and
  • Providing  professional development focused on improving classroom instruction.

California used to have a much more comprehensive approach to improvement that incorporated many of the measures cited above. Unfortunately, either as a result of financial retrenchment or lack of leadership, many of the most effective components of capacity building have been neglected, defunded, or allowed to lapse.

Educators have been pleading for this long- term comprehensive strategy for years. For example, see the winter 2010 Common Core Curriculum issue of American Educator.

Recently, strong voices among political leaders have also begun to advocate this approach. Governor Brown’s educational plan for California; statements by the new State Board of Education president Michael Kirst, the new Superintendent of Instruction Tom Torlakson, and some members of the Legislature; and the massive report of Gov. Schwarzenegger’s Committee on Educational Excellence, chaired by Ted Mitchell (the outgoing SBE president), all provide support for these ideas.

As California schools struggle with extreme financial pressure, it may seem like the wrong time to discuss a comprehensive long-term strategy focused on improving the quality of our teaching force and developing the infrastructure to support major improvements in teaching and learning. But as we look forward to refinancing our schools in the next decade, now is the time to develop a consensus on such a long-term reform initiative. Unless these ideas drive reform efforts, California students will never match those world-class performers who have successfully transformed their educational systems.

Bill Honig began his career in education as an elementary school teacher before becoming a California State Board member and district superintendent. He was elected in 1982 to serve the first of three terms as California Superintendent of Public Instruction. He subsequently published “Teaching Our Children to Read” (Corwin Press) and founded the Consortium on Reading Excellence ( CORE works throughout the nation helping schools, districts, and states implement best practices in reading and math. He is a Bay Area native, father of four, and grandfather of five.


  1. In California, BTSA Induction supports new teachers in their first two years of teaching and allows the teachers to earn a Clear teaching credential.  California’s  new teachers are retained at a much higher rate than is commonly reported in the media (see this).  The retention data presented in the linked CTC Statistic of the Month are from employment information submitted to the California Department of Education. 

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  2. Thank you for this article. It lays out very clearly what has been missing in national and state policy debates about school reform — the vital (and missing) component has always been instructional improvement. Over the past several years, I have watched professional development for California teachers become narrowly focused on implementing adopted textbooks and curricula without an attendant focus on increasing teacher knowledge and capacity for high quality instruction for the diverse learners in California classrooms. The publishers of textbooks and curricula are frequently those providing the “professional development.” California needs a vision of high quality teaching and standards for professional development that will help to advance that vision. An increasing number of randomized controlled trials, including my own studies, shows the contribution high quality professional development can make to improving the quality of instruction and thereby student engagement, learning, and achievement.

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  3. Honig’s piece is incredibly well thought out, and given the brevity needed for such a column, I know he would have wanted to pursue many of the topics he could only lightly touch upon in much greater depth (like the whole Standards v. Curricula concept — a point many policymakers don’t fully appreciate, as well as how our society respects and recruits the teaching profession, etc.).

    I do have one additional recommendation to his insightful piece, and that is the importance of engaging adolescents.  Most of Honig’s piece (rightly) focuses on elementary grades, and the importance of stressing a common curriculum at those grades cannot be over-emphasized (see E.D. Hirsch’s “The Making of Americans” treatise for a more detailed analysis of how a common curriculum is key to literacy skills and our body politic).   However, as children mature, the importance of engaging them on a personal level grows, and that is where a common, one-size-fits-all approach begins to break down. 

    A 1st grader wants to please Mrs. Smith, but by the time that student reaches middle and high school, Mr. Jones better be able to please that student with engaging coursework that is tied into that student’s future beyond formal education.  Career Technical Education/Vocational Education is one such means to that end that every middle and secondary student should be exposed to, in order to keep their formal education relevant to their life beyond the classroom.

