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UTLA Blocks LAUSD’s Hopes for Race to the Top $$…The Advantages of NOT Locking Up Kids…AND Brain Surgery & the Storm (One Sandy Story)

October 31st, 2012 by Celeste Fremon


The Los Angeles Unified School District hoped to get $40 million in federal Race to the Top grant money with a 150-page grant application that envisioned a rigorous program designed to help 9th graders who didn’t have enough credits to move up to 10th grade, which has become a problem of depressing proportions at the district.

However the application required a sign-off from the LA’s teachers union.

And the UTLA higher ups declined to put their collective signatures on the dotted line. (The actual rank and file teachers were not consulted about their opinion in the matter.)

The deadline for the application’s submission was originally this week, but has now been extended because of the storm. (No one seems to know the date of the new deadline.)

UTLA Prez Warren Fletcher says his union’s objection to the grant ap is that the federal RTTT grant will leave the district holding the bag fiscally for some of the future costs of the program.

LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy says this objection is nonsense—or words to that effect.

Most observers figure the real reason is something having to do with the union’s aversion to teacher evaluations, although Fletcher says otherwise.

This is not the first time a teachers union has spiked California’s chances for Race bucks.

According to reform advocates, the primary reason that California missed out on Race to the Top. grants for two years running in the past was due to a similar lack of enthusiasm (which some have called pig-headed obstructiveness) on the part of the statewide union, the California Teachers Association.

Tammy Abdollah for KPCC and Howard Blume for the LA Times and Hillel Aron at the LA School Report all have more.

Here’s a clip from Abdollah’s story:

Citing long-term budget concerns, the union for schoolteachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District has refused to sign off on the district’s Race to the Top grant application, effectively taking the nation’s second-largest school district out of the running for $40 million in federal funds.

L.A. Unified Superintendent John Deasy, sounding deflated, said Tuesday morning that the district had tried to work with United Teachers Los Angeles and couldn’t understand why no deal was reached.

“They gave a number of different reasons and every single reason they gave we accommodated,” Deasy said.

Initial concerns about ongoing discussions to meet a Dec. 4 court-imposed deadline for a new teacher evaluation system were addressed by the district. The Race to the Top competition requires districts to adopt an evaluation system that incorporates student test scores. Deasy said L.A. Unified provided the union with a legal assurance that plans for Race to the Top would be treated separately from negotiations.

But UTLA President Warren Fletcher said “a big part of the problem” was the cost.

L.A. Unified’s 150-page application proposes a $43.3 million budget for reforms that would require $3.3 million in funds outside of the $40 million government award. Deasy said union officials were informed that the additional money would have been granted through philanthropy.

But Fletcher said it wasn’t just about the money for the grant right now that was the problem.

“When you sign on to a Race to the Top grant, you make commitments that go on long beyond the four-year period of the grant itself,” Fletcher said.



In a multi-part series, the Philadelphia Enquirer tells about a new report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation that shows, among other things, how New Jersey found that, except for the most serious cases, kids who ran afoul of the law were less likely to reoffend if they were given some kind of alternative sanction that did not involve lock-up.

Here’s their report that ran Wednesday:

For years, New Jersey sent juveniles awaiting trial to county detention centers, locking them up even for minor crimes. But a new report on juvenile justice reform shows that there is another, more effective, alternative that saves taxpayer money and protects society.
The number of juveniles jailed across New Jersey has declined by more than half since the state started a program eight years ago to divert them to other options, according to the Kids Count Special Report.

Funded by a $200,000 grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the program has been implemented in 16 counties. Similar programs have been adopted in other states. The results in New Jersey are staggering. Last year, there were 4,093 juveniles admitted to county detention centers, compared with 10,191 before the program began in 2004.

For young defendants not considered a threat to public safety, the program changed the misguided focus of solely locking them up to allowing alternatives, such as electronic monitoring and home visits. They also receive job training, counseling, and other services more in line with the intent of juvenile justice – giving youths a second chance.

