Faced with grim statistics showing pervasive low achievement, the Los Angeles Board of Education today will consider approving an ambitious 10-year, $431-million plan aimed at reversing years of academic failure, particularly among poor, minority students.
The plan incorporates many far-reaching ideas that big and small school districts throughout the country increasingly are turning to as possible solutions to chronically poor test scores and high dropout rates. Chief among its elements are programs emphasizing smaller classes and strong early education, as well as ways to restructure school management that shift more authority to individual schools and to teachers.
It is certain to spark debate among board members, who disagree on many of the specifics in the plan, particularly over proposals to empower teachers and to create new administrative positions. With the board in the midst of deliberations over $90 million in budget cuts that district officials say are necessary in order to pay higher teacher salaries, the steep price of the plan is likely to prompt concern as well.
The plan also has stirred mixed reactions among community leaders who say the report insufficiently addresses the specific needs of black, Latino and Asian youngsters.
Outlined in a 179-page document called “The Children Can No Longer Wait,” the plan acknowledges that “institutional racism” has prevented minority youngsters from receiving the same quality of education as Anglo students.
District statistics show that 56% of elementary school pupils scored at or below the 40th percentile on the Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills, a nationally standardized test of reading, writing and mathematics. That means that 60% of elementary students nationally scored better than most Los Angeles district pupils.
But among students at the district’s predominantly black or Latino schools, the percentage scoring at or below the 40th percentile rises to 90%.
“Evidence indicates that practices abound where (minority students) are placed in less rigorous academic programs, are taught below their critical-thinking level and are held to standards and expectations far below their potential,” the report states. “These instances of institutional racism . . . undermine the achievement of whole groups” of students.
The Los Angeles school district, the nation’s second-largest, has 595,000 students, 59% of whom are Latino. Blacks represent 16.7%, Anglos 15.8%, Asians 5.9%, Filipinos 1.9%, Pacific Islanders 0.5% and American Indians 0.2%.
The product of a year’s work by a core group of teachers and administrators, the plan was requested by Supt. Leonard Britton, who has said ending low achievement is his top priority. It makes 38 recommendations, many of which would be expensive.
The most costly proposal calls for creating a “base program” for every school, which would guarantee money for such services as an administrative manager to free teachers of clerical work, a nurse one day a week for every 300 students, a library assistant, a full-time art, music or physical education teacher for every 12 classrooms and two field trips a year per class. This program would cost $132 million over 10 years.
More Pre-Kindergarten Classes
Another recommendation would expand the district’s pre-kindergarten program, which currently operates in fewer than half of its 413 elementary schools, to all campuses. The program helps prepare children for school by teaching basic concepts, such as colors, numbers and parts of the body. Offering the program in all elementary schools would cost $88 million over 10 years.
The plan also calls for reducing every kindergarten, first- and second-grade class to a maximum of 24 students per class. Many classes currently have more than 30 students. Cuts in class size would begin in the 1991-92 school year and would cost nearly $45 million over six years.
Teachers at Magnolia Avenue School, located in a Latino neighborhood west of downtown, said they were pleased that several of the recommendations confirm strategies that most classroom teachers for years have known to work.
Kindergarten teacher Marcia Liebman, for instance, said she has observed that children who enter her class after a year of pre-kindergarten instruction are markedly better prepared for school than those who haven’t had the experience. “Those children have an eagerness to learn, they enjoy school, their memories are better, they have longer attention spans and they are more mature,” she said.
Jean Izon, who also teaches kindergarten, said she heartily approves of smaller classes in the early grades. “I have 25 students now. That is still a workable number. But I’ve had 33, and that is unworkable. I am not able to spend as much time as I would like with each child.”
Some of the recommendations are an attempt to decentralize power in the mammoth district.
One such proposal, for instance, would allow schools to control their own budgets. Each school could decide, for instance, how much to allocate for textbooks or field trips or whether to hire a music teacher or a nurse. Decisions about school spending should be made “by those who best know the students’ needs,” instead of by remote, central-office managers who may be unfamiliar with the different requirements of individual schools, the report says.
One of the most controversial proposals calls for creating at each school a “shared decision-making” team of teachers, parents, administrators and clerical workers that would make decisions affecting the operation of the school. An increasingly popular concept that has been implemented in districts from Poway Unified in San Diego County to Rochester, N.Y., it operates on the theory that if teachers are given greater authority to shape schools, the teaching profession will begin to attract more highly qualified candidates and education overall will improve. Proponents of such shared decision-making systems include the prestigious Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the California Business Roundtable.
As proposed under the Los Angeles plan, teachers would form the majority of each school team. But the plan does not specify how votes would be apportioned. In Rochester, for instance, a system of “constituency consensus” is used in which each subgroup--whether teachers, administrators or parents--casts one vote. In a plan proposed by United Teachers-Los Angeles--which was rejected by the school board during recent contract bargaining--teachers would have the most seats and the most votes.
Some board members are uncomfortable with giving teachers the balance of power on the school councils. Board member Rita Walters, for instance, objects to that system as “a sheer power model” that would undercut community and parent participation.
Time to Prepare
Another proposal would give elementary school principals and teachers one afternoon a week for planning and conferences. Unlike high school teachers, elementary instructors do not have a preparation period, although the teachers union is fighting for one in the current contract negotiations. Under the recommendation, 30 minutes would be added to the school day four days a week, which would free teachers for one afternoon without cutting into classroom instruction time.
Guilbert C. Hentschke, dean of the USC School of Education, said the plan seems to address “all the big, important changes” that innovative school districts nationally--such as in Dade County, Fla., and Rochester--have begun to experiment with. But he noted that in Los Angeles and other reform-minded districts, success will hinge on a “partnership between a whole bunch of people, particularly central administration and the teachers union.” Such cooperation between labor and management so far has eluded the Los Angeles school district, which is ensnared in a nasty contract dispute with its 32,000 teachers, but Hentschke said: “That is the brightest (change) on the horizon that I see.”
United Teachers-Los Angeles President Wayne Johnson praised the plan overall, particularly the proposals regarding smaller classes and pre-kindergarten instruction. “Those two (proposals) in and of themselves would have a dramatic effect on achievement (on) dropout rates,” he said. But he was doubtful that many of the more controversial proposals would ever be implemented.
Izon, the kindergarten teacher at Magnolia Avenue School, said that while she was encouraged by many of the recommendations, schools face problems that they may not be capable of solving. “There are so many community services that are not adequate. We have parents who work extra long hours, who have no opportunity to improve their own education or to learn English, who have no resources to learn how to be better parents. It’s an overwhelming problem.”
Mark Ridley-Thomas, executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Los Angeles and co-chairman of the Black Leadership Coalition on Education, said the overall report ignores the fact that black children have “unique linguistic and cultural histories” that contribute to low academic achievement. “The document is entirely too generic,” he said.
Another Plan for Change
The coalition has offered its own blueprint for change, which urges a curriculum that reflects the contributions and experiences of black Americans, training teachers to work with students who do not speak standard English and hiring more black teachers and administrators.
Gina Alonso, chairwoman of Latinos for Excellence in Education, agreed that the report “could have more depth.” But “the intent and goals are good,” she said. “I think the district is sincere in trying to identify the needs of different children. This is a beginning.”