Los Angeles Times Interview : Jackie Goldberg : Fighting the Good Fight for a Better L.A. School District

Jean Merl is an education writer for The Times. She interviewed Jackie Goldberg in Goldberg's office at the school district's headquarters in downtown Los Angeles.

For almost two years, Jackie Goldberg has been the high-profile political leader of the huge and rapidly changing Los Angeles Unified School District. Articulate, wily and sometimes controversial, she operated in a style honed by a quarter-century of fighting for liberal causes.

As president of the Board of Education of the nation's second-largest school district, Goldberg helped bring some consensus to an often-fractious board during a pivotal period that has seen worsening budget constraints and growing clamor for widespread reform.

Goldberg, now 46, spent her senior year in high school picketing a restaurant that had no black employees and protesting a housing development that offered different financing packages for whites and minorities. Then came her involvement in the radical student movement at Berkeley in the late 1960s; her arrest during a nonviolent demonstration kept her from getting a job in the school district she would later lead. After graduate school, she took a teaching job in the heavily minority, predominantly low-income Compton Unified School District. She was elected to the Los Angeles board in 1983, by a grass-roots coalition of teachers, liberals, gays and Echo Park community activists.

During Goldberg's tenure, the board agreed to put schools on a year-round schedule to relieve overcrowding and embarked on a potentially far-reaching program to transfer more authority to teachers, parents and community members. But achievement remains low for many of low-income, immigrant or minority students--a fact Goldberg lists among her disappointments.

Citing frustration caused by the near-constant barrage of problems and criticism, and a desire to return to the classroom, Goldberg decided against seeking a third term this spring. She hopes to return to teaching, a calling she feels she never really left.

Question: There is a strong public perception that schools in general--and those in Los Angeles Unified School District in particular--are doing an increasingly poor job. This view appears to be bolstered by the district's generally poor showing in California Assessment Program tests. Yet you have argued schools are actually doing better . Why?

Answer: We are, by and large, delivering a much more powerful, much more difficult academic curriculum than was delivered to the current adult population, now in their 40s. The baby boomers did not learn as much in (kindergarten through 12) as the kids in school today are. I can give you a personal example. I am struggling with my son's biology book. It is a much tougher course than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Same with algebra . . . . There are a whole lot of other indices. Our SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Tests) scores have declined very slightly in the last 20 years. But we test infinitely more students from a much wider range of socioeconomic backgrounds . . . . So we are actually doing better.

Q: Then why do so many people think things are worse?

A: There are two problems. First of all, we have a larger number of children from low-income families, children who are undernourished, in ill health, poorly housed and poorly clothed. Those children never did well in public school, and they make up a greater percentage of the public-school population in urban areas than in any other time in our history . . . . There's an educational underclass that has always existed and that we never did any good for.

Q: And the second?

A: The skills that kids need to have if they're going from high school to the workplace without (any higher education or vocational training) are the skills that only the college-bound students needed 10 or 20 years ago.

Q: The demands are greater for all students today?

A: They're different. (In the past) if you didn't do too well (in school), you could go to a factory and you could get a union job where you would assemble something or you would be a part of an assembly line. And, frankly, you could make a good living and you'd get good benefits and retirement and nobody really cared one bit whether your English language skills or your history skills were particularly good or not. Now those jobs are gone. Now you've got to go to an office where you have got to make decisions about what do with the information that is in your computer's data bank . . . . It takes much more to be an employee now.

Q: Which explains why so many business leaders are upset with--or at least concerned about--the public schools. Isn't their criticism justified?

A: If I thought the system was working, I wouldn't (have run for) the Board of Education. I wouldn't be activist about it. It's not working, however, for exactly the same kids it has never worked for--which is low-income kids. Only now there are a lot more of them . . . . I am concerned about the overwhelming negativity (coming from some business leaders, news media and others) . . . . That's probably one of the largest impediments to improvement that we have. I think that as long as everybody feels absolutely free all the time to dump on the system, it's not going to get any better.

Q: Doesn't criticism lead to constructive change?

A: Well, just assume the (school) system is a child, and you surround a child continuously with negativity. What does the child begin to think? The child begins to think (he or she) is no damn good and that no effort would make anything any better, so why try? . . . It leads to a defeatism . . . . I think people underestimate the harm that is done in continuously dumping on public education. When compared, for example, with the development of the Stealth bomber, (public schools) are the most cost-efficient, effective, successfully producing publicly financed operation in the country.