    So while our primary grades need a robust, broad and, yes, common liberal arts curricula that all students receive, as those students mature, we need to provide them even broader curricular options and coursework that inspiringly connect their education with their aspirations.  The relevance of such CTE programs, along with the life-sustaining skills that can be imparted in such hands-on programs, is a crucial investment in the education of our youth that we cannot continue to ignore.  In 1987, three-quarters of pupils were able to enroll in Vocational Education programs at their high school campus; this year, less than 29% had access to such campus programs.  It’s time we turn this trend around, for the sake of our students (a third of which dropout of high school) and our state’s economy.

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  4. Thank you, Fred, for you kind comments. I agree with your point that high schools should be paying more attention to career preparation for the non-four year college student. At minimum each student should leave high school qualified to enter a two-year tech prep course of study. High schools with proper funding should be conferencing students and their families early about what  paths the students wishes to pursue and what it takes to meet these qualification. The schools should organize demanding programs around these paths. There are many examples of this in our state and organizations such as ConnectEd offer some important guidance in this area.

    Even these paths, however, demand the ability to read text closely, make logical arguments based on the text, write concisely, and have a deep undertanding and ability to apply in complex situations what we consider middle-grades math such as decimals, percentage, proportion, fractions, statistics, and understanding and using data. These math capabilities are in much higher demand by employers and college professors than some of the Algebra 2 and other courses driving our system. These topics should be given higher priority in high school curricula (sophisticated use of number is not a watered down alternative to those students who have trouble with higher math in high school but something all students should be mastering.) I plan to write something for this blog on the whole problem of middle grade and high school math soon.

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  5. Bill – A very well written and very important outline of the essential need to focus on content and instruction.— but——– how are we to pay for all of that?  Currently the average high school in America has 100% more teachers than the average high school in California.  The average school in america has 40% more site administrators and so on and so on.    The current fiscal debate is maximum fiscal flexibility compared to focused investments but both accept the current situation which has funding for California’s public schools $9 billion below the actual Proposition 98 guarantee.   To just direct $3,000 of high quality professional development to each teacher each year (about  5% of average salary) would require and additional  $900 million annually.   John

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  6. Wow. He’s back. And still doesn’t get it.  The US has the highest level of poverty of all the developed nations it is compared with, but that doesn’t register with Bill. Our middle class students out-perform nearly every country on earth. Finland has a 2% poverty rate. We are above 20%.
    Then there are resources.  Bill even published a study (1987) before he lost his office about the lack of school librarians in California. It’s worse now, because nothing was done. California has the lowest level of school and public library service in the nation. We would have to build 1000 new public library branches to be average.  The rest of the country has one credentialed librarian for every 800 students.  California has one credentialed librarian for every 800 TEACHERS. We would have to hire 8000 school librarians to be average.

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  7. Greetings All,

    I read somewhere that if instead of the Iraq war, we used that money spent  on education, we could have rebuilt every school in the U.S.  In addition to rethinking our educational system, let’s rethink our military spending. 
    We can maintain our defense very adequately (lessening our interest in oil) and building our education system as the same time.  We have seen that good schools in poverty stricken areas still can produce excellent students.  We need to sink money into schools at every social level.  Schools in well to do areas seem to do better because there are no money issues.  Do these wealthy and busy parents really help their kids that much more than their poorer counterparts?  I don’t think that is where the problem lies.  Get money into the system and, properly managed, the American educator will rise again to make America number one.

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  8. Bill: I am glad you accepted my Comments in the spirit in which they were offered. 

    On the subject that you raised about basic math skills that employers need (as opposed to the more theoritical, non-applied form that the UC values in their A-G criteria, including Alg I, Geometry, and Alg II/Trig), my Business Educators teach those foundational and applicable skills in their Business and IT-related courses, and they do it through industry-relevant, technology-rich instruction (all of which the UC BOARS biases against, since they do not value hands-on, career-oriented, technology-centered instruction).

    However, I believe that all students can benefit from these real-world programs, including those deciding to pursue a 4-year college directly out of high school.  The primary difference between modern CTE and Vocational Education of the past is that CTE pathways serve all students, including the 4-year college-bound.  Every child will eventually need a career, whereas not every worker/entrepreneur will need a 4-year degree.