Providing compelling evidence that some youths are good candidates for rehabilitation, the report found that only 3 percent of participants committed another crime while in the program.

According to the report released by Advocates for Children of New Jersey, youths detained are more likely to commit another crime, more likely to have trouble in school, and more likely to have difficulty finding a job.

In a continuation of a disturbing trend, minority youths still make up the majority of those being locked up – about 89 percent. But that mirrors national statistics that must be addressed.

With fewer juveniles held in lockup facilities, some counties, including Gloucester, were able to close their detention centers. Across the state, $16 million a year has been saved as a result.

New Jersey’s laudable efforts should be replicated elsewhere to help prevent so many of today’s youthful offenders from becoming tomorrow’s adult criminals.

Here’s one of the earlier parts to the story.


It is just one of the many stories that will continue to unfurl from this still ongoing catastrophe, but the snapshot of fear, coping and caring by the New Yorker’s David Remnick is worth reading. Here’s how it opens;

Virginia Rossano is seventeen years old and has been suffering from epileptic seizures since she was six. She and her family live north of Boston. After consulting with Orrin Devinsky, a renowned neurologist and epilepsy specialist at the N.Y.U. Langone Medical Center, the Rossanos decided to pursue a surgical course for their daughter. Virginia and her mother, Cathy, came to N.Y.U. last week, and on Thursday Virginia underwent a craniotomy. Surgeons removed skull tissue and connected electrodes to the brain to monitor her brain functions. The next step was to wean Virginia from her medications and induce a seizure. Doctors could then locate the source of the seizures and remove the offending tissue. “Dr. Devinsky said that surgery could be a home run for us,” Cathy Rossano told me.

Then came Hurricane Sandy.

Virginia’s first surgery was a success. While she and her mother waited, word came that the ominous storm approaching New York would be powerful beyond prediction. Doctors and nurses started discharging patients from the Langone Medical Center, in the East Thirties, near the East River. Hundreds of patients were sent home or to other facilities. But many of the sickest and most fragile patients—some of them infants—stayed in the hospital. What no one had counted on was that when the power failed all over downtown Manhattan on Monday night, so, too, did the hospital’s backup generator. Now everyone would have to be evacuated, and in terrifying conditions.

“It was incredibly frightening for the patients,” said Alyson Silverberg, a nurse practitioner at N.Y.U. “There were babies that had to be evacuated down nine flights. We had to do their breathing manually for some of them.” One of the patients that was evacuated was Kenneth Langone, the chairman of the hospital, who is suffering from pneumonia. Langone gave N.Y.U. Langone Medical Center two hundred million dollars in 2008….

Read on.

Posted in Education, LAUSD, Life in general, unions, UTLA | No Comments »

Hot New School Reform Book Blames Unions Solely & Misses Mark

August 22nd, 2011 by Celeste Fremon

Like many who are sickened by low graduation rates and sub-basement test scores,
I have been outraged at the way the teachers’ unions–both LA’s and the statewide union (and those in a lot of other states)—have been unforgivably obstructive when it comes to school reform.

Thus I was excited when I saw that Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools by Steven Brill, was featured on the cover of the NY York Times Book Review, knowing that it would bring a lot of buyers to what promised to be an important book on the utterly essential topic of what is standing in the way of fixing the nation’s schools.

But it was with a sinking heart that I finished the review by smart cookie writer Sara Mosle, who was also clearly excited by Brill’s book—until she read it.

Mosle’s disappointment is obvious as she points out Brill’s unwillingness to include pesky facts and inconvenient complexities that don’t support his one-villain thesis.

