By Phil Hill
The following is a rough transcript of Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg’s talk at the 20 Million Minds conference on January 7th. Any errors in transcription are mine, and sections that were garbled are marked by . I’d like to thank Rovy Branon for his recordings of these sessions. I’ll post additional transcripts soon.
Thank you, Dean. Senator Florez, once you’re a senator, you’re always a senator. And thank you for your nice introduction and for inviting me to give a brief welcome, and I know we have a busy agenda today. And I want to thank you and 20 Million Minds, not only for organizing this forum, but for directing me towards these issues that we’re talking about here today.
I’m not really a tech guy that much  – I think about traditional education, mental health, foster care … I balance budgets and that sort of thing. And this [online education] is a whole new world for me. But Senator Florez last year, after he left office, talked to me about this revolution and possibilities around using technology in ways that not only equal or enhance quality but also reduce the cost of higher education for struggling students and their families. And so after we did SB1052 and 1053, which are now being implemented after Governor Brown’s signature, with the help of the faculty associations across all three systems, that take the 50 most popular courses across the three systems, and develop instructional materials to an online or open source format. Offer them as a competitive alternative to the traditional textbook and ensure that that offering is free for the student online (and no more than $20 if they print it). Simple, but potentially revolutionary in terms of bringing down costs of instructional materials, where we know the cost of higher education is becoming prohibitive to too many people and so many families.
That’s just the beginning. I thought we were done, Dean, had done our part. Then over the follow-up course we started talking about this broader question of online education. And using this concept of MOOC, this massive open online courses, and to see what we can do to replicate some of what we did with instructional materials. And there are some obvious and traditional reasons why this is an important discussion.
It’s an important discussion because of what the state of California has done with regards to higher education budgets as a result of the recession over the last five years. And a consequence is the fact that fees have gone way up, is that it is difficult for young people to access all the courses they want. I have an 18 year old daughter who goes to community college in California, and I’m pretty well informed and I help her, and it’s a nightmare to try to get all the classes that she needs to be able to get her education. And my story is a little different. I’m a proud graduate of UCLA – love the Bruins – I couldn’t get in today with all the 4.5 GPA and advanced placement courses needed. A guy like me was [hard-working] but not a superstar, and it’s hard to go to UCLA or UC Berkeley. I don’t think I ever would have had the opportunity, as competitive as it is.
There are issues of how we increase access, how we potentially provide lecture courses to thousands more that we currently provide in a traditional classroom. That’s all relative and maybe obvious. Now there’s some red flags around this. We need to make sure these discussions are faculty-driven, that we are not diluting quality, and that there are reason people invest in the kind of experiences seen on a campus like UCLA. I know that strong-winded discussion is going to be had in one sense, and I also know that from reading all the newspapers – I saw two yesterday, in USA Today and New York Times – that no one really knows what the business model is going to be here with these new MOOCs and no one has figured out how to monetize it. And where is it going to be most appropriate, most applicable and most relevant.
I wanted to take two minutes and give you my thoughts about maybe what you’re thinking about or maybe nobody has thought about, in the broader sense. Because it’s one thing to talk about limited discussion to taking traditional undergraduate lecture courses and putting them online so more students can take that course – that’s an important issue, but let’s set that aside for the moment. Somebody said to me that future of education across the board – K-12 and higher education – is about taking education out of the classroom. Now what does that mean? I’m an author of SB1458 that the governor signed into law,  based on the work we did on textbooks. SB1458 limits standardized test scores to no more than 60% of your high school’s academic performance indicator. The other 40% have to be related to college and career readiness. Why does that matter?
Because too much high school curriculum is developed in a way that maximizes success on the tests – called ‘teaching to the tests’ – and we don’t have enough curriculum that high school level or the college level that is connected to career pathways. And we expect young people to do when they graduate high school and / or college.
If they graduate high school by the way – we have a huge drop-out rate, 30% for latinos and african americans should be unacceptable if we think of all the economic power and human potential that we are losing. What in this debate brings in a broader context is that we need an education system, beginning in high school, that focuses less on what goes on inside the classroom and more on what goes on at the workplace or in the community. What students who receive credit, not for traditional internships but for hands-on learning in an industry setting. The online concept, the MOOC if you will, what is the academic piece at the place of business. That something that what the student was learning in the industry.
I say this not because it’s a perfect or comprehensive proposal at this point, but I would urge that this discussion not be one that sets up this traditional fight, and also limits ourselves to just the expected questions. The question, in my view, isn’t how we replace UCLA or other fine institutions or how we supplant what is going on. The question is how we broaden the definition of public education, with all the academic rigor we currently have, but to bring in more career and workplace application. Take more of our educational experience outside of the classroom and then use the web and use the technology that we have supplementing real-life experiences for students.
That, in addition to dealing with the cost drivers with tradition higher education system, is what is most exciting for me. Because it’s well known that the technology is going to go forward with or without us or our working in this sort of conference. And the market and society and young people will see [technology advances] whether we want it or not. We have the opportunity to work together in a way that helps not only is public education, but fills that desperate void to make sure that what we are doing and what we are teaching is really about investing in our educational systems. What they do after they graduate and the need of our 21st century economy.
That’s the challenge, that’s the opportunity. I look forward to working with you and the legislature being involved, not telling you what to do, but listening and being your partner in yes, reducing costs, yes, increasing access, but also redefine in a positive way what public education means in the state of California. Thank you.
Update 1/13: Added image