    And while I am on the subject of our higher education institutions:  We need to reclaim high school curriculum from the Ivory Tower elites; their pathways only serve less than 10% of students, so why should their preferred coursework be mandated upon ALL high school students (often at the expense of CTE, due to instructional time limitations)?  Moreover, the CSU system should have its own secondary course review system, rather than deferring entirely to the UC BOARS, in recognition of the CSU’s polytechnic roots and mission.  But that’s a discussion about higher education reforms, and right now we have enough issues to deal with at the K-12 level.

    And in response to Mockler’s fiscal challenge, I simply state: It’s a matter of priorities within existing (and even dwindling) public/private resources already devoted to K-12 education.  Our priorities the past few decades have fixated on a narrow form of ELA/Math at the expense of other core academic and vocationally-related coursework, and on theoritical curriculum that the Dominant Culture considered the only gateway to success.  And, for good or ill, California’s K-12 system is simply led by what is required, funded and measured; so it’s time for policymakers, administrators, teachers, parents and students to reconsider what we value, and then rearrange these “drivers” accordingly. 

    I greatly appreciate your very thoughtful piece about K-12 reforms.  I hope these ideas help guide the new Administration in Sacramento, as well as the Obama Administration and Congress back East, in light of ESEA Reauthorization efforts.  We have to push-back against one-size-fits-all, narrowed curriculum in our secondary schools, while making sure that our elementary/middle schools are adequately preparing ALL kids with a rigorous and broad liberal arts foundation.

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  9. A point that does concern me is that teachers must be in the top third of their class. Some of the best teachers were not necessarily the best students. AND they have learned to bend over backwards making sure that their students understand the very concepts that they had a hard time mastering.
    Perhaps more applied learning and demonstrations in teacher preparation programs and in student teaching should be required.

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  10. Fund each child equally and let parents choose quality of education they want. Groundbreaking curricula and teaching environments will follow. Failing that, start by letting districts reward teachers for performance and outcomes instead of seniority.

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  11. Thanks to Bill for laying out so cogently the direction we should be going. I hope folks will take advantage of the link to The American Educator, a particularly good issue.

    Of course money is an overwhelming concern; California is dismantling its public schools. But too many of the meagre dollars that schools do receive are dependent on districts’ doing things that do not promote quality instruction or insightful learning. Can’t we at least set our sights on building an educational system such as that Bill describes, even if we have to build it piece by piece while we campaign for the revenues we need now and in the future? Let’s at least change the current evidence-free conversation.

    Also, of course, we need a new vigorous commitment to supportive communities for all our kids.

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  12. [ Schools in well to do areas seem to do better because there are no money issues.  Do these wealthy and busy parents really help their kids that much more than their poorer counterparts?  I don’t think that is where the problem lies. ]
    This is the question that deserves an answer.  If closing the “achievement gap” is as important as those in power proclaim, understand it.  Why would a spoiled rich kid who feels entitled to the good life, work hard in school?  We know that the impoverished child feels disrespected and will strive to succeed against all odds.  Do the performance scores of the rich and poor schools show this truism?  That is the basis of Mr. Honig’s tretis:  Schools fail the poor students.   Can the school really answer the fundamental question of what entitlement is in this child’s reality?  Affluent entitlement is based in personal responsibility.  The advantage is there, if you rise to meet it.  Poverty entitlement is based in a different domain. 

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  13. The suggestions proffered by Mr. Honig, as well as by many other learned educational experts, have significant merit and could go a long ways to improve this country’s educational systems, especially once implemented widely in preschools and primary schools.  However, for secondary schools, and even many primary schools, the suggestions focus too much on the teaching side of the equation and not the learning side.  They seem to assume that students show up ready, capable, and willing to learn, which is not the case in all too many school districts across our nation.  Hence, the suggested efforts, which become significant once a student is ready to learn, may not yield the desired results in schools that need help the most; those with low academic performance year after year.
    Mr. Honig’s post inspired my own at:

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