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Bad Behavior

April 23rd, 2007 by Celeste Fremon


Anyone who’s been paying attention
doesn’t need a 115-page report to tell them that a number of things are going fundamentally wrong at the Los Angeles Unified School District. All you need do is hang around some of the district’s troubled high schools for a few months, while, say, simultaneously attending a few months worth of school board meetings. I promise you, the feelings of dismay kick in pretty early on.

Still and all, it’s important to give credit to new LAUSD Superintendent, David Brewer, for ordering up a study by a neutral consulting firm, Evergreen Solutions, to find out once and for all what was working in the district and what wasn’t.

When the 115-page report finally came back last week, it was utterly withering
in its criticism
of the district. Or as the Daily News put it: LAUSD REPORT CARD: ALL F’S.”

Here are some of the report’s pithier F-Grade observations:

1. A lot of good recommendations have been made to the district, year after year, in study after expensive study, and around zero of them have ever been successfully implemented.

2. Despite the obstacles, there are a number of schools and programs within the district that are getting good results, however there has been virtually zip effort to examine and replicate them.

“…principals of schools that had made exceptional progress in raising student achievement reported to the board and identified five strategies they believed had contributed to their success,” said the report. “When asked what had been done in the district as a result of that report, the answer was ‘nothing.’”

3. There’s “no sense of urgency” in responding to the districts most pressing problems, and “no accountability” when directives aren’t followed.

The report goes on from there, very little of it complementary.

Plus, in addition to its criticisms, it also makes some smart suggestions —like a number of practical yet innovative strategies for drawing parents into closer involvement with their kids’ educations.

“Since the early 1970s,” says the report, “high levels of parental involvement have
been identified as one of a few common characteristics of high performing schools
regardless of student socioeconomic level, educational level, personal school experiences, or ethnicity.”

In other words, stop blaming the parents when the students don’t do well. The report talks about ways to get past parents’ “barriers to engagement,”—adding that such approaches are “associated with rises in student achievement.” .

(You can read it for yourself here.)

Again, most of it’s nothing that district critics haven’t been shrieking about for years, but it’s weirdly refreshing to see it on paper.

Moreover, the fact that Brewer has gone out of his way to make the report very public suggests that he has the intention of doing something other than using it as another $350,000 paper weight—a heartening change from the defensive, leave-us-alone, we’re-making-progress stance we’ve seen for far too long.

Brewer has promised to “overhaul” the district, which is exactly what is needed. No more ineffective tinkering at the edges.

Whether he has the diplomatic chops and the personal force of will to persuade/cajole/threaten the board and the union to his way of thinking remains to be seen.

Posted in Education, LAUSD | 12 Comments »

12 Responses

  1. Woody Says:

    The war against education in L.A. has been lost. We need to pull the teachers and principals out of there and redeploy them to new districts.

  2. richard locicero Says:

    Droll Woody, Very Droll

  3. listener_on_the_sidelines Says:

    As wacky as Woody can get, he could be on to something. All bureaucratic groups establish a culture. Witness the current group in DC. And, changing a culture isn’t easy when it’s been entrenched from either the top down, or the bottom up. It’s my belief that our institutional structures are very human constructions. Blow up the public schools, burn the rubble, plow it under, salt the earth, and they would resurrect themselves pretty much like they are. It seems to be hard-wired for humans to organize themselves this way. But what can be done is to make a hash out of the culture personnel who inhabit the structures can construct.

    My fantasy would be to staff the schools on a random draw. All the district’s certified science teachers for 9-12 in a pool. Randomly draw the science teachers for any given school from this pool. The assignment is for three years. During year two, randomly assign all the history teachers. Year three, the math teachers. And, so on. So that every year, there would be a rotation of personnel among at least one of the core subjects, in every school in the district. For good or for ill, no one gets really comfortable, alliances are fluid, it gets hard to establish a culture of “did it this way last year,” and every kid gets an equal shot at a good/mediocre/poor teacher. The teachers get an equal shot at the preferred schools/preferred kids. And, a school doesn’t get to trench in and blame either the teachers, or the kids.

  4. Mavis Beacon Says:

    Listener, I have a hard time believing that regular breaks in continuity would be good for students. Lots of kids really benefit from seeing the same faces year in and year out. Besides, this seems like yet another plan that happens to have the side effect of making the job of teacher less appealing (who wants to relocate across the 470 square miles of Los Angeles every few years?) – the exact opposite of what we need to do. Changing workplace culture can often take a generation. Right now, we’re not even on that pace.

