In Classrooms, Mayor’s Plan Faces Opposition
The teachers of Cahuenga Elementary near downtown Los Angeles had a message Thursday for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa: No thank you.
In South Los Angeles, staffers at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary shook their heads in disbelief.
But in more affluent Hancock Park, teachers at 3rd Street Elementary gave the mayor a thumbs-up for injecting himself into the schools.
Villaraigosa’s elaborate plan to take control of the Los Angeles Unified School District grabbed the attention of rank-and-file teachers Thursday, the day after it was announced. While some applauded it, many disagreed with him -- and their own union leadership.
In close consultation with teachers unions, the mayor agreed this week as part of a sweeping reform plan to let schools choose their own instructional methods and effectively do away with top-down centralized programs.
Villaraigosa said this week that his plan, which the Legislature is expected to consider soon, would spawn “the kind of environment that really can be an incubator for great ideas and success.”
United Teachers Los Angeles has long chafed under what it considers overly rigid mandates from the district’s top officials, and the union has wanted more leeway for teachers to decide what works best at their schools.
But teachers and principals at several L.A. Unified campuses said the mayor’s proposal could ravage districtwide reading and math programs that they say have brought continuity to thousands of classrooms and helped drive up standardized test scores over the last six years.
Uniformity is important, the educators said, because 28% of the district’s 727,000 students leave L.A. Unified schools at least once during a school year, with many of them going to other district campuses. Requiring schools to use the same programs enables students who move to keep up with lessons, the educators said.
“We need to put the children first,” Cahuenga Elementary teacher Grace Blanc said. “I think the consistency is what the children need.”
Such resistance to Villaraigosa’s plan echoed warnings by school district leaders this week about what they perceived as a threat to the district’s progress and revealed deep divisions between some classroom teachers and their union leaders, who forged the agreement with the mayor.
The skepticism extended to administrators, some of whom argued that their schools have flexibility despite the district’s mandates.
“We have to be very careful when it comes to our kids being affected by adult decisions,” said King Elementary Principal David Bell, a 16-year district veteran. “I don’t like it when our children are used.”
Villaraigosa’s top attorney, Thomas Saenz, said the mayor wants to give campuses freedom to innovate and says they could continue to use their existing programs if they deemed that best for their students. Schools would be required to show progress and abide by state curriculum guidelines.
But Saenz also said the school board and the superintendent would continue to play a role in overseeing instruction and curriculum. Details are still being worked out.
“This is not a situation where there will be completely unguided, unfettered authority for anyone at the local school site to make decisions,” he said.
The roots of the current conflict over school-site authority stem from a change in policy by the Board of Education in 2000.
To accommodate student mobility and help growing numbers of inexperienced teachers, the board adopted a rigidly structured reading program -- Open Court -- for nearly all district elementary schools.
Open Court combined direct, systematic phonics lessons in the early grades with literature as children matured. It came with thick guides that told instructors what to teach and when. The school district hired reading coaches to coordinate lessons and guide new teachers, and introduced “pacing plans” to literally keep teachers on the same page on the same day. Students’ progress was checked every six weeks.
Many teachers initially resisted, saying that they felt like test-prep automatons stripped of their classroom creativity. But test scores rose at many schools, particularly those serving large numbers of students for whom English is a second language.
The teachers union’s long-standing complaints about the top-down dictums played a pivotal role in the legislative deal the union negotiated with Villaraigosa. Union President A.J. Duffy said that allowing schools to determine curriculum was a “critical piece” of the reform puzzle.
On Thursday, Duffy said his union was not trying to eliminate Open Court but to modify its use so that teachers have more flexibility. “This idea of one size fitting all, we do not agree with,” Duffy said.
But Supt. Roy Romer said the district should stay the course.
“If you take away from the district the ability to have any districtwide policy on curriculum, you have taken the foundation out from beneath all the reform we have made,” Romer said Wednesday. “That is a very serious issue and it is one that will turn back the progress we have made.”
Some educational researchers say that school-site authority works under certain conditions.
UCLA education professor Jeannie Oakes recently completed a review of research comparing top-down models to teacher-driven ones. She found that school-level control can lead to strong gains in learning if local curricular decisions are accompanied by rigorous teacher training and collaboration. The combination is particularly important -- and difficult -- in L.A. Unified, where schools suffer from high teacher turnover and struggle with tight budgets.
“Simply having school-site control does not itself guarantee anything,” Oakes said. “But if it is used to really engage teachers, it can lead to really remarkable improvements that are not occurring with more tightly prescriptive models.”
At 3rd Street Elementary, teachers, administrators and parents said they were eager to embrace the decentralized plan Villaraigosa has put forward.
The high-performing school serves many children from affluent families. Teachers said they needed freedom from the district’s strict mandates to incorporate more challenging material.
“Each school is different. Each has different needs,” Principal Suzie Oh said. “We are the ones in the trenches all the time and know what our students need rather than this one-size-fits-all approach.”
Other L.A. Unified schools say they would seek a middle ground, much the way they have in the past.
Cahuenga Elementary, for example, has readily embraced Open Court even as the school has pursued novel language immersion programs in which some children learn Spanish or Korean in addition to their English lessons.
“People say you don’t have freedom,” said Principal Lloyd Houske. “I say you don’t have freedom if you don’t have the nerve to do something.”
But Houske and other educators praised the district for implementing a single reading program. He and others worry about hundreds of schools pursuing their own methods and materials, reducing a mammoth but coordinated instructional approach to chaos.
“I’m concerned that we’ll go back to a system that is not coherent, changing the program every two years, changing the assessments every two years,” said Principal Beth Bythrow of Multnomah Elementary in El Sereno.
“If you look at elementary schools, we have made a lot of progress. That’s because for the longest period of time, we’ve done the same thing.”
Villaraigosa’s hopes for getting a bill through the Legislature before its July 8 break appeared to dim Thursday.
Assuming negotiators finalize the language in time, the bill would be one of about 60 to be heard by the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday.
L.A. Unified legislation would also probably have to be heard by the Senate Appropriations Committee prior to a vote by the Senate, then it would face a vote of the Assembly before it could be signed by the governor.
Times staff writer Nancy Vogel in Sacramento contributed to this report.
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Standardized test scores in reading and math have improved across California since the state first gave tests tied to academic standards. L.A. Unified School District had greater gains than the state overall except in high school math.
Percentage scoring proficient and above:
The English test was first administered in 2001, math in 2002. Math scores include general math and algebra 1 in eightand ninth grades and algebra 1 and geometry in 10th and 11th grades.
California Department of Education. Data analysis by Doug Smith, Sandra Poindexter
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