Here’s how the review opens:

Steven Brill is a graduate of Yale Law School and the founder of Court TV, and in his new book, “Class Warfare,” he brings a sharp legal mind to the world of education reform. Like a dogged prosecutor, he mounts a zealous case against America’s teachers’ unions. From more than 200 interviews, he collects the testimony of idealistic educators, charter school founders, policy gurus, crusading school superintendents and billionaire philanthropists. Through their vivid vignettes, which he pieces together in short chapters with titles like “ ‘Colorado Says Half of You Won’t Graduate’ ” and “A Shriek on Park Avenue,” Brill conveys the epiphanies, setbacks and triumphs of a national reform movement.

Some of his subjects, like Wendy Kopp of Teach for America, are by now household names; others, like Jon Schnur, an adviser to the Clinton and Obama administrations, are more obscure. But in Brill’s telling, they have all come, over some two decades, to distrust or denounce the unions and to promote the same small set of reforms: increasing the number of charter schools and evaluating and improving teacher quality through merit pay and other measures that rely heavily on student test scores.

Throughout, Brill reminds us he’s just an objective reporter. Disinterested, however, is not how he comes across. He recounts an educator’s motto to “teach like your hair’s on fire.” For most of the book, Brill writes like his hair is on fire. His sympathies clearly lie with the unions’ most adamant critics, like Michelle Rhee, the controversial former superintendent of the District of Columbia public schools, and Joel Klein, the combative ex-chancellor of the New York City system.

I say this as someone whom Brill might pick for a jury pool. I taught for three years in New York as a charter member of Teach for America and had my own run-ins with the union. (An article I wrote, which praised Kopp’s then-­fledgling organization and made some of the same criticisms Brill does, angered my union representative.) This fall, my daughter will be attending public school, and I’ll be teaching at a private, reform-­minded urban academy in New Jersey…..

For those who are interested in school reform there is no question that Class Warfare is a must read. However, judging by what Mosle has written—which seems to ring sadly true—reading it may make many of us wish that Brill’s book was a better, less choir-preaching read.

Posted in Education, unions, UTLA | No Comments »

Strip Searches, 3-Strikes, Controversial Gates Foundation Report & More

June 7th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon


The Christian Science Monitor has the story.

Here are some clips:

The US Supreme Court declined on Monday to examine a federal appeals court ruling that the strip search of a male detainee by a female guard in an Arizona jail was an unreasonable search in violation of the Fourth Amendment.


At issue was a 2004 search of Charles Byrd, a pretrial detainee, at a minimum security jail in Phoenix.

Mr. Byrd was one of 90 detainees ordered to submit to a unit-wide search for contraband and weapons. Byrd was told to remove his clothing except his boxer shorts, which were described as pink and comprised of very thin, revealing material. The searches took place four to six at a time. Some were conducted by cadets from the detention officer training academy. Present during the searches were an estimated 25 cadets, a number of training supervisors, and 10 to 15 uniformed guards. The procedure was also videotaped.

Byrd said in his lawsuit that he should not be subject to such an intrusive search by a female guard. He also charged that the female guard – later identified as Cadet Kathleen O’Connell – squeezed his genitals and kneaded his buttocks during the search.

CNN further reports that, in January, the 9th Circuit used “tough language” to describe the actions of Maricopa correctional officers.

“The indignity of the non-emergency strip search conducted by an unidentified female cadet was compounded by the fact that there were onlookers, at least one of whom videotaped the humiliating event,” wrote the en banc panel of 11 judges. “For these reasons, we conclude that the cross-gender strip search, as conducted in this case, was unreasonable.”

On Monday the Supreme took a pass on the issue of whether California could offer tuition discounts to in state students, regardless of their immigration status. They let stand the lower court’s ruling (favoring the discounts).


Howard Blume at the LA Times has the story:

School principals should be able to hire any teacher of their choosing, and displaced tenured teachers who aren’t rehired elsewhere within the system should be permanently dismissed, according to a controversial new report on the Los Angeles Unified School District. The report will be presented Tuesday to the Board of Education.

The research, paid for largely by funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, offers a roadmap for improving the quality of teaching in the nation’s second-largest school system, with recommendations strongly backed by L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

Read the rest.