    Celeste, I’m glad you’re cautiously optomistic about Brewer. I don’t think anyone can change the LA school system until the public gets serious about it. That means a mandate to really shake things up and some finances to make it happen. That said, any improvements are welcome.

  5. listener_on_the_sidelines Says:

    Mavis, I speculate – as often folks do – one what would be the one thing that could be changed that would shake up an entrenched system. If you didn’t want to tinker at the edges with little mandates folks can essentially ignore in practice, but really wanted to make a system sit up and take notice. Obviously, the 470 square miles of the LA district makes my fantasy a mere thought experiment. But I’ve actually seen something like it done before. When folks are forced to stop taking some things for granted, when they are forced out of their comfort zone, stuff changes. Many argue that bureaucratic systems supported with government funds are corrupt. They might be right, but in my experience complacency precedes any corruption.

  6. Celeste Fremon Says:

    Mavis, I’m cautiously optimistic about Brewer as a person. I think he pretty much gets it. But sup’t is a politically weak position, and the district is, as Listener says, only questionably fixable in its present state. So, how much he can actually accomplish is open to question.

    I mean if fixing the LAPD was likened to turning a super tanker, what analogy can we apply to the monster-sized mess that is LAUSD?

  7. Mavis Beacon Says:

    By the way, there’s a decent chance my girlfriend will get to meet Brewer on Thursday. Anybody got a question they want her to ask? I make no promises, but I’ll forward her any questions.

  8. professor x Says:

    I worked at one of the district’s lowest-performing schools for a few years. One year, we adopted a school reform program. It wasn’t perfect, and I’ll admit that I’m not a huge fan of canned solutions for complex problems. That year, though, our API shot up higher than any other high school in the district. The next year? The district pulled the plug on the program. I couldn’t take any reform initiatives very seriously after that.

  9. ms.feff Says:

    Celeste- Met you this past weekend at the UCLA Book Festival. I am glad I stopped by the website!

    I read this LA Times article and jumped around the kitchen. I have been teaching for 2 years, with 1 year at one of the lowest performing high schools in the district. My first year of teaching was spent in a much smaller, but similarly troubled district in another urban area. The main difference between the two? Urgency.

    I have a really hard time understanding the lack of urgency among my co-workers and “leaders.” If what we are doing is NOT WORKING, why do we keep doing it? Can anyone argue that our current schools are working? Sweet baby Jesus. Each day I come home worried about my seniors graduating without knowing how to read and write much better than a sixth grader. Is anyone else worried?

    There are tons of parasites in this system. How do we shake them off and infuse a heated sense of urgency?

  10. Celeste Fremon Says:

    Hi Ms. Fife. Thanks for coming by and commenting. It’s terrific to have a teacher’s voice. (We have a couple of educators who comment here on occasion…and they—and you— bring a perspective that I find quite essential.)

    I don’t understand the lack of urgency either. It drives me plum crazy.

    Later this week, I’m going to post some prescriptive stuff re: the LA public schools, some of it inspired by Saturday’s book fair panel. I hope you’ll add your comments when I do.

  11. alex Says:

    I have taught at a title I school for 8 years in LAUSD. Then I was drafted to be a math coach in LAUSD. I can understand why nobody wants this position because you become the messenger of the administrator’s message. LAUSD is so large that there is a middle management that insulates the directors and higher administrators and board from being aware of what is actually working in the schools. This insulation causes the higher management (including the teachers’ union) to make decisions based on political motivation. In the lower levels (teachers and middle management), I believe, that their complancency stems from the need to get through the day until you can retire because whatever you do in time a new mandate will require you to change even a successful effort. Since change is LAUSD middle name teachers and middle management don’t want to get attached to any one program and even good programs aren’t given the chance they deserve. To excel as a teacher you have to be able to give administrators the documentation that you are implementing the latest program (that you may or may not have been trained in since the trainings require time outside the classroom) and in reality teaching a program that you know works for students. While administrators and the union are playing all these games the losers are the students which causes the frontline witnesses (teachers) to lose heart.

  12. Celeste Fremon Says:

    Alex, excellent and insightful post. Thank you. You’ve put into words what I’ve observed anecdotally from the outside.

    Please keep coming back. And don’t hesitate to comment on issues outside of education.

    (You too, Ms. Feff!)

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