Q: So you feel public education gets more than its fair share of criticism?

A: . . . . I cannot believe how negative people are about a system that has as its goal taking any child who walks in the door--regardless of handicap, race, language, ethnicity, background or poverty level--and says, "We're going to keep trying for 12 years to see if we can educate them, no matter how they arrive, no matter what they do short of pulling a gun on somebody. We're going to keep trying to educate them." . . . I'm not saying we're successful, but nobody else even has that on their agenda. Everybody else wants to have an entrance test and pick and choose. But we don't get any credit for (taking every child).

Q: What would it take to help every child?

A: If you really want to do something for the low-income minority students, you would provide funding for the kinds of services that it would take to make those students able learners . . . . And I think every student can be an able learner if (he or she) has everything they need to be an able learner. They need to have the right set of conditions, and we must be willing to spend what it takes.

Q: Is more money the answer?

A: Not the only answer. It's having the right strategies, putting in the time and training and the right materials. But money is part of the answer. It's a big issue. This state does not fund education at even the (level of) the national average . . . . And this is a rich state; this is not Mississippi.

Q: It took $220 million in cuts and fund-juggling to balance this year's budget of $3.9 billion, and your finance people are telling you things are likely to be worse next year. What can you do?

A: I think we may have to look at the initiative process. We cannot permit the state of California to go down the tubes financially . . . . So we're going to have to put something on the ballot that raises revenues for the quality of life, which includes education but certainly is not limited to it. I think I may well become a part of something like that . . . .

Q: You have been an avid supporter of the district's beginning the transition from a strong central administration to "school-based management." You seem to feel that giving individual schools more autonomy is the way to find the right strategies.

A: I think there's a lot that can be accomplished at the school that didn't used to be able to be accomplished. I don't think any of the people--including the schools that have gone into it first--have even remotely scratched the surface about what the depth of the changes really could be, and probably will be. They're going to have to overcome . . . the institution's culture, what researchers say is the agreed-upon correct methodology of doing things, their own lack of self-esteem, their own propensity not to take risks.

Q: Educators are afraid to be innovative?

A: Society has definitely encouraged . . . people in public education to think that any risk is too big a risk. And how did they do that? By continuously dumping on us. (The public thinks) everything we do is wrong; everything we try is wrong. (People say) "What a stupid idea. How could you have thought of that?" I mean, you would get the feeling that the (Board of Education members), for example, sit around plotting how to screw up the children of the various people who come down here (to school board meetings) to talk to us, as if there is a sort of mean-spirited, methodical intention to destroy every hope that could possibly come to their children.

Q: I can see you're frustrated. You have been critical that little has been done to improve achievement of harder-to-reach students. And you're worried about deep budget cuts. Yet you remain an avid saleswoman for public school, urging parents who can afford private school to send their children to your schools.

A: There is this enormous myth that private schools are better. Then why do our students win the Academic Decathlon every year? We have excellent programs . . . but so many parents don't even bother to go down to our schools and look at them (before deciding to put their children in private schools).

Q: Why should parents who have a choice stick with the Los Angeles district?

A: I'm saying it is not necessary to pay several thousand dollars a year (for private school tuition.) You can take part of that money and spend it on enrichment programs to supplement what the public schools cannot offer (with private music lessons or academic enrichment programs) and maybe donate some of those resources to their (public) school . . . . We need middle-class parents . . . we need their resources and their involvement and their savvy. We need them to hold our feet to the fire. They can make a real contribution.

Q: But don't parents make decisions based on what they believe is best for their children? What do their children gain?

A: It's a false notion that you can isolate your kids . . . . Money can buy a lot, but it cannot buy everything. It cannot buy the sense of society (youngsters develop) from going to school with everyone who shows up at the door. It cannot buy learning to live in the real world, with real-world problems . . . .

Q: With so many unresolved issues still facing the district, do you feel any regrets about your decision to leave the school board?

A: No. There will be others (to carry on the work) and I do think I've had some effect . . . . I'm very happy with some of the things we've accomplished . . . . But it was never my intention to stay on the school board forever. I think of myself first as a teacher. That's what I do . . . . That's what is most personally satisfying.

That is not to say I'm giving up the fight (for better schooling for all youngsters) . . . . I'll probably be involved by being a teacher in the classroom and through the initiative process . . . . I won't rule out another run for elected office some day if I feel I can have some effect (on education issues) . . . . I'll be in the battle. I just don't yet know what the arena will be.

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