After last week’s musings by James Q. Wilson (among others), now we have James Alan Fox of the Boston Globe explores the popular claims among certain academics that that legalized abortion may be one of the biggest causes. However, Fox looks more deeply into the numbers of the abortion claim and, in doing so, pretty much demolishes the argument. To wit:

A spirited debate among economists was ignited a decade ago when John Donohue of Yale and Steven Levitt of the University of Chicago concluded that legalized abortion had produced a drop in crime. These prominent scholars argued that following the 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, thousands of unwanted fetuses were aborted instead of being born into less-than-ideal environments, thereby producing two decades later a reduction in the pool of at-risk, violence-prone individuals.

In a 2001 paper published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, Donohue and Levitt developed a complex set of statistical models to reach this bold claim.


Despite persuasive logic regarding a reduction in the number of children born to circumstances that would place them at-risk for growing into criminality, the significance of this effect appears to have been grossly overstated. For example, nearly 60% of the decline in murder since 1990 involved perpetrators ages 25 and older—individuals who would have been born prior to the landmark abortion decision. As shown in the figure below, there were substantial reductions during the 1990s in homicides committed by older age groups, especially those in the 25-34 year-old age range.


At least not to any measurable degree says Robert Parker of UC Riverside, who calls Three Strikes “a failure.”

Dan Walters of the Sacramento Bee has the story:

Citing “logic, data and research,” Parker contends that “all these uniformly show little or no impact of three strikes policy on violent crime rates in California and elsewhere.”

He compared historic crime patterns in California and other states with similar laws to those without such laws and found they “show little difference in … pattern of violent crime.”

Parker cites other studies that attribute crime rate declines to economic and social factors, such as alcohol consumption, rather than policing and sentencing policies and suggests it’s “better to use alcohol policy to control violence than three strikes.”

Were California to change its approach to crime and comply with the federal court order to reduce the prison population, he notes, it could save $2.3 billion a year in prison costs.

“California needs to stop gorging itself at the all-you-can-eat buffet of imprisonment,” says Parker.

Posted in Civil Liberties, Education, How Appealing, Must Reads, prison policy, Sentencing, Supreme Court, UTLA | 3 Comments »

LAUSD’s Broken System Pink Slips Another Gifted Teacher

April 4th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon

In the past month, the story has become crushingly familiar.
Pink slips arrive at LAUSD schools warning that more teachers are likely about to be laid off due to budget cuts.

To make matters worse, some of those teachers on the prospective layoff list are among the most talented and best liked instructors on campus. However, because they do not have seniority, the ax comes down as if wielded by a blind and clumsy executioner who whimsically grabs for beheading whomever is the nearest to hand.

In what other profession does talent and achievement have exactly zero bearing on job retention?

At Hamilton High’s well-regarded performing arts and humanities magnet schools, a couple of the campus’s most gifted teachers were on the pink slip list, as were the magnet schools’ two directors.

Similar stories surfaced all over the district.

In Sunday’s LA Times, education reporter Jason Felch writes about a a new and egregious instance of how the seniority system has dictated that yet another gifted teacher be placed in the path of the district’s job shredder.

The teacher in question, Miguel Aguilar, had rated well into the “most affective” range in the Times’ value added teacher rankings.***

In addition, students in Aguilar’s class seemed to thrive noticeably in ways beyond merely the test scores—so much so that other teachers wanted to know what Aguilar was doing right.

In short, Felch’s story of a great teacher whom the union hog-tied LAUSD system fails to value, demonstrates yet again why some kind of merit-based assessment must be put into place.

Here are a couple of representative clips:

In February, fifth-grade teacher Miguel Aguilar stood in the front of a class, nervous and sweating.

The subject — reading and comprehension — was nothing new. But on this day, his students weren’t 11-year-olds in sneakers and sweatshirts: They were 30 of his fellow teachers.

