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Taft Offers Lessons for L.A. Schools

Once again, Taft High School is in its glory. Once again, its prize students are being featured on the 11 o’clock news and in the newspapers, and gaudy trophies are on display in the main office.

Last Sunday, for the fourth time in eight years, the Woodland Hills school named for America’s portliest president claimed first place in the California State Academic Decathlon. By Wednesday, the old school marquee had lost some letters. But you could still get the meaning. “THE AMPIONS,” it declared.

Four titles in eight years. This is the stuff of legend, like the Lakers of Magic and Kareem. A big difference: Bright kids don’t sign long-term contracts to stay in high school and ace tests. Pat Riley might be a good basketball coach, but his efforts pale beside the feat of English teacher Arthur Berchin, who has coached Taft to three of its four state titles. Next month, he’ll try for a second national championship.

Art Berchin, who exudes the infectious enthusiasm common among good teachers, enjoys the success. Kudos pour in from administrators, colleagues, parents and editorial writers.

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“This was,” Berchin says, “just the perfect time to do well.”

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It’s funny how the good work of nine bright kids can boost the morale of a school district that serves more than 650,000. The timing is ideal because a few days earlier standardized tests again showed the Los Angeles Unified School District to be suffering. This was no great surprise in a district that educates increasing numbers of low-income minority students, including many immigrants with limited English skills. On the same day The Times reported Taft’s triumph, it also featured an article describing how the low test scores had piqued parents’ interest in private schools.

Taft’s triumph was good PR for a district that badly needs some. It was heralded as proof that Los Angeles public schools, for all their troubles, can still provide a quality education. As Berchin puts it: “Why spend $11,000 at Harvard-Westlake when you can get the same quality education at Taft?”

But Berchin doesn’t want too much to be read into Taft’s success in the academic decathlon. Those districtwide test scores, from the merely tepid to terrible, haven’t been erased.

Berchin, who has proved his ability to motivate top students, is a man who would love to see his ideas tested among the masses. His career in education is long and varied. Before joining the Taft faculty 10 years ago, Berchin earned a doctorate in education administration at UCLA and served as assistant dean in UCLA’s graduate school of education for seven years. In returning to Taft, he resumed the teaching career that began with a stint at Los Angeles High School from 1967-70.

Berchin is convinced that schools need radical reform to tailor education to students’ needs. Consider, for example, the “self-contained classroom” dinosaur--the teacher standing and imparting knowledge to 35 students all lined up in their desks. It isn’t unusual, Berchin says, for a 10th-grade class to have students whose reading abilities range from above grade level to 3rd-grade level.

Berchin’s suggestion: Create large lecture classes for grade-level students, much like those they would encounter as college freshmen. This would allow the school to place below-grade-level students in smaller class settings. These students would benefit more from such an environment, just as the whiz kids in Taft’s academic decathlon program have flourished while competing among themselves under the close guidance of their teacher.

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There’s one very simple lesson from Taft’s success, Berchin says: Hard work pays off. The Taft team put in extraordinary hours over the summer and after school. Berchin, resorting to the jargon of the educator, emphasizes that “time at task” is “the most important variable” in learning.

So if America really wants to get serious about education, if it wants its elementary schools to rival Japan’s or the best of Europe, Berchin suggests that the answer is obvious: Make the school day and the school year longer, just like theirs.

Of course, that would mean spending money on public education. Over the past 15 years, the amount California has spent per student has plummeted right along with test scores. Now we’re paying for that on the back end, committing billions to build more prisons.

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There’s a downside to glory. “It’s nothing tangible,” Berchin says, but he can sense “a lot of resentment.”

It’s not a matter of envy, Berchin says. It’s a matter of teachers trying to do a good job and getting scant recognition for their efforts. And it’s a matter of teachers who’ve turned young lives around, who have steered kids away from gangs and drugs, who have talked them out of suicide.

“They see this program get all this attention,” Berchin says, “and their efforts go unrewarded.”


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