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Education magic bullets are often blanks

FamilySchoolsCrimeCrime, Law and JusticeLos Angeles Unified School District

Those who wonder why California was excluded from the first round of federal Race to the Top grants would do well to examine their own commentary for clues. It is typical of editorials and other articles on this topic to speak in general terms -- to throw out noble-sounding phrases that, in the end, don't offer specifics. The Times' March 4 editorial, "Another setback for California schools," reflects this kind of commentary.

Take, for example, The Times' assertion that "district administrators, not union contracts," should determine teacher assignments in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Really? If you were a teacher, would you completely trust administrators to always make good assignment decisions? The same people who inspired the term "dance of the lemons" as incompetent (and sometimes criminal) administrators were transferred from one school to another by their downtown buddies? Would you want to be forced to an overcrowded school terrorized by crime and violence, hobbled by a lack of supplies and a crumbling infrastructure, in a neighborhood beset by a multitude of social ills, with only a district administrator to count on for support and security? Most administrators are talented, committed and fair, but too many are none of those things.

Even district administrators don't have full confidence in district administrators. Here's a passage from the administrators' union newsletter from January: "Lost in the shuffle is the apparent lack of appreciation by district leaders for the role of the men and women who run [schools] on a daily basis. In some cases, when central and local district administrators receive a complaint from a parent or community member, they challenge the principal to respond in writing, exhibiting a 'gotcha' attitude." And they have, like United Teachers Los Angeles, a no-reprisal clause in their contract -- in other words, no real punishments for people who don't follow the agreed-upon rules. Where are the specifics of such a policy would protect all employees from decisions based on politics, personalities or propaganda?

The same goes for questions on teacher evaluation and merit pay. It's easy to say we need better procedures for firing bad teachers as well as retaining and rewarding good ones. I agree. So show me a plan to do so -- a plan that, again, protects teachers from capricious decisions by district administrators. A plan that rewards teachers fairly and that encourages collaboration and teamwork. A plan that takes into account all that teachers have to deal with in order to foster student success. True student success, by the way, is more than just test scores, despite what the educational research eggheads (too many of whom have no teaching experience) would have you believe.

And then there's the "parent trigger" option, by which a majority of a school's parents can initiate change by signing a petition. On the surface, this sounds like a good idea. Anything that gets parents involved in their children's education has merit. But turning staffing over to what is bound to be a popularity contest has its drawbacks as well. Often, parents get mad when they hear things they don't want to hear. "You're picking on my kid!" when you mention there has been no homework for a while. "You're a racist!" when you suggest that perhaps repeated loud profanity (in any language) is not acceptable in the classroom. "You don't know how to motivate my child!" when the student in question rarely comes to school, does nothing when there and calls home go unreturned for months.

I wouldn't mind the "parent trigger" so much if my colleagues and I could have a "family trigger," by which a majority of a school's teachers could vote to restaff a kid's family when they don't support him or her in getting the free education offered by the state or, worse, abuse and neglect the child. Maybe we could transfer that kid to a family that does care. Add in the fact that the "parent trigger" is vulnerable to outside influences that may or may not have students' best interests at heart, and you have an idea that surely needs careful monitoring. Again, specifics on this idea are rarely offered.

These are challenging times for all of us in education, especially students. All of us serve education best when we address these challenges specifically, realistically and, most of all, honestly.

Joseph Staub is a writer and teacher living in Los Angeles.

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