For public schools, one reform matters above all else

In her Aug. 11 Op-Ed article, "Charter and private schools might not make the grade either,” Diane Ravitch argues persuasively that a Los Angeles Board of Education proposal to extend choice will not work because charter schools and private management of schools have not yielded a robust net gain in student achievement. Instead, Ravitch suggests strategies the Los Angeles Unified School District could use to promote improvement.

Every one of Ravitch's proposed solutions possesses huge symbolic stock in L.A. Unified. Well-rounded curriculum? Absolutely! All students are expected to pursue a college-prep curriculum. Fair and firm disciplinary policy? It's a constant pursuit; discipline policy is periodically tweaked, with a relatively new policy being rolled out now. Well-maintained school buildings? Yes. For this we must acknowledge the largesse of Los Angeles voters who have regularly approved billions of dollars in bonds for maintaining existing schools and building many new ones.

Three of the Ravitch's ideas relate to teachers.

Well-educated teachers: Because L.A. Unified enrollment has been declining over the last several years, the district's demand for teachers has fallen; with few exceptions (such as math and special education) the district is now able to limit its hiring to fully credentialed teachers.

Principals as head teachers who can evaluate and assist their teachers: Virtually all principals would make the claim that they are instructional leaders. Indeed, it is difficult to become a principal in L.A. Unified without years of rich experience coordinating a school's academic program. However, the operational meaning of the term "instructional leader" is elusive.

Reasonable class sizes: The teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, says class sizes are too high. Indeed, common sense suggests that every teacher would prefer a smaller class. But more than a decade ago, when the state made it possible for districts to reduce all classes in kindergarten through third grade from an average of 30 to 20 students, L.A. Unified suffered. Why? Because the initiative precipitated a reduction in overall teacher quality that haunts the district to this day.

L.A. Unified argues, as other districts do, that it has made improvements in all these areas and will continue to do so. Yet, though the district has shown modest net growth in student achievement under California's school accountability regimen, current outcomes suggest that hundreds of thousands of L.A. Unified students are at risk of not being equipped to compete effectively in the emerging global workplace.

Given that teachers are the chief intermediaries for educating children, we ought to try much harder to identify the connection between what teachers do and how well students perform academically on California's standards. Indeed, this is the key area where traditional models of public education fall egregiously short.

From the experiences of states and districts where this link has been examined, we know that teachers are not widgets or light bulbs that are equally fluorescent. Common sense suggests that we use this understanding, for example, to guide teachers' ongoing development and evaluation and as a basis for deciding which teachers should be groomed to become head teachers (principals). That teachers differ in their effectiveness is as American as baseball -- every player need not bat .300 or throw a 100 mph fastball to be valued. However, a player's value must come through his demonstrably helping his team win the game.

Many teachers strongly resist the idea of quantifying the link between what they do and their students' outcomes. Yet, absent such measurement, our understanding of how to get the job done remains obfuscated. President Obama's "Race to the Top" fund and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's dig for effective strategies for improving teacher quality are designed to help remove this educational cataract. They're on to something, for until we lose our fear of seeing the specific connection between teachers and the performance of their pupils, public school districts will not be able to substantively advance student achievement.

Randy Ross was director of educational policy for L.A. Unified's Board of Education from 2005-09. He may be reached at