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A fortune for iPads, but not enough for math books

A fortune for iPads, but not enough for math books
Bruce Kravets has retired but continues teaching at Palms Middle School. “There’s a certain point at which the district is going to just make it too hard for me to work,” Kravets said. (Barbara Davidson, Los Angeles Times)

Something was missing last week from a seventh-grade math class at Palms Middle School in West Los Angeles.

It wasn't the students; they were at their desks.

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It wasn't teacher Bruce Kravets; he was eager to dive in, as he has been for 45 years.

But there were no textbooks.

With the conversion to Common Core standards, L.A. Unified purchased new math books for eighth grade, but not for sixth or seventh. The reason was lack of funding.

"We're left to fend for ourselves," said Kravets, who, like other math teachers has scoured the Internet for materials and made copies for students.

"We're chained to the copy machines," said Larry Rubin, another Palms Middle School math teacher. Rubin said he spends more than an hour on lesson plans in the evening and as much as 45 minutes at the copy machine the next day.

Yep, you can add this little problem to the many woes of L.A. Unified. I'm not sure where you would rank this calamity, given the implosion of a $1-billion iPad plan and the hapless multimillion-dollar student tracking system that exasperated teachers and students, and left Jefferson High youngsters parked in an auditorium without class assignments.

And by the way, what's L.A. Unified Supt. John Deasy doing on a tour of South Korea when he should be on a tour of Jefferson with a clipboard and a bullhorn, directing student traffic while a fix is made, and finally taking the blame for rolling out the ill-fated system despite warnings that it wasn't ready?

The math problem, meanwhile, has flown under the radar a little bit, but it's caused plenty of headaches too.

With no new books, teachers were told by the district to go on using the old texts, even though they weren't specifically built for the heralded Common Core standards now in use across the nation. To supplement instruction, the district said, teachers could find links to recommended Common Core-aligned material on an L.A. Unified website and make copies for class.

But Mr. Kravets has found that more than a little confusing and time consuming.

"There's a certain point at which the district is going to just make it too hard for me to work," Kravets said. "They're concerned about this reform and that reform. But they don't seem to be concerned about what's happening at the teacher level."

When I first wrote about Kravets, he had retired from collecting a paycheck but decided to go on teaching for free. He still loves the teaching part, he told me, and he likes Common Core too, saying that he's impressed by the greater depth and demands for critical thinking. But he said he's old school in some ways. Such as, he likes for his students to have books in their hands.

Without them, he teaches with an overhead projector or hands out copies of lessons he finds himself. But he worries that his instruction may not have prepared his students for the upcoming fall assessments.

"I suspect much of the material will not have been covered by me as I am covering a more advanced course," he said.

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Susan Tandberg, director of K-12 instruction for L.A. Unified, said the district is one of many that couldn't afford all the materials it wanted. But she said a combination of old texts and supplemental materials can be effective. She said the district offers teachers "curricular maps" and teachers are encouraged to find what works best for them among the suggested Internet links to supplemental materials.

At Glenfeliz Boulevard Elementary School, sixth-grade math teacher Jack Galindo is finding good materials online, but he's wearing out the school copy machine.

"I shouldn't have to make homework and classroom copies for 42 kids, maybe three times a week," said Galindo, who is running off as many as 160 pages a day.

"There's a big disconnect between the expectations and the materials and support they're giving us in the classroom," said John Burroughs Middle School math teacher Charles Unkeless. He wondered why there's no shortage of money available for iPads and student tracking systems that don't work, but not for something as basic as reducing class size or buying textbooks built for Common Core.

At Thomas Starr King Middle School, meanwhile, parent Jody Podolsky has stumbled upon a kink in the Common Core rollout that may penalize students on accelerated tracks. Her son was in a gifted math program last year and got an A, but when he showed up for seventh grade this year, he was given the same textbook as last year, as if he had flunked the course rather than aced it.

Why? Because Common Core standards hold off on algebra until ninth grade, so her son has to slow down rather than speed up. Podolsky called the lack of flexibility for accelerated learners "outlandish," especially given the national reform-driven imperative of elevated learning.

John Mockler, a former L.A. Unified executive and state secretary of education, said some educators have argued that sixth- and seventh-grade math don't change significantly enough under Common Core standards to make the purchase of new books essential.

"But I think they're crazy," he said, calling the purchase price of books significant but not overwhelming, and possibly not much greater than the cost of copying thousands of pages of material.

Good point. And if the district knows what materials would work best, it should provide them rather than suggest how to find them.

"Why should a teacher have to stay up until midnight online, trying to figure out what to teach?" Mockler asked. "We're telling teachers to write their own damn textbooks, and that's just another burden of work that's unnecessary."

Mr. Kravets would agree. He doesn't want to be a textbook author or a printing clerk.

He just wants to teach.

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