It was the first time anyone at Broadous Elementary School in Pacoima could remember a teacher there being singled out for his skill and called upon to share his secrets school-wide.

“A teacher coming forward … that hadn’t happened before,” said Janelle Sawelenko, another fifth-grade teacher.

Months before, Aguilar had been featured in a Times article as one of the most effective teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District at raising student scores on standardized tests. Many of his students, the article noted, had vaulted from the bottom 30% in the district to well above average.


When the article appeared — followed soon after by a database ranking about 6,000 Los Angeles elementary school teachers — it ignited debate nationwide. Educators, teachers unions and experts warned that publicly rating teachers would pit one against the other.

Seven months later, Broadous teachers and the principal say the opposite has occurred. They’ve noticed a new openness to talking about what works, an urgent desire to improve. “It’s encouraged them to collaborate,” said Eidy Hemmati, the school’s intervention coordinator.

Indeed, Broadous teachers — including Smith — have repeatedly sought out Aguilar’s help this school year, despite the potential for hard feelings.

The new experiment, however, may be short-lived.

After a particularly long day of teaching several weeks ago, Aguilar found a pink slip in his mailbox. He was one of about 5,000 district teachers notified that they might lose their jobs this summer, depending on the troubled budget.

Smith didn’t get a pink slip. In California and most other states, seniority, not performance, is the sole consideration when layoffs come.

Smith has been with the district 15 years, Aguilar eight.


On visits to [Aguilar's] classroom, Principal Stannis Steinbeck quickly concluded that Aguilar was not simply “teaching to the test” — a concern among critics of the value-added approach. He had an uncanny ability to connect with his students while commanding their respect.

When she learned later that Aguilar had devised his own method for teaching reading and comprehension, she asked for a demonstration. Steinbeck was impressed: Aguilar forced students to slow down and think before answering questions. Without dumbing down lessons, he broke down key concepts in a way that his fifth-graders, among the grade’s least fluent in English, could readily understand.

Steinbeck asked Aguilar if he’d be willing to lead a school-wide training session. Aguilar said her request “blew my mind.”

The demonstration to a classroom full of teachers in February was well received. So he went grade by grade giving sample lessons as the teachers looked on. Within six weeks, third-grade proficiency in reading and comprehension rose from 20% to 30%, Steinbeck said.

Read the rest.

** NOTE: At this moment, I am avoiding a discussion of the pros and cons of the Times’ decision to publish the rankings or of the methodology used to create the rankings. That controversy can be revisited another day.)



This NY Time editorial has the details.


Natasha Vargas-Cooper, who also happens to be my pal Marc Cooper‘s extremely smart daughter, has written a fascinating and perceptive Op-Ed for Sunday’s NY Times about the part women specifically have played in the labor battles in Wisconsin and elsewhere, yet weirdly the gender angle has gone all but unnoticed.

Go Natasha!

Photo by Michael Robinson Chavez for the Los Angeles Times

Posted in Education, Los Angeles Times, UTLA | 2 Comments »

The LA Times, the U of Colorado & the Ongoing Teacher Ranking Wars

February 8th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon

On Tuesday morning a study was released by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder, that is highly critical
of the controversial LA Times’ system of teacher evaluations that was published last summer.

The new report, released by U of Colorado researchers, Derek Briggs and Ben Domingue, found that “the research on which the Los Angeles Times relied for its teacher effectiveness reporting was demonstrably inadequate to support the published rankings.

Harsh words.

After the LA Times folks got an early look at Briggs and Domingue’s study, they rushed out a story of their own regarding the study’s findings.

The headline on Monday’s LAT story read as follows:

Separate study confirms many Los Angeles Times findings on teacher effectiveness

Huh? “Confirms?”

In the sub hed, the Times admitted that the Colorado study raised “…some questions about the precision of ratings as reported in The Times,” but most of the story suggested that the new research was more validating than it was critical.

Okay, well,….now compare those characterizations with the title of the press release for the U of Colorado study:

Research Study Shows L. A. Times Teacher Ratings Are Neither Reliable Nor Valid

Then the press release really revs up:

Based on the results of the Briggs and Domingue research, NEPC director Kevin Welner said, “This study makes it clear that the L.A. Times and its research team have done a disservice to the teachers, students, and parents of Los Angeles. The Times owes its community a better accounting for its decision to publish the names and rankings of individual teachers when it knew or should have known that those rankings were based on a questionable analysis. In any case, the Times now owes its community an acknowledgment of the tremendous weakness of the results reported and an apology for the damage its reporting has done.”

In short, the Colorado study does more than “raises some questions.” It’s an outright frontal attack.


As you will remember this past August the LA Times ranked 6,000 LA Unified School District elementary school teachers into categories ranging from “most effective” to “least effective.” The rankings were based, in the simplest terms, on whether or not the teachers’ students improved, stayed the same, or got worse in their performance on standardized math and English tests. (It’s a little more complicated, but that’s the basic principle.) This criteria for evaluation has come to be known as “value added.”

The Times published the rankings in a searchable database that made public the ranking of the 6000 teachers. This caused the LA teachers’ union, UTLA, to go utterly ballistic. Union prez A.J. Duffy urged his members to cancel their subscriptions to the LA Times. Rallies were held and so on.

Yet, the series of articles, written and reported primarily by Times reporters Jason Song and Jason Felch, jump-started a long-overdue local and national conversation on the subject of merit-based teacher evaluations in a way that nothing else had.

Not surprisingly, the series began winning awards.

In their study, Briggs AND Domingue say that when they attempted to reproduce the Times’ findings, (while also controlling for additional variables that the Times’ researcher did not employ), they got very different results:

For example, when they looked at how the teachers did with reading test outcomes, their findings included the following:

• More than half (53.6%) of the teachers had a different effectiveness rating under the alternative model.

• Among those who changed effectiveness ratings, some moved only moderately, but 8.1% of those teachers identified as “more” or “most” effective under the alternative model are identified as “less” or “least” effective in the L.A. Times model, and 12.6% of those identified as relatively ineffective under the alternative model are identified as effective by the L.A. Times model….

It goes on from there.

The dueling studies first caught my attention when happened to hear U of Colo. researcher Derek Briggs on a segment of the same Monday Patt Morrison show that I had just been on. [See post below.]

Briggs was joined on the segment by the Times’ editor on the teacher evaluations project, David Lauter. For the first half of the segment, Briggs roundly criticized the Times’ findings and methodology. Then, in the following half, Lauter cheerily ignored and/or spun everything that Briggs had to say.

I found the exchange to be very disconnected and perplexing.

You can (listen for yourself here.)

I turns out I was not alone. Education writer Emily Alpert of the Voice of San Diego was similarly flummoxed by the discrepancy between the new study—and the Times take on the new study.

Then late Monday night the National Education Policy Center plus researchers Briggs and Domingue, issued their own unhappy rebuttal to the Times’ article. It began:

Yesterday, on Monday February 7, 2011, the Times published a story about this new study. That story included false statements and was generally misleading….

A point-by-point fact sheet followed.

Look: I have no idea whether or not Briggs and Domingue have a more accurate model for teacher evaluation than the Times does. Or if the truth is somewhere in between.

I do know, however, that if we are continue the important conversation
that the Times’ series started, we need to make sure that conversation is fact based.

Monday, it wasn’t.

PS: According to the U of Colorado, their study was embargoed until Tuesday morning, a stricture that the LA Times merrily ignored.

PPS: Both Jason Felch and Jason Song are very good journalists whose work I respect and admire. Thus I can’t help but wonder if this urge to spin the contents of the Colorado study came from above their pay grade.

Posted in Education, LAUSD, Los Angeles Times, UTLA | 10 Comments »