12/09/2009 10:14 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Picking California to Win The Race

California is poised to win up to $700 million in competitive federal grant funds to support our students' futures. With strong leadership in the Assembly we have the opportunity to ensure that we are providing children with effective teachers and can secure money to aid that effort.

When Secretary Duncan began his tour around the country to discuss the Race to the Top Fund, as part of President Obama's education agenda, he made a key speech in San Diego to the NEA. During that speech he noted that "our challenge is to make sure every child in America is learning from an effective teacher -- no matter what it takes."

California has the opportunity to meet this challenge head on.

Let's not underestimate the challenge. The achievement gap in Los Angeles is particularly pronounced. In 2008, while New York City 4th graders were reading on average at the 39th percentile against the national norm, Los Angeles 4th graders were reading sixteen points behind at the 23rd percentile. This leads to a high school graduation gap, and in a national study Los Angeles ranked 44th -- behind New York City, Houston, and Chicago -- with only 44% of its students graduating from high school. A 9th grader in Los Angeles is more likely to drop out or delay graduation than to graduate on time.

Yet, at the same time, some of the most important innovations in the country are happening right here in the state of California. The LAUSD School Board has signaled its commitment to reform by allowing school operators -- traditional and public charter -- to compete to operate 50 new schools and more than 200 schools that have been consistently failing for at least five years, as measured by API scores. This will ensure that great principals lead talented instructional teams that drive student performance and close achievement gaps.

Critical to this reform and other reform measures are two simple concepts, the first is that any real change for our students must be grounded in bringing an increasing number of talented and effective teachers into our classrooms and, second, we need an effective way to evaluate teachers in order to better support their instruction.

Based on our state's foresight to break down barriers for talented people to enter the classroom through alternative pathways California is well-positioned to create a competitive strategy to recruit more effective teachers and leaders. Because of the state's leadership in this regard, I am proud to work with an organization that over the course of almost 20 years has brought more than 1,200 teachers to teach in Los Angeles. These talented individuals have gone on to become leaders in our community, including six elected officials and 42 high performing school leaders. In the next five years, we will select, recruit, and train twice as many teachers as we brought to Los Angeles during the first two decades of our existence, seeding the leadership pipeline for the future.

Our ability to effectively evaluate teachers in order to support instruction is a place where our state needs to push ahead, for us to be competitive. This use of data will help support effective instruction throughout our state, and ensure that all students have the opportunity for success. Finally, we must empower parents, for as Mayor Villaraigosa notes, "Ask any teacher, and they will tell you that parents are one of the most important factors to success."

This is the type of change that our leadership in Sacramento has the ability to drive. We have an opportunity to make a statement about the future of the students in our state and our commitment to closing the achievement gap here in California. I believe we have strong leadership, and that is why I am bullish on California's ability to be competitive for Race